Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant


Today marks the 200th birthday of two of the Western world's most important figures: Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. As a scientist, Darwin was to the 19th Century what Albert Einstein was to the 20th or Isaac Newton was to the 17th: In a fundamental way, he changed the way humans saw themselves and the way that we understood the world around us. Despite the best (or worst, if you will) efforts of Christian conservatives, Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection are as incontrovertible as Newton's law of universal gravitation. In the 150 years since the publication of On The Origin Of The Species, biologists, statisticians, chemists, and geneticists have tested and expanded Darwin's theories to the extent that billions of data points support them. Yoday, denying either is no different than arguing that the earth is flat. They are arguably the signal scientific triumphs made possible by The Enlightenment.

Lincoln's legacy is of equal, if more subtle, import. The Lincoln presidency established once and all a United States of America, a country that became a world power by the turn of the century and that by 1945 stood triumphant over a globe laid waste by the Old World policies of 1914-1945. The defeat of slavery also raised the United States to a preeminent moral position, a lighthouse guiding millions of immigrants to the hope of a liberty and prosperity undreamt of in their native country. Abraham Lincoln was our greatest president, a brilliant man of surpassing political genius, an American visionary, an orator unsurpassed by any who followed him to the presidency, a man of deep feelings who distrusted emotional rhetoric and instead appealed to reason.

And yet, despite his great genius, Lincoln may not have succeeded without the aid of a diminutive Midwesterner who shared his vision for the country and supported it by applying perhaps the finest military mind this country has produced. I refer, of course, to Ulysses S. Grant.

Going to middle school in the south, I learned as an article of faith in American history class that Ulysses S. Grant was an incompetent general who defeated the valiant and greatly superior Robert E. Lee only because of superior numbers and resources. So pernicious was this notion that I did not completely dispel until completing the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant.

As president, Harry Truman once confided to his diary that he could not understand how the same institution -- meaning the Army -- that produced Grant could also produce Douglas MacArthur, a man Truman deeply disliked and mistrusted. But both men were also products of their age and the standing of their country (not to mention their upbringings and genetic codes). In the end, Grant understood the military as an instrument of policy whereas MacArthur's perspective was precisely the opposite: Policy was an instrument of the military (which he identified as synonymous with himself). In part because of their fundamental perceptions of the military, one man's president supported him through through thick and thin while the other's commander-in-chief dismissed him.

For Grant offered Lincoln something that not even the most gifted Union generals did: Grant understood the political impact of military decisions. He undertook the brilliant and decisive Vicksburg campaign against the counsel of his subordinates, most notably William Sherman, who recited chapter-and-verse why an army should not cut itself off from its supply line to invade enemy territory with a river at its back. Grant acknowledged the risk, but then pointed out the greater one: By not acting aggressively, he would add to the likelihood that the population of the North -- already teetering in its support of Lincoln's policies -- would turn against the war if it seemed that Grant had become bogged down at the same that Robert E. Lee had scored impressive victories in the eastern theatre. Whatever risks his plan entailed, they were greatly subordinate to the larger risk of permanent disunion.

Besides, Grant had great confidence in the soldiery. By this point in the war, the rebel armies had become painfully aware of the resourcefulness of Yankee troops. As much as any artillery shell lobbed or bullet fired, the Northern aptitude for military engineering proved decisive in the Civil War. As Grant makes clear in the Memoirs, any time a Union needed a bridge constructed, a road cleared, or telegraph established, it was established in swift order by the same men who were fighting, even under fire. 

Cut off as he was from his supplies, Grant decided that his army would survive off of what it could forage from the countryside, a far-reaching decision that found its most famous application during Sherman's March to the Sea. Crossing the Mississippi below Vicksburg, he advanced east to Jackson. On the way there, he defeated two Confederate forces, destroyed the rail center at Jackson, and reversed field west to Vicksburg, compelling the garrison there to confront his army en route. Grant's army forced the Confederates back to their works outside of Vicksburg, attempted one unsuccessful assault, then invested the place from May 18, 1863 until its successful reduction on July 4. 

Sherman, who had performed well during the campaign despite his misgivings, praised Grant effusively: "Grant is entitled to every bit of credit for the campaign; I opposed. I wrote him a letter about it." Typically, Grant shied away from Sherman's plaudits: "His [Sherman's] untiring energy and great efficiency during the campaign entitle him to a full share of credit due for its success. He could not have done more if the plan had been its own."

