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The Enigma of U.S. Grant

Grant: A Biography

by William S. McFeely
Norton, 519 pp., $19.95

Biography is one thing, history another. Most of the earlier biographers of U.S. Grant, however, have responded to the formidable challenge the subject presents by writing chunks of history, military and political. Some of that history has been quite good. Far the best and largest part has been military history, and surely that is a story worth telling. But President Grant was the central figure in American political history for more than twice as long as General Grant was a dominant figure in Civil War history. And the two careers together account for less than a dozen of his sixty-three years. What then about the enigmatic and insignificant-looking man behind it all, the little man with the hurt look in his eyes?

For a time it seemed as if Lloyd Lewis, a talented writer, would bring it off with a multi-volume biography, but he died after completing one small volume covering Grant’s early years.1 Bruce Catton then took over that work, using Lewis’s notes to supplement his own, but he added only two readable volumes on the war years.2 In the meantime the professionally edited volumes of Grant’s papers began to appear, eight of them so far.3 These enhanced the opportunities of the biographers, but most of the essential sources had been available a long time. And yet after a century we were still waiting for the real biography.

The great difficulty that has baffled Grant biographers all along has been how to reconcile the appalling disparities in the man’s public record, the apparent contradictions in his behavior, the stark contrasts over the years in his status and self-esteem. Abject failure and world fame; superb mastery of the world’s most powerful army and hopeless incompetence in the most powerful political office; liberator of the slaves and betrayer of the freedmen; common man’s hero and rich man’s friend; a loner who was terrified of being alone; an offspring of the obscure who abhorred obscurity and was frightened by the obscure (“Meekness and grimness meet in him,” wrote Herman Melville); a figure of legendary shyness with an insatiable gluttony for public acclaim; a man who blanched at the sight of blood (even a medium-rare steak) and loosed the most copious bloodbaths in our history. And always back and forth from poverty to riches, from failure to triumph, from humiliation to glorification.

Yet this, so Professor William S. McFeely tells us, was all one man—Ulysses S. Grant by name (although he was not named that)—paradoxes, anomalies, incongruities, disparities, and irreconcilabilities to the contrary notwithstanding. This biographer does not demand an act of faith on the part of his reader. He does not rely on the persuasiveness and plausibility of narrative. He does not try to dazzle us with fancy models, or theories, or “conceptualizations.” And he does not pull any startling new evidence out of his hat. In fact his findings, though he has mined the archives scrupulously, do not appreciably change our reading of history. It is not history he is writing but biography, and biography is an art of portraiture. The picture that emerges in this admirable book is a moving and convincing portrait of the whole Grant. It is the biography for which we have been waiting.

The early years of obscurity and misery are essential to the picture. The Grants were a family on the decline, so much so that Ulysses’s father Jesse had to be apprenticed as a child and never knew the security of a family. He married a bit above his status, but between Hannah Grant and her son Ulysses there remained a strange “detachment.” (He could not find a room for her at his inauguration, and she never visited the White House.) At seventeen he escaped home and his father’s stinking tannery across a narrow street by entering West Point. He hated the academy and the peacetime army. Only war interested him. He got a taste of that, but little glory, in the war with Mexico. Soon afterward he did the only successful and enduring thing he was to do for many years: he married Julia Dent. This stumpy little person with a defective eye that moved up and down involuntarily and “more neck than chin” was to bear him four children and remain the center of his life.

Ulysses desperately needed a center, and Julia herself was snatched from him, or rather he from her, when he was ordered to duty on the West Coast in 1852 and she remained in the East. More than two years of separation, filled with failed speculations that were the consequence of his own bungling or being repeatedly gulled by con men, left him broke and came near breaking his spirit. Dangerously depressed and alienated, he took to the bottle and resigned his commission as an army captain. “Grant did not leave the army because he was a drunk,” writes McFeely. “He drank and left the army because he was profoundly depressed.” Later episodes with the bottle—and they were recurrent—are dealt with here in the same spirit of candor and understanding.

Back with Julia and his family, without money, job, or trade, he tried anything that came to hand and failed at them all. He took a turn at farming with slave labor, then with free labor, and then with his own two hands, and wound up peddling firewood on a St. Louis street corner in a fading blue army overcoat. He borrowed from friends and sponged on relatives. After six years of humiliation he took the most humiliating step of all by throwing himself on the mercy of his father and admitting that he was still a failure at the age of thirty-eight. “My head is nearly bursting with pain,” he wrote Julia on arrival at his father’s house. Jesse offered his son the job of clerk in his leather-goods store at Galena, Illinois, run by two younger sons. There Grant was installed in the summer of 1860, greeting customers with the old listless, hurt look in his eyes.

