The writer of a thesis paper is typically admonished to narrow the topic sufficiently so that it can both bring fresh perspective and be covered comprehensively in a finite number of pages. I would guess that when Charles Bracelen Flood conceived a book about the special relationship between Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman during the Civil War, he felt that he had such a narrowed topic. As every thesis writer knows, the next step is to place that narrowed focus within the context of a wider arena that can be quite unfamiliar to the reader. Tough decisions must be made as to what to include to establish this contextual element while suitably limiting the overall scope. The problem with Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War is that neither the author nor his editor seems to have made these critical decisions. The result is a book that in a mere four hundred pages attempts a dual biography of Grant and Sherman and the history of the American Civil War, which compels Flood to cherry-pick telling episodes and oversimplify the war in order to place his twin protagonists in the appropriate milieu to suit the narrative. Significantly, this structure also imperils a deeper character analysis of his subjects within and without their unique friendship.
I am fairly well-read in Civil War historiography, and I have some familiarity with Grant’s story. The primary reason I picked up Grant and Sherman was that I wanted to learn more about Sherman without reading an entire volume dedicated to his biography. This book was recommended to me by a fellow Civil War enthusiast, and I had read Flood before; his 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History is an outstanding work in my estimation. The topic is indeed attractive: Grant and Sherman are the two most iconic Union generals and their successful collaboration was a chief ingredient to the final victory of the United States.
Both Sherman and Grant were essentially pre-war failures with West Point backgrounds, although on the eve of the war Grant’s future seemed far more dismal than Sherman’s. Still, the war made both of them, but not without some bumps in the road. Sherman, over-reacting to the size of enemy forces, was deemed insane. Grant was accused of drunkenness and dereliction of duty. Sherman had powerful political connections that included a brother in Congress which kept him from the abyss. Grant was stubborn and determined; he scored too many victories to be sidelined. The two men had much in common but also much that set them apart. Still, they bonded almost immediately and Sherman became Grant’s loyal subordinate throughout the war. Grant reciprocated that loyalty absolutely, and rescued Sherman when he went off course. Sherman’s famous quotation, taken from a letter he wrote to Grant, sums it up well: “I know wherever I was that you thought of me, and if I got in a tight place you would come – if alive.” Sherman was to get in more than one tight place, and Grant was indeed to come. The most significant episode was in the closing days of the war, after Appomattox and the Lincoln assassination, when Sherman stepped way beyond his bounds while accepting the surrender of Joe Johnston’s army by making unauthorized promises for the restoration of political rights to former Confederates. Overnight, Sherman’s political capital went from hero to zero, and without Grant’s tactful intervention he might have ended the war in disgrace.
I had always assumed that accusations of Sherman’s insanity were hyperbolic attacks by forces unfriendly to him, but Flood’s chronicle reveals friends and relations alike worried about a mental illness that apparently ran in the family manifesting itself. That Sherman sometimes jumped to conclusions, made rash judgments and occasionally saw enemies everywhere underscores the concerns of those who knew him best. He was indeed a brilliant general with often uncanny instincts in the field, but without Grant’s steady guidance one wonders what might have become of Sherman.
Flood is a gifted author and despite its flaws much of this book benefits from a well-written narrative that never grows dull. Those without a strong background in the Civil War and less acquaintance with the main characters will likely enjoy this effort more than I did. Still, I think it would have been far more effective had Flood taken a less macro approach and simply focused upon the specific aspects of the relationship between Grant and Sherman that contributed to ultimate Union victory. A deeper analysis of each of the men would have been welcome, as well. As it is, there is little new material here, just a new way perhaps to relate a familiar story. To those who already possess a strong foundation in Civil War studies, I would recommend skipping this book.