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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 be no mistaking it.”3 These sentences describe Grant’s feelings when he sat down with Robert E. Lee in Wilmer McLean’s parlor at Appomattox to write out the terms of surrender for the Army of Northern Virginia. They could serve equally well to describe his feelings as he sat down to write the first of the Century articles, on Shiloh. Yet just as he expressed the terms of surrender in terse, vigorous, lucid prose, so his Century articles revealed a previously unsuspected talent for pithy, vivid narrative exposition. “I only knew what was in my mind, and I wished to express it clearly.” Here was the secret of Grant’s remarkable success as a writer. No better advice could be given to any aspiring author.

The money that Grant earned for the Century articles would not go far toward paying his debts. And while working on these articles, Grant began to experience severe throat pains. In October 1884 he learned that he had throat cancer, incurable and fatal. This was a potentially tragic blow. But Grant rose above it, just as he had over-come the initially successful Confederate breakout attack at Fort Donelson, the enemy’s apparent victory on the first day at Shiloh, the failure of his first attempts to get at Vicksburg, the bloody repulse of attacks at Cold Harbor and Petersburg, and other apparent defeats that he converted to victories in the war.

Knowing that his time was limited and wanting to provide an income rather than indebtedness for his family after he was gone, Grant negotiated with the Century company to publish his memoirs as a book. About this time Mark Twain, a friend of Grant’s who had years earlier suggested that he write his memoirs, visited Grant and asked to see his contract with Century. Twain’s motive was more than casual interest. Angry at what he considered exploitation by publishers of his own previous books, he had formed his own publishing company, whose first book would be The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain read Grant’s contract with Century. As Twain later recalled the occasion, “I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh.” Century had offered Grant the standard 10 percent royalty on a book that Twain was certain would sell several hundred thousand copies, the same royalty “they would have offered to any unknown Comanche Indian whose book they had reason to believe might sell 3,000 or 4,000 copies.”4 Twain persuaded Grant to give the Personal Memoirs to his new firm in return for 70 percent of the net proceeds from sales by subscription. It was one of the few good business decisions Grant ever made. The Personal Memoirs earned $450,000 for his family.

Grant began his race against death to complete the Personal Memoirs during the fall of 1884. His indomitability in this battle attracted almost as much attention and admiration as his fight against the rebellion two decades earlier. Both were triumphs of will and determination, examples of the clarity of conception and elegant simplicity of execution that made a hard task look easy. To read the Personal Memoirs with a knowledge of the circumstances under which Grant wrote them is to gain insight into the reasons for his military success.

In April 1885, when Grant had written a bit more than half the narrative—through the November 1863 battles of Chattanooga—he suffered a hemorrhage that appeared to leave him at death’s door. But by an act of will, and with the help of cocaine for the pain, he recovered and returned to work. His constricted throat made it impossible for him to dictate to a stenographer, so he wrote the remaining chapters with a pencil. The section on the campaign that began with the terrible Battle of the Wilderness in northern Virginia in May 1864, written during periods of intense suffering and sleepless nights, bear witness to these conditions. The narrative bogs down in details; digressions and repetition creep into the text. Just as the Union cause had reached a low point in August 1864, with Grant blocked at Petersburg and Sherman seemingly stymied before Atlanta while defeatism in the North seemed likely to vanquish Lincoln in the presidential election, so did Grant’s narrative falter in these chapters.

As Grant’s health temporarily improved in the late spring of 1885, so did the terse vigor of his prose. He led the reader through Sherman’s capture of Atlanta and his marches through Georgia and the Carolinas, Sheridan’s victories in the Shenandoah Valley, and the final campaign to Appomattox. These chapters pulsate with the same energy that animated Union armies as they delivered their knockdown blows in the winter and spring of 1864-1865. Just as he had managed the far-flung Union armies by telegraph during those final campaigns, Grant once again had the threads of his narrative under control as he brought the story to its climax in Wilmer McLean’s parlor.

Grant’s strength of will, his determination to do the best he could with what he had, his refusal to give up or to complain about the cruelty of fate help explain the success both of his generalship and his memoirs. These qualities were by no means typical among Civil War generals. Many of them spent more energy clamoring for reinforcements or explaining why they could not do what they were ordered to do than they did in trying to carry out their orders. Their memoirs are full of excuses for failure, which was always somebody else’s fault.

In Chapter 7 of the Personal Memoirs Grant described General Zachary Taylor, under whom he had served as a young lieutenant in the Mexican War. Taylor’s little army won three battles against larger Mexican forces. Fearing that the general was becoming too popular and might win the Whig presidential nomination, Democratic president James K. Polk transferred most of Taylor’s troops (including Grant’s regiment) to General Winfield Scott’s campaign against Mexico City. Taylor retained only a handful of veterans and a few untried volunteer regiments. Nevertheless, he won the battle of Buena Vista against an army three times larger than his own, thereby ensuring his election in 1848 as the next president. Grant wrote nearly forty years later:

General Taylor was not an officer to trouble the administration much with his demands, but was inclined to do the best he could with the means given him…. If he had thought that he was sent to perform an impossibility with the means given him, he would probably have informed the authorities of his opinion and…have gone on and done the best he could with the means at hand without parading his grievance before the public. No soldier could face either danger or responsibility more calmly than he. These are qualities more rarely found than genius or physical courage.5

Whether subconsciously or not, Grant was here describing himself as much as Taylor. Old Zach became a model for young Ulysses. “General Taylor never made any great show or parade, either of uniform or retinue.” Neither did Grant. “But he was known to every soldier in his army, and was respected by all.” So was Grant. “Taylor was not a conversationalist.” Neither was Grant. “But on paper he could put his meaning so plainly that there could be no mistaking it.” So could Grant.6

This question of “plain meaning” was no small matter. The Civil War had many instances of vague, ambiguous, or confusing orders that affected the outcome of a campaign or battle. Grant’s orders, by contrast, were invariably clear and concise. Many of his wartime associates commented on this. George G. Meade’s chief of staff wrote that “there is one striking feature of Grant’s orders; no matter how hurriedly he may write them on the field, no one ever has the slightest doubt as to their meaning, or even has to read them over a second time to understand them.”7

  1. 1

    John Keegan, The Mask of Command (Viking, 1989), p. 202; Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore (Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 132.

  2. 2

    Thomas M. Pitkin, The Captain Departs, (Southern Illinois University Press, 1973), p. 1.

  3. 3

    Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs (Da Capo, 1982), p. 557.

  4. 4

    Quoted in Pitkin, The Captain Departs, p. 20.

  5. 5

    Grant, Personal Memoirs, p. 47.

  6. 6

    Grant, Personal Memoirs, pp. 47, 67.

  7. 7

    Quoted in Keegan, The Mask of Command, p. 200.

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