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Ulysses S. Grant and his love of maps February 19, 2009

Posted by Jenny in Civil War, history.
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Cover of Harper's Weekly, July 1863

Cover of Harper's Weekly, July 25, 1863

I might as well confess to my friends in the South that I am a great fan of General Ulysses S. Grant.  If I had been living during the Civil War, I would have gazed with admiration upon the engraved portrait of him that appeared in Harper’s Illustrated Weekly after the surrender of Vicksburg.  Such a campaign it was, dealing with the adversity of the terrain, the swampy land carved into intricate coils by the river, the failed attempts to clear routes for the troops by connecting bayous and creeks and hand-dug canals in one combination or another.

The run past the Vicksburg blockade

The run past the Vicksburg blockade

The run past the batteries—that was the turning point.  Admiral Porter’s gunboats had to get downstream past Vicksburg, and that feat occurred on the night of April 16, 1863.  I study the Harper’s illustration: the ironclads are steaming through dark glossy water past the starburst shellfire of the Vicksburg artillery.  The illustrator has carefully placed in the foreground a half-submerged stump that stands in for all the snags and obstructions that the federals had faced in the moss-festooned swamps.  The boats themselves are black shadows moving in a purposeful line, and the sooty clouds billow from the gunboat smokestacks in answer to white puffs of artillery smoke.  Each ironclad slices through myriad tiny sparkling ripples that decorate the river.

It was Admiral Porter who described Grant’s attitude about maps.  “The General’s great delight was to pore over maps, and he seemed to take in all the roads, fields and rivers as if they were good to eat and drink….  He had a very correct knowledge of the topography of all places he had operated in or was about to operate in.  He never forgot a house, a road, or a bayou…”

I like the way Grant had seemed like a failure in the years before the war and then went from being an obscure colonel to winning the command of all Union armies.  He remained modest while performing his increasingly impressive feats of strategy, his reticence forming a little protective screen that surrounded him at all times like the blue cloud of cigar smoke that never seemed to leave his vicinity.  Grant’s story seems yet more enjoyable to me when I think of the personalities that in effect became foils to his competence: in particular, John McClernand and George McClellan.  The latter liked to look at maps, too.  At the very beginning of the war, freshly appointed to his command, he studied maps of the whole Confederacy.  McClellan proposed to the War Department an all-embracing plan that called for massive movements of troops without particular regard for transport or terrain.  On the other hand, Grant was the man for topographic detail.

At one point in 1862, after Grant’s victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, McClellan ordered Grant to be relieved from duty because of some missed communications, and even authorized his arrest.  But by this time in the war, large invisible currents were propelling Grant forward, and his progress couldn’t be stopped, even after the horrors of Shiloh.  It is somehow comforting to know that in a long war with many battles, the strengths and weaknesses of the leading players cannot be disguised.  Their true worth has to come out.