By Chris Scott
Americans learn their history, when they learn it at all, in broad strokes. According to our common myth, the break from Britain was accomplished by George Washington on his white horse, leading colonies united in self-sacrifice. And four score and seven years later, generals Grant and Lee slugged it out to determine the fate of slavery. But history—real history, the kind that can enlighten and inform our present condition—must be presented in far more detail. It involves effort in both the telling and the hearing. In Men of Fire: Grant, Forrest and the Campaign That Decided the Civil War, former journalist Jack Hurst dissects the seven-month period from September 1861 to March 1862, when the reputations of two of America’s greatest fighting men were forged and, in Hurst’s view, the outcome of the Civil War was determined. As Hurst presents in detail, warfare in the 19th century was, as it is today, a messy, politically charged and often ego-driven endeavor.
That Ulysses S. Grant had been a failure as a peacetime soldier is widely known. He was so plagued by reports of drunkenness that he resigned his commission in 1854, despite a promising start in the earlier Mexican War. When he rejoined the army at the outbreak of hostilities in 1861, the intensely anti-slavery Grant rose quickly to the rank of brigadier general despite continued accusations—most without basis—of incompetence, corruption and intemperance. Hamstrung by politically motivated and inept officers both up and down the chain of command, Grant found himself stuck at Cairo, Ill., during the winter of 1861-62, itching to take the fight to the Confederates up the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. He had, in Hurst’s words, “an innate, nervous impulse to be always moving, as well as an indefatigability that was not to be denied.”
The Southern commanders opposing Grant had their own problems with politics and naïveté. But there were stars waiting to shine, and Nathan Bedford Forrest, a lieutenant colonel of cavalry and former slave trader, was one. Like Grant, Forrest wanted to fight the enemy, not argue about who should be in charge. But, as Hurst notes, “in contrast to Grant’s external calm, the Confederate possessed a temper as quick and harsh as delta lightning.” Indeed, other than their military prowess, there is little to link Grant and Forrest—and Hurst, who admits that the two faced each other on the battlefield only twice, is guilty of a minor exaggeration in the subtitle of Men of Fire: Forrest was not really Grant’s nemesis, at least not in the sense that they competed directly against each other in battle. Forrest was a lieutenant colonel following the orders of others; Grant was a brigadier general accountable for the outcome of the battles. So Forrest wasn’t Grant’s principal opponent in the campaign for Nashville. That distinction—or, more accurately, indistinction—falls to generals whose names are understandably absent from the rolls of Southern glory. (That Hurst focuses on Forrest is a reflection of both this lack of Confederate leadership and Hurst’s own interest in the cavalryman, who was the subject of the author’s well-received first book.)
When political and military circumstances finally allowed it, Grant marched south to attack Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. The ill-positioned fort fell quickly, largely due to fire from the new, ironclad Union gunboats. Hurst’s exploration of the development and deployment of this freshwater navy under the command of Admiral Foote is one of the highlights of the book, and any reader following the current military procurement scandals will recognize that unscrupulous government contractors are nothing new. After the quick victory at Fort Henry, Grant and Foote thought that nearby Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River would also fall easily to a combined naval and terrestrial force. They were wrong.
Strangely enough, the vicious fight for Fort Donelson made the reputations of both Grant and Forrest. Grant blundered but recovered to prove he was capable of winning battles, a rare distinction among Union generals. Forrest, though on the losing side, proved himself a man possessing the rare blend of courage, judgment and luck that makes an outstanding battlefield commander. Hurst’s account of the battle is not, however, directed to the casual reader; it is a unit-level description with detailed analysis of the reasons for all the action. That he manages to keep the narrative coherent and readable is a testament to his skill.
The battles at forts Henry and Donelson cleared a path for the Union army into Tennessee and the Deep South. In February 1862, the citizens of Nashville panicked at the advance of the victors, and by March those who could not evacuate were adapting to federal occupation. In analyzing the aftermath of the capture of the capital, Hurst makes his most controversial claim: that these early victories decided the war in the Union’s favor. The claim rings a little hollow when viewed in the context of a conflict that raged for another three years and that, in the eyes of Union leaders, including President Lincoln, was not conclusive until after the election of 1864. Still, it can’t be denied that the campaign for control of Middle Tennessee laid a firm foundation for eventual Union victory. Hurst has admirably illuminated this often overlooked aspect of America’s civil bloodletting.
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