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Ozzy

The Problem with History

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More accurately, the problems with history:

  • History is by necessity a 'summary of events.' Every story cannot be included; not every occurrence can be discussed. There is simply not room or time. History is, at best, a quintessential sample, representing the whole;
  • Someone must determine what are facts; what are rumors; and where lies the truth;
  • Someone must make the determination: what will be included (and its relative importance); and what will be discarded;
  • Context: the motivation behind the telling of a story; why did the story teller decide to tell it this way? (Which side does he barrack for? Is there a hidden agenda? Is he trying to persuade, as opposed to just report the facts?)
  • Missing data [for example, Prentiss' Shiloh Report, submitted November 1862]; how and if to incorporate?
  • Missing data, deliberately hidden, due to 'trade secrets' [for example, 'secret cipher' communications between Halleck and Grant];
  • Last man standing... the death of alternative views, due to the untimely demise of key players;
  • First person to the chalk board... [for example, Whitelaw Reid, and his Story of the Great Battle of Shiloh]; every other version of the story finds it has to combat some element of the original story, to get a hearing; even today, 'we caught you sleeping in your beds' gets traction.

 

So, now that we're aware of some of the problems with history, and its telling, let's consider Grant's Memoirs. On the whole, they are remarkable for their candor; bold and forthright; with compelling accuracy. And yet, there are aspects of this work that bear closer scrutiny.

 

One such example: Grant's tale of pushing for the Campaign against Fort Henry. Everyone is familiar with Grant's version of events: he was allowed (grudgingly) to visit Halleck in St Louis, and put forward his proposal. Halleck stared blankly during the presentation; he offered no support for the plan, and Grant thought he had been snubbed. He returned to Cairo feeling disaffected. But then, remarkably, Flag Officer Foote comes out of the woodwork, and supports Grant's idea... and lo-and-behold, there is a campaign against Fort Henry...

 

And Henry Halleck (dead several years before Grant published his Memoirs) is left looking like a nincompoop, or ogre.

 

I'm no fan of Henry Halleck, but does anyone else have a problem with this story?

 

 

Ozzy

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Ozzy,

 

I've read Grant's memoirs.  Like the OR's, the closer you are to writing them after the event, the more likely they reflect the accuracy of what occurred.  As time passes, facts sometimes become enhanced in memoirs or written to show the author in a better light.  Memory tends to fade and sometimes what we read are fabrications or stretches of the writer's imagination.  Not to say, that Grant's memoirs are full of inaccuracies, but remember, some were dictated to another party and the interpreted writings may have been compromised.  That is why it is almost essential for us to read several first hand accounts of an event to determine for ourselves where the veracity lies.

 

THE MANASSAS BELLE

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Michele

 

I believe you summarized with one line, what I attempted to explain via a dozen dot-points.

 

And Winston Churchill is one of my favourite wartime leaders (although many of my neighbours do not rate him highly, due to his involvement in the costly Gallipoli Campaign of 1915; and the Surrender of Singapore in 1942.)

 

 

Ozzy

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Belle

 

I agree with you. I believe Grant took advantage of the death of a major adversary to rubbish that man's reputation, for the benefit of enhancing his own. (Grant did the same thing with George Thomas: his 'reappraisal' of that officer's wartime performance is disingenuous.)

 

 

Ozzy

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As everyone knows, on the 28th of January 1862, General Grant sent his famous telegram to MGen Halleck, requesting permission to launch an attack against Fort Henry. Supposedly, this was the first attempt to 'persuade' Halleck, after Grant's failed effort, earlier in the month:

 

http://digital.library.msstate.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/USG_volume/id/17403/rec/23   [page 99: Jan 28 message]

 

Prior to this communication, Grant was amassing troops, in vicinity of Fort Holt, supposedly for a 'demonstration' in western Kentucky, or eastern Missouri. And then, on or about January 22nd, Grant received a 'cipher message' from Halleck, directing him 'NOT to assemble his force at Norfolk; but send it to Smithland, Kentucky, instead...'

