09 February 2005

Generals Grant & Sherman vs. the Press

"Grant was a long way from the flagpole, and he had a pretty long leash. He had taken thirteen thousand casualties at Shiloh, and while he finally had a national reputation, he knew that if he failed here he would be cast aside."

So far, Grant's Civil War career had demonstrated how war, like the frontier, provides the opportunity for meritocratic advancement. Grant had exploited one narrow opening after another. Having failed at farming and real estate, Grant, who had finished in the unimpressive lower middle of his class at West Point, showed a knack for leadership once the war began: he volunteered for the army, then recruited, equipped, and drilled troops at Galena, Illinois. In late 1861, he captured Belmont, on the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Memphis, but this campaign had not been specifically ordered, and the press criticized Grant for an unnecessary engagement. Then, in February 1862, Grant won the first major Union victory of the war when he captured fifteen thousand Confederate troops at Fort Donelson, on the Cumberland River in Tennessee. In April at Shiloh Church, near Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, Grant repulsed an unexpected Confederate offensive, but with such heavy losses that the press raged at him, though military historians now see Shiloh as a Union triumph. The captains and majors [on an excursion from Fort Leavenworth] argued that had the interfering press then been more influential than it was, Grant and Sherman both might have been removed from command and the war prolonged for lack of aggressive Union generals. (Sherman celebrated with his aides when he learned that four reporters had been killed near Vicksburg.)

As I had learned at Fort Leavenworth, the power of the media foreshadows the end of the heroic period in American military history. Great battles of the type fought by Grant and Eisenhower mean risk and blood and a wide berth for error.
SOURCE: An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America's Future, by Robert D. Kaplan (Vintage, 1998), pp. 346-347

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