The Wargamer

26 May 2017

Book Review: General Gordon Granger

The Savior of Chickamauga and the Man behind Juneteenth

Published on 2 OCT 2014 6:38am by Paul Robinson
  1. american civil war, ground combat, north america, background / research material, buyer's guide, english

Not being an American Civil War buff (other than a good overview from a wargamer’s point of view) I had not heard of General Granger, nor had I ever heard of “Juneteenth”.  So it was a pleasure to commence a book the subject matter of which I genuinely knew very little about.  The author is Robert Conner a journalist by career but who from 2011-12 was the site interpreter for the Grant Cottage historic site in Saratoga County in New York.    And the author acknowledges the irony of someone associated with Ulysses S Grant being the first person to write a biography of General Granger - the two famously did not get on, and in fact worse; it appears that Grant found the time to actively pursue and hinder Granger’s military career over the years!

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Granger is an interesting topic for a military biography of the War Between the States.  At the level of senior commander he seems to represent a sort of “everyman”, representative of a great many men whose lot it was the command thousands of men in this epic struggle.  As the author puts it in his Introduction:

“Gordon Granger was one of many otherwise obscure individuals whose lives were transformed and magnified by the Civil War”.

The author’s preliminary verdict is that, unlike many of the men who rose to more senior rank, “his leadership was consistently successful”.  A short but telling accolade.  Mr Conner then goes on to justify this view as the book unfolds.

The narrative unfolds over eleven Chapters and an Epilogue (which briefly reviews the fortunes of Granger’s immediate descendants) and is in a fairly standard chronological direction of travel; his early life and his attendance at West Point; the start of his military career and involvement in the War against Mexico (as a member of the Regiment of Mounted Riflemen and where he served with distinction) and then through the various key points of his Civil War career - Chickamauga, Chattanooga through to operations around Mobile and then “Juneteenth”.  The book ends with the fascinating tale of Granger’s post war exploits which say as much about US post war politics (of which he was involved at the very epicentre carrying out unspecified work for the incumbent President Johnson) as they do about the fate and fortunes of those less famous commanders of the war.

What makes this biography stand out is (and this may seem a statement of the blindingly obvious) the subject matter.  Granger was undoubtedly a highly competent commander of men (in terms of logistics, supply and discipline as well as tactics and battlefield leadership) but also made enemies.  His friends would call him gruffly good humoured; his enemies regarded him as bad temperedly aggressive!  The author makes no attempt to cover up Granger’s mannerisms or temperament but he does seem to have been hard done by the animosity that U.S. Grant showed him during the War and afterwards.  The author hasn’t been able to get to the bottom of the cause of this dislike but guesses it harped back to their time at West Point together.  Granger was a particularly difficult subordinate, never being backward at telling his bosses where they were going wrong and how things could be done better.  However those that saw his abilities worked round these issues and whilst he was unlucky with Grant, he was lucky that his immediate bosses during the war were more forgiving.  He was also occasionally a controversial figure with his subordinates and the junior officers and private soldiers under his command.  His discipline was harsh and his quick temper would often lead to rash and arbitrary decisions regarding punishments.  However, once his temper had subsided he mostly did the right thing and rectified the situation.  The verdict of modern historian D Reid Ross is quoted by the author and seems to be a fair one:

 “Granger’s troops admired his bravery and had complete confidence in him.  He was rough in manner, particularly towards new recruits, but had a tender heart …. His orders were brusque, his conversations to the point.  To some he sounded harsh, if not arrogant.”

His Civil War career is well set out by the author, from his escalation in command of Union cavalry forces (the harsh selective processes of war sorting out those that could from those that could not, particularly at the junior levels of command) to his command of a Corps and numerous brevet promotions in command of volunteer forces (whilst keeping his pre-war regular rank). The highlight of Granger’s career was the battle of Chickamauga where he marched to the sound of the guns to reinforce General Thomas and held the Confederate attack long enough for the Union Army to retreat and save itself.   Typically for Granger his actions that day caused quite a controversy at the time and afterwards.  He ends the war in action around the Confederate city of Mobile and was thus well positioned at the War’s end to be sent to Galveston, Texas to take command of all US troops in that state and commence the Federal occupation.  It was here that on the 19th June Granger issued General Order No 3 which signalled the end of slavery (although the author touches upon how the journey of Civil Rights for all African-Americans was a rollercoaster not resolved until the 20th century) and has, apparently, been celebrated ever since as “Juneteenth”!

The text is supported by a few maps, but as his is a biography rather than a campaign history they only touch upon key actions and battles in Granger’s career.  There are a number of black and white photographs and contemporary prints relevant to Granger’s exploits and other military figures he worked with or who are referred to in the text; these include General Thomas, Admiral David Farragut and Fort Morgan that his troops assaulted towards the end of the War.  There are also a couple of photographs of the memorial to Granger in Lexington – he was liked well enough for this to be erected!

This is a nicely written book that paints what I think to be a well-balanced picture of General Granger; it doesn’t cover up his bad points nor is it a raving revision of his career.  The author leans openly towards Gordon being hard done to as a historical figure and the book is looking towards setting that record straight.  The final word has to be from a journalist, William Shanks, a contemporary of Granger:

“Granger was gruff, not only in his criticisms, but in his language, and never disliked a man without showing it.”

 “General Gordon Granger” available now in hardback from Casemate Publishing, normal price $32.95/£20.00 (ISBN 9781612001852).

 

Casemate US - http://www.casematepublishing.com/title.php?isbn=9781612001852

Casemate UK - http://www.casematepublishing.co.uk/title.php?isbn=9781612001852

 

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