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

Unlike many other generals, Grant did not rely on staff officers to draft his orders and dispatches. Horace Porter of General George Thomas’s staff first met Grant at Chattanooga in October 1863. After a daylong inspection of the besieged Army of the Cumberland, which was in poor shape, Grant returned to his headquarters and sat down to write. Porter was impressed by

the manner in which he went to work at his correspondence…. His work was performed swiftly and uninterruptedly, but without any marked display of nervous energy. His thoughts flowed as freely from his mind as the ink from his pen; he was never at a loss for an expression, and seldom interlined a word or made a material correction.

After a couple of hours, Grant gathered up the dispatches and had them sent by telegraph or courier to every point on the compass from Vicksburg to Washington, giving orders, Porter said, “for the taking of vigorous and comprehensive steps in every direction throughout his new and extensive command.”8 These orders launched the movements that opened a new supply line into Chattanooga, brought in reinforcements, and prepared the Union armies for the campaigns that lifted the sieges of Chattanooga and Knoxville and drove Braxton Bragg’s demoralized Army of Tennessee into Georgia after the assault on Missionary Ridge.

Much taken by Grant’s “singular mental powers and his rare military qualities,” Porter joined Grant’s staff and served with him from the Wilderness to Appomattox. His own version of those events, entitled Campaigning with Grant, is next in value only to Grant’s memoirs as a firsthand account of command decisions in that campaign.

Porter had particularly noticed how Grant wrote without hesitation as if the thoughts flowed steadily from his mind to the paper. There lies an explanation of how Grant could write the 275,000 words of the Personal Memoirs in less than a year while suffering from extreme pain and often groggy from medication. He knew what was in his mind. Once unlocked by an act of will, the mind poured out the words smoothly.

Grant had another and probably related talent, which might be described as a “topographical memory.” He could remember every feature of the terrain over which he had traveled and find his way over it again. He could also look at a map and visualize the features of terrain he had never seen. Porter noted that any map “seemed to become photographed indelibly upon his brain, and he could follow its features without referring to it again.”9 Grant could see in his mind the disposition of troops over thousands of square miles, visualize their relationship to roads and terrain, and know how and where to move them to take advantage of topography. Most important, he could transpose this image into words that could be understood by others—though the modern reader of his memoirs should probably have a set of Civil War maps on hand to match the maps in Grant’s head.

During the last stages of his illness, unable to speak, Grant wrote a note to his physician: “A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three.”10 It is not surprising that he was thinking of verbs at this time; they are what give his writing its terse, muscular quality. As agents to translate thought into action, verbs offer a clue to the secret of Grant’s military success, which also consisted of translating thought into action. Consider these orders to his corps and division commands during the Vicksburg campaign, on the morning of May 16, the day that these forces would win the most crucial victory in that campaign at the battle of Champion’s Hill.

To GeneralFrancis P. Blair, Jr.:

Move at early dawn toward Black River Bridge. I think you will encounter no enemy by the way. If you do, however, engage them at once.

To GeneralJohn A. McClernand:

The entire force of the enemy has crossed the Big Black…. Disencumber yourself of your [supply] trains, select an eligible position, and feel the enemy.

To GeneralJames B. McPherson:

Pass all trains and move forward to join McClernand with all possible despatch.

To GeneralWilliam T. Sherman:

Start one of your divisions on the road at once with its ammunition wagons…. Great celerity should be shown in carrying out this movement. The fight might be brought on at any moment—we should have every man on the field.”11

In the manner of Caesar’s Veni, vidi, vici, these sentences bristle with verbs of action: “Move…engage…disen-cumber…select…feel…move…start.” Grant used few adjectives and fewer adverbs and then only those necessary to enforce his meaning: “early dawn… engage at once…move with all possible despatchgreat celerityevery man.” Or take Grant’s famous reply to General Simon B. Buckner’s request to negotiate terms for the surrender of Fort Donelson: “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately on your works.” Not an excess word here; the three adjectives and single adverb strengthen and clarify the message; the words produce action—they become action. The same stylistic qualities of action verbs and active voice characterize most of the Personal Memoirs. Grant did lapse more often into the passive voice in the later chapters, a lapse that corresponded with his slow decline toward the end.