While his self-interest in the matter is evident, Grant nonetheless gives the lie to the conventional wisdom that the South fielded superior general officers to the North. Certainly, Grant pays proper respect to Lee, Johnston, Longstreet, and Forrest. But he plainly valued the abilities of Sherman and Philip Sheridan above all, and writes well of Union generals Meade, Hancock, Sedgwick, McPherson, Thomas (somewhat grudgingly), and even the hapless Ambrose Burnside. (Grant regarded him as an able enough corps commander who should not have been put in charge of an entire army.) Overall, he portrays a group of generals who through experience and winnowing became one of the finest in the world.

The Vicksburg campaign is rightly the center of the book, along with the successful turning of Lee's left flank until the siege of Petersburg at the close of 1864. As winter cleared at the end of March 1865, Grant led the Army of the Potomac on a sudden 10-day campaign that drove Lee's Army of Northern Virginia west from Vicksburg in a vain attempt to unite with General Joe Johnston's army. Sensing victory Grant, his generals, and his men kept to the south of Lee, harassing him relentlessly until headed off at Appomattox. The Civil War had come to an abrupt end.

Grant's strategic grasp, tactical skills, and attention to detail are breathtaking. He is at times resentful of the inconveniences of a free press, but always mindful of its importance in the constitutional scheme of things. For above all, Grant is an American. As he writes in the book's memorable opening:
My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral.
In other words, he is not a Northerner or a Southerner or a Westerner. Those are mere geographical labels irrelevant to his true identity and to the identity of all who came after. 

6 comments:

Don Parker said...

Abraham Lincoln, the first and last good Republican (okay, there have been a handful of others). Too many R's since Lincoln have been ignoring his importance while trying to deny Darwin's.

Paul D. Palmer said...

My father taught Civil War and Reconstruction as a specialty. I just got through reading a bunch of stuff by James McPherson, and the "Team of Rivals" etc., so the Civil War has always been a topic of interest for me. I was in Vicksburg at the battlefield at Thanksgiving. A dense fog rolled in and made it very eerie. I had always heard Grant's memoirs were ghost written by Mark Twain. It was written while Grant was ill with cancer and worried about his family's finances. Twain was a big admirer and thought Grant had been ill-used by a fickle public. At the very least he promoted the project and edited it.

My mother's family fought for the confederacy, and two of my great great grandfather's fought under Forrest as cavalrymen in the 14th Tennessee. My father's side was with the Union. James Madison Bryant (see my pictures) was in the 115th Ill. Infantry. He served under Gordon Granger, whose bosses were Thomas, Sherman and Grant - in that order. He enlisted in spring 1862 and was in for the duration. He was placed in the western theatre and moved into KY and then TN, around Chatanooga (sp.?)He named at least one of his daughters after a steamboat that took the up the mighty Tennessee River. (Leonora) He fought at Chickamauga with Gen. Rosencrans at the helm. This was the second largest battle of the war after Gettysburg. When the fighting started, Rosencrans got spooked (and left with Guildenstern) deserting the field, letting a big chunk of the Union army leaderless and in a scattered retreat (including Gen. Sheridan). The entire army in the west could have been swept up and destroyed, but Thomas made a stand on high ground. Longstreet saw his opportunity to destroy the Union army and retake Tennessee, but he first needed to dislodge or destroy Thomas (A Virginian whose family never spoke to him after the war.) He sent waves of charges up the hill until the Union was almost flanked and almost out of ammo and water.

Granger's corps was in reserve, but when he heard the fighting he moved in to support Thomas. They were opposed by Forrest who tried to prevent their reinforcing the Union position on the high ground. So in that one part of one battle 3of my great great-grandfathers were involved in fighting- 2 trying to kill the third. Granger pushed Forrest out of the way and got to the hill just in time. They took their position on the Union flank and barely had time to dig before the charges began again. They counter-charged into the Rebs and broke the first charge, preventing Thomas from being flanked. They got back into the line and were under heavy fire all day and almost broke. At one point they had to be rallied by an officer who grabbed the colors and refused to budge saying something like "You can leave boys but the colors stay here." They endured repeated charges all day. Some of the Rebs' brigades had casualty rates as high or higher than Pickett's men at Gettysburg. At the end of the day the 115th was out of ammo. As the last rebel charge started forming up, they fixed bayonets and charged into it downhill, dispersing the Rebs last efforts, just as Chamberlain and the 20th Maine had done at Gettysburg a few months earlier. As night fell Thomas began an orderly retreat back to Tennessee. His stand earned him the sobriquet "The Rock of Chicamauga".

