William C. Davis, Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee–The War They Fought, the Peace They Forged — February 28, 2018

William C. Davis, Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee–The War They Fought, the Peace They Forged

Excellent simultaneous biography of Grant and Lee, emphasizing—in fact maybe relying exclusively upon—contemporaneous sources. I’ve read lots of late-twentieth-century books about the Civil War and about Grant, as well as Grant’s own memoir from the final weeks of his life, but none that tried so hard to avoid letting hindsight bias creep into evaluations of their subject.

Davis methodically follows Grant’s and Lee’s slow and (in retrospect) inevitable path toward collision. Grant comes from a relatively prosperous background but is widely viewed as a failure almost until his 40th birthday. Lee, I knew, came from the ancient Lee family of Virginia, but I wasn’t aware just how close to royalty he was: “Light-Horse Harry” Lee—the man who declared George Washington “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen”—was Robert E. Lee’s father. He was also, by the time of R.E. Lee’s youth, dissolute and penniless and something of a disgrace. Some Psych 101ing is perhaps inevitable here: R.E. Lee’s famed upright carriage and military bearing drew from a deep well of order and discipline, which the younger Lee may have adopted to counter the chaos in his upbringing.

Intentionally or not, most of Davis’s coverage of Lee seems to center on his personality and his godliness. Lee does not seem to have been a happy man. And throughout his life, he insisted that those around him shoulder their burdens and place faith in God’s hands. At some abstract level I understand this: God’s gonna do what God’s gonna do. But I wonder what effect this sort of thought has on a general, whose role, I thought, was to ensure that God’s will lined up with his soldiers’ aims. I really don’t get what’s happening here:

Their bondage was a “painful discipline” [said Lee] sent by God to prepare them for eventual freedom. In other words, slavery was their duty. Only God, not men, could free them, and it would come sooner “from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery controversy.”

“God” doesn’t do anything, as I understand this. God acts through man. And if man chooses to free the slaves, isn’t that God acting through man? Or is that, somehow, man undermining God’s will? As a non-religious person, I can only throw up my hands and roll my eyes at this kind of argument.

As has been well-rehearsed by now, the South’s goal was easier than the North’s; all the South wanted was to inflict enough losses on the North that the North would decide to stop fighting and leave the South alone. The North, by contrast, was an invading army, and by war’s end it was restructuring the entirety of the Southern economy via the Emancipation Proclamation and the arming of black soldiers. While the South’s goal may have been simpler, it of course had a much bigger challenge: the North had the industrial might and more soldiers. Lee would always have to act boldly and take great risks, or else he was certain to lose. Or so Davis tells us; to my eye he didn’t go into much detail about Lee’s bold strokes. Instead I imagine a very morose man sighing as he surveys his battlefield and his steadily shrinking armies.

Grant, on the other hand, has come down through history as something of a schlub, and I have to think that this is a result of Lost Cause ideology: the South may have lost, but they were always the greater gentlemen, and Grant a mechanized butcher. The positive side of this has become the Northern image of the man: schlub though he may be, and sparing in his words, he brought modern warfare to the United States. Without glamor and without Lee’s dignified affect, he got the job done. It’s good American stereotype, no?

When I’ve spoken to people in recent years about anything I’ve read on Grant, those who have any opinion about the man normally ask, “Wasn’t he a corrupt drunk?” So any book about Grant needs to address his putative corruption, and his putative drunkenness. It sounds like drink was a legitimate problem of Grant’s, at least on a few occasions, and that one of his devoted staff made it his mission to keep Grant on the wagon. Davis is pretty punctilious in laying out the occasions when Grant had too much to drink; if he was exhaustive about it, it wasn’t a real problem. It wouldn’t surprise me if Grant’s reputation for drunkenness was a result of both the generally fervid press atmosphere during the Civil War, and the Lost Cause movement afterward.

As for his corruption: at least a few authors I’ve read by now have commented that Grant let untrustworthy men into his orbit far too often, and took far too long to eject them. But there seems to be little evidence that Grant himself was at all corrupt.

Davis can’t help, I think, but side with Grant. To this reader, who has some glaring pro-Northern biases, and who’s really charmed by Grant, I can’t help but find him the more interesting character. Lee has certain weaknesses of character that show up throughout his campaigns—foremost among them, perhaps, being his inability to confront people directly. This sort of thing happens over and over again throughout Davis’s joint biography:

Avoiding conflict once again, the general asked the president to send Hill an order. A day later, Lee asked Davis to remove Hill’s department from his command so he would not have to deal with him again.

That is, rather than directly fire General Hill, General Lee had the President of the Confederacy redraw the territory that Lee controlled, so that he wouldn’t have to work with Hill anymore.

Grant also comes across as having had a more modern understanding of how to run an organization. He was better at delegating, made great use of his personal and general staff, drew on his experience as quartermaster to ensure that his soldiers’ bellies were always full, and wrote clear, concise memos that left no doubt what his subordinates were supposed to do. Whereas Lee feels plucked directly from a West Point whose military education stopped with the lessons of Bonaparte—e.g., a fetish for massive, decisive battles.

Throughout, Davis’s delivery is concise, fast-moving, and brief without sacrificing either detail or storytelling. It’s really quite an achievement.

I have questions about how telegrams worked during the Civil War, and I vote — February 27, 2018

I have questions about how telegrams worked during the Civil War, and I vote

Some questions prompted by William C. Davis’s excellent Crucible of Command (to which I was directed by Prof. Joan Waugh, whose own book about the postwar image of U.S. Grant is well worth reading):

Whenever books about the Civil War say that Grant telegrammed back to Halleck or Lincoln or whomever, I wonder specifically how that worked. Did they go to a specific telegraph office? Did it have physical wires running to another specific telegraph office? How did one telegraph office know which next hop to pick to get their telegram to the White House? Did they encrypt their telegrams? If they were encrypted, did they use some nonsense encryption like a basic substitution cipher? If they weren’t encrypted, what guarantees did they have that their telegrams wouldn’t be intercepted?

If Lincoln wanted to reply to Grant, how did he know where to send his telegram to? Did Grant have to tell him “write me back at Cairo, Illinois”?

If the South wanted to interrupt the flow of telegrams, did they just have to blow up telegraph offices? Cut wires? Did the Union patrol every foot of wire? If they couldn’t patrol every foot of wire (as I imagine they couldn’t), did they at least have some quick way to identify where breaks in the wire happened? If every telegraph office was directly connected to one or more other telegraph offices, then an easy way to check whether a nearby telegraph office was un-blown-up would be to send the neighboring telegraph office a heartbeat message (i.e., “hey, you there?”) every so often. If they don’t get a response, then run along the wire between this station and the neighboring station and check for breaks.

How about kidnapping telegraph operators, or just holding them at gunpoint, or getting spies to go work at the telegraph office? Were telegraph operators vetted for their loyalty to the Union?

A quick bit of Googling turns up this book, which probably answers all my questions and then some. Nice.