Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant; drawing by David Levine


The grim Apache leader Geronimo, during the long years of his captivity at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, occasionally taunted his captors by reminding them that they had “never caught him shooting”—that is, taken him in battle. General (later President) Ulysses S. Grant, during long years of being photographed—in the field, at home, in the presidential mansion—might have taunted photographers in much the same way: they never caught him smiling and they rarely caught him clean. His great, fallen Captain, Abraham Lincoln, inspired photographers; Grant merely wore them down, as he had, in time, worn down Lee. There is one photograph, taken on Inauguration Day in 1869, just as Grant is about to become president, when he appears to be clean and sober, though not happy. Perhaps Julia Dent Grant, his formidable wife, had concentrated her efforts that special day in seeing that her husband had his shirt correctly buttoned and his tie tied, neither of which would likely have been the case in day-to-day life.

Put Grant in a fresh uniform and within half an hour it would look as if he had fought the Battle of the Wilderness in it. In uniform or out, Grant rarely seemed at ease, neither in his clothes nor in his skin. His penchant for casual, if not ragged, garb is never better illustrated than in the famous passage in his Personal Memoirs when he goes, at last, to meet Lee at Appomattox Courthouse in hopes of receiving the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia—as poignant a moment, in my view, as one will find anywhere in the history of war:

When I had left the camp that morning I had not expected so soon the result that was then taking place, and consequently was in rough garb. I was without a sword, as I usually was when on horseback on the field, and wore a soldier’s blouse for a coat, with the shoulder straps of my rank to indicate to the army who I was. When I went into the house I found General Lee. We greeted each other, and after shaking hands took our seats….

What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly….

General Lee was dressed in a full uniform which was entirely new, and was wearing a sword of considerable value, very likely the sword which had been presented by the State of Virginia; at all events it was an entirely different sword from the one that would ordinarily be worn in the field. In my rough traveling suit, the uniform of a private with the straps of a lieutenant-general, I must have contrasted very strangely with a man so handsomely dressed, six feet high and of faultless form. But this was not a matter that I thought of until afterwards….

We soon fell into conversation about old army times…. Our conversation grew so pleasant that I almost forgot the object of our meeting….

General Lee cordially reminded him of why they were sitting in that room, into which their staff officers had crowded. The surrender was drafted and accepted. Lee, the assured aristocrat (and deadly fighter), surrendered his weary army to a general who looked a shambles but was also himself a deadly fighter, as Abraham Lincoln, beset by officers whom he regarded as ditherers, was quick to recognize as soon as Grant’s first battle reports came in. “He fights,” Lincoln said. When it was reported that Grant also drank, Lincoln inquired as to what brand of whiskey the man favored: he wanted to send a barrelful to some of the ditherers, in hopes that it might stimulate them to do a little more fighting themselves.

Spelling, in the nineteenth century, was, in the main, a field for creativity; Grant spelled as the spirit moved him. In the passage quoted, from the Library of America edition, there is one word that bears looking at: “impassible,” referring to Robert E. Lee’s face. Jean Edward Smith, in his excellent biography of Grant, corrects this to “impassive,” which is no doubt what was meant; but the word suggests at least a few of the seven types of ambiguity the critic William Empson used to brood over. Was Grant merely saying that Lee had such perfect control over his emotions that no shadow of what he might be feeling could pass across his features? But might the word also have a military shading? The fact, or at least the legend, of Lee’s “impassibility” was a big problem for the Union generals, until Grant came along and started winning battles.


What Lincoln soon saw was that Grant wasn’t awed by Lee as a general! The passage quoted suggests that Grant remained a good deal awed by Lee socially—after Lincoln’s assassination, when President Johnson wanted to put Lee under arrest, Grant immediately threatened to resign if any such arrest was carried out. He wanted Lee let alone and Johnson wisely backed down.

Despite his high respect for Lee, Grant thought that, when it came to it, he could beat him, and, when it came to it, he finally did; though only when the two of them sat down in that room at Appomattox did Grant’s success seem assured. Even then, hostilities did not quite cease. Before the meeting in the courthouse Grant had fought some of the most brutal battles ever pressed by land armies anywhere: Shiloh, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor. Long after the guns were silent the general had several points to make about the immense loss of life he had presided over. After Shiloh:

Shiloh was the severest battle fought at the West during the war, and but few in the East equalled it for hard, determined fighting. I saw an open field, in our possession on the second day, over which the Confederates had made repeated charges the day before, so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping on dead bodies, without a foot touching the ground….

And, later, after Champion’s Hill:

While a battle is raging one can see his enemy mowed down by the thousand, or the ten thousand, with great composure; but after the battle these scenes are distressing, and one is naturally disposed to do as much to alleviate the sufferings of an enemy as a friend….

Cold comfort, though, to the ten thousand dead.

The ability to watch with composure as tens of thousands fall in battle must be a general’s gift. Napoleon said he would think nothing of a million lost if the cause required it; in the last century, the twentieth, many causes, noble and ignoble, saw the churning under of millions.