The will to act, symbolized by the prominence of active verbs in Grant’s writing, illustrates another facet of his generalship—what Grant himself called “moral courage.” This was a quality different from and rarer than physical courage. Grant and many others who became Civil War generals had demonstrated physical courage under fire in the Mexican War as junior officers carrying out the orders of their superiors. Moral courage involved a willingness to make decisions and give the orders. Some officers who were physically brave shrank from this responsibility because decision risked error and initiative risked failure.

This was George B. McClellan’s defect as a commander; he was afraid to risk his army in an offensive because he might be defeated. He lacked the moral courage to act, to confront that terrible moment of truth, to decide and to risk. Grant, Lee, Jackson, Sheridan, and other aggressive Civil War commanders had moral courage; they understood that without risking defeat they could never achieve victory.

In the Personal Memoirs Grant describes how he first confronted that moment of truth and learned the lesson of moral courage. His first Civil War command was as colonel of the Twenty-first Illinois. In July 1861 this regiment was ordered to find Tom Harris’s rebel guerrilla unit in Missouri and attack it. Grant recalled:

My sensations as we approached what I supposed might be “a field of battle” were anything but agreeable. I had been in all the engagements in Mexico that it was possible for one person to be in; but not in command. If some one else had been colonel and I had been lieutenant-colonel I do not think I would have felt any trepidation…. As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we could see Harris’ camp, and possibly find his men ready formed to meet us, my heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat.

But when the Twenty-first reached Harris’s camp, they found it abandoned. Grant continued:

My heart resumed its place. It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterwards. From that event to the close of the war, I never experienced trepidation upon confronting an enemy, though I always felt more or less anxiety. I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his. The lesson was valuable.

Grant may have taken the lesson too much to heart; he forgot that there were times when he should fear the enemy’s intentions. This lesson he learned the hard way in Tennessee, at both Fort Donelson and Shiloh. After the failure of the Union gunboats to subdue the Donelson batteries on February 14, 1862, Grant went downriver several miles to consult with Flag Officer Andrew Foote of the crippled gunboat fleet. Grant was thus absent on the morning of February 15 when the Confederate garrison launched its breakout attack. He confessed that “when I left the National line to visit Flag-officer Foote I had no idea that there would be any engagement on land unless I brought it on myself.”

The Confederate attack on Grant’s forces at Shiloh on April 6, 1862, drove the lesson home. Grant was again absent when the attack began, breakfasting at his headquarters seven miles downriver. “The fact is,” he admitted in the Personal Memoirs, “I regarded the campaign we were engaged in as an offensive one and had no idea that the enemy would leave strong intrenchments to take the initiative.” Thereafter he had a healthier respect for the enemy’s capabilities.

But this respect never paralyzed him or caused him to yield the initiative. At both Fort Donelson and Shiloh, Grant’s recognition that the enemy still had as much reason to fear him as he to fear the enemy enabled him to wrest the initiative away and grasp victory. Upon returning to his troops at Donelson after a fast ride over icy roads, he calmly took charge and re-formed his broken lines. After hearing reports of the morning’s fighting, he told a member of his staff: “Some of our men are pretty badly demoralized, but the enemy must be more so, for he has attempted to force his way out, but has fallen back: the one who attacks first now will be victorious and the enemy will have to be in a hurry if he gets ahead of me.” Suiting action to words, Grant ordered a counterattack, drove back and penned in the Confederate forces, and compelled their surrender.

