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Friday, January 21, 2011

Brooks D. Simpson on what letters by Grant, Lee, Sherman, and McClellan reveal

Much as we expected, the sesquicentennial celebration of the Civil War has already begun to revive debates about the character and capabilities of the generals who directed the conflict. Craig Silver on his blog at Forbes recently weighed in on whether Robert E. Lee should be considered a traitor. Finding Lee “extremely interesting” and “a compelling biographical subject,” Brooks D. Simpson, one of the editors of the new Library of America volume, The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It, recently engaged the question of Lee’s attitude toward slavery on his blog.

Letters penned by military leaders (and included in The Civil War: The First Year) often reveal more than the writer intended. In an exclusive interview (PDF) for The Library of America Simpson reflects on how the dispatches selected for the book reflect the quite disparate personalities of the war’s commanders:
LOA: The contributions from the generals display a range of writing styles. Would it be fair to characterize Robert E. Lee as having the more eloquent and elegant style, followed by Grant’s crisp and straightforward dispatches, to the choppier and more colloquial styles of McClellan and Sherman?
Simpson: Lee always seemed to be writing as if someone was looking over his shoulder. He was always thinking about how he might appear to others. Sherman wrote as he thought, quickly, rarely pausing or reflecting on how his words sounded or even what he was saying. Sometimes his letters read as if he was blowing off immense amounts of steam lest he otherwise explode. Grant’s prose at its best is simple and direct, breaking things down to their essentials, a quality of mind that helps explain why he excelled at mathematics. He could explain a problem, consider what might happen, and offer a solution. Unfortunately for McClellan, he shared his emotions and his inner thoughts in letters to his wife, much like Sherman, and so the impression of him that we have is shaped by reading thoughts we might ourselves think but never share in any writing that we thought would be seen by others. See in particular the August 16, 1861, letter in which he observes “the Presdt is an idiot, the old General [Winfield Scott] in his dotage.”
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It; Grant and Sherman: Civil War Memoirs (boxed set)


  1. Last week I contributed a short essay to Pop Matters titled "Life During Wartime" about Carl Sandburg's Civil War overview, "Storm Over the Land". One of the interesting revelations in Sandburg's work was an exposure of the cowardice of General George McClellan, who continually made excuses to the President against directives ordering to move his troops south of the Potomac (where they were camped) and engage the enemy forces.

    Once, McClellan declined an order from Lincoln until his troops could be outfitted with new horses. "What for?" the President shot back angrily. "The horses you have now cannot be fatigued, seeing that they have not strayed an inch". Eventually McClellan was fired and replaced and the war continued post haste.

  2. Rodger Jacobs's article on Carl Sandburg, mentioned in the above comment, can be found here.

  3. Thank you, much appreciated. And I have very much been enjoying this blog. It has become a regular part of my daily tour of the web.

  4. Very interesting. I will have to read that First year of the civil war -- by those who fought it.

    In the first year of the civil war, in fact, in March of 1861, the South issued Five Ultimatums as reported loudly and proudly by the Southern press. The headlines in Richmond about the Five Ultimatums -- "THE TRUE ISSUE".

    That was pretty intersting too.

    All five Ultimatums were about the SPREAD of slavery, by force. And all five of these Ultimatums were a drastic and violent rebuttal of any pretext of "state's rights"

    In fact, the Five Ultimatums specifically said states had NO rights to make any laws whatsoever about any civil rights issue. States MUST accept slave owner's wishes on ANY matter relating to slaves, blacks, fugative slaves, or negroes generally.

    So there were no state's rights. There was only the right of slave owners to not only buy, sell, whip, torture, rape, their own slaves. They wanted total dictatorial power of OTHER states, to decide what all states, north and south, would do about "negro issues".

    The Five Ultimatums can only be described as insane -- but they where bragged about in Southern press. The didn't demand that the South be allowed to spread slavery -- no, it was crazier than that.

    The US government must spread slavery in Kansas, when Kansas had just rejected slavery 98% to 2%.

    But Southern leaders saw nothing insane about demanding, upon the implied promise of war (that is what Ultiimatum means) that Lincoln and the US governent force Kansas to "accept and respect" slavery.

    Southern leaders insisted slavery was "a Divine Gift" according to Davis, while Lee called slavery part of "the American Church". Spreading slavery was very much a religious issue, part of "the great mora truth" that God ordained white men to enslave black race -- world wide, according to VP Alexander Stephens.

    WHile the ULtimatums didn't mention God's will to spread slavery, the same men who believed in the ULtimatums, believed (or used as an excuse) the bs about God ordaining slavery.

    Go read the South's own Ultimatums, in their own newspapers, AT THE TIME.

    These ultimatums appeared in newspapers north and South. Importantly, these are not drunken shouts from intoxicated men caught up in the fever pitch hate party put on by the Southern leaders.

    These ultimatums, in fact, were the central demand made by the slave owners and Southern leaders for over a generation. They were the demands in 1820, when the North caved in during the "Capitulation of 1820" (euphemistically called Compromise). These were the demands in 1850 in that capitulation.

    The difference here in 1861, Lincoln could not capitulate. When Lincoln did not obey these insane demands, the South attacked.

    Learn the Southern Ultimatums issued by Southern leaders and reported in Southern newspapers AT THE TIME.


  5. Regarding letters by Sherman --

    the most interesting letters of the Civil War, to me, were written by Sherman to Hood during the Atlanta campaign.

    These letters show what Sherman thought the war was about -- without even mentioning slavery. Sherman gave a list of things the South did to start the war.

    Hood had written to Sherman, complaining personally about his (Sherman's) order to evacuate the women and children from Atlanta. Sherman wrote back, and more or less said, "Well, quit hiding behind the women and children, and we won't have to move them."

    It was the same letter that Sherman made up the remark "tell it to the marines," which I suppose started that quip.

    Sherman's letters were widely reported in Northern papers -- which is where I first saw them.

    Sherman's letters, the Southern Ultimatums, and the Gettysburg address, are three of the most important writings of the time, if you want to understand the mind set of the leaders involved, North and South.

  6. My favorite quote from Sherman's public statements, with regard to the burning of Atlanta: "War is cruelty and you cannot refine it."

    Sherman wanted to make sure that the South never forgot that lesson and never again even silently contemplated taking up arms against their fellow citizens.


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