Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters
William Tecumseh Sherman: Memoirs
These two famous Civil War memoirs, Grant’s published in 1885, Sherman’s in 1875, are linked in many ways, including the close relations of the authors and the common subject matter of their books. It is well that they are revived and republished simultaneously in the Library of America series, for both are still readable and quite worth reading. The praise lavished upon them for their literary merits over the years has probably not been uninfluenced by the high place the old heroes had won in national history. Gertrude Stein and Edmund Wilson were enraptured by Grant’s prose, and Mark Twain compared his book with the Commentaries of Julius Caesar—though admittedly Twain was Grant’s publisher. Whatever their relative literary merits may be, few would dispute their claim to first place on the vast shelves of Civil War memoirs, the two with which to start—at least among those from the Union side.
Differences between the two books are comparable to the differences between their authors. Grant’s book is guarded and even-toned, reticent or dispassionate about himself, generous with rivals, silent about his critics, and respectful—if not invariably fair—toward “the enemy.” William Tecumseh Sherman (“Cump” to his family) is offhand, forthright, outspoken, and intensely personal; he has a flair for action narrative. He takes the reader right up to the firing line with him. Better educated than his commanding officer, Sherman was more confident and comfortable with words and their uses. Part of Grant’s restraint may have derived from a shaky command of grammar and spelling: “Good buy, Ulys,” he signed a letter to his spouse of twenty years, and issued an order about the same time for the arrest of the editors of the Memphis “Bulliten.” The manuscript for the Memoirs must have presented a challenge to the copy editor.
This is not to lend credence to claims and rumors about ghost writers. U.S. Grant wrote this book. It was the astonishing circumstances of the writing that encouraged the rumors. Faced with terminal cancer and little time left to live, and faced also with virtual bankruptcy and a family he would leave without means of support, he took Mark Twain’s advice and went to work. He completed the manuscript in eleven months, nearly a thousand pages in print. He died a week later, on July 23, 1885. It was probably the most heroic achievement of his life, not excluding the military victories. It is impossible to explain this last-act recovery—really discovery—of his power after two terms of failure as president, more failure at business, and his pathetic search for acclaim, except on the theory that the writing made him relive the war years that had touched him with moments of true greatness.
Sherman’s writing was a less heroic business and obviously more enjoyable, done in a period of three years when he was full of beans. He enjoyed the company of…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.