Grant Takes Command

Sometimes I like light reading in the summer, especially from my favorite authors like Georges Simenon, Sue Grafton and Rex Stout, but sometimes I’m ready for heavy reading, a big ol’ hefty tome that tells you more than most people know about some period in history. Barbara Tuchman is in this category, and I recommend every book she ever wrote.

I also loved The Armada by Garrett Mattingly, which taught me much more than I ever knew before about that epic battle, and C.V. Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War, which gave me innumerable new insights into the history of Europe in the 17th Century.


I was looking for some heavy reading this summer, and at a tag sale last week I found a copy of Grant Takes Command by Bruce Catton. It’s the third volume in a biography of Grant begun by Lloyd Lewis and continued by Catton, one of the great historians of the Civil War. It begins just after Grant’s victory at Vicksburg and the opening chapters describe the Battle of Chattanooga, which, together with the ‘lucky’ victory at Gettysburg, marked the real turning point in the war.

For a reader like me, this means that I don’t have to read about thousands of men dying, only to have their sacrifice go for nothing because of massive incompetence by Union generals, which was the story of the war up to that point. At Gettysburg, things just seemed to go the Federals’ way, partly because they were on their own ground defending their own people, and partly because the Confederate generals started making the same kind of stupid mistakes the Union generals had been making for years. And in my opinion, it showed that Lee’s army was not the same without Stonewall Jackson.

But in the West, Grant was making his own luck, and the Battle of Chattanooga is a great example. The layout of the battle was much like Gettysburg in reverse, with the Confederates entrenched on Missionary Ridge, but unlike Pickett’s fatal charge at the Union center at Gettysburg, which failed utterly, Thomas’ charge at the Confederate center was a brilliant success because Grant had mounted massive attacks on both flanks.

The Confederate commander, Major General Braxton Bragg, thought his center was invulnerable and dispatched more and more of his troops to meet the attacks on his flanks. General Joe Hooker (born in Hadley, Massachusetts) having taken the heights on Lookout Mountain, was attacking on his left and General William Tecumseh Sherman was attacking on his right.

Both attacks were stalled, and Grant ordered General George H. Thomas to attack the Confederate center and take the rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge. This was the Union equivalent of Pickett’s charge, and it could have failed just as miserably as Pickett’s, but when the troops took the rifle pits at the base of the ridge, they found they were easy targets for the Confederate gunners above them. They were like the US troops on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion. Every soldier could see that they were dead where they were and the only way to save themselves was to move forward.

At Chattanooga, Thomas’ army scaled the ridge, drove off the Confederate defenders, and drove Bragg and his army back into Georgia. It was a miraculous victory, and I really think it gave the people of the North the feeling that God was on their side for a change. But General Bragg, besides sending troops to oppose Sherman and Hooker, had previously sent two divisions off to East Tennessee to harass General Ambrose Burnside. Had he not depleted his center in this way, he could easily have held his center on Missionary Ridge.

I love this book because it talks a lot about logistics. Courage is great in war, and strategy, but really it is logistics that really count in the end. When Eisenhower met the Russian generals after World War II was over, they didn’t ask him about tactics or strategy. They asked how he supplied his troops in his whirlwind advance across France, and he told them about the Red Ball Express — but that’s another story you can read about in his book Crusade in Europe.

The Union army in Chattanooga was crippled by a lack of pack animals. The mountainous country thereabouts couldn’t supply an army with provisions, and the troops could only carry a few days rations in their knapsacks. It took many months to supply them with horses and mules to carry supplies and artillery, and, of course, the thousands of pounds of forage to feed them.

I also like the way that Grant, after his great victories, ┬áturned down all the imbeciles that wanted him to run for president. Everywhere he went he was greeted with public acclaim. Lincoln was at that time one of the most unpopular presidents in history. “It’s not my job to make speeches,” he said. He even refused to deny that he was a candidate, because that would sound like he was asking to be drafted.

Unquestionably, Grant caused the death of hundreds of thousands of his soldiers. Lincoln chose him to command the Union armies because he was the only one who could see that this sacrifice was the only way to bring the war to an end.

I have to mention here that when Lee saw the terms that Grant offered at Appomatox, he was surprised. Lee actually thought that he and his officers would be tried for treason and executed. One has to ask why he wasn’t told before that he could have surrendered under these generous terms. It would certainly have ended the war many months earlier and saved hundreds of thousands of lives.