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Sunday, Apr. 20, 2014

Local Civil War scholar authors a book

Monday, April 22, 2002

Spy history

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was not the butcher he is often depicted to be, but rather a calculating general who tried to collect as much information as possible, says Dr. Bill Feis, an associate professor of history at Buena Vista University.

His first book, "Grant's Secret Service: The Intelligence War from Belmont to Appomattox," studies the use of intelligence and information in Grant's decision making throughout the Civil War. It is published by the University of Nebraska Press.

The Civil War has fascinated Feis since he was a child, and appropriately enough it was books that sparked his interest.

"I remember reading in the 6th grade the book, 'We Were There With Lee and Grant at Appomattox,' and another novel I think every kid at that time read, 'Across Five Aprils,'" he said. "Then in 7th grade I flew with my mom to Virginia and saw my first Civil War battlefield. I was hooked."

Having studied the Civil War for over a decade, he has worked as an editor for such magazines as "North & South." Feis hopes his book offers further input in the growing study of the Civil War.

"I hope to make a contribution to the field which has given much to me," he said.

This Civil War historian also takes part in reenactments with the 49th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. "It gives you a little sense of what it was like for guys out there," he said. "It's a way to keep grounded in war and to remember what war is and that it's not a lot of fun."

The book, "Grant's Secret Service," came to life from Feis' dissertation on espionage during the Civil War. He said that many times a general's decision may be criticized, but when that decision is looked at in light of what intelligence the general had, the reason for the decision may become clear.

Feis' research really started 12 years ago, when he was working on his master's degree. In 1997, the University of Nebraska Press offered him a contract to turn his dissertation into a book. "I started revising it, and doing more research and doing things I didn't do for the dissertation," he said.

He delivered the manuscript in the fall of 2000. It was published this month.

Looking at his book, Feis feels it has two goals: to examine the impact of intelligence on decision making in the Civil War and to explore whether or not Grant is deserving of the title "The Butcher."

Feis chose Grant because of his significant role as a commander throughout the entire war.

"There's been so many studies on why Grant was successful, but this is looking at him from a different angle," he said. "I'm hoping to find how he collected intelligence, how he used it and what impact it had."

The analysis is not "Monday morning quarterbacking," he noted.

"It's even-handed and takes his decisions on his terms, instead of judging them later on things he didn't know or couldn't know at the time," Feis said.

He also wanted to explore whether the only reason for Grant's success in the battlefield was his liberal use of troops. Many historians claim Grant's victories was due to his strategy of "throwing as many men into battle" as he could, Feis said.

What he discovered was that Grant was very calculating in his decisions, basing them on information he could gather about the enemy.

"What I found out put a really different spin on it," Feis said. "He was far more adept as a commander. He was very careful, but he wasn't afraid to take risks."

Some commanders would let a lack of information paralyze them, while others demand every last tidbit before taking action. Grant falls in the middle.

"He was a user of information but he didn't let the lack of it paralyze him," Feis said. "He was far more sophisticated and used intelligence in a way to defeat the enemy, but also not to put his troops at risk."

"Grant's Secret Service" also moves beyond the "cloak and dagger" spy stories that dominate Civil War study. Much of the "spy story" has been romanticized, but that aspect is only the "tip of the iceberg," Feis said.

"Civil War intelligence focuses on spies, but the intelligence story of the Civil War is much more complex and equally exciting, but unknown," Feis said. "Nobody ever did an in-depth study on the collection of intelligence and how it would actually be used by these people who had to make decisions."

For Grant, it meant using whatever was at his disposal: prisoners of war, deserters, refugees, local residents, or spies and scouts, cavalry reconnaissances, captured mail and enemy newspapers, Feis said.

"It was dangerous but not as exiting. Most of it was mundane, but important," he said.

Feis' research focused on the collected papers of Grant, as well as scouring the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and archives in other states, from Illinois to Ohio, North Carolina and even Iowa.

The entire project was a "labor of love," Feis said. He found he got to know Grant through the general's personal and official correspondence.

"Through that you got to know him not as a general but as a human being," he said.

Particularly telling were letters he would write home to his wife, Julia.

"He gave an honest appraisal of things to her," Feis said. "He knew in war people died, and being a general he knew he ordered people to die."

The book changed many of his own feelings toward Grant. "I wasn't an unabashed admirer of Ulysses S. Grant, but I am now," he said.

Feis knows his book won't close the cover on the use of intelligence in the Civil War; in fact, he hopes it inspires more research into the matter. "There's a lot of stories yet to be told relating to intelligence," he said.

For example, Feis focused on Grant, but an equally good study would be the use of intelligence by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. But with the fall of Richmond during the war, papers necessary for such a pursuit were destroyed. "It's not impossible but it would be a little more difficult to get at," he said.

Interest in his book has grown, with Feis speaking to Civil War groups in Rochester, Minn., and Des Moines. "Grant's Secret Service" was also chosen as a main selection of the History Book Club.

Feis gives thanks to BVU, including Dean Karen Halbersleben and President Fred Moore, for supporting his research and giving him time off to do it.

He also thanks the late Ed Fishel, author of "The Secret War for the Union," whose own study of Civil War intelligence inspired Feis. "He was an inspiration for me; I owe a lot to him," he said.

As he continues to teach, Feis is also kicking around the idea for his next major project - a biography of Grenville Dodge, an intelligence officer during the Civil War and a Council Bluffs native. Many of Dodge's papers are collected in Des Moines.



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