At Shiloh, Grant conducted a fighting fallback until dusk stopped the Confederate advance. His army was crippled, but he knew that the Confederates were just as badly hurt and that he would be reinforced during the night. Thus he replied to one subordinate who advised retreat: “Retreat? No. I propose to attack at daylight and whip them.” And so he did.12

One of Grant’s superstitions, described in the memoirs, was a dread of turning back or retracing his steps once he had started on a journey. If he took the wrong road or made a wrong turn, he would go across country or forward to the next turn rather than go back. This superstition reinforced his risk-taking inclination as a military commander. Crucial decisions in the Vicksburg and Wilderness campaigns illustrate this trait.

During the winter of 1862-1863, Grant’s river-based campaign against Vicksburg bogged down in the Mississippi and Louisiana swamps. While criticism mounted in the North, Grant remained calm and carefully worked out a daring plan: to run the gunboats past Vicksburg, cross his army to the east bank, cut loose from his base and communications, and live off the land while operating in Vicksburg’s rear.

This was a high-risk operation. Grant’s staff and his most trusted subordinates, especially Sherman, opposed the plan. Sherman “expressed his alarm at the move I had ordered,” wrote Grant, “saying that I was putting myself in a position voluntarily which an enemy would be glad to manoeuvre a year—or a long time—to get me in.” Go back to Memphis, advised Sherman, establish a secure base of supplies, and move against Vicksburg overland, keeping open your communications—in other words, wage an orthodox campaign by the book.

But Grant threw away the book. He was confident that his army could live off the land and substitute mobility for secure communications. “The country is already disheartened over the lack of success on the part of our armies,” he told Sherman. He went on to explain in the Personal Memoirs:

If we went back as far as Memphis it would discourage the people so much that bases of supplies would be of no use: neither men to hold them nor supplies to put in them would be furnished. The problem for us was to move forward to a decisive victory, or our cause was lost. No progress was being made in any other field, and we had to go on.

Go on he did, to what military historians regard as the most brilliant and innovative campaign of the Civil War.

A year later Grant again demonstrated his unwillingness to retrace his steps once he had started toward his destination. The destination this time was Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederate capital of Richmond. Newly promoted to the rank of lieutenant-general and the position of general-in-chief of all Union armies, Grant decided to make his headquarters in the field with the Army of the Potomac. On May 4, 1864, this army crossed the Rapidan River into the “Wilderness” of Virginia “to start upon that memorable campaign,” wrote Grant in the Personal Memoirs, “destined to result in the capture of the Confederate capital and the army defending it. This was not to be accomplished, however, without as desperate fighting as the world has ever witnessed, not to be consummated in a day, a week, a month, or a single season.”

The epic struggle between Grant and Lee from the Wilderness to Petersburg and, after more than nine months of trench warfare that anticipated the fighting in World War I, the final race to Appomattox introduced something new in warfare. Previously the armies had met in bloody battles but had afterward withdrawn from contact with each other to lick their wounds before commencing another campaign with its climax in another battle. Both sides thought that victory in the next big battle might decide the war—but it never did. Once Grant and Lee came to grips in the Wilderness on May 5, 1864, the two armies were never again out of contact with each other for the next eleven months. The campaign did not resolve itself into climactic battle or battles, but instead involved continuous relentless fighting, skirmishing, marching, and digging day after day, month after month with no letup.

At the outset Grant assured Lincoln that “whatever happens, there will be no turning back.” What happened in the Wilderness, however, might have caused other Northern commanders to turn back. Similar events in the same place had caused General Joseph Hooker to turn back exactly a year earlier. On May 6, Confederate attacks on both Union flanks drove them back and gave Lee’s army the appearance of victory. A distraught brigadier rode up to Grant and cried out: “This is a crisis…. I know Lee’s methods well by past experience; he will throw his whole army between us and the Rapidan, and cut us off completely from our communications.” Grant took his cigar from his mouth and fixed the man with a cold stare: “I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”13

Grant knew what he was going to do. The next morning he ordered preparations for an advance. Men in the ranks who had fought the battle of Chancellorsville in these same woods thought it was another retreat. But when they realized that this time they were moving south, the scales fell from their eyes. It was not “another Chancellorsville…another skedaddle” after all. “Our spirits rose,” wrote a veteran who recalled this moment as a turning point of the war. “We marched free. The men began to sing.”14 When Grant cantered by one corps, the soldiers recognized him and sent up a cheer. For the first time in a Virginia campaign, the Army of the Potomac was staying on the offensive after its initial battle. Nor did it turn back until Appomattox eleven months later.