 

http://digital.library.msstate.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/USG_volume/id/17403/rec/23   [page 89: Jan 23 message and notes below]

 

This 'assembly at Smithland, with ten-day's rations' does not seem to be the action of a commander with NO interest in attacking Fort Henry...

 

Ozzy

 

 

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Ozzy,

 

We also have to remember that Grant was ill at the time he wrote his memoirs.  He, too, was defamed, perhaps overly so, by many  as someone who was unsuccessful in holding a job prior to his military career and as a drunk during his campaigns.  As we all do, I'm sure he had his reasons for his biases against certain individuals during his life.  Not to say that all of them were justified or correct. 

 

Long before the era of political correctness, many civil war veterans argued and disputed about what happened during battles and skirmishes in newspapers and lengthy letters.  If you haven't already done so, just read the three volume set of "The Bachelder Papers:  Gettysburg in their Own Words" published by Morningside Press in 1994.  It's an incredible read.  Those first hand accounts are pointed, biased and quite passionate on how the veterans saw things.

 

THE MANASSAS BELLE

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When it comes to the career of Henry Halleck, I am reminded of the high school student who was brilliant in 9th Grade; brilliant in 10th; brilliant in 11th; but failed to graduate. Do you write the student off as a 'drop-out;' or acknowledge their performance in Years 9-11, and wonder what happened?

 

Contrary to the image displayed in Grant's Memoirs, (that Henry Halleck was merely a handbrake, thwarting Grant's actions and aspirations whenever possible), I believe it is necessary to reflect on Halleck's actual role, as Commander of the Department of the Missouri: responsible for Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas and Kentucky (west of the Cumberland River.) Answerable to General George McClellan (and Abraham Lincoln.) Taking command shortly after Grant's action at Belmont, MGen Halleck's subordinates were active from the start: General John Pope conducted a skirmish in mid-December 1861, that drove Confederate Stirling Price further south. On January 13th, 1862, Halleck set General Samuel Curtis in motion to destroy Price's army, or drive it out of Missouri. Shortly afterwards, he directed that Grant and C. F. Smith conduct a 'demonstration' in western Kentucky, in order to draw attention (and resources) away from the Confederate response to Buell and Thomas in eastern Kentucky (Battle of Mill Creek.)

 

And then, there is 'the elephant in the room...' Columbus, Kentucky. Barely mentioned in Grant's Memoirs, yet considered by Confederate leadership to be 'the Gibraltar of the West.' (General Albert Sidney Johnston spent a month there.) From reading Halleck's messages, and the frequency of gunboat reconnaissance, it is obvious that Columbus, and what to do about it, played heavily on Halleck. As long as its barrier chain, torpedoes, and 140 guns remained in place, the Mississippi River was off limits to Union commerce, south of Cairo.  

 

In a message dated 22 January 1862, Halleck finally admitted that 'Columbus could not be taken directly; some other method would be necessary to 'turn the position.'' On the same day, Halleck sent Grant the cipher message, directing him to concentrate troops at Smithland.

 

It is my belief, that had Henry Halleck died of a heart attack in Washington, D.C., shortly after being appointed supreme army commander, he would be remembered today as a brilliant strategist: his subordinate, Curtis, won the Battle of Pea Ridge (and removed the threat to Missouri); Pope captured New Madrid and Island No.10, regaining control of the Mississippi River, almost to Memphis; Grant and Foote enjoyed success at Forts Henry and Donelson; and the bloody battle at Pittsburg Landing was redeemed by the Capture of Corinth (enough to earn Halleck a new role.)

 

And Columbus?... Taken without firing a shot.

 

 

Ozzy

 

 

References:

 

Rugged and Sublime: the Civil War in Arkansas, by Mark Christ: Department of Arkansas Heritage, 1994.

Papers of U.S. Grant, vols. 3-4

Leonidas Polk: Bishop and General, by William Polk; New York: Longmans, Green & Co. 1915.

