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The Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant: the Rhetoric of Judgment

ISSUE:  Spring 1990

In a famous exchange, Mark Twain attacked Matthew Arnold for imagined slights made upon Grant’s Memoirs in Arnold’s two-part article in Murray’s Magazine of 1886. As usual, Twain was amusing and a bit unfair. Although Arnold indulges in some grammatical quibbles and miscellaneous snide remarks on Americans in general, he pays great tribute to Grant. He admits to a mistaken impression that the General was “a strong, resolute, business-like man, who by possession of unlimited resources in men and money, and by the unsparing use of them, had been enabled to wear down and exhaust the strength of the South.” Although this misimpression is still a commonplace in the late twentieth century, Arnold is convinced after perusing the Memoirs that it is most fair to compare Grant with the Duke of Wellington.

Wholly free from show, parade, and pomposity; sensible and sagacious; scanning closely the situation, seeing things as they actually were, then making up his mind as to the right thing to be done under the circumstances, and doing it; never flurried, never vacillating, but also not stubborn.

Such praise would have pleased Grant, for he disliked the frequent comparisons made between Napoleon (whom he felt to be great but unprincipled) and himself. He much preferred to be compared with Napoleon’s conqueror. Yet in his praise Arnold is compelled to admit that his initial reaction to Grant’s Memoirs was conditioned by the fact that, “the central figure . . .is not to the English imagination the hero of the American Civil War; the hero is Lee.”

In his Autobiography Mark Twain writes that Grant’s book compares favorably with Caesar’s Commentaries in “clarity of statement, direct-ness, simplicity, unpretentiousness, manifest truthfulness, fairness and justice toward friend and foe alike, soldierly candor and frankness and soldierly avoidance of flowery speech.” In an address to the annual reunion of the Army and Navy Club of Connecticut in 1887, where he savages Arnold’s criticism of Grant, Mark Twain declares of the Memoirs: “Their style is at least flawless and no man can improve upon it.” Grant has put into the Memoirs “a something which will still bring to American ears, as long as America shall last, the roll of his vanished drums and the tread of his marching hosts.”

While Mark Twain was not a disinterested party—since he was both literary midwife and profiting publisher of the book—his friendship and respect for Grant and the general’s various works were genuine. If Arnold’s view of the war romanticizes the mystique of the Lost Cause that is so deeply a part of the Southern consciousness, Twain seems an apt champion for the countermyth that supports Grant and to which Grant himself finally gave literary formulation in his last year. If Twain had invented a general out of his imagination, U.S. Grant might well have been the man.

Like “The Bad Little Boy” of Mark Twain’s story, Hiram Grant seemed to do everything wrong by the military standard of his day and somehow come out right. As his troops and many brother officers were to remark, he just didn’t look like a general. But in his Memoirs Grant deliberately constructs his own image of himself in order to establish his position in history. Robert E. Lee, the hero of the South, was apotheo-sized a chivalric King Arthur. Grant sought to create the image of himself as the Western Hero: laconic; careless of style, formality, and show; a supremely dangerous warrior yet bound by a code of honor that challenges the moral grounds not only of the South but of the Eastern city.

The myths of both Grant and Lee are essential elements of America’s attempt to deal with the Civil War. There is yet a third story, that of Abraham Lincoln, which perhaps has subsumed both, but that is another topic. What is most interesting about the Memoirs is that our reaction to them leads back to the unresolved dilemma of how it can be justified, however noble the cause—preserving the Union, freeing the slaves, see it how we will—to put fellow countrymen to fire and sword. The Memoirs cannot resolve this any more than the glory of Lee can justify shattering the Union which Washington, Marion, Pickens, and Sumter had fought for. But Grant’s words remain an important contribution to the ongoing process of America explaining itself to itself, telling its story over and over in the dark. What he wanted to tell was that a new America was replacing a tired one and had done so when modern war met romantic war.


