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Author suggests that Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was not such a butcher after all.
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Date published: 1/5/2003
On his deathbed in July 1885, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant wrote: "I would like to see truthful history written."
That's what author Gordon C. Rhea has set out to do with the fourth installment in a collection of books detailing the Civil War's 1864 Overland Campaign through Virginia--a series of battles in which Grant successfully faced the revered and brilliant Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
The Union general would likely be pleased with Rhea's effort. In the South Carolina author's exhaustive research for the fourth volume, "Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864," Rhea, 57, came across facts that debunked long-held myths that Grant was a butcher who callously sent his men into battle to be slaughtered.
Slogging through battle reports at the National Archives and Library of Congress in Washington, Rhea discovered that the number of Union dead during the Cold Harbor campaign had been wildly inflated.
"The myth that Grant would mindlessly throw men into battle wasn't true," Rhea said.
For many years it was believed that Grant lost upwards of 15,000 men in the first seven to 15 minutes of fighting during one attack at Cold Harbor. An account of Cold Harbor written after the war by Confederate Gen. Evander Law described Union bodies heaped atop one another. "This wasn't war, it was murder," Law claimed.
Soon after, Grant, who was raised in the Midwest, began to be referred to by the media as "Butcher Grant."
Rhea said Grant's losses at Cold Harbor were exaggerated, and the criticism of the general undeserved.
"If you really examine what units were engaged and what the casualty returns show, by my account about 3,500 men were killed or wounded in about an hour," Rhea said.
Lee lost far more men during some of his assaults at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, Rhea points out.
Because much of Civil War history was written by Southern authors shortly after the war, the skewed numbers and various other myths took on lives of their own. Grant's lackluster presidency from 1869 through 1877 didn't help improve his reputation much, either.
Back then, writers also didn't have access to the same resources that Rhea did. Using casualty reports, diaries and letters, Rhea has developed not only a view of Grant's prowess, but also a sense of the waging of the war itself.