RALEIGH – Edward Bonekemper has a passion for Civil War history that was formed out of discussions with his father-in-law and a lifelong interest in history of all kinds.
Those discussions led to purchasing various items on Civil War history — books and other items. Eventually, the two men came to the conclusion that Lee was responsible for the Confederacy losing the Civil War, which led to an idea for a book.
“I love American history,” said Bonekemper, who recently spoke at a John Locke Foundation Headliner Luncheon. “I picked [in college] what I was really interested in. Like everyone, I like to do things I’m really interested in.”
That love for history led to his first publication, How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War, which took seven years to complete. It chronicled tactical errors that led to the South being defeated by the North. A natural follow-up is his most recent book, A Victor, Not a Butcher: Ulysses S. Grant’s Overlooked Military Genius. The book takes a different approach to history, suggesting that Grant was a great military commander and not a butcher, as he has often been described.
Bonekemper also teaches military history, part-time, at his alma mater Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. This year, Bonekemper, will focus on the Civil War, taking his class on a field trip to Gettysburg, which is about two hours from the campus.
“All I’m doing is giving another side of the story,” Bonekemper said. “(Grant’s) got a long way to go to overcome that.”
Bonekemper argues that Grant’s perseverance, moral courage, and aggressive fighting attitude were needed to win several key victories in the Mississippi Valley theatre, such as Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, and eventually led him to command the Union’s Army of the Potomac.
“He had what it took to win,” Bonekemper said.
The will to win, Bonekemper said, was developed during the Mexican-American War. Grant, a West Point graduate, served in the Mexican-American War under Generals Zachary Taylor, who later became president, and Winfield Scott.
Both Grant and Lee served in the war, but Bonekemper said Grant learned more from his war experience that he would later used in the Civil War. That is that when trying to reclaim land a military must be on the offensive. Bonekemper said the Confederacy was on the offensive when it should have been trying to defend its land.
Before Grant could apply what he learned in the Mexican-American War in the Civil War, he had to get back into the military. Seven years before the Civil War began, Grant resigned after serving on the West Coast and resided in St. Louis, where he held a number of jobs.
“He went back to St. Louis and was very unsuccessful,” Bonekemper said. “… On the eve of the war, not that many people expected great things out of Ulysses S. Grant.”
Bonekemper said no one in the Army would talk to Grant, at the beginning of the war, about his effort to rejoin the military. Eventually, Grant arrived in Illinois with a unit of volunteers that the governor allowed him to train.
“He was going on the offensive with whatever resources he had,” Bonekemper said. “He knew you had to go after those Southern armies.”
Grant gave the Union its first real victories, Bonekemper said, in Ft. Henry and Ft. Donaldson. After winning those battles, in what Bonekemper called the Mississippi Valley theatre of the war, Grant refused a conditional surrender and took only an unconditional surrender. That led to his nickname of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, Bonekemper said.
“He was a real hero after Ft. Henry and Ft. Donaldson,” Bonekemper said.
Grant gained more victories in the war and won battles at Shiloh, and Vicksburg and was asked to assist at Chattanooga and helped to restore the supply line.
“Based on his successes there was political pressure on (President Abraham) Lincoln to move him east,” Bonekemper said.
When Lincoln sent Grant to the east, it was the only time that Lee and Grant would face each other head-to-head during the war. Bonekemper said Grant’s goal was to keep Lee occupied in Virginia and engaged. The strategy worked as Lee eventually surrendered to Grant at Appomattax Courthouse in 1865, effectively ending the war.
Even though Lee surrendered to Grant, it’s been the Confederate general who has received most of the praise as a military genius. Bonekemper said that is partly due to the fact of who wrote the history of Civil War.
“Unlike in most wars, the winners did not write the history,” Bonekemper said. “Almost the entire war was fought in the South. They’re whole society was changed. The South had to do something to restore their confidence.
“For about 100 years, Grant took a beating.”
Grant was not without his faults during the war, Bonekemper said. He said Grant focused too much on his own desires instead of what the other side was doing. His aggressiveness, though a big part of his victories, also contributed to his biggest lost at Cold Harbor.
Grant, in 1864, ordered an attack against Lee’s army, which had more veterans and was fresh from inactive battle zones compared to Grant’s larger force of raw soldiers. The Union’s troops, about 31,000 men, were all but destroyed by the Confederate forces. Grant lost 7,000 men in 30 minutes of fighting.
“He said, himself, that was the biggest mistake he ever made,” Bonekemper said.
When the war ended, Grant had 37,000 fewer casualties among his own troops than Lee did, Bonekemper said.
“That is a net of 37,000 troops lost for a man who was tactically on the offensive throughout the entire war,” Grant said.
Shannon Blosser ([email protected]) is a staff writer with the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Chapel Hill.