How two unlikely heroes saved the union

Biography

October 16, 2005|By MIKE PRIDE | MIKE PRIDE,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War

Charles Bracelen Flood

Farrar, Straus and Giroux / 480 pages

In the hands of the right author, some moments in American history should cause a reader to tremble in joy and sadness. For me, such an event occurred May 23-24, 1865, when the soldiers of the vast, victorious Union armies paraded before their fellow countrymen one last time before fading into civilian life.

This march is the climactic scene in Grant and Sherman, Charles Bracelen Flood's new book about the parallel lives and professional friendship of the North's two greatest generals. His account of it captures both the glory and the sorrow of comrades parting after a long ordeal.

In the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, the sturdy Midwesterners who constituted William Tecumseh Sherman's army yearned to show their superiority to what they saw as the overfed, overpraised Army of the Potomac. Uncle Billy's boys had captured Atlanta, marched to the sea, torched South Carolina and run the last Confederate army to a halt. Then they had come to Washington in tatters, many barefoot. Yet when they were offered new uniforms for the grand march, nearly all declined. They wanted the throngs in the capital to see them as they were.

Riding at the head of this army for the last time, Sherman could only listen and hope that his soldiers were rising to the occasion. He could hear what a soldier called "one footfall," telling him that the men were marching in step. But Sherman yielded to the temptation to turn on his horse and gaze upon the mile-long column behind him.

"When I reached the Treasury-building, and looked back, the sight was simply magnificent," Sherman later wrote. "The column was compact, and the glittering muskets looked like a solid mass of steel, moving with the regularity of a pendulum."

At this glorious moment, the gods of history surely winked. Four years earlier, no one could have guessed that Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant should be the masters of the grand celebration. The two men did not glitter in their uniforms or exude bluster and self-importance. They were not governors or railroad presidents. They were West Pointers who had quit the Army and failed in civilian life. Even after the war began, one was dismissed as a drunk, the other as insane.

Flood, a Kentuckian who wrote Lee: The Last Years and other works of biography and history, chronicles the military successes that made Grant and Sherman brothers in arms and national heroes.

Despite their similarities, they were an unlikely pair in some ways. Sherman was irascible and opinionated, and his sharp tongue often caused him grief. By contrast, Grant allowed his actions to speak for him. This diplomacy, coupled with his victories, gave him an advantage in the harsh world of military politics.

Although Sherman and Grant saw each other as friends, their partnership was more professional than personal. In Sherman, Grant found a subordinate to whom he could delegate responsibilities with vague instructions and know that his will would be done. Sherman recognized that in treating Grant as a true superior, he was not bridling his ambition but serving it.

Most important, Grant and Sherman shared a vision of how to win the war. The goal was not to take Richmond or win set-piece battles. It was to pursue and destroy the Confederate armies and to break the South's spirit.

There are limits to the kind of history Flood writes. He mines certain material well, giving both generals' wives their due, for example, but his book is a work of synthesis. He tells old stories in a new way, and his primary research is thin.

I did a bit of sleuthing on one such story, a famous anecdote after the first day of battle at Shiloh. That night, Flood writes, Sherman remarked to Grant that the day had gone badly. Grant agreed, but added: "Lick 'em tomorrow."

Flood's footnote on this conversation cites a 2003 biography of Grant by Jean Smith. Smith's biography cites a journal article that itself cites a Sherman interview with The Washington Post. Many other biographers have used the anecdote, most of them attributing it to Bruce Catton's Grant Moves South.

But the conversation has the whiff of hindsight, and indeed the journal article is dated 1893, two years after Sherman's death and 31 years after the battle. It's a good story, an iconic moment that crystallizes Grant's famous resolve. It may even be true. But while historians rightly stand on the backs of other historians, they should document their own facts and make their own decisions about the credibility of old stories.

That said, readers with a discerning eye, even those familiar with the lives and times of the principals, will enjoy Flood's book. He's a clear and concise writer, and his narrative pace thrums or slackens to suit the moment.

Grant and Sherman were American leaders - common, unpretentious men who rose on their merits to help rescue the nation in its hour of greatest peril. It is good to be reminded of the courage and strength of character on which such leadership rests.

Mike Pride has been editor of the Concord Monitor, New Hampshire's capital newspaper, for 22 years. He is the co-author, with Mark Travis, of My Brave Boys, a history of a New Hampshire Civil War regiment.

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