This edition of the Late Unpleasantness deals not so much about any specific person or event of the Civil War as it does about the search for the truth of what really happened between 1860 and 1866. That may seem a simple task; after all, every week another book comes out about what happened in the first fifteen minutes of the second hour of the first day of Gettysburg; or of how General Grant won the war single-handedly; what a great guy Lincoln was and how he freed the slaves.
Yet, as any Civil War buff worth his salt knows, or should know, determining what actually happened in the chaos of battle is not a simple task, nor is the consensus of leading historians about some leaders and their actions necessarily based on fact, but rather on inherited opinions which have come to become accepted as truth. I will confess to have been as guilty of this latter fault as some of the more famous writers whose books have gone on to become the “bible” on certain battles and leaders.
In my research for The Paranormal Presidency, for example, I made ample use of the Historical Society of Illinois online Lincoln Papers as well as the Library of Congress’ ample resources as well as numerous other primary and secondary sources. Not much new here; all well worn territory insofar as Lincoln scholars go. Yet my take on those same sources and on Lincoln the man clearly does not square with the dominant consensus which generations of Lincoln scholars—one might more properly call them hagiographers—have arrived at. I, like his scholarly acolytes, regard Lincoln as a great President; but where I differ is that I do not ignore or disregard evidence where it does not square with the received views of him that have become academic dogma.
Disputes over certain campaigns, battles and leaders are nothing new; some have been going on since before the war was over. However, two recent books raise old issues and to varying degrees promise to throw a new light on what we thought was established fact.
Stephen Hood’s new book, John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General, has stirred no little controversy among Civil War enthusiasts and scholars. Hood the Younger makes no bones about his revisionism regarding General Hood’s military career and takes aim at several well respected historian’s previous work on the subject. His work has been criticized as biography; in fact, it is not a biography per se, but explicitly a work of historiography. Mr. Hood has gone back into the primary sources and his reading of them varies considerably from previous writers on the subject. He has weighed their arguments in the balance and found them wanting.
While I leave it up to Civil War enthusiasts to read his book and decide for themselves how well Stephen Hood has succeeded in his task, I will cite incident which caused me to begin to question the consensus views on General Hood. When Jefferson Davis sought General Lee’s views on appointing John Bell Hood as commander of the Army of Tennessee, Lee replied that in his view, Hood was “all lion and none of the fox,” and I have even seen the statement footnoted with the source cited; so it must be true, right? Except, that Lee never actually said that. As Stephen Hood reveals, that phrase was coined after the war and whether true or not, it was not Lee who said it. On checking the citation, I found it did indeed go back to the Lee/Davis correspondence about Hood, but nowhere in those messages does that phrase attributed to Lee appear. A minor point, admittedly, but it is a cautionary tale about accepting authority at face value.
Another new work takes aim at that icon of the Union cause, General Ulysses S. Grant, questioning the accepted narratives of the battles for Chattanooga and Grant’s claims to being the mastermind of that campaign. In the past Grant has been the subject of criticism, but in recent decades the consensus of historians has been generally favorable to him and have generally accepted Grant and his supporter’s version of his campaigns with little question. However, in General Grant and the Rewriting of History, Frank Varney disputes that consensus, at least insofar as the war in the west is concerned.
There are many, myself included, who feel that Grant has been given a pass by many historians on a number of points. In my forthcoming work on Ambrose Bierce and the Civil War, in researching the context behind Bierce’s service with the Army of the Ohio and with the Army of the Cumberland, I found much of Bierce’s critique of Grant to be well founded and largely grounded in a greater debate in the postwar era over the credit and blame for the bloodletting at Shiloh. Bierce’s criticisms of Grant were well known, although his overall assessment of Grant was generally positive.
Chickamauga and Chattanooga have also been the subject of much controversy over the years, with much blame and praise being disbursed by various historians. The modern view of Grant and Sherman as the heroes of the campaign has generally been the dominant narrative however. So Varney’s revisionism had been initially received in some quarters as a much needed correction to the record. Varney takes eminent historians to task for shoddy scholarship. While I reserve final judgment on Varney’s work and encourage others to also make their own assessment, from what I’ve read so far, it is Varney’s scholarship which has been found wanting. Civil War bloggers have checked several of his citations, backing his criticisms of what other historians have written, and in too many cases have found them in error or just plain bogus.
General Grant’s Personal Memoirs were very well written and his narrative has been often taken at face value by generations of historians. There remains much about Grant’s career that requires a more critical review of the facts. It remains to be seen whether Varney was up to the task or whether that remains for others to do.