Saturday, September 10, 2005


on Ulysses S. Grant’s


Mark Twain called it a masterpiece, and Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs have been in print for more than 120 years. In today’s America, beset by hyperbole and spin, the lucidity of his prose is even more remarkable than when it first appeared. Grant had that old American habit, now not as apparent as it once was, of saying exactly what he meant in as few words as possible. It is a pleasure to be exposed to his writing.

The “Personal Memoirs” are really military memoirs. Although some space is given to his childhood and ancestry, and a few paragraphs to his courtship and marriage, the thread of his narrative is schooling as a cadet at West Point, the Mexican War and, of course and overwhelmingly, the Civil War. One gets the impression that he went to West Point not out of military enthusiasm but because there was so little opportunity elsewhere. Although he excelled at mathematics he was not demonstrably proficient at other subjects, and as a result graduated in the middle of his class.

Grant could evoke no enthusiasm for the Mexican War, but having given his oath as an officer in the U.S. Army he did what he perceived to be his duty. He nevertheless writes with admiration of the commanding generals, Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor. It was quite a feat to lead 10,500 men against a force of more than twice that size through 260 miles of hostile country and seize a capital city. He admired the energy and effectiveness of the army but not necessarily the political motives (one of which he points out was the extension of slavery) that sent it into action.

For reasons not fully explained, he left the Army, but at the start of the Civil War because of his army experience he became a valuable asset to the State of Illinois. Appointed a colonel of a newly formed regiment he was able to bring it up to professional standards quickly, and became a model for other colonels.

The qualities that made him such a superb commander soon become evident to the reader. His emphasis on speed of action, his ability to comprehend a tactical or strategic problem and find the best ways to deal with it, his realization even without reading Clausewitz that war was an extension of politics and that politics must always be taken into account when planning a military campaign, and finally that all action taken should be with the final goal of victory firmly in mind.

An illustration would be his account of when Gen. H.W. Halleck, his then Washington based superior, took the field to capture the Confederate held city of Corinth. Halleck was rather cautious, and after each day’s limited advance, dug in and fortified his position. When he finally arrived at the city’s gates he discovered that the enemy had successfully evacuated all its armaments and supplies and was long gone. Grant considered this a hollow victory. He believed that the city could have been captured in two days if the attack had been prosecuted with more dispatch and that the Confederate army facing them should have been broken and dispersed, rather than allowed to flee and fight another day.

Grant wanted to end the war by winning it, knowing that every day it continued brought more carnage and casualties. He felt the only way to win the war was to destroy the Confederate army, and all his plans were to that end. It should be noted in this respect that the two generals under him whom he had the most confidence in were William Sherman and Phillip Sheridan, both of whom were noted for swift and decisive action.

A side benefit of these memoirs is the picture it gives of 19th-century America. Amidst the chicanery and corruption so often enumerated these days was a wide spread idealism coupled with a concept of personal dignity and independence. For example, when a congressman told Grant he could benefit him highly by well-placed recommendations, Grant felt he did not need “to receive endorsement for permission to fight for my country.”

Such sentiment was in a way the epitome of democracy. In other ways, however, America seems little changed. In discussing the press Grant wrote: “A portion of it always magnified rebel success and belittled ours, while another portion, most sincerely earnest in their desire for the preservation of the Union and the overwhelming success of the Federal armies, would nevertheless generally express dissatisfaction with whatever victories were gained because they were not more complete.”

Grant was meticulous in bestowing credit for his victories on his staff and in particular on the common soldier. The ordinary foot soldier or infantryman was indeed a more complex individual than normally thought of. Eight thousand of them under Gen. Dodge were ordered to secure the railroad from Decatur north to Nashville and rebuild it. Living off the country and using local forges they rebuilt 182 bridges and laid 102 miles of track in 40 days, quite an accomplishment.

Grant gives them and their very capable leader full credit. He is generous in praise throughout his work and when obliged to criticize someone like Gen. George H. Thomas for being dilatory in pursuit he is careful to add that Thomas was unequaled in defense. Grant strove always to be fair, not only to the men under him but even when describing the Confederate army whose cause he detested but whose men he recognized as fellow human beings.

These memoirs have been praised through the 120 years of their existence. Today they still merit that praise not only as a textbook on how to fight and win a war but as a portrait of a man who achieved greatness in his own particular way.

Sol Schindler served in the infantry during World War II.

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