Book Review: General Grant and the Verdict of History: Memoir, Memory, and the Civil War


by Frank P. Varney

El Dorado Hills, Ca.: Savas Beatie, 2023. Pp. xiv, 226. Illus., maps, appends., notes, biblio., index. $32.95. ISBN: 1611215536

Grant's Influence of the Story of the War

This volume follows up on the thesis presented in Prof. Varney's earlier book, General Grant and the Rewriting of History, in which he argued that Ulysses S. Grant deliberately sought to discredit Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans, leading ultimately to the man's removal from front line command, and that there are clear biases in his famous memoirs, which have become a primary source for many scholars, though it actually presents the version of history that he desired to be remembered.

In this volume, Varney analyzes Grant's opinions about a number of other generals, Joseph Hooker, Gouverneur Warren, and George Thomas, and says a bit more about the case of William Rosecrans. Varney looks at Grant's issues with political rivals, notably Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and James Garfield, both former generals, and the latter having gained the Republican nomination in 1880, when the former president was seeking a third term. .

In the case of Gouverneur Warren, Varney points out that the general had annoyed Grant by his willingness to question Grant’s instructions during battle, thinking for himself, and supposedly moving too slowly before being relieved during the battle of Five Forks. In George Thomas' case Varney argues that Grant took the credit for Thomas’s success at Missionary Ridge, albeit contrary to his orders, and denied Joseph Hooker credit for the storming of Lookout Mountain during the battle of Chattanooga. He notes, ironically, that Grant criticized Rosecrans for not holding Lookout Mountain during the battle of Chickamauga.

Overall, Varney suggests some reason for Grant's hostility to some generals as based in a desire to eliminate possible political rivals for the presidency, to prevent other officers from gaining greater influence, and to punish those whom he believed failed to render the proper degree of deference. The officers that were present during Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia were primarily Grant's favorites, while Meade and others not in attendance were overlooked, despite their importance in the Army of the Potomac's victory. He contends that Grant did not accept criticism well, had an agenda, and could be quite vindictive toward many others.

Varney spends a great deal of space comparing the opinions of well-known historians such as Stephen Sears, Peter Cozzens, Bruce Catton, Allen Nevins and Steven Woodworth to his own conclusions which are often different, and explains the reasons. He argues that these historians often accepted Grants memoirs and his reports as found the Official Records as gospel, when different from those of many other Union Generals. He asserts that Grant often rewrote history for his own purposes and used as fact. In the end, Varney stresses that while Grant deserves much of the credit for the Union victory, he has often been awarded too much credit. Those desiring a thorough analysis of the complexities of Grant as a man and a commander will find Varney’s books revealing, compelling and thought provoking.

General Grant and the Verdict of History work is highly recommended.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His most recent previous reviews here include Lieutenant General James Longstreet, Count the Dead, All Roads Led To Gettysburg, Unhappy Catastrophes, The Heart of Hell, The Whartons' War, Gettysburg’s Southern Front , Civil War Monuments and Memorials, The Tale Untwisted, The Confederate Military Forces in the Trans-Mississippi West, The Civilian War, The Carnage was Fearful, The Civil Wars of Joseph E. Johnston, Confederate States Army, Vol. I, Navigating Liberty: Black Refugees and Antislavery Reformers in the Civil War South, Gettysburg In Color, Vol 1, "The Bullets Flew Like Hail", , John Brown's Raid, Searching For Irvin McDowell, A House Built by Slaves, and They Came Only To Die.


Note: General Grant and the Verdict of History is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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