Book Review- Chernow’s Grant

Chernow, Ron, Grant, Penguin Press; 1st edition (October 10, 2017)

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     A hefty, yet easily digestible biography  continues the author’s attempts at re-imagining supposedly misunderstood figures.  The actual result is consensus history masquerading as newly discovered insight. 

 

The success of his biography of Alexander Hamilton… and the subsequent musical it inspired, brought about unprecedented anticipation for his latest work.  Chernow has tapped into the millennial generation’s need for easily digestible, episodic history.  His style is to illustrate personal relationships, conflicts, and controversies and explain how the collective memory has misunderstood the stories.  This is best illustrated as he discusses Grant’s well documented drinking problem- never really that drunk, always alert, and kept in line by his dutiful wife, Julia.  Chernow’s gift is his effortless storytelling blended with an authoritative tone.  Trouble is, this analysis is not revelatory, and has been well covered in the work of previous historians.

 

Chernow combs through and pieces together observations from previous Grant scholarship… and artfully weaves it into his own narrative.  His assertion that Grant’s reputation as a poor general is undeserved  was well covered in Bruce Catton’s three volume study from 1960.  Brooks D. Simpson’s 1991 evaluation of the Grant presidency put to rest the many accusations of incompetence and corruption and established Grant’s indispensable role in Reconstruction; points that Chernow meticulously recounts in the final one third of his 1,074 page study.

 

Reviewers have already deemed this biography as “definitive”… despite the fact that Chernow breaks little, if any new ground.  Chernow wants you to believe that Grant has been widely misunderstood and underappreciated.  The casual history reader, unfamiliar with previous Grant scholarship, is best served by Chernow’s efforts.` The popularity of his previous work all but guarantees his place on the bestseller list.

Confederate Monument Dilemma

Practically Historical Offers the Following Solutions

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  • The Confederate flag should never be flown over government buildings or property
  • The Confederate flag should not be banned
  • Monuments to Confederate leaders, political or military, should not be kept on government or public property
  • Monuments dedicated to unnamed soldiers who fought for the Confederacy should be allowed on public property
  • Communities have every right to determine which people are publicly memorialized
  • The destruction seen recently is unacceptable
  • The actions of the KKK and ne0-Nazi groups in Charlottesville are unacceptable
  • Confederate monuments in cemeteries should be left alone
  • Confederate monuments on battlefields should be left alone 
  • Comparing Confederate leaders to our Founders is unacceptable
  • Destroying or defacing monuments to our Founders is unacceptable 
  • Studying Confederate history is necessary
  • Confederate Civil War reenactors should not be ostracized
  • Slavery caused the Civil War
  • Not all Confederate soldiers fought for slavery
  • Not all Union soldiers fought to free slaves 
  • We need to keep reading, writing, and learning…..

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The Sykes Monument

A New Memorial Well Deserved

George Sykes is one of two Union Corps commanders without… an equestrian memorial at the Gettysburg National Military Park.  Dan Sickles declined one in his honor, claiming “the whole damned battlefield is my monument.  The exclusion of Sykes is misunderstood and often erroneously remembered by historians and students of the battle.

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John Sedgwick missed over a third of the battle… and Henry Slocum’s inaction on July 1 bordered on insubordination- yet both these Generals have mounted statues on the battlefield.  These monuments were constructed by their states in conjunction with the Gettysburg Memorial Association between 1867-96.  The US War Department took no part in the construction of monuments at Gettysburg.  So why was Sykes overlooked?

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Many assume Sykes was not memorialized because of poor performance… in and after the Battle of Gettysburg.  His nicknames of “Slow Trot” and “Tardy George”  have become historical cans tied to his record trail.  Neither assumption is holds water- the truth is more complicated:

  • Sykes’ promotion to Corps command on June 28, 1863 upset some of his fellow officers- especially those who ranked him.  Sykes was given the V Corps at the direction of Meade.
  • Sykes did not have a good rapport with volunteer troops, who in many cases, led the later efforts to erect monuments- Sykes spent most of the War commanding Regular Army troops.
  • He did not have a long career following the war, dying at a dusty Texas outpost in 1880. 
  • Following the War, Delaware was in no position to contribute funds to a monument depicting someone who permanently left the state as a teenager. 
  • Reynolds and Sedgwick were popular leaders with volunteer troops; while Howard and Slocum had long public careers following the War.**

 

**Thanks to Scott Hartwig for the pointers.

July 3, 1863

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Rising to the occasion is a concept so misunderstood… it borders on the cliché.  When used in the wrong context it cheapens actual heroic achievement.  Too often, historic deeds are overlooked because well-worn studies have rendered them routine because of historic scope.  In the pivotal battle of the war, at its decisive moment, actions speak louder than the words of any biographer…. as Confederate soldiers stormed over the stonewall at the “Angle”- decisive action was needed, and General Alexander Webb provided it.

