After three deadly years of fighting, President Abraham Lincoln had seen a little progress in the West against the Confederacy, but in the main theater of operations, Virginia, the lines were almost exactly where they had been when the American Civil War started. The war was at a stalemate with northern public support rapidly fading. Then, Lincoln summoned General Ulysses S. Grant to come East. In little over a year, America's most catastrophic armed conflict was ended, the Union was preserved and slavery abolished. This book details how these triumphs were achieved and in the telling earned international acclaim as a superb example of an English-language personal chronicle. U.S. Grant's Personal Memoirs constitutes a vital historical and literary classic. The book provides the reader with an understanding of the most perilous four years in United States history and the best model for an entire genre of literature.
Born Hiram Ulysses Grant in 1822, he remains one of the giants in American history, revered and respected by his contemporaries, but viewed ever after as one of the country's most enigmatic and controversial figures. Of modest, small-town Midwestern origins, he graduated from West Point in 1843 and was promoted for bravery during the Mexican War, a conflict he denounced. He rose to command of the U.S. Army during the Civil War and served as the 18th President of the United States for two terms. All these grand accomplishments stand in stark contrast with his equally enormous failures and disappointments. He was forced into a military career by a father he disliked. As a cadet at the military academy, he hated the institution so much he hoped for its abolishment. He became an alcoholic in the early 1850s and a failed businessman and farmer. As president, his administration is regarded as one of the most corrupt in U.S. history. He lost his life savings in the 1880s and fell heavily into debt becoming dependent on friends and family for handouts. While other prominent Americans look to publishing their recollections as a crowning event undertaken in the leisure of retirement, Grant had to write his 1885 memoir as a means to pay his debts and feed, clothe, and shelter his family. Few Americans have reached such highs-or plunged to such lows.
Grant's reputation was shaped by some notable personality traits and habits. The handful of contemporaries who had disparaging things to say after first meeting him were usually put off by the general's silence following the initial greeting. He was naturally shy and reserved in such encounters and rarely spoke more than a courteous and sometimes formal salutation preferring the other party to carry the conversation. Some incorrectly took this behavior as indicating a lack of intellect and knowledge. Among long-time friends and acquaintances, he was altogether a different man, talkative, amusing, and occasionally showing his characteristic dry wit. Also, Grant was not a physically striking figure. He was only five foot seven inches tall. While many officers of his era adorned themselves with professionally tailored uniforms, brilliantly colored sashes, and fancy swords, Grant was typically unarmed, wore a standard drab soldier's coat decorated only with the government-issue shoulder boards appropriate to his rank. He was trusting of others to a fault. Grant displayed no guile and was remarkably honest. Unfortunately, he often assumed others were the same and was consequently often deceived and cheated. He was also a voracious reader of books and newspapers but only revealed his knowledge when it was called for by the occasion, never to make a favorable impression. It is understandable why some of those who only briefly knew him characterized Grant as ignorant and slovenly.
Nothing led to more controversy about U.S. Grant than his reputation as a drunkard. In modern terms, he was a managed alcoholic. A majority of comments and memories on the subject from sixty-nine of his friends and acquaintances place the beginning of serious problems during an 1852-1854 tour of duty as an Army captain in California. The causes are generally ascribed to his having to leave his new wife, Julia, behind in the East as well as the monotonous nature of the assignment. Lonely and bored, Grant turned to the bottle for solace. His deportment was bad enough to merit the threat of embarrassing disciplinary procedures. Rather than face humiliation, he chose to resign his commission. Once he returned to his wife, commentary about his drinking to excess became infrequent. Forty-six of his friends and acquaintances remember Grant's Civil War and White House years as periods where he shunned alcohol for three to four months at a time and was never was out of control when serious matters were at hand. Twenty-three take a different view, saying Grant's addiction to drink was an occasional debilitating factor. However, almost all agree that during those highly public years, Grant was usually under the observation and direction of his wife or his nagging chief of staff and friend, John Rawlings. In those conditions, U.S. Grant was almost always cold sober. Additionally, the majority of his friends and acquaintances state Grant rarely drank much alcohol. But, they agreed that only a small amount made him intoxicated. Those closest to him stated that Grant could snap out of an alcohol-induced stupor after little more than an hour or two of sleep.
