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Monday, October 18, 2004

Historical perspectives on wartime elections

Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant, United States Army, reporting from Quarles' Mills, Virginia, to Major-General Henry W. Halleck in Washington, as quoted in Grant's Personal Memoirs  (at pages 447-48 note *; italics in original):

Lee's army is really whipped.  The prisoners we now take show it, and the action of his army shows it unmistakably.  A battle with them outside of intrenchments cannot be had.  Our men feel that they have gained the morale over the enemy, and attack him with confidence.  I may be mistaken, but I feel that our success over Lee's army is already assured.  The promptness and rapidity with which you have forwarded reinforcements has contributed largely to the feeling of confidence inspired in our men, and to break down that of the enemy.

The date of this dispatch?  May 26, 1864, just after the Battle of Spotsylvania.  Days later, Grant lost over 7000 men in 20 minutes at Cold Harbor.  In July, Confederate forces under Gen. Jubal Early were, briefly, within five miles of Washington itself, and the national capital was in a panic.  And of course, there were hundreds of thousands of further casualties on both sides before Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865.

In hindsight, of course, Grant was right — by late May 1864, his ultimate success over Lee's army was already assured, at least in strictly military terms.  But the war was far from over when he wrote this letter, and he may have been overly optimistic in his reporting back to Washington in part because of his concerns that his Commander in Chief would be voted out of office that November, depriving his armies of their ultimate victory that would preserve and restore the Union.  Yet the perspective of history leaves Grant and his Commander in Chief in a decidedly favorable light.

I respectfully submit that Grant's letter to Halleck, and the electoral and military history that followed it, is relevant today when one tries to decide whether General Tommy Franks was premature in urging President George W. Bush to commend — on May 2, 2003, from the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln — the American forces who'd just toppled Saddam's evil government in Iraq.  Lincoln kept faith with his commanders and his armed forces, and the public kept faith with him.  As much as I mistrust polls and surveys in general, if one believes the latest ones, the soldiers of today support Bush by comparable margins to those by which the soldiers of 1864 supported Lincoln's re-election.  And I remain hopeful and optimistic that the American public of today will similarly keep faith with the Commander in Chief of today's soldiers.

Posted by Beldar at 11:39 PM in Global War on Terror, Politics (2006 & earlier) | Permalink


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(1) Thomas J. Jackson made the following comment | Oct 19, 2004 5:30:52 PM | Permalink

Grant got it wrong. He lost more men than Lee had in his army in 1864 yet couldn't take Richmond. Had Lee desired to persue the options of guerrilla warfare and its subsequent horros it is doubtful that the Union could have subdued the South any more than the British defeated Washington.

Had Hood been a better general 1864 might have been fairly different, especially had Lincoln faced the 1864 elections with nothing to show. Certainly Grant's campaign didn't offer any prospect of Lee's defeat.

You might mention the deseration rates in the Union armies peaked in 1864, hardly an indicator of a confident army.

(2) D Dunn made the following comment | Oct 19, 2004 11:27:56 PM | Permalink

Much about Bush has long reminded me of Grant, particularly the misunderestimated part. An apt historical analogy to Irak is Ft. Donelson. Grant effectively wins the war (it takes several years for the results to bear fruit) in a "rash" battle nobody authorized him to fight. After the intial Northern euphoria wears off jealous officers, political hacks and newspaper reporters try to get him fired, claiming that he had "no plan" for the aftermath. In actuality, his army was simply trying to digest an unprecedented victory that dwarfed Yorktown.
BTW, Cold Harbor was a blunder by Meade although partly attributable to Grant's unwillingess to impose himself on the Eastern command struture. Lee acknowledged Grant was the superior general and the genius of Grant's last campaign, perhaps the first of modern times. History may treat Irak similarly. Any casual student of warfare/nation building must conclude that operations in Irak represent a new paradigm and as finely calibrated a program as is possible in warfare. Grant's western generals would have fumed but otherwise understood that random car bombs signify the oppositions strategic and tactical futility.

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