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.