Grant and Lee’s ability to slip immediately into pleasant conversation about “old army times” is a reminder that America had as yet produced only a small and fairly cozy officer cadre. Lee remembered Grant from the Mexican War, though Grant had only been a humble officer and Lee the chief of staff. I’ve read that once the peace was announced in the Civil War, George Armstrong Custer immediately resumed his rowdy horseplay with old army buddies who had happened to fight as Confederates. Lee could easily chat with Grant, as professional to professional.

Was there a deep cost of seeing so much death and torment? It’s a question current today. In Grant’s time there is the haunting case of Ranald S. Mackenzie, the brilliant young officer who went into the Texas Panhandle and broke the power of the Comanches. Just as he was about to be married, Mackenzie went insane and was committed to an asylum in New York State, where he stayed.

William Tecumseh Sherman, with seeming composure, burned his way through the South; yet Sherman suffered from intense depressions and sometimes went off his head. Grant too was depressive, resorting often to the bottle. Here’s Sherman:

He [Grant] stood by me when I was crazy; I stood by him when he was drunk.

Sherman seldom pretended to understand Grant—he doubted, even, that Grant understood himself. The Confederates had many fine officers—brilliant tacticians such as Longstreet, and hard drivers like Stonewall Jackson. The latter was killed in 1863, too early to be a factor in the terrible late battles. As the war approached its climacteric, Grant and Sherman were the hammer and the nail of the Union offense. Lee was hammer enough himself, but he lacked a true counterweight to Sherman.

The question that Grant’s career raises in my mind has to do with his odd, unexpected surge of greatness. In 1857 Ulysses S. Grant was so hard up that he had to pawn his gold watch in order to buy Christmas presents for his children. (He received $22 for it.) What changed him, lifted him to the high achievements of his command? He hadn’t wanted to go to West Point; he soldiered only respectably in the Mexican War; only respectably in his posting to the Pacific Northwest. Out of the army he was a sore trial both to his father and to his wife, Julia. He drank a lot. He clerked in his father’s leather goods store. He failed at farming and was reduced to selling firewood on the street corners of St. Louis. He had no compelling moral or political stake in the war he was called back to fight. He saw that slavery was wrong, but he was no abolitionist and had no particular liking for blacks.


Mr. Lincoln bade him fight and he bore down and became a great general—then, immediately the war was over, Grant wasn’t great anymore. He himself had little to say about his two terms as president; most of what others said about Grant the politician has been negative. The corrosive Henry Adams suggested that the decline of professional ability from Washington to Grant was alone enough to “upset Darwin.” And Grant’s business sense was so defective that by the middle of the 1880s—just when he discovered that he was mortally ill—he was flat broke and living on borrowed money.


Mark Perry’s Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship That Changed America is a good book dragging a silly subtitle behind it. Mark Twain beat out powerful competition and secured Grant’s Personal Memoirs for the young publishing firm of Charles L. Webster, the publisher of his own Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and a firm that he basically capitalized, but this success hardly changed Mark Twain, much less America. The huge popularity of the Memoirs—Grant had 70 percent of the profits—of course greatly eased Julia Grant’s widowhood, but if it changed anything it was the way American publishing houses came to reckon royalties: even Stephen King’s not pulling in 70-percent deals these days.

Grant was living on borrowed money and borrowed time when he began the Memoirs. He knew that if he died with the book unfinished his family would be in dire circumstances, so he sat down and got to it; he summoned greatness a second time. That the Memoirs would be a huge success should have surprised no one. The Civil War was only two decades in the past. Millions who had been involved in it or been shattered by it or both were still alive and would naturally be interested in what the war’s dominant general had to say about it. What he had to say filled two volumes, which went on to sell some 300,000 copies.

Like Sigmund Freud, Ulysses S. Grant loved cigars; like Freud he got a cancer in his mouth; like Freud he endured much pain and many treatments; like Freud he died of the cancer. (His was in the throat, Freud’s in the palate.)

But before the Reaper led Grant away he finished his book, correcting the proofs of Volume 2 only a week before his death. Mark Twain, whose “author” Grant now was, gave him a resounding blurb: he called the Memoirs the best general’s book since Caesar’s. The first check Twain presented to Julia Grant was for $200,000, a record payment to an American writer at that time.

Many writers have written in praise of Grant’s Memoirs, perhaps most notably Edmund Wilson in Patriotic Gore, though I’m not sure Wilson would have been in full agreement with Twain’s blurb, which rather scants the whole rich field of Napoleonic memoir, much of which is very readable.

I see and agree that the Memoirs is an exceptional book, but in the main it still seems to me a soldier’s book (so, for that matter, is Caesar’s). There’s a minimum of personal, domestic, or political trivia in it: it’s a book about the battles Grant fought, and how he fought them. His memory is so sharp and his prose so clear that the maps he includes are hardly necessary. Grant knew what he had done and why he had done it and he tells us clearly, in no-frills prose. It’s battles, mainly, that he offers up.

Grant was taken to Mount McGregor, a resort in the Adirondacks, to spend his last days in the bosom of his family. As he faded he passed a few notes to his doctors, mostly about the efficacy of this drug or that. Morphine and cocaine each had virtues coupled to disadvantages. The final note, though, strikes a different tone:

I do not sleep though I sometimes doze off a little. If I am up I am talked to and in my efforts to answer cause pain. The fact is I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun. A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; to suffer. I signify all three.

This Issue

April 29, 2004