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July 2006
Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War
by Charles Bracelen Flood

My Approach to Choosing the Books I Write
by Charles Bracelen Flood

I had already written a few books when I first read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. In addition to enjoying that excellent study of the month in 1914 when the First World War began, I was struck by the ingenuity the author had shown in choosing her subject. Many thousands of books had been written about that war, but in concentrating on its maneuvers in the chancelleries of Europe, Tuchman did something entirely new. In coming at the subject from its original perspective, she added to our knowledge of the war as a whole.

I had always been interested in the American Revolution, and had written Monmouth, a historical novel covering the period of the Valley Forge winter and the battle of Monmouth in New Jersey that followed it. Casting about for an idea for a nonfiction book some years later, I read over some of the standard histories of the War of Independence and decided to write a book that concentrated on four of the worst American military disasters, with a final section showing how the Americans nevertheless prevailed despite these enormous and dramatic failures. (In terms of what had not been covered, I found that a standard two-volume history of the Revolution made no mention of the 1779 Penobscot Expedition, during which every American naval vessel was lost—a disaster that in percentage terms was worse than Pearl Harbor.)

I found what I still consider to be the perfect title, Rise, and Fight Again, taken from Nathanael Greene’s words, written during the war: “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.” There were those who appreciated both my book’s concept and its content: It came out in 1976, the bicentennial year, when any number of books on the Revolution were being published, and the American Revolution Round Table gave me its annual award for the best book on the war to be published that year.

The next time I went searching for a hole in a big and often-treated subject, I found myself thinking about Robert E. Lee and wondering what he did after the Civil War. At that point in my life, all I knew was that he surrendered to Grant at Appomattox and more or less became a statue mounted on a horse. I found a wonderful, moving story: This lifelong soldier became the president of a tiny war-torn Virginia school (Washington College, renamed Washington and Lee University upon his death) and gave both North and South a marvelous example of dignified acceptance of defeat and a constructive approach to healing the wounds of war. The last five years of Lee’s life had been covered in full-length biographies, but by starting at Appomattox and telling it as a story in itself, I offered a different perspective on Lee, and my Lee—The Last Years was a success that remains in print some 20 years later.

My interests go beyond American history and biography, and for some years I had thought about Adolf Hitler, and found myself wondering just how he started what still stands as one of the most astonishing political careers in history, as well as the most evil. Once again, this period in my new and immensely different subject’s life had been dealt with only in full-length biographies in what I considered to be a pro forma manner, but I wanted to confine myself to the topic that I began writing with the working title “How Hitler Happened.” I plunged into this unlikely story of an utterly unlikely obscure lance-corporal, an Austrian and not a German citizen, newly discharged from the German army after a chaotic and humiliating defeat, who discovered within himself remarkable oratorical powers and became “the Voice from the Trenches” that transfixed his Bavarian audience and eventually seduced an entire nation. I went on through to his failed 1923 Putsch and the treason trial that brought him national and even international fame and his confinement in Landsberg Fortress, during which he began writing his manifesto and racist call to arms addressed to the German people. In the final scene of Hitler—The Path to Power, the freed Hitler emerges from those prison gates, carrying the manuscript of Mein Kampf under one arm. Once again, by isolating and concentrating upon part of a subject, part of a life, I had done something original and, I like to think, worthwhile.

By now, the idea of looking for a gap in a subject, that neglected opening wide enough to drive a truck through, had become an integral part of my author’s mindset. In the autumn of 2002 I came back to reading and thinking about the Civil War. My Lee had of course concentrated on that compelling figure, but from my work on the scenes of the surrender at Appomattox with which that book began, I had developed a great admiration for Ulysses S. Grant, whose magnanimity on that occasion so impressed Lee that, to the end of his life, he never allowed a word against Grant to be spoken in his presence. I had a curiosity to know more about Grant, and, once again, began reading the full-length biographies of my prospective subject. For a time I thought I might write about his and his wife Julia’s marriage, which Bruce Catton considered to be one of the great American love stories, but I wanted to write about Grant in the war, and do it in a way that had not been done.

I was ripe for a “Eureka!” moment, and it came during a phone call with my friend Thomas Fleming, the author of some 40 books involving American history and biography. We were tossing around possible topics when I said, “Grant and Sherman!” Tom readily endorsed this. I set out to find what had been done, linking the two generals (I started out knowing even less about the brilliant, mercurial Sherman) who between them produced the strategy and campaigns that won the war. Other than coming upon a chapter devoted to the topic in Joseph T. Glatthaar’s admirable Partnerships in Command, I began to realize any number, and I mean a really large number, of historians and biographers had for close to 140 years walked past this valid and important story, one that had enormous military and political results. Thus my Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War.

Are there other appropriate ways of choosing subjects? Of course, and I have used them myself. It is, however, an approach that I would respectfully suggest that historians and biographers might keep in mind. This is something more than simply strolling through the streets of history, a garbage bag in the hand, picking up other people’s leftovers. They are not leftovers, but entire meals in themselves, made from original recipes, and nourishing for those who dine on the life of the mind.

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