Perhaps the final word on Grant's drinking should come from the man who had the most to do with making him a leading national figure and the bearer of awesome responsibilities. Abraham Lincoln heard all the stories about Grant before promoting him to Lieutenant General. But the president also took note of Grant's accomplishments in the preceding three years. In 1864 a few months after putting Grant in command of Union forces, Lincoln said that Grant was the only real general that he had. The rest of them had demanded the impossible from the White House. The president said that he did not know Grant's plans and did not want to know. He knew Grant would take the necessary actions to defeat the Confederacy. Alcoholic or not, Lincoln knew that Grant was a winner.
The chief cause of the mystery and mixed opinions about Grant is that different generations of Americans have viewed him in dramatically different ways. For most of his contemporaries, Grant was the kind, considerate, and just general and president. Ex-Confederates were surprisingly cordial toward him. In one telling post-war incident, Robert E. Lee admonished and embarrassed a man who began denouncing Grant. The ex-Confederate commander said that he would not permit such remarks about Grant in his presence. The most widely circulated southern publication among Confederate veterans printed nothing unkind or critical of Grant. Union veterans were overwhelmingly favorable to their former commander despite a few voices in the North claiming Grant had been reckless with his soldiers' lives at the battles of Vicksburg, the Wilderness, and Cold Harbor. However, as the generation that knew him began passing away, Grant's reputation dived. Much of the cause of this phenomenon had a decidedly political foundation. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Democratic Party began rebounding after its disastrous flirtation with slavery interests. Americans were often reminded of the Grant Administration's corruption. At the same time, the reputations of Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee were steadily burnished and Grant's repute suffered in the comparison. But the trend in opinions reversed in the 1960s. The Civil War centennial ushered in a new era of scholarly works about the conflict and its central personalities. As accurate, fact-based, and well-reasoned books were written, Grant's stature grew as his admirable accomplishments were revealed. His reputation has been on the upswing ever since.
In some measure, Grant's revived stature stems from the remarkable story of his struggle to write his memoirs. He began work on the memoir in September 1884, after he was made financially destitute and physically crippled. During the same month, he experienced severe pain in his throat. The cause was diagnosed as an inoperable cancer. Knowing he was dying, he threw himself into writing for the purpose of providing for the love of his life, Julia Dent Grant, his wife of 36 years. Writing with a pencil several hours a day, Grant was not only in a race with death, he was struggling against an ever more intense and incapacitating pain. From January through March 1885, the former president was only able to get down pitifully small portions of food. His body weight quickly went from 150 to 120 pounds. Publication of the memoir was handled by his friend, the widely popular author Mark Twain. Grant penciled in the finishing touches on July 19, 1885. Three days later, death mercifully released him from the excruciating agony he had endured for eleven months.
Despite its exorbitant price, the memoir was a huge financial success. At the time, the average book price was about $1.50; U.S. Grant's Personal Memoirs with a cloth binding started at $7 per set and reached $25 for the leather-bound, gilt-edge version. And, the memoir was sold by subscription, each prospective owner having to place an order with an authorized vendor. In today's money, the cloth-bound set would cost $117 and the leather-bound set would bring almost $500. The vendors' sales pitch solemnly reminded Americans that each citizen should know the history of the country and that no event in the United States was greater than the Civil War. The author, Grant, was characterized to buyers as "the greatest actor" in the war. It all worked. Across America, proud purchasers displayed the two volumes where visitors would not miss them. Julia Grant received $450,000 from the sales, an inflation-adjusted 2003 equivalent of more than $8,000,000. Debts were paid and the general's widow and family looked forward to a financially secure and comfortable life. Grant lost his battle with cancer, but his struggle yielded his final triumph.
