Men of Fire: Grant, Forrest, and the Campaign That Decided the Civil War
Men of Fire: Grant, Forrest, and the Campaign That Decided the Civil War. By Jack Hurst. New York City: Basic Books, 2007, 442 pages, $27.95. Reviewed by Command Sergeant Major (Retired) James Clifford. There has been a book published about the Civil War for every day of the nearly 150 years since this country was torn asunder by that conflict. That means that by 2015 there will have been nearly 55,000 Civil War books published. One would think that the final word on the Civil War has been written, but publishing houses continue to crank them out. For any book to make an impact it must offer either new information or a unique perspective. With a title like Men of Fire: Grant, Forrest, And The Campaign That Decided The Civil War, this book promises to be one of those. It is a promise unfulfilled.
This book is a mundane recitation of wellknown facts packaged in a less than convincing premise. The author claims that the battles of Forts Henry and Donelson were a “‘Battle of the Bulge’ without overcoats.” That’s a cute allusion without basis. His idea that the battles “decided” the war seems to be rooted in Ulysses S. Grant’s resulting rise of military fortunes. Although a significant factor in the war, Grant’s brilliance was a facet of his character completely apart from those particular battles. He makes no convincing claim that the battles themselves were militarily significant. If anything, these battles set the conditions for the increasingly brutal battles to come. They reinforced Grant’s belief that the war would be short, a faulty but widely shared idea he held only until the bloodbath of Shiloh.
The author’s focused appraisals of Grant and Nathan Bedford Forrest is at best apples and oranges attempts to create some linkage between these two leaders where none exists. The idea that Forrest, an insanely brave tactical commander who may not have attained his true potential as a military leader, compares with Grant, a determined strategic master who rose to the supreme leadership of the largest army in U. S. history up to that time, is dubious at best.
Hurst’s analysis of Grant shallowly tills this already well- plowed field. The author heavily relies on Grant’s often reported but highly suspect reputation for drunkenness and his financial troubles as the explanation for his stubborn nature and motivation to succeed. It is a pseudo-psychological analysis that attributes Grant’s genius to his need to overcome past failures. While this may have been a factor in Grant’s success deserving mention, the author’s nearly 25 references to Grant’s drinking leave the reader with the impression that he is relying on it solely.
The author previously wrote a biography of Forrest so his analysis of the man is uniformly positive. The vision of Forrest in this book is one of leader with a high level military acumen that generally conforms to the popular image of the man rather than the more accurate depiction of Forrest as a small-time raider with often spectacular but transitory impact on the enemy. He also soft peddles Forrest’s post war membership in the fledgling Ku Klux Klan as a “believable legend.”
Overall, this book is a good read with questionable notions. One may turn to it for the sake of discussion, but it is hardly a definitive treatment of either the campaigns or the leaders. Men of Fire is not likely to attain a notable position within the body of Civil War historiography.
Copyright Infantry Magazine Sep/Oct 2008
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