The Unheroic Hero

Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs are “perhaps the most revelatory autobiography of high command to exist in any language,” according to the astute British military historian and analyst John Keegan. “If there is a single contemporary document which explains ‘why the North won the Civil War,’ that abiding conundrum of American historical inquiry, it is the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant.” This is strong praise, especially coming from a non-American. And America’s greatest novelist as well as its foremost literary critic anticipated this encomium. Edmund Wilson in 1962 reaffirmed Mark Twain’s 1885 judgment that the Personal Memoirs were “the most remarkable work of its kind since the Commentaries of Julius Caesar.”1

What made the Personal Memoirs so remarkable? And how does this book explain why the North won the Civil War? The first clue to an answer for these questions concerns the conditions under which Grant wrote the Personal Memoirs. For several years after he left the presidency in 1877, Grant resisted pressure to record the story of his war experiences as other Civil War generals had already done—most notably William Tecumseh Sherman, whose Memoirs had appeared in 1875 with great fanfare. Grant protested that he had little to say and less literary ability to say it. He had always been loath to speak in public and equally reluctant to write for the public. As president from 1869 to 1877, he had confined his communications to formal messages, proclamations, and executive orders drafted mainly by subordinates.

From 1877 to 1879, ex-President Grant and his wife, Julia, traveled around the world. As the most famous living American, Grant was welcomed and fêted by royalty and heads of state everywhere he went. After he returned to the United States, he bought a brownstone in New York City and settled down at age fifty-eight to a comfortable retirement. He invested his life savings in a brokerage partnership formed by his son Ulysses, Jr., and Ferdinand Ward, a Wall Street wizard who was known as the “Young Napoleon of finance.”2 Unknown to Grant, some of Ward’s ventures were highly speculative and others turned out to be fraudulent. In 1884 this house of cards collapsed. Ward went to jail and left Grant with $150,000 in debts and a total of $180 in the bank. Determined to repay his debts (even though his creditor, William Vanderbilt, was willing to cancel them), Grant now needed remunerative employment. In the summer of 1884, there fore, he accepted an offer of $500 per article from Century magazine to write four articles for their series “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.” These articles on the battles and campaigns of Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and the Wilderness became the nucleus of the Personal Memoirs.

“When I put my pen to the paper I did not know the first word that I should make use of in writing the terms. I only knew what was in my mind, and I wished to express it clearly, so that there could…

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