The book drew praise from the moment it was published. Mark Twain described its distinguishing characteristics as "…clarity of statement, directness, simplicity, manifest truthfulness, fairness and justice…" Twain summed up his thoughts calling the Memoirs "…a great, unique and unapproachable literary masterpiece." The great American political caricaturist Thomas Nash said, "He wrote as he talked, simple, unadorned, manly." The plaudits continued into the 20th century. The biographer, Louis A. Coolidge, pictured Grant as a man who "…had a faculty of narrative to an unusual degree." The prominent American editor, playwright and novelist, Edmund Wilson, said, "Perhaps never has a book so objective in form seemed so personal in every line." And, "Somehow, despite its sobriety, it communicates the spirit of battles themselves and makes it possible to understand how Grant won them." The applause has continued into the 21st century with the often cynical and acerbic writer and playwright, Gore Vidal, saying: "It is simply not possible to read Grant's Memoirs without realizing that the author is a man of first-rate intelligence." Vidal described the book simply as "a classic."
Other than a consistent assertion of Grant's faith in and respect for the American soldier and sailor, the general did not attempt to thread the book with an overall argument or theme. He thus avoided the writer's trap of yielding to the temptation to slant descriptions or omit relevant facts to support a preconceived underlying concept. It was Grant's nature to keep strictly to facts, analyzing each strategy, battle or campaign in the context of its own particular influences. Nor did he have an "axe to grind." Instead, he had a large body of experience, facts and evidence to guide his account. He had copies of his own orders, reports, and letters at hand. Grant did not have to depend on memory alone.
This is a military memoir and some may suspect Grant chose to only write of his experiences in the Mexican and Civil Wars so as to deflect attention away from his troubled presidency. However, American presidential memoirs are a twentieth, not a nineteenth century phenomenon. On the other hand, the military memoir was well established in Grant's own time. The subject matter and organization of his memoirs are almost identical to the approach taken by General Winfield Scott in writing his 1864 two-volume memoir. Scott had sent Grant one of the first sets of his career recollections and the two men met on several occasions after the Civil War. Both books, Scott's and Grant's are squarely centered on wartime personal experiences and the analysis of the major armed conflicts carried out by the United States during their periods of service.
Many well-qualified critics have judged Grant's Memoirs to be a model of clarity and in no need for explanation, but the reader will gain much more from the book if consideration is given to factors the author did not dwell on. Grant's combat experience began in Mexico in 1846 and ended in Virginia in 1865. In those nineteen years, the lethality and range of weapons increased so dramatically that tactics changed from close-packed Napoleonic linear formations to the World War I-like trench warfare seen on the Petersburg battlefield of 1864. The speed of communications and transportation in 1865 afforded by telegraph and railroad made it possible to receive reports about immediate events hundreds of miles away within minutes of the occurrence and permitted the dispatch of forces to cover about a hundred miles a day by rail. Such capabilities were largely unknown less than twenty years before. The reader should keep in mind that Grant and his contemporaries were forced to adapt to revolutionary and onrushing technological change. And, the dramatic change Grant experienced in the four years, 1861-1865, must be appreciated. He begins the war as a regimental commander, mainly concerned with drill formations and answering to generals about keeping his men in line. He is promoted to Brigadier General and begins commanding units of several hundred men, supervising a handful of colonels. Promoted further, he is commanding organizations composed of thousands and is directing subordinate generals. During the last year of hostilities, he is promoted to Lieutenant General and is appointed as General in Chief of all U.S. Armies. In four short years, Grant has gone from tactics to strategy, from designing infantry attacks to planning entire campaigns and from responding to brigadier generals to serving the President of the United States. This account tells more than how great feats were accomplished. In between the lines, there is another story. The reader may discover how a single individual, Lincoln's "only general," rose from a reputation of irresponsibility to be the man who was entrusted with the fate of a nation. It is perhaps this unstated and underlying quality that has made this book an American classic. Rod Paschall