Grant Takes Command, by Bruce Catton
The second book in a series of two books about Grant’s leadership, it is a shame that my library system does not have the first book (Grant Moves South), so I read this as a standalone volume and found it worked out very well, and also helped to provide some personal information about Grant’s travels and leadership in the period from 1863 to the end of the war that was immensely helpful. One knows what one is getting when one reads a history book by Bruce Catton–a highly humane account of war and one that gives its subject the greatest possible benefit of the doubt. And that is precisely what one finds here, even if the author finds himself going over ground he had gone over several times before when looking at the comprehensive history of the war and the history of the Army of the Potomac. If you are a syntopical reader, enjoying reading things from a variety of perspectives, Catton’s career provides evidence that one can keep a given body of work fresh despite covering the same things multiple times from slightly different perspectives, whether one is looking at the war as a whole, from a particular army, or even from a particular general. All of this makes for worthwhile and intriguing reading, to be sure.
This particular volume is about 500 pages or so of text divided into 24 chapters that begin with Grant as a political innocent in the period after Vicksburg and that continue to the end of the war. We find Grant’s efforts at figuring out what to do after winning at Vicksburg (2), his successful leadership of the Chattanooga campaign (3, 4), his insight that the South did not have enough army to stop him from attacking in all manner of different fronts (5), his taking charge of the Union war effort and building a good rapport with Lincoln and Meade (6, 7, 8. 9), and an account of the battles of the Overland campaign from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor (10, 11, 12, 13, 14). We see Grant’s attempts to defeat Lee and drive him into the open fail because of mischance and bad division leadership (15, 16) and look at Grant’s ability to encourage other generals once he had the right leadership in place, like Sheridan over the Shenandoah army (17, 18, 19). We look at the expectations in 1865 for ending the war by Grant (20, 21) and look at Grant’s masterful Appomattox campaign (22), Lee’s surrender (23), and the strangeness of the end of the war (24).
One of the most intriguing aspects of Catton’s account of Grant’s leadership is the way that he discusses the cultural divide present within the North about Grant and the expectations that Easterners had of him. Grant and Lincoln, both Westerners who were not as cultivated as those on the East Coast, and equally devoted to a hard war but a gentle peace. Grant’s disinterest in interfering with political questions and the trust he enjoyed with Lincoln helped in large part to make the Union final victory possible, even with the imperfect instruments at hand, like the Army of the Potomac and its intensely political leadership. The author discusses Grant having to move from oversight of the Army of the Potomac to meetings with Lincoln, how he dealt with the possibility of Butler being the ranking leader around Richmond, how he dealt with that incompetent but politically important leader, and how it was that he was continually concerned about the lack of aggressiveness of many army commanders when it came to fulfilling his strategic vision for victory. Ultimately, even if Grant didn’t have the same kind of trust for Thomas as he did for others, the leaders of the various forces like Sherman, Thomas, Sheridan, Canby, Terry and others were able to demonstrate that the Confederacy didn’t have enough forces to preserve their independence when Union attacks were simultaneously engaged with skill under the direction of a resolute leader like Grant.