Grant did not tell the story of the men cheering him in his memoirs. Although he kept himself at the center of the story, the memoirs exhibit less egotism than is typical of the genre. Grant is generous with praise of other officers and sparing with criticism, carping, and backbiting. He is also willing to admit mistakes, most notably: “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made…. No advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained.”

But Grant did not admit culpability for the heavy Union casualties in the whole campaign of May and June 1864. Nor should he have done so, despite the label of “butcher” and the later analyses of his “campaign of attrition.” It did turn out to be a campaign of attrition, but that was more by Lee’s choice than by Grant’s. The Union commander’s purpose was to maneuver Lee into a position for open-field combat; Lee’s purpose was to prevent this by entrenching an impenetrable line to protect Richmond and his communications. Lee was hoping to hold out long enough and inflict sufficient casualties on Union forces to discourage the people of the North and prevent Lincoln’s reelection.

Lee’s strategy of attrition almost worked. That it failed in the end was owing mainly to Grant, who stayed the course and turned the attrition factor in his favor. Although the Confederates had the advantage of fighting on the defensive most of the time, Grant inflicted almost as high a percentage of casualties on Lee’s army as vice versa. Indeed, for the war as a whole, Lee’s armies suffered a higher casualty rate than Grant’s (and higher than any other army). Neither general was a “butcher,” but measured by that statistic Lee deserved the label more than Grant.

On one matter the Personal Memoirs are silent. There is not a word about the rumors and speculations concerning Grant’s drinking. On this matter there is disagreement among historians and biographers. Most of the numerous stories about Grant’s drunkenness at one time or another during the war are false. But drinking problems probably underlay his resignation from the army in 1854, and he may have gone on a bender once or twice during the war—though never during active operations. In any event, his silence on the subject probably reflects his sensitivity about it, not his indifference.

That sensitivity is indicated by the few references to John A. Rawlins in the memoirs. As Grant’s chief of staff, Rawlins was both his alter ego and his conscience. So far as possible, Rawlins kept him away from the temptations of the bottle. Grant may have been an alcoholic in the modern medical meaning of that term, but that meaning was unknown in his time. Excessive drinking was in those days considered a moral defect and a matter of deep shame among respectable people. Grant himself doubtless so regarded it.

If Grant was an alcoholic, he should have felt pride rather than shame. He overcame his illness to achieve success and fame without the support system of modern medicine and organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous. But lacking our knowledge and perspective, he could not see it that way. His support network consisted mainly of his wife, Julia, and John Rawlins. A happy family man, Grant did not drink when his wife and family were with him. And when they were not, Rawlins guarded him zealously from temptation. Many contemporaries knew this, but to give Rawlins his due in the memoirs would perhaps have seemed to Grant a public confession of weakness and shame.

And the memoirs are about triumph and success—triumph in war, and success in writing the book in a race against death. They are military memoirs that devote only a few pages to Grant’s early life and to the years of peace between the Mexican War and the Civil War. Nor do they cover his career after the Civil War. But perhaps this is as it should be. Grant’s great contribution to American history was as a Civil War general. In that capacity he did more to shape the future of the United States than anyone else except Abraham Lincoln. He earned a secure place as one of the great captains of history, an “unheroic” hero, in John Keegan’s apt description.15 Both in their substance and in the circumstances of their writing, the Personal Memoirs offer answers to that perennial question of Civil War historiography: Why did the North win? Grant completed the last chapter only days before cancer claimed his life. It was his final and greatest victory.

This Issue

February 4, 1999