Monday, April 27, 2015

Book Review: Personal Memoirs, by Ulysses S. Grant

Today is the birthday of Ulysses S. Grant, 18th president of the United States and the general who won the Civil War for the Union.


Grant is one of history's greatest late bloomers. His father earned him an appointment to West Point which Grant was reluctant to accept. He was born Hiram Ulysses Grant, but a clerical error on his admission papers named him Ulysses Simpson Grant, Simpson being his mother's maiden name. He accepted his new name with equanimity, probably relieved that he wouldn't have the initials HUG stamped on his footlocker. Grant was a middling student at West Point, but he excelled at horsemanship, impressing even the scions of wealthy Southern families who had been riding almost since birth. Shortly after his graduation, the U.S. declared war on Mexico.

In his memoirs, Grant describes the Mexican-American War as "one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger nation upon a weaker nation." Although he never comes across as an especially religious man in his private or public life, Grant later ponders whether the Civil War was the Almighty's divine retribution for the sins of the young Republic. The Mexican war is often compared to a dress rehearsal for the Civil War which took place 13 years later. Grant never intended to make the military a career. He had originally planned to get out after his four years of service ended. He took advantage of his service in Mexico and studied the strategies and tactics of the commanding generals. Grant most strongly identified with the leadership of General Zachary Taylor who went on to become the 12th president. Taylor was nick named "Old Rough and Ready" due to his unpretentious nature and eagerness for combat. When he became a general in his own right, Grant was known for wearing the jacket of a buck private with his rank insignia hastily sewn onto the shoulders.

After the war, Grant married Julia Dent with James Longstreet acting as best man. At the age of 32, Grant was broke, unemployed, and had no obvious prospects. He tried farming and supplemented his meager income by selling firewood on street corners. Eventually he took a job in his father's tannery business, a difficult thing for the gentle man who loved animals. In the election of 1860, Grant supported Stephen A. Douglas over Abraham Lincoln.

At first Grant, like many northerners, didn't take the South seriously when their state legislatures passed resolutions of secession. All of that changed after Fort Sumter. Grant began recruiting volunteers in his home state, hoping for a field commission. Eventually, his patron in Washington, Congressman Elihu Washburne, secured for Grant a commission as Colonel.

I've always been interested in the contrasts between the Eastern and Western theaters of the war. In the east, things went splendidly for the Confederates in the first few years. After the surrender of Fort Sumter, the Confederates won their first victory on the battlefield at Bull Run. Man for man, Yankee soldiers were the equal of the Southerners, though partisans on both sides might be loathe to admit it. It was leadership where the North was sorely lacking.

In the Western theater, the opposite held true. Grant is one of those rare figures in military history who never lost a major battle. He became the first northern celebrity of the war after he demanded General Simon Bolivar Buckner's "unconditional and immediate surrender" at Fort Donelson. He led the Union to victory at Shiloh, then the bloodiest battle in American history. I can't do it justice here, but I strongly urge interested readers to study the Vicksburg campaign. I think it demonstrates Grant's strategic and tactical genius more than any other battle of the war. In short, Grant ran troop transports down the Mississippi River past the deadly guns placed on the heights of the bluff where Vicksburg stands. Severing his own line of communications and supplies, Grant marched inland to take the state capitol of Jackson and then doubled back to lay siege to Vicksburg. The city surrendered on the Fourth of July, the same day Washington received news of the Union victory at Gettysburg. Gettysburg holds the more prominent place in the American imagination as the Confederate high tide and the turning point of the war. But it was the fall of Vicksburg that sealed the Confederacy's fate by cutting it in two.

Grant is derided by some historians and Lost Cause partisans as a simple butcher who used the North's superior resources and manpower to club the South into submission. What made Grant different from previous Northern commanders of the Army of the Potomac was his targeting of Robert E. Lee's army. His colleagues focused on capturing cities such as Richmond. Grant understood that to win the war, he would have to destroy the South's means of fighting and its will to fight. He relentlessly pursued Lee across Virginia, seeking battle and flanking movements wherever and whenever he could. When Lee finally surrendered, Grant offered him generous terms, thus contributing greatly to reconciliation between North and South.

You'd think God created Grant solely to be a warrior. A failure in civilian life, the Civil War made him. He went on to be elected president and historians generally rank him in the bottom five of all time. His memoirs don't touch on the presidency much, if at all. Grant himself was virtually incorruptible; it was his friends and appointees who got him in trouble. He was a great judge of military character, but that sense was an epic fail in political life.  The last great struggle of his life was racing against the mouth cancer that was killing him to publish his memoirs to create a source of income for his family after he was gone. Mark Twain, who served as editor, called them the greatest military memoirs since Julius Caesar's, and it's hard to disagree. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Grant is without a doubt the best presidential writer we've ever had. He's also a personal hero of mine. His entire life serves as a lesson in the virtue of perseverance. No matter how low you may sink, with persistence and strength of will you can overcome. Although, other things being equal, I hope it doesn't take a bloody civil war for me to better myself.

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