Grant’s unselfish heroism in the composition of the Memoirs is well documented. He produced them at the end of his life, under the spur of bankruptcy and debt. But the debts were those of honor rather than law, which he assumed when he discovered that his partner in business had used his good name to swindle large sums. With the encouragement and publishing assistance of Mark Twain, Grant wrote the Memoirs in the last year of his life. Dying of a cancer of the throat, he was in almost constant pain and eventually became mute. The self-revelation demanded by memoirs was not congenial to the laconic Grant; but, with the energy and determination typical to him, he turned a difficult necessity into a complex assessment of himself and the United States.

James Cox notes in his essay, “U. S. Grant: The Man in the Memoirs” that autobiography is an attempt to recapture history and one’s own place in it. This purpose dictates not only subject matter but style. Indeed, when the subject matter of a book is a man’s life, the distinction between style and substance is narrowed far more than usual. Cox points out that Grant chose to fight a two-front war in his Memoirs, both against the South and against the intrigue of the North’s military politics. But more than this he intended, by relating his experiences in peace and war, to shed light on the character of the man whose presidency had been marred by political infighting and corruption. The two-front war is also his implied metaphor for the postwar conflicts between a hero-president (of a simple, honest, Western style) and the politicians both of the defeated South and of the triumphant North. He presents most of these men as responding to motives which may be valid but not as upright as his own. His metaphor requires a choice of style that is soldierly and direct, which assumes that facts speak for themselves if honestly presented. That other styles were readily available to him is obvious from any look at the literature he was familiar with, ranging from Dickens to the Bible. Grant was capable of a rococo effusion, as we can easily see in his early letters. The style he chose for his public address was well in the tradition of other military commanders like Caesar, the Napoleon of the Maxims, or the later dispatches of the Duke of Wellington. To this tradition, which was produced by or which at least assumed the virtues of a Roman integrity, Grant added the gift of the American ironic humorist.

This choice was consistent with the way Grant presented himself throughout his life, as a plain man who spoke little but to the point. He would spend hours in silent listening at public gatherings, even as president. He never orated to his troops. His battle correspondence is terse and lacks the rhetorical flourishes so typical of other Civil War leaders. The styles of the time ranged all the way from ex-judges who called their troops to the parade ground with “Oyez, Oyez,” to grandiose commanders like McClellan and Fremont with magnificent uniforms and wonderfully large and corrupt staffs, to queer birds like Simon Goode who “drank too much, quoted Napoleon all the time, and went around at night in a cloak like Bonaparte’s, telling sentries “I never sleep.”” Regardless of style, Grant makes it clear that victory is the proper test of a general.

In his account of the American war on Mexico, he gives us the portraits of two different styles of leadership which influenced him. He compares the figure of Zachary Taylor, who rode sidesaddle and wore civilian clothes with a floppy straw hat, to that of Winfield Scott, who “always wore all the uniform prescribed or allowed by law when he inspected his lines”. Of Scott’s language Grant notes that he was “not averse to speaking of himself, often in the third person, and he could bestow praise upon the person he was talking about without the least embarrassment.” Of Taylor, Grant simply says, he “was not a conversationalist, —but on paper he could put his meaning so plainly that there could be no mistaking it. . . . But with their opposite characteristics both were great and successful soldiers; both were true, patriotic and upright in all their dealings.”

Since the armed forces have largely adopted Grant’s blunt and workmanlike style of leadership, it may be hard to realize that his style needed justification to his own contemporaries. This was an age when officers either came from the gentry or were at least expected to act as if they did. Long after Grant’s many victories the image of the impeccable Marse Robert still plagued him. James Cox is quick to note that in citing the influence of Taylor and Scott on his military style it did not hurt Grant’s case that the homespun Taylor won the presidency and that the flamboyant Scott did not.

Another element of the story that Grant wanted to tell the nation was of an ordinary boy in a frontier town who becomes, by will and devotion, the quintessence of the common man. Everyone who writes on Grant seemingly must deal with a story he told on himself about a horse which he very badly wanted when a boy. His father offered to pay 20 dollars for it, but the owner wanted 25. When young Grant begged to be allowed to buy the horse at the higher price his father told him he could, but that first he should offer 20, then $22.50, and so on in the best shrewd Yankee style. Grant instead went to the man and blurted out, according to the story as others told it on him: “Papa says I may offer you twenty dollars for the colt, but if you won’t take that, I am to offer twenty-two and a half, and if you won’t take that, to give you twenty-five.”

