By Robin Neillands, foreword by Julian Thompson
Wiedenfeld & Nicholson, London 2004, Hardback, with dustcover, 221 pages, with 6 maps, 13 Illustrations, Index and Bibliography - ISBN 0-2978-4607-8: £14.99
Reviewed By James Falkner
This is a well written, nicely produced and attractively priced book, which should appeal to any Civil War enthusiast interested in the career of one of the War's most prominent and interesting commanders. Mr Neillands employs a nice turn of phrase, and his descriptive passages are clear and well set-out. Leaving aside the rather contentious sub-title (who would not argue the same accolade for Abraham Lincoln?), and the peculiar front cover photograph that cuts off Grant's head, the illustrations with one exception (that of Union gunboats bombarding the batteries at Vicksburg) are of good quality and one or two, in particular, are quite uncommon in published works. The maps, though, are a little disappointing; in a work largely dealing with military campaigns, the book really should have had more of them containing a lot more detail.
Some of Mr Neilland's nicely crafted phrases do jar a little though, as when he describes the situation on 5 May 1864 when "the divisions of Lee's indomitable Army came sweeping down the Orange Turnpike and the Orange Plank Road and hit the Union Army with the force of a runaway train". This indicates that the author has not wholly appreciated Lee's tactical dilemma at this time, with his army not yet concentrated and ready to fight a major battle. He makes the point later that it was Warren's Union corps that did the attacking initially, on Ewell who was entrenching on the Turnpike.
Comments that Grant could afford his losses in the 1864 overland campaign suggest that the potential implications of those heavy casualties on public opinion in the North, in a pre-election period, have not been fully recognised. That the North proved robust enough to re-elect Lincoln does not mean that those same losses, by that token, were either acceptable, necessary, or could be afforded. It is disconcerting, too, to find that Mr Neillands makes quite simple errors; the phrase "Fuss and Feathers," was applied to Winfield Scott not Henry Halleck, and the author incorrectly states that Longstreet was wounded by Union, rather than by Confederate, fire on 6 May 1864 during the Wilderness fighting. Pickett's division was not expected to join in that battle, as is suggested, as that formation was still reconstituting near to Richmond from its Gettysburg losses; and coloured troops did not lead, although they participated in, the assault on the Crater during the Petersburg siege.
The reader may ask what Mr Neillands has provided which other authors, perhaps most notably Bruce Catton, have not already done. It is instructive to note that, of the nineteen works listed (including the CD-Rom War of the Rebellion; Compilation of Official Records etc) in what is an apparently rather thin bibliography when researching such a vast subject, no less than seven are by Catton. Nothing amiss there, Catton is a master of that subject, but only two original memoirs are listed in the bibliography, those of Grant himself and Horace Porter. The inclusion of Henderson's, admittedly fine, biography of Stonewall Jackson is a puzzle, when so many excellent original memoirs, rather closer to the subject matter, are readily available but not listed as being used.
In such a slim volume as this it is perhaps not surprising that Mr Neillands has not had the opportunity to probe very deeply into the career of Grant as a major commander. His contention that Grant won the war is certainly sincerely argued, but not in enough detail or with sufficient examination of the vast range of disparate factors that were in play in the achievement of victory for the Union, to persuade this reviewer of the merits of the claim.
However, for all the critical comments made, Mr Neillands, portrait of Grant is well written and the book is well produced, and represents very good value for anyone looking for a history of this great man.