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Alexander Webb received the Medal of Honor for his actions on July 3, 1863.  Webb’s brigade occupied the crucial position at the “copse of trees” which was the focal point of Lee’s attack.  Webb marched defiantly up and down his line during the fierce bombardment that preceded Pickett’s charge.  The confederates under Armistead  charged into Webb’s position and the two brigades were locked in deadly combat.  Seizing the colors of the 72nd Pennsylvania, Webb led a charge into the confederates  at the famous “angle” in the stone wall.   The two generals nearly came to personal blows as Webb’s counter attack brought them to within feet of each other.  Armistead fell mortally wounded while a ball passed through Webb’s upper thigh, but he remained on the field.  Webb describes the action in his report of the battle.  General George Gordon Meade nominated Webb for the Medal of Honor which he received in 1891.

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Gettysburg Hidden Treasures

Gettysburg Hidden Treasures

1. Barlow’s Knoll;  Left for dead by his own troops during the first day’s fighting, General Francis Barlow fell grievously wounded near this spot.  Confederate General John B. Gordon’s act of mercy allegedly saved Barlow’s life.

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2. Hazlett/Weed Rock; General Stephen Weed had just deployed his brigade down the face of Little Round Top when he fell mortally wounded.  Nearby, deploying his battery was Captain Charles Hazlett, a friend of Weed’s from West Point.  Bending to hear his friend’s dying words, Hazlett was struck on top of him.  This engraving, long a battlefield guide secret, has recently been filled in.

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3. Hancock’s Wounding;  Involved in the decisive maneuvering on all three days of the battle, Hancock had just ordered a flanking attack to Pickett’s charge when shrapnel drove into his upper thigh.  This small monument marks the place where the hero of Gettysburg received his wound.

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Must See spots at Gettysburg

1. Hancock Equestrian; Cemetery Hill…  One look at the majestic sculpture will convey the effect Hancock had on the disheartened Federal troops July 1st.  The hero of Gettysburg could have had his monument anywhere on the field- but he chose the spot where his presence had the most effect.

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2. 9th Mass. Battery(Bigelow’s); Trostle Farm…  Captain Bigelow’s brave delaying action slowed the Confederate onslaught and allowed Hancock time to form the final Union line to the rear of this position.  Near this monument is the Sickles HQ site and the Trostle barn, which still bears damage from the battle.

Retreat by recoil (author)

3. Cushing’s Battery; Cemetery Ridge(the Angle)… Lt. Alonzo Cushing’s battery was at the center of the storm on July 3, 1863.  Cushing’s defense and heroism(remaining on the field despite two grievous wounds)  helped hold the Union position during Pickett’s charge.  Cushing gave his life that day, but would receive the Medal of Honor 147 years after his death.

Cushing fell here (author)

Custer’s Luck

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Multiculturalism has won the battle for the right to tell our story.  All cultures, regardless of their particular practices or beliefs, deserve respect.  They must never be compared to ours, for this ultimately leads to judgements.  Judgements hurt people, and in this world, that is not allowed.  No where is this more prevalent than in the study of American Indian culture.  Indian culture is noble, peaceful, and they have been victimized by the greedy, warlike cultures of Europeans.  The American government systematically destroyed Indian culture so it must be inferior.  The historical comparisons were all unjust, for Americans cannot be as civilized as they proclaim because of these cultural crimes.  Multiculturalism ignores particulars, ambiguities, and complexities.  The culture clash must be black and white- the irony is lost upon the politically correct.  Little Big Horn is no different.  Custer and the 7th Cavalry were forces of evil and they got what the deserved…even postmortem mutilation.

 

Did Custer die for our sins?