William McFeely, in Grant: A Biography, provides an overdone Freudian commentary on this tale, asserting that the story “haunted Grant all his life.” McFeely builds out of nothing a theory that Grant “had been humiliated and mocked not for being discovered secretly doing something nasty, but for being innocent and open . . .and that Grant spent a lifetime getting over the transaction.” If the image of a boy whose innocence and openness are punished by a society of callous adults strikes us like a secular Sunday school tale, such pious editorials too often mar the quality of McFeely’s extensive and excellent research. It is unfortunate that his basic argument presents Grant as the type of an American common man who seems to be suffering on a mass basis from all manner of hysteric anxieties which he must suppress at the cost of some unspecified “true humanity.” Such an approach reduces the past to fit the littleness of a theory.

What McFeely ignores and Bruce Catton clearly notes, in U.S. Grant and the Military Tradition, is that Grant got the horse he set out to possess at the price he felt was fair. What is even more important than the purchase is that Grant uses the story to present himself as above petty sharp dealing. He will pay the price he sets upon the animal—even if he could get it for less—because that is his way. Grant is casting himself in an almost classical light as a man whose actions are informed by a moral sense of the actual or, indeed, the absolute value of things. Slyness and cunning pursuit of self-interest have no part in such a vision. Grant could expect that this presentation would provide, by extension, a powerful defense against implicating him in the corruption that marred his presidency.

There are two additional twists to this tale. Even in such a simple account Grant has to point out that the story was very nearly true, not true. The Memoirs are full of asides which show the newspapers of the day to have been used by others or to have offered themselves to spread wild distortions that went far toward ruining the careers of other officers and of Grant himself. Examples were easy to find in the negative coverage of the Battle of Belmont, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and The Wilderness. Without belaboring the point, Grant demonstrates that the defeatist tone adopted by the Northern papers might have led to serious political consequences both in the off-year election of 1862 and in the presidential canvass of 1864. Indeed, he shows that often the papers meant to do just that. Grant was quite aware that battlefield victories at Vicksburg and Atlanta gave President Lincoln much-needed leverage against antiwar opinion. About the campaigns of Sherman and Sheridan in the late summer of 1864, he states that, “These two campaigns probably had more effect in settling the election of the following November than all the speeches, all the bonfires and all the parading with banners and bars of music in the North.”

Of course this analysis suggests a general who is far more complex than the image which Grant liked to project of a man who was simply carrying out orders. In the course of conversations with John Russell Young and others, recorded in Around the World with General Grant, Young’s account of the great post-presidential tour of 1887—89, the warrior was fully aware of his political necessities and their relation to his freedom to conduct the war his way. Speaking of Vicksburg, Grant says, “I felt that what was wanted was a forward movement to a victory that would be decisive. In a popular war we had to consider political exigencies. . . . We were all of us, more or less, on probation.” But Grant wanted his stories of news, politics, and war to point toward the distortions of Civil War reportage, not toward him. He wanted to warn the reader against taking too seriously the news accounts either of his battles or of his presidency. Living in a country saturated with religious and political values, Grant could afford to see newsmen as self-interested capitalists whose business was to sell soap, suspenders, and subscriptions, and whose mission was to further the interests of their political friends and their own careers. Our century’s film legends about missionary newsmen would have been transparent and laughable to Grant. He wanted to show that even when the papers were not out-and-out lying they could not get the details of a story right.

The last point to be made about this simple story is that McFeely is correct in saying that Grant does refer to it again and again in the early sections of the Memoirs, as well as to other horse and mule stories which recall it. This does not show that Grant was obsessed by the event. What McFeely does not appreciate is that this is in the nature of a running joke which becomes, by accretion and by its insistence on reappearance, more and more of a droll tale illustrating the perverse obstinacy of human character and personal fate. This well-known characteristic of American folk humor colors much of Mark Twain’s work. One recalls the use he made in his lectures of the cost of a barrel of cigars, or of the persistent appearance of his resolutions to reform his character and the equally persistent chucking of the good resolutions.


