A critique of the History Channel’s miniseries on Ulysses S. Grant

By Joseph A Rose

First, I’ll stipulate that Ulysses S. Grant had many good qualities as a person, a general, and even as a president. The History Channel’s recent three-part miniseries on Grant, however, contained a surprising number of egregious mistakes and strained arguments, especially given the prominent “talking heads” involved. Even though the long list of executive producers starred Grant biographer Ron Chernow, little comprehension of the American Civil War was shown. It probably did not help that the two writers had no Civil War-related credits (in IMDB.com), and one seemingly had none of a military nature. The director also had little to nothing listed that would attest to any detailed knowledge of this conflict. Unsurprisingly, the miniseries demonstrated marked deficiencies.

Examples of inexplicable inaccuracy, which even Grant’s fans must have found appalling, included the elaborate, World War One-style Union entrenchments at Fort Donelson—where Grant had no fortifications whatsoever—and the Union camp at Shiloh being taken completely by surprise on April 6, 1862. Making Grant look even more negligent than he really was at Shiloh, the pickets were more advanced than the short distance in front of the tents shown in this documentary; the Confederates only reached the vicinity of the camps at 7:00 A.M. and not 6:00, they did not go charging through camps full of surprised soldiers; and the Union men were not shot in their tents. Another preposterous fabrication had General Grant ordering the two gunboats in the river to fire in support of the army that evening. His staffer responded, “I’ll telegraph Porter.” But there was no telegraph there, nor was one needed to communicate with the two warships afloat a few hundred yards away. And neither William Porter nor David D. Porter, naval officers and brothers, were within a hundred miles or connected in any way with this battle. Instead of Grant having the gunboats bombard to keep the enemy at bay during the night, he failed to give the naval officers any directions—even after being requested—and then he stopped the navy from engaging the next day. Other officers coordinated the Union gunboats’ firepower.

Aside from the factual errors, the principal fault stemmed from the script’s insistently pro-Grant perspective. It offered foolish, unqualified pronouncements on how no other commander besides Grant would have counterattacked at Shiloh on April 7th and that every other Union general, after Petersburg fell, would have taken self-congratulatory tours of Richmond and Petersburg, instead of pursuing Robert E. Lee as Grant did. The hyperbole continued throughout, praising Grant as the greatest general of his time; a military genius; one of the greatest American strategists; a spectacular quartermaster; the victor of the fantastic Battle at Chattanooga (where others really deserved the lion’s share of credit); “the man who saved the Union,” and “truly one of the great battle captains of all time” (although he lost battle after battle to Robert E. Lee). Somehow, the miniseries concluded that the Overland Campaign was more damaging to the Confederates; that Grant could just look at a map and know everything; and that no one had a more comprehensive view of the South after the war than did Grant (despite his fact-finding trip at Andrew Johnson’s behest that whitewashed the situation). “He wasn’t a butcher.”

Grant’s Upbringing

Although growing up in a log cabin had been the symbol of an authentic American, Grant didn’t endure a “poor, humble, hardscrabble” childhood, as this miniseries repeatedly indicated. Instead, his relatively middle-class upbringing involved little in the way of adversity. Much was usually made of Grant’s overbearing father, and Jesse Grant remained a target in this script, likewise. But Jesse did not even force Ulysses to work at the family tanyard, habitually bragged about him, furnished him with the invaluable opportunity of a free college education, and placed him in the family firm when destitution was the alternative. Allegedly, Grant joined the infantry after graduating West Point because there were no open spots in the U.S. cavalry, when it was more truthful to say that Grant’s class rank was too low for him to gain a place in that combat arm.

An adult Grant—despite having land, slaves, and a residence at his disposal—somehow fell into poverty in Missouri after resigning his commission. The story of Grant’s pawning his watch in order to buy Christmas presents was seemingly based on nothing more than the fact of its having occurred on December 23rd. Grant’s “begging” his father for a place in the leather goods store (wrongly referred to as a tannery by one of the talking heads) wasn’t necessary, as his father had encouraged Grant to work at the firm in Galena, Illinois.

Issues with Slavery

This documentary tried especially hard to make Grant into a long-time, if not positively fervent supporter of Black civil rights. It asserted that, in the late 1850s, caught in the crossfire, Grant wrestled with the slavery issue. But he had really put himself on the side of slavery and his beloved wife’s family. It was alleged that Grant’s reservations about the “peculiar institution” led to the manumission of his slave, William Jones. That was speculation, as was the assignment of a $1000 value for this human being. The script’s inclusion of an offer of $1000 for Jones by the court clerk, however, was pure fabrication. That may have been the going price of a male slave at that time, but the physical condition of Jones, any due considerations received for his freedom, and other circumstances surrounding the manumission remained unknown. The facts of the case went unmentioned by Grant, his family, and the two witnesses, one of whom was Grant’s ardent—albeit conservative—defender, William Hillyer. And after this, Grant offered to sell or rent another slave, as he was moving to the free state of Illinois. One slave even accompanied wife Julia on her visits to General Grant in the field during the war’s first years. His avowal years later in 1863 that he never was an abolitionist, not even “what could be called anti slavery,” suggested that moral principles did not trigger Jones’ manumission. No one said so.

