Civil War Photo Contest
Featured Book Reviewer
- Feb 23, 2013
- East Texas
This will be less a book review than a commentary on two very different "classic" biographies of two also very different Civil War personalities that nevertheless had in the long run quite a bit in common, Ulysses Simpson Grant and Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson. I hope in the near future to take separate and more detailed looks at each of these, but for now would like to make some observations on them in general, the atmosphere in which each was written, and their relative importance in the field of military biography to which they belong. Both may properly be considered classics but also as products revealing much about their authors and the times in which they were written. I found the Jackson last October in an old book stall in an antique mall in Northern Georgia during our CWT annual Gathering, read it, and being a glutton for punishment added to it this March the Grant from a used book store near a local East Texas college; they were two of the most historically important books on their respective subjects I had never before read.
I have stated before in the forums that I read somewhere long ago that there were possibly really only two campaigns of the Civil War that were at the time of the statement still considered worth studying from a strictly military perspective: Stonewall Jackson's 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign and Grant's 1863 campaign to capture Vicksburg, in both case mainly because of the way in which each successful commander imposed his will on his opponent(s). British writers have long made a practice, and some a virtual career, studying and writing about the campaigns of famous military commanders throughout history, men like Alexander, Caesar, Genghis Kahn, Turenne, Marlborough, Frederick the Great, Washington, Napoleon, Wellington, Moltke, and more recently Rommel, Montgomery, and Patton; in this august crowd is often included Lee, Grant, and Jackson. These were often presented in series of publications bearing titles like The Campaigns of... or … as A Military Commander. Although neither of these were parts of series they fit within the same general idea of presenting the subject of their works as Great Commanders worthy of inclusion with the rest.
Both Col. George Francis Robert Henderson (1854 - 1903) and Maj. Gen. John Frederick Charles Fuller (1878 - 1966) were noted military historians around the first quarter of the Twentieth Century and themselves veterans, Henderson as a staff officer during the Boer War and Fuller an infantry officer who was seriously wounded during the Great War, when they wrote their books and each brought to them the perspective of their times and experiences. Henderson's is the more optimistic and one might say militaristic of the two, since he hadn't gone through the horrors of what we now know as World War I like Fuller had and tended somewhat to glorify or romanticize combat. Henderson's Jackson appeared in 1898 when Dreadnaughts and aeroplanes had yet to make their appearances; Fuller's Grant, on the other hand, first appeared in 1929 when all that was very much old hat; indeed, the edition I read appeared post-WWII and even references atomic war. A weakness for modern readers that seems typical of British authors writing about military subjects is their tendency to make voluminous comparisons between their own particular subjects and those of the immediate past: Sir Garnet Wolsely and Lord Roberts are never far from Henderson's thoughts, nor are the comparisons for Fuller between the Northern politicians (who he obviously doesn't care much for) and those in the recent British Cabinet; the foibles of contemporary generals also make an appearance. If I hadn't been reading a great deal about 1914-1918 during the Centennial of that war I would've missed a lot of Fuller's points; this could pose a problem for many modern readers, especially those who tend to narrowly focus as I have done in the past on the Civil War or American history to the exclusion of larger considerations of primarily Modern or World history.
Both books share a serious problem for the modern reader: their digressions too often get in the way of enjoyable reading; they virtually cry out for editing! Of course that would be a bad idea because that would change their nature, and that is probably why they are largely unread today. Henderson made several asides which he often put into separate chapters concerning things like the war efforts of the contending sides, the homefront, etc. which do little to further understanding of Stonewall Jackson but a lot to explain Southern attitudes which should please Southern-leaning readers. Neither are really biographies in the strictest sense, as they concentrate on the experiences of their subjects as commanders during the Civil War. Henderson did consult with Jackson's widow Mary Anna and his former chief-of-staff Rev. Robert Dabney for some personal information, but this is nothing like what can be found in more recent true biographies. Fuller has done a good job summarizing Grant's early life and experiences; however he has a fatal tendency to ramble on about supposed similarities between the Civil War and the Great War, particularly in two final chapters that could easily be left unread.
Unsurprisingly, Henderson identifies with his subject, the South in general, and the Southern point of view and should appeal to modern readers who yearn for a return to the Lost Cause interpretation of causes and effects of "our" war. He makes no apology for slavery nor does he condemn his subject for being a slaveowner. Fuller, on the other hand writing a little later, firmly adopts Grant's and the Northern view of slavery and secession that should likewise please modern revisionists. I think one of Fuller's objectives was very much the rehabilitation of his subject Grant's own military reputation and worthiness for inclusion among the ranks of the Great Commanders; indeed, he makes a great case for Grant outshining Lee in that very respect. Henderson had it a little easier, since Jackson and especially his Valley Campaign were already the stuff of legend by the end of the Nineteenth Century. Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War - to use the book's full title upon publication - was originally published in two fat volumes but has been edited into one for subsequent editions. Still, it weighs in as a hefty tome and is by no means suitable for light reading! The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant is a good bit shorter, 446 pp. total, and I think makes for better reading, as long as it sticks to the subject of Grant's life and career.