The continuity, indeed the appearance, of folk humor is one of the Memoirs’ remarkable features. It is the device which Grant had the tact and the sense to use as a means of binding the affections and interest of his readers. It enabled him to present himself variously as a callow young boy, a reluctant cadet, and a hapless junior officer who can be quite sensitive, without over-romanticizing himself. The technique lets him describe his feelings about the beauty of Mexico, his detestation of that war, his sense of the grandeur of the West Coast, his love for his wife, and his distress at the divisive hatreds bred over slavery. It helps him build, if not a legend of a log cabin origin, the legend of one who sees all the nonheroic aspects of his own life but who is called by the force of circumstances to exercise the greatness within him. Once he acknowledges, dryly and ironically, that angels and omens did not attend his every step to glory, he sets in motion the countermovement that makes his reader ask what it might have been that drove him to such great achievement.

More than this, once he has established his point of human contact he can speak (albeit briefly and guardedly) in the first person about quite personal subjects. If we compare his tone even casually with that of The Education of Henry Adams, we find that Adams needs to use an apparently arrogant tone about far more slender achievements. About his wife Adams could barely speak at all; his love for friends comes out mostly in abstractions about their superiority to the age. Grant can sound humble recounting victories that rewrote the history and tactics of warfare. He speaks of love for country, wife, and friends without ever falling into the wide ocean of 19th-century sentimentality.

All of these advantages, however, are secondary to the most important effect of this ironic mode of winning the reader in the early stages of the book. When the action of the book picks up and Grant is right in the middle of military politics with eccentric characters like Henry Halleck, Don Carlos Buell, and George Meade, he has already established a quiet believability that makes it unnecessary for him to rant against incompetence or small-minded behavior. He has assumed such authorial control that he can damn with faint praise those whom he must supersede or dismiss.

Almost every commentator on the Memoirs notes that the only officer of whom Grant speaks with contempt is the hapless Confederate Brigadier General Gideon Pillow, who scuttled away from Fort Donelson, leaving an old friend of Grant’s to receive the first of his demands for unconditional surrender. With other commanders Grant takes a balanced, judicial, at times almost uncommital approach. Perhaps his most unqualified praise was given to J.B. McPherson, easily the best-loved general of the Western armies: “In his death the army lost one of its ablest, purest and best generals.” Here each word has an impact of eulogy, derived partly from an earlier, equally simple description of McPherson’s bravery and achievement at Vicksburg. More typical are Grant’s remarks on General George H. Thomas:

He was a man of commanding appearance, slow and deliberate in speech and action; sensible, honest, and brave. . . . He could not be driven from a point he was given to hold. He was not as good, however, in pursuit as he was in action.

The impact of this summary is made quite pointed by earlier accounts, equally calm and measured, of Thomas’s delay in attacking Hood near Nashville just at the time when Grant desperately needed Hood’s army taken out of action before it could slip away and rampage in Kentucky and Ohio. If this escape had occurred, it would have drained forces away from the drives of Sherman, Sheridan, or Grant as they were pushing the Southern armies simultaneously to stretch to the breaking point the limited resources of the South in late 1864.

Reading the analysis by Grant, one misses the play of colorful and excellent judgments in Bruce Catton and others who damn and praise with a liberal hand each of the major participants in the war. Catton analyzes motives and personality far more than Grant would think of doing. Grant is more restrained and modest; in fact, he states his hesitation to second-guess too publicly the cause of his subordinates’ or his enemies’ failures. He had suffered much in his own life from far too many of these character summaries that declared him a butcher or a drunk. But a second reason for his reticence and balance is that the attention of the reader is held firmly on Grant himself as the unifying and moving center both of the narrative and, by implication, of the war. Thus is “Pap Thomas,” the “Rock of Chickamauga” whittled down to size by a seemingly objective, bluff technique (which James Cox sees as part of a consistent pattern of depreciation of Thomas). Thus is reduced the passing of John McPherson, a man for whose death the pure warrior, Sherman, wept publicly and unashamedly.