Grant’s Drinking

Following Chernow’s book, Grant’s West Coast drinking and ensuing resignation were satisfactorily recounted. But Grant was not generally known as a “belligerent drunk,” which the commentary suggested. It explained that he was lonely and bored at the time, without his wife, which led to intoxication: “I have a natural craving for drink.” Unfortunately, the script claimed that this one alcoholic episode is where “all the stories” about his drunkenness come from. It supposedly became a running theme in his life, which enemies wanting to vilify him could point to. That pat excuse ignored Grant’s drunkenness during the Civil War. Despite the miniseries showing only one war-time bottle of whiskey on a table, removed from his temptation, there were documented incidents of alcoholic binges. According to his friendly family physician, who was in close contact with Grant during the early years of the war, “Grant was addicted to the use of strong drink during the early years of the war.” Grant’s problem drinking continued through the Civil War and beyond.

Early in the Civil War & the Matter of Luck

The bald assertion that Grant was not lucky was laughable. With the help of political friends, he received the colonelcy of an Illinois regiment and soon after—without having fought a single battle—a brigadier-generalcy. Providential assignment to a military department where only two generals ranked him and then to Cairo, Illinois, gave Grant access to woodenclads, ironclads, mortar boats, transports, and other naval assets. These allowed him to take advantage of the waterways extending into the Confederacy. Rivers offered an unbreakable supply route. Winter weather did not impede his waterborne force, unlike other Union armies advancing overland. Naval assets made the victorious Fort Donelson and Vicksburg campaigns possible. Among the fortunes of war, no penalty attended Grant’s defeat at Belmont and success at Fort Donelson was secured by the timid Confederate commanders’ return to their entrenchments instead of traversing the broken Union lines to escape. Grant’s massive failures to obtain intelligence and to prepare his army before Shiloh almost resulted in shameful defeat. A multitude of chance factors saved him. The astoundingly successful ascent of Chattanooga’s Missionary Ridge without his orders, from the untenable rifle-pits at its base into which Grant had sent the Army of the Cumberland, was characterized as a miracle.

Commencing with Grant’s first battle, the documentary incorrectly depicted Belmont, Missouri, as a village, as a supply link, and in Kentucky, none of which were true. The Confederates did not counterattack against the Union force inside the Confederate camp, as in the video, which also omitted the infamous flight by the Union soldiers back to the boats—whose hawsers were cut, not let loose. The lame vindication for the defeat: Grant was “learning.” Claims as to who told the men that they could cut their way out as they cut their way in and as to who boarded the transports last of all in the getaway were made by Grant and by multiple other individuals, as well.

The Battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson

Likewise, many other officers besides Grant could “plainly see” the strategic value of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson and the river routes. This documentary made Henry Halleck look like an officious, fool who wanted glory and did everything “absolutely by the book.” Whether that was so or not, Grant greatly admired him for many years—before turning on him after the war when evidence surfaced that Halleck had forwarded an allegation of Grant’s bad habits. Andrew Foote and Grant supposedly begged and prodded Halleck to attack, and it was supposedly only by the slimmest of margins that Halleck permitted it. Actually, Halleck had favored the movement. The writers do credit Foote for the naval victory at Fort Henry—yet still mistakenly mentioned Grant’s gunboats. The video contained no indication that Grant was off the field of battle for six or seven hours during the Confederate counterattack at Fort Donelson and contended that he didn’t panic. In fact, Grant wrote Foote that if the gunboats didn’t make a reappearance, “all may be defeated.” Instead of refuting an officer’s suggestion to play defense on the right, it was Grant who wanted to entrench until convinced otherwise by his subordinates.

The documentary maintained that Fort Donelson represented the first significant Union victory and that U.S. Grant had been winning battle after battle; nobody was winning victories like Grant. The former opinion could be contested, as General George Thomas had routed a Confederate force at Mill Springs, Kentucky, a month earlier, turning the Confederates’ strategic line in the West. The latter declaration had no justification whatsoever; this was Grant’s first victory. One talking head even declared that, “Nothing good had been happening for the Union in the war” before this. Union successes in amphibious operations capturing Port Royal and nearby territory; the liberation of western Virginia, the amphibious operations of General Ambrose E. Burnside taking Roanoke Island; and Mill Springs clearly contradicted that supposition.

The Battle of Shiloh

The misstatements and major omissions concerning the Battle of Shiloh exceeded those concerning Forts Henry and Donelson. General William T. Sherman was wrongly termed a corps commander. Sherman’s “skirmish” happened April 4th, and not April 3rd, and April 4th was long after Grant’s arrival and decision not to entrench. Grant’s army camped not just “near” Shiloh church, but all around it. The battle could not be termed a Confederate “counterattack.” As noted previously, the video showed more surprise at the front than happened, but the script severely minimized the causes and extent and consequences of the surprise. Yes, Grant was overconfident, but that led to an unmentioned but almost total disregard of intelligence activities and negligence of preparations. No competent commander should ever