U.S. Grant: the making of a General, by Michael B. Ballard; Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.

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Mona

 

I agree with you... But I also think it is more than that. In recent days, I have read the biographies/memoirs of Albert Sidney Johnston, W.T. Sherman, Leonidas Polk, T. Kilby Smith, PGT Beauregard, as well as US Grant. In each one, I have discovered facts not mentioned on a Google posting, Wikipedia, or Encylopedia Britannica. (The attempted assassination-by-arson of Leonidas Polk's family in Sewanee is one example. The discussion of torpedoes, and their extensive 'use' at Columbus and Fort Henry, is another.)

 

It may be that 'inconvenient facts' were left out, because they did not 'fit the desired narrative.'

 

But, I believe, it mostly comes down to laziness: researchers making use of someone else's summary of events, without conducting a primary-source check of their own, and thus perpetuating 'bad history.'

 

 

Ozzy

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And something else just occurred to me.

 

When I first discovered a hard-bound copy of Grant's Memoirs, before the 'rise of the Internet,' I was taken by the coverleaf entry: 'These volumes are dedicated to the American Soldier and Sailor -- U.S. Grant.'  A few pages further along, another entry indicated that 'The contents of this Memoir are given for free use, clear of copyright restrictions.'  I do not know if it was because the copyright had expired; or if Grant (and Mark Twain) had intended that situation to be the case, but for anyone writing about the Civil War, here was a treasure-trove of primary source information, available for free.

 

When I encounter entries on Wikipedia and in other secondary sources, I am no longer amazed at the copious inclusion of 'primary source information,' obviously gleaned from Grant. 

 

When the competition is using an eye-dropper, and you're using a shovel, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand WHO is going to spread it quicker.

 

 

Ozzy

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While searching for information relevant to Flag-Officer Foote and Commander Henry Walke, I happened upon another example of 'bad history,' this time in the Bluejacket's Manual (the official handbook of the U. S. Navy since 1902). Appendix A of that resource is dedicated to 'Naval History,' detailing every significant action of the Navy since 1775. But, there is absolutely no mention of the Battle of Fort Henry (which, I believe, does a disservice, not only to Andrew Foote, but to the brave gunboat crews who made the victory over that position happen.)

 

Could it be that General Grant, claiming credit for the Fort Henry campaign, derailed the Navy's claim?

 

 

Ozzy

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While double-checking the above post, I realized that I was using the 1973 (19th Edition) of the Bluejacket's Manual, so I checked a more recent version to see if anything had improved:

 

http://www.seabees202.com/scwrefs/BLUEJACKETSMANUAL-CENTED.pdf   (2002 Centennial Edition)

 

On page 565 of Appendix A, the [previously non-existent] 6 February 1862 entry reads 'A squadron under Flag-Officer Foote helped take Fort Henry on the Tennessee River.'

 

I guess they helped Grant, who was doing... what?

 

 

Ozzy

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Just a little quiz... 

 

Without consulting any resource, and in less than ten minutes, list all of the battles in which Napoleon participated.

 

 

 

 

If you were able to list more than three, consider yourself a 'scholar.'

 

 

How does Napoleon have anything to do with the Battle of Shiloh?

  • Napoleon's battle plans and battle actions were studied extensively by students at West Point in the years prior to the Civil War;
  • Albert Sidney Johnston and his staff officers looked for signs that their attack of April 6th would most resemble Austerlitz;
  • In the end, it appears that Shiloh was General Johnston's Waterloo.

 

Just a random thought...

 

Ozzy

 

 

Possible answers:   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Napoleonic_battles   (Napoleon was present at fifty of these.)

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What was the tie-in between the Battle of Shiloh and the Battle of Waterloo.  Colonel Thomas Jordan, Beauregard's chief staff officer used Napoleon's orders to his army at start of the Battle of Waterloo as a model to base the orders he was writing for the Battle of Shiloh.  I believe the results were much the same at the end of the battle. 

Ron

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