The same matter-of-fact judgmental style gives Grant the freedom to present his war record in a way that does not seem self-justifying or self-aggrandizing. Certainly some of the contemporary reactions to his Civil War record had called for such justification. His explanations are largely confined to comparing his casualties and captures with those of the enemy. He expresses regret only for the second day of frontal assault on Vicksburg and for the fighting at Cold Harbor. Both were cases where his judgement was based on false or incomplete information. In presenting his military innovations Grant becomes no more flamboyant. While making it clear that his use of moving columns supplied by foraging off the land and detached from a supply depot was a radical change, Grant is careful to prepare his reader for this by his description of Scott’s campaign after Vera Cruz, when Scott also cut loose from his supply lines. One can see in the reaction of the Iron Duke, hero of Waterloo, how extraordinary a departure this was, “Scott is lost. He has been carried away by successes.” Grant is not so eager to highlight what Catton does in Grant Moves South, that the failure of a subordinate to protect the supply depot at Holly Springs from destruction by General Van Dorn while Grant was trying the Memphis approach to Vicksburg in 1862 taught him a much more pointed lesson in the use of a foraging army. His troops had to live off the land for several weeks after this debacle or starve.

Nevertheless, this costly lesson led Grant to apply the power of an army detached from its base so successfully that he destroyed forever the conventional wisdom of protecting long supply lines and vulnerable depots as the only way to pacify and solidify a conquered territory. Without his early realization of the potentials of a foraging army it is doubtful that Grant would have dared to make either the landing below Vicksburg or the lightning move to Jackson and back to Vicksburg that so confused and separated the forces of Johnston and Pemberton which could have united to crush him. It is instructive to remember that everyone except John McClernand was set against this southern landing, including Sherman. Perhaps Grant overestimated the public’s ability to read the extraordinary story contained in his detailed account of troop movements and objectives taken, but Catton is quite clear that the dexterity and cunning of the maneuvers on the way to Vicksburg should easily lay to rest all conceptions of “a dull plodder who could win only when he had every advantage and need count no cost.”


It was Vicksburg that gave Grant confidence that Sherman could make his march to the sea and that the Shenandoah and Cumberland Valleys eventually would be put to fire and pillage to deny similar supply and forage to the Confederate Army. These decisions still trouble most who think about the Civil War. The suffering of the civilian populations was enormous. Starvation and the attack on a civilian populace contributed much to the undying ferocity of sectional bitteress. In order to explain himself, Grant chose neither the style of the Southern chivalric warrior nor, much to his credit, the abolitionist method of dehumanizing the Southerner to lend manhood to the slave. Instead he chose a moral pragmatism based on an honest statement of the unavoidable consequences of war to the defeated and on the practical problem of slavery as it presented itself to the federal government, and more specifically, to the invading army.

His basic propositions are interrelated. One is that the South had to control the national government to make slavery work at all. Otherwise the North would make itself a haven for slaves, and the runaway problem would bring the system down. Moreover, the North would prevent further expansion of slave states, thus isolating slavery and causing it to wither in time. Grant argues that the prewar South, a power imposing slavery and guilt on the North, instigated the Mexican War in order to increase the number of slave states. He simply ignores other basic questions of tariffs, industry, and states’ rights. His second proposition is that once war was started the system of slavery must inevitably end for two reasons: first, the right of the conqueror to resolve the issues that troubled peace and union; and secondly, the impossibility of restoring the status quo ante helium. Grant sensed clearly from the very first that once the system of slavery had been challenged by an army a massive disruption of property rights would ensue. Since the North would win the war, it would be forced either to abolish slavery or exert immense pressure to preserve it, protect it, and in essence reimpose it on the insurgent blacks. While he was fully aware of Northern tolerance for slavery, he was sure that such active support of it was impossible.

