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Civil Warriors

Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters

edited by Mary Drake McFeely, edited by William S. McFeely
Library of America, 1,199 pp., $35.00

William Tecumseh Sherman: Memoirs

edited by Charles Royster
Library of America, 1,136 pp., $35.00

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 women as well as dancing and theater, amateur painting, and quoting Shakespeare. With the Memoirs he did not take the pains he might have in checking facts and called it in his preface to the first edition “merely his recollection of events, corrected by a reference to his own memoranda.” Shortly before publication he wrote his brother, Senator John Sherman, “I have carefully eliminated everything calculated to raise controversy.” Calculated or not, controversy was certainly raised. In a second edition in 1886 (the one used here) he undertook to correct factual errors (some fifty, the editor finds) but not to reconcile his own memory of events with that of others. “I am publishing my own memoirs, not theirs,” he declared somewhat testily.

Both of the generals give several chapters to the years of their youth before the Civil War. Both were descended from early-seventeenth-century New England settlers who moved west, the Shermans a cut or two above the Grants in social standing. Sherman, whose father was a judge on the Ohio Supreme Court, married the daughter of a member of President Taylor’s cabinet, and the marriage was attended by Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, President Taylor, “and all his cabinet.” Grant, whose father ran a tannery and a leather goods store, married Julia Dent of Missouri, the stumpy, wall-eyed daughter of a small slaveholding planter, and the most stabilizing element in U.S. Grant’s entire life.

These are memoirs, not autobiographies, and much of importance about these men is not found here. “Of omissions there are plenty,” as Sherman admits. On six crucial years in Grant’s life, between 1854 and 1860, almost nothing is to be found. Separated from Julia and his family by military duty in the far West, he became dangerously depressed, took to the bottle, resigned his commission as an army captain, and went from bad to worse. Back with Julia, he failed miserably at everything he tried, and as a final humiliation threw himself on the mercy of his father, who offered him a clerk’s job in Galina, Illinois.1 For all his candor, Sherman tells us little about his frightening and crippling spells of depression. It was a long and recurring affliction and some seizures were more acute than others. The one that overwhelmed him in the fall of 1861 with obsessions and irrational conduct was so severe that his army superiors sent him home for rest. There his suicidal inclinations induced his wife to write his brother, Senator John, about “that melancholy insanity to which your family is subject.”2

For the afflictions that beset Sherman and Grant, the war, all-out war, was to prove the most reliable therapy. Yet at the outset of their military careers, neither man gave promise of becoming a good or even a willing soldier, much less a genius of world fame. When Grant’s father told him he had secured an appointment to West Point for him, he replied, “But I won’t go.” He did go, but with “no intention then of remaining in the army.” He would finish West Point, but “afterward obtain a permanent position as professor in some respectable college,” a hope he was slow to abandon. “I do not walk military,” he discovered, and acquired “a distaste for military uniforms” which he never overcame. The way he wore them in photographs proves that, even after they bore the maximum number of stars. The sight of blood—in a Shiloh hospital, at a Mexican bull fight, even the sight of a medium-rare steak—was likely to sicken him. Charles Francis Adams described him after the Battle of the Wilderness as “a very ordinary looking man,” “a dumpy and slouchy little subaltern,” a rather “comical” figure, who “in walking leans forward and toddles.”

Sherman could “walk military,” and he cut a more impressive figure as a man, though he managed to look scruffy and disheveled in most of his photographs. He shared many of Grant’s aversions to military life in peacetime. “At the Academy,” he wrote,

I was not considered a good soldier…but remained a private throughout the whole four years. Then, as now, neatness in dress and form, with a strict conformity to the rules, were the qualifications required for office, and I suppose I was found not to excell in any of these.

He did well enough in his studies, but demerits for conduct reduced his standing. Grant ranked near the foot of his class in tactics. He was assigned duty in the war with Mexico, which he thoroughly detested as an unjust cause, but he fought in “all the engagements possible for any one man and in a regiment that lost more officers during the war than it ever had present at any one engagement.” This experience proved to be not only of military value to him during the Civil War, but in advancing him in rank when he returned to the army.

Sherman saw no combat duty in Mexico, but had army assignments in the South—in Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Georgia—that were to prove of military value later. In Georgia, he writes, “by mere accident I was enabled to traverse on horseback the very ground where in after-years I had to conduct vast armies and fight great battles.” At the same time he formed an affection toward southerners and friendships among them that survived the war. After resigning his army commission in 1853 and undergoing some unfortunate business and banking misadventures out West, he returned to Louisiana in 1859 to become head of the new state military academy that later became Louisiana State University. He describes his farewell to the students when he resigned to go north on the eve of the war as quite emotional. Grant admired southerners for their boldness and courage.

Neither Sherman nor Grant professed any interest in slavery and emancipation as moral issues or any particular sympathy for slaves, though Sherman, when asked his opinions in Louisiana, said he favored a law against separating their families. But had the South stuck to the constitutional guarantee of property rights, he later declared, “I for one would have fought for the protection of the slave property as for any other kind of property.” He predicted that agitation of the slavery issue would lead to civil war. To his brother he wrote, “I would not if I could abolish or modify slavery.” And when he was planning to bring his wife to join him in Louisiana, he considered “buying a nigger” for the household, since they “won’t work unless they are owned.”

Grant had owned slaves, and worked them unsuccessfully on his farm. He made no secret of his own views on slavery as a national issue. “I never was an Abolitionest [sic], not even what could be called anti slavery,” he wrote a prominent politician, “but I try to judge farely [sic] & honestly.” That led him early in the war to the belief that “North & South could never live in peace with each other except as one nation, and that without Slavery.” The first president (and for Sherman the only one) whom both men voted for was the Democrat James Buchanan, the South’s favorite in 1856. Grant was generous to a fault in praising his white troops, not the others, and Sherman treated the swarms of slaves that followed his army as a nuisance or worse. He strongly opposed recruiting black troops on the ground that they were inferior and their use would offend white soldiers.

When war came both men applied for commissions as colonel in the army about the same time. Grant’s letter was lost or ignored, and he marked time for a while. Sherman was commissioned in time to take part in the defeat at Bull Run. But his military fame, like Grant’s, was to be made later in the western theater of war. Both men rose to their opportunity from the depths, Grant from years of humiliating failure and the reputation of a drunk, Sherman from a spell of raging depression, despair, and alcoholism after Bull Run which had him repeatedly described in the press as “insane” and “stark mad.” From these points of departure there was no direction left to take but up, and both men took it.

  1. 1

    William S. McFeely’s Grant: A Biography (Norton, 1981) deals with these and later phases of Grant’s alcoholism with candor and fairness. Some sensational episodes during the war are pictured by Sylvanus Cadwallader, Three Years With Grant (Knopf, 1955).

  2. 2

    B.H. Liddell Hart, Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American (Praeger, 1958), pp. 23, 36, 46, 66, 93; Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 181.

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