Back in Tennessee the 115th Ill. rested up and licked its wounds. Sherman took control with Thomas under him. They then moved south to Atlanta. The 115th Ill. was in every major battle up to and including the taking of Atlanta.

Sherman took off to the sea, and Thomas, and the 115th Ill. went back to Tennessee. My great great-grandfather's company was set up in a blockhouse to guard a mountain pass near Dalton, GA known as Buzzard's Roost Gap. On about Oct.12, 1864 about 30,000 rebs showed up and demanded surrender. The forty odd men of the 115th Ill. Co. D declined and engaged in a fierce skirmish in which they held the entire army at bay for an entire day. The fight was so determined that several survivors wrote detailed accounts of the fight. Their Capt. was made a Brevet Major (a field promotion) and was eventually awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for the way his company performed. After they had accomplished their objective of holding the pass until the Union Army in Tennessee could be alerted, they surrendered. They lost about a third of their troopers, but had inflicted much greater losses. The Rebs were so pissed when they saw how few Union men there were they knocked down the blockhouse and burned it. Some of the Rebs had to be restrained from executing them because the 115th in the dark, smoke and confusion had fired upon a flag of truce. The survivors were sent to Andersonville were they remained until the end of the war.

I got the above info from research I did in 1990 at the National Archives. A lot of it was a complete surprise. We knew he was at Andersonville, but that was all. Many of the original army records from the time I've held in my hands. A lot of this info is now on the internet. You could look it up.

K. said...

Wow! What an account! Grant did not fully appreciate Thomas' abilities -- in 1864, he was actually on his way west to relieve Thomas personally because he thought that Thomas was not moving quickly enough against Hood's forces. While on his way, Grant received word that Thomas had routed Hill at the Battle of Nashville, rendering his relief a moot point.

My interest in the Memoirs stems from reading Mark Perry's Grant and Twain: The Story Of An American Friendship, which Foxessa wrote about here. The hokey subtitle notwithstanding, it's a interesting and well-written account of how the memoirs came to be written and published. As Foxessa says, it's a perfect introduction to the book itself (which, incidentally, Grant wrote or dictated personally).

Paul, you'll be interested to know that there are a number of chapters nearing the beginning concerning Grant's posting in Corpus Christi. He explored most of the Coastal Bend at one time or another as well as the country between San Antonio and Corpus. There can't be that many extant outsider accounts of South Texas in the 1840's; for people like you and me, the Memoirs are worth picking up for that alone. Here's what he had to say about a herd of wild horses (!) he came across just south of Corpus.

Paul D. Palmer said...

I've never read Grant's memoirs, but I did by a 2 volume set from the original run for my father about 10 years ago. They were a huge success, so the original volumes are not that expensive. I had no idea he commented on south Texas. Frederick Olmstead toured the south central part of Texas about 1850 including Sisterdale where I lived on a small ranch 2002-2005. Its a German settlement close to Comfort and Luchenbach. It is worth a read also for insight into that period.

K. said...

What a great gift.

Grant was stationed in Corpus Christi during the run-up to the Mexican War in 1845-46. According to him, it was a settlement of about 100 people. It sounds like there were no other villages or hamlets or anything in the rest of South Texas -- at least in the Coastal Bend. Lots of deer, antelope, and wild horses, though.

Anonymous said...

Grant's memoirs are far too detailed for anyone to have written the book for him. Twain would have had to of sat by Grant's side every second of the writing to have put in such details and all Grant's thoughts throughout his (Grant's) life. Twain was rarely there. Twain also was also a bit worried because he was getting the book so late to publication time, and said he did very little editing.

Perhaps the saddest part to Grant’s book is that revisionists (not surprisingly, for example, an admitted member of confederate ancestry noted above) think Grant did not write them. Grant was glued to his writings once he found out he had cancer. What was he doing all that time he was bent over sheets of paper with a pen in his hand? Doodling? There was no ghost writer to Grant's memoirs. That's a sad, pathetic story by distracters.