If the nascent realization of these ideas was already present in the letters Grant wrote at the outbreak of the war, it ripened under the force of circumstances. As a quartermaster and mathematician Grant could look at the early prospects of the war and convince himself that 90 days would be its maximum length. The country was simply not economically fit or militarily capable of sustaining a war longer than that. It was a rational judgment, and it was wrong. War had a momentum of its own that reduced rational choice. Grant makes clear the ground rules for the war when he states:

The Confederates proclaimed themselves aliens, and thereby debarred themselves of all right to claim protection under the Constitution of the United States. We did not admit the fact that they were aliens, but all the same, they debarred themselves of the right to expect better treatment than people of any other foreign state who make war upon an independent nation.

This is the opinion reached after the experience of four years of terrible fighting by one who said optimistically in 1861, “The Southerners shall soon return to their allegiance.”

Grant confesses that his optimism was shattered at Shiloh when he saw the Southern soldier’s will to fight at its most tenacious. If further convincing was needed, he got plenty of it as a military governor who had to deal with the insolence, hatred, and treachery of a civilian populace that actively supported enemy armies. He learned not only the depth of feeling for The Cause, but that once war was underway the Southern people had little choice except to support it. Union sympathizers in the South were largely burned out or turned out. Anyone who had any idea of collaborating with Yankee armies would suffer for it the minute the army turned its back. Whatever the sources, Grant was faced with a hostile population all around him that vastly multiplied the strength of the actual armies of the South. Sabotage, spying, logistical support of the Confederate forces, all were to be expected from noncombatants.

The populace taught Grant not only that the war would be long, but that to fight it he must and could unleash a scorched earth policy upon them. The degree to which one may demoralize civilian populations in order to win a war is highly debatable. Most probably it is an inverse function of the moral staying power of one’s own side for waging a conventional war, which is usually more costly to one’s own side. Grant saw, before Halleck and others of the by-the-book school, that an invading army can never have troops enough to hold real estate, communications lines, etc. It must attack the enemy armies and destroy their ability to fight. In enemy territory that requires living oft the land (thus violating most property rights of the populace) and denying the same ability to the opposing forces by destroying unneeded supplies (thus destroying the last vestiges of property rights.) The Founding Fathers knew that any concept of liberty divorced from property rights was at best an impossibility. Grant knew it also, and was aware that as the war proceeded he was making immense political decisions. But he faced those decisions as the cost of a war waged for unconditional victory rather than a negotiated settlement. He felt that no settlement was possible because of the issue of slavery and the disruption already caused in the land.

It is to Grant’s credit that he makes little use of the propaganda value of slavery to augment his cause. Rather, he uses the more basic concept that one does not violate the obligations to the Union. He is quite specific in observing that the right to revolution had long since been de facto invalidated by years of acquiescence to and enjoyment of civil government and its benefits. Moreover, any act of succession was a violation against the other states which had, in various measure, made sacrifices for the good of the whole. Again, he simply ignores the real powers that Northern states exercised over the South to the latter’s cost. He seemed to feel (and rightly so) that there was something in the word Union that affected Northerners far more powerfully than the issue of slavery. In the course of the Memoirs, he makes it clear that freedom of the slaves was simply a fact produced by the presence of an invading army. The Northern troops probably liked blacks less well than the Southerners, but they were not going to let them be of use to the enemy, especially when they could use them for servants, and eventually as fighting surrogates. Beyond their occasional usefulness, the blacks were practically the only friendly faces the troops saw once they began to penetrate the Southern borders. Above all, like it or not, the Negro population was on the army’s hands, and in enormous numbers. In Never Call Retreat, Catton quotes one Ohio chaplain as likening the slaves pouring into the army camps to “the oncoming of cities.”

These were the kinds of facts that made Grant realize that a negotiated settlement had become impossible as the war went on. Writing in a letter to a friend regarding the South’s hope that a peace candidate might defeat Lincoln in the upcoming election of 1864, Grant foresees the political ramifications of the war if viewed as a problem of civil law:

“A peace at any price” is fearful to