Then came the war and U.S. Grant came to life. War seemed to be the only thing that had that effect. The result was no single leap to fame, but rather the swift education of an extremely apt pupil in the new art of total war. He learned the art quicker than any of his rivals and overcame his reputation of being a drunk soon enough—but not too soon—to apply what he had learned effectively. His capture of Fort Donelson in Tennessee, in February, 1862, was the first important Union victory in the Civil War. Soon afterward Ulysses wrote Julia, “Is father afraid yet that I will not be able to sustain myself?” With his new-found confidence he marshalled sufficient political pressure and self-control to thwart his superior’s repeated efforts to disgrace and remove him. Only after these efforts of General Henry W. Halleck were overcome and his blundering delays and ludicrous mistakes of strategy and tactics were endured could Grant get on with the invasion of the Confederacy.

The terrible carnage at the Battle of Shiloh persuaded Grant that the South could not be brought to surrender by spectacular battles, occupation of cities and territory, or control of rivers and commerce. In his view a whole society had to be defeated and its armies destroyed. That was the hypothesis on which he relentlessly proceeded to command Union armies from Shiloh all the way to Appomattox. And if a leading American military historian is to be believed, Grant left his indelible imprint on the American way of war, which is said to be characterized ever since by a strategy of “annihilation.”4

That seems a strong word for the policy actually pursued by Grant and more typical of the rhetoric of Sherman or Sheridan. What Grant meant was that this was a war for survival—survival of the Union or survival of the Confederacy—and not for “victory” in the conventional sense. It was not enough to defeat the southern armies in battles. They had to be destroyed. As long as they fought, it was the Confederacy that survived, not the Union. Grant also meant that the will and morale of the society that sustained those armies had to be broken, utterly crushed. The means to that end was ruthless terror brought home to the civilian population of the South at first hand.

The last year of the war, with Grant in full command, and even before that, the fighting was waged with a brutality unthinkable in the earlier years. As the sickening casualty figures soared, so did Grant’s reputation as a butcher. His defense was that heavy losses to end the war were better than losses in an endless stalemate that encouraged the enemy and supported his cause. The decisive advantage lay with the side that had more bodies available for the butcher. On that assumption the outcome was inevitable. Lincoln gave his full support, and the butchery proceeded. A visitor watched the general during the bloodbath at Cold Harbor silently sitting with his staff members, constantly smoking and whittling a stick: “Among men he is nowise noticeable. There is no glitter or parade about him. To me he seems but an earnest business man.” Only occasionally was the calm broken by one of his devastating headaches and more rarely by a binge that threatened to get out of hand.

During the worst of it, however, Grant seemed most confident and resolute. The worst of it was the campaign of May and June through Virginia from the Rapidan River to the James, “a vast campaign,” as McFeely describes it, “that was a hideous disaster in every respect save one—it worked.” Things went wrong from the start and continued to go wrong through the nightmares, ineptitudes, and slaughter of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor (where Grant lost 6,000 men in an hour), and on to the siege of Petersburg. Lee was now pinned down, weakened, and bleeding. But Grant was no closer to Richmond than McClellan had been two years earlier, and he was immobilized before Petersburg for the last nine months of the war. Still in complete command, however, he saw to it that no stalemate ensued. The victories of General Thomas at Nashville, Sherman at Atlanta, and Sheridan west of Richmond eventually brought General Grant and General Lee together in the parlor of the farmhouse at Appomattox Court House for their classic and flawless tableau—and Grant’s hour of unchallengeable greatness.

There was really no way to go but down from there—down in some degree from that lofty peak. But once descent started, where would it end? It had been less than four years since he was down indeed, all the way down and had been there for long and bitter years. He remembered quite well the taste of poverty and failure and obscurity, and he abhorred and feared any return of it. Staying at the top was better. The triumphant hero’s welcome in Washington, the two-day victory parade of his armies, and round upon round of testimonial dinners had been glorious, but as his biographer says, he “needed still more accolades.” There was a lot to make up for, a vast amount of assurances needed. He must have known that after Lincoln’s death he was the symbol of national union and the military hero of the North. The question once more was what was he to do with himself.

  1. 1

    Lloyd Lewis, Captain Sam Grant (Little, Brown, 1950).

  2. 2

    Bruce Catton, Grant Moves South (Little, Brown, 1960); Grant Takes Command (Little, Brown, 1969).

  3. 3

    John Y. Simon, ed., The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant (Southern Illinois University Press, 1967).

  4. 4

    Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Strategy and Policy (Macmillan, 1973), Chapter VII.

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