Letter From January 2007 Civil War Times

11/27/2006 • CWT Issues, Fort Donelson

More to War Than Fighting

When you stop to consider everything that was involved in the day-to-day experience of a commanding general in the Civil War, you begin to wonder how they ever found any time to fight battles. It is natural for us to think of generals mounted atop noble steeds parading along the firing line, barking out orders as bullets fly around their heads. But as it was for every soldier — from army commanders on down to privates — battles were simply the temporary shock points amid the long daze of marching, camp and everything else that was part of the reality of army life.

Certainly tactical competency and combat leadership were critical aspects of a commander’s resume — and essential if he was going to consistently win battles. But ultimately commanders were expected to win wars, and to do that they also needed skills that went beyond the Xs and Os of the battlefield. A successful army commander was part warrior, part mediator, part politician and PR man, part logistician and statistician, and the list goes on. When he wasn’t placating disgruntled bureaucrats in the War Department or fending off relentless newspapermen, he was busy figuring out how to move thousands of men and animals and tons of supplies across massive theaters of war, or how to keep his subordinates from killing each other — or from trying to steal his job.

As Richard Selcer reminds us in this month’s cover story, battlefield negotiation was another skill that was fundamental to a general’s success. Ulysses Grant’s reputation in American military annals is secure based on his combat prowess alone, but it is his proficiency in making peace that sets him apart from many of his peers, and may also constitute his greater contribution to military history. Selcer begins his analysis of Grant’s negotiation skills in this issue with an exploration of Fort Donelson and the general’s first real opportunity to try his hand at offering terms. We’ll continue the story next month by looking at Vicksburg and Appomattox. In so doing we see, among many other things, the maturation process of a general who was operating on instinct in 1862, but by the time of Appomattox in 1865 had changed both his approach to, and his execution of, peace offerings — just in time for one of the most important surrender negotiations in American history.

Ultimately Grant would have been pleased that we remember him today as more than just a fighter. It’s doubtful he would have minded that characterization either, but if the man’s own memoirs are any indication, he wanted history to be keenly aware of everything else that a commander did too. Grant’s work isn’t the place to find sensationalized accounts of personal heroism or grandiose descriptions of epic battles — some of his peers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line enthusiastically filled that void in their own memoirs. Grant’s writing, like the man himself, is pragmatic, devoid of ceremony, gritty and real. It is these qualities that make his memoirs fascinating, and give them staying power. He pulls back the curtain of romance that shrouds Civil War commanders and reminds us how much time and energy was devoted to logistics (and then logistics, and then more logistics), soothing tattered nerves in Washington, mediating petty disputes or fending off attacks from his own side of the lines. Somehow he also found time to win a few battles, and even more important, bring peace to the battlefields that would ultimately end the war.