 

5-7 Cav. Regt. cases colors at FOB Kalsu

Was Custer a villain? Does he represent the evils of American expansion?… Such histrionics sell books, inspire ambitious filmmakers, and rouse the irritable activists; but little understanding is actually achieved.  Custer was an ambitious military officer who saw the Plains Wars as an avenue to personal advancement.  But, he was also a frontiersman who sympathized with the plight of a complex foe.  He was a soldier fighting a complex war few people adequately understood, himself included.  Yet, Custer lives on.  He lives on in our memory, exactly where we can imagine him; trotting at head of the 7th Cavalry, wind whipping through his long red hair,  the airs of “Garry Owen” whistling over the plains.   Remembrance is not history, but the American mind needs both.

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The Other Custer

Thomas Ward Custer rode to his death… along side his brother at the battle of Little Big Horn.  The dynamic, rowdy pair had been soldiers nearly all their lives.  Tom followed in his older brother’s foot steps, enlisting in the Union army at the age of 16.  Though George achieved more fame, he thought the world of his little brother, “Do you want to know what I think of him? Tom should have been the General and I the Lieutenant.”   The elder Custer was the youngest man to achieve the rank of Major-General while young Tom was one of 19 men to win the Medal of Honor twice.  Personally capturing two Confederate battle flags under severe fire (the second attempt nearly cost his jaw)  Tom was undoubtedly a hero.  The exploits of his older brother have relegated him to obscurity.

He won all the medals (commons)

George (Autie, as Tom called him) was austere, devoted, and a teetotaler.  Tom tried to emulate his brother, but strayed to drink and hell raising when his sister-in-law Libbie was not near to regulate him.  Together, the Custer boys were notorious pranksters, and few familiar with them on the frontier were immune from their antics.  Autie Custer had molded the 7th Cavalry into a fast-moving, hard-hitting combat unit;  His brother was with him every step of the way.  Detractors labeled them the “Custer Clan”, and resented the good fortune which seemed to follow the family, “Custer’s Luck.”  That luck ran out on June 25, 1876.  George, Tom, and baby brother, Boston Custer died on the dusty hills of Southeastern Montana.

The Custer clan

Tom Custer was an American hero… He died bravely on the field of battle fighting for his country.  His enemies mutilated his body beyond recognition that day.  His remains were only identified by a tattoo on his wrist.  Ironic that warriors described as noble by our society are excused for such behavior.  Cultural sensibilities must be respected, even in the desecration of the dead.   Should we believe this?  

Revision Gone Awry

Historians must stop giving… credence to rumors of controversial historical figures fathering children with women they allegedly oppressed.  This has become standard operating procedure for writers wishing to gain notoriety in the historical profession.  Latch on to rumors, oral tradition, slander- and give it legitimacy through politically correct currents flowing through society.  Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings garner most of the headlines, but historical revisionists continue to use this accusation to sully the reputations of prominent Americans.  George Armstrong Custer has come to symbolize the evils of American Indian policy; revisionists want to force Indian love children on to his tarnished historical resume’.

George and Libbie

George loved Libbie Custer… from the moment they were introduced in 1862.  Her family was not impressed with the young cavalryman home on leave (a drunken courting call led to his oath of sobriety.)  His promotion to General at the age of 23 changed Judge Daniel Bacon’s mind and he gave the couple his permission.  The Custers were wed on February 9, 1864.  She stayed as close to her “Autie” as possible throughout the rest of the Civil War and then followed him wherever the army took them.  The two had a fiery love affair which comes through in their playful letters.  Libbie wanted children badly and blamed herself for their inability to conceive.  In fact, George was to blame for their childlessness.  Custer contracted gonorrhea while a cadet at West Point.  The Academy’s medical records show he was treated for it.  The disease more than likely sterilized him.  Custer would never father children…yet historical revisionism can produce immaculate conceptions.

With one of his hounds

Custer did not father a child with… the Cheyenne woman Monahseetah.  Revisionists base the claim on Cheyenne oral tradition, which is notoriously unreliable, and the testimony of Captain Frederick Benteen, the most vocal Custer critic of them all.  She did have two children after meeting Custer, but the father could not have been George Armstrong.  There is no direct evidence, none.  There is speculation in the form of tall tales found in Indian oral tradition.  There is slander found in the acidic letters from Benteen.  Custer holds a contentious place in American history.  Revisionists are trying to gain the upper hand in the debate with the most unsavory of tactics.