Brothers in Arms

By Josiah Bunting III,
author of "Ulysses S. Grant," who is at work on a biography of George C. Marshall
Thursday, January 19, 2006


The Friendship That Won The Civil War

By Charles Bracelen Flood

Farrar Straus Giroux. 460 pp. $27

After the terrible first day of Shiloh, April 6, 1862 -- on which more Americans were killed and wounded than on any before it -- William T. Sherman, a divisional commander, sought out his commander in chief, Ulysses Grant. It was past midnight, a torrential, ceaseless rain was falling, and Grant was standing under a tree, a cigar in his mouth. Earlier he had found refuge in a battlefield hospital, but "the sight was more unendurable than encountering the enemy's fire, and I returned to my tree in the rain." Sherman had approached Grant with the idea of counseling retreat -- "putting the river between ourselves and the enemy." But the sight of Grant, Sherman wrote in his "Memoirs," awakened "some wise and sudden instinct."

"Well, Grant," he said, "we've had the devil's own day of it, haven't we?" "Yes," came the reply. "Lick 'em tomorrow, though."

In that terrible collision of ignorant armies, for the first time Grant and Sherman each began to understand the other's mettle. It was not the beginning -- but near it -- of the most productive friendship in U.S. military history, as beautifully defined and explored in Charles Bracelen Flood's new study.

They had met for the first time at West Point in 1839 -- Sherman then a senior, Grant a plebe -- and their careers had been strikingly similar until the outbreak of the Civil War. Both had been restless, had failed to achieve professional traction and had suffered disappointment, in each case sustained only by a firm marriage.

Grant had served with distinction in Mexico; Sherman's posting was in California. In the immediate prelude to civil war, Sherman was the beloved commandant of the Louisiana Military Academy (today's LSU), while Grant was clerking in one of his father's leather goods stores, in Galena, Ill. Grant won his early appointment (as colonel of a fractious regiment of Illinois Volunteers) through doggedness and good fortune; Sherman got his through connections (his father-in-law and brother) in Washington. Each was traduced and savaged by superiors and in the press -- Sherman for being "crazy," Grant for appearing "to have resumed his former bad habits," that is, heavy drinking.

Grant is remembered as a man of absolute determination. But battlefields are littered with the casualties caused by leaders with determination only. To this quality, Grant added a clear, disinterested intellect: He saw things plainly, unemotionally. Sherman saw both qualities in Grant, while, early in the Civil War, others saw only the first. The conceiver and victor of the 1863 Vicksburg campaign, which would give the Union control of the Mississippi and split the Confederacy in two, Grant was a first-class strategist, self-reliant above all, and Sherman clearly recognized it. Grant was also morally obdurate: Sustained by faith in himself and his army, he held to his conviction that the key to victory is simply to persist. That conviction made the Army of the Potomac the force it became in 1864-65.

Each man wrote memoirs distinguished by crispness, humor, unfailing magnanimity and an acute judgment of enemy commanders (many of whom resumed friendships with both men after 1865). The anecdote of Confederate Gen. Joe Johnston standing bareheaded at Sherman's February 1891 funeral in New York City -- "Were he in my place, he would have done the same," said Johnston -- and dying as a consequence a month later, still moves us: More than 80 years old, he had stood for more than an hour, hatless, on a cruel winter's afternoon.

More important, Grant and Sherman understood and trusted each other. After Shiloh, when Grant's superior, Henry Halleck, put him on the shelf -- acting out of jealousy and his own ambition -- Grant prepared to leave the war. Sherman happened by and found him packing. "Sherman, you know . . . that I am in the way here," Grant said. "I have stood it as long as I can, and can endure it no longer." Sherman said in reply: "Before the battle . . . I had been cast down by a mere newspaper assertion of 'crazy,' but that single battle had given me new life, and I was now in high feather; and I argued with him that, if he went away, events would go right along, and he would be left out; whereas, if he remained, some happy accident might restore him to favor and his true place."

Precisely. Five weeks later Halleck was removed to Washington, and Grant was restored to command.

The friendship between these men was tested later on. Grant was reluctant to let Sherman make his March to the Sea but trusted him enough to give permission. And, only a year later, as an emissary from President Andrew Johnson, Grant had to confront his friend and order him to tear up the agreement he had worked out with Gen. Johnston for the surrender, a week after Appomattox, of Johnston's army.

This book is a powerful and illuminating study of a military collaboration that won the war for the Union. That collaboration flowed from an enduring friendship between men who were superficially dissimilar but profoundly alike in their understanding of the brutish, unchanging demands and consequences of war. "War means fight," said Sherman, and "fight means kill." Grant understood that as well as any American soldier ever has. But in his memoirs he could say this about a Confederate force that had left its position overnight -- a position his army was about to attack -- "I had not the moral courage to withdraw." At the heart of the friendship was each man's utter honesty, not only with the other but also with himself. The pithiness of Sherman's famous "War is hell" remark has obscured his premise: So long as each side believes in the perfect justice of its cause, it will bring forward soldiers like his friend Grant (and himself) who are willing and able to do things so harsh, so overwhelming, that the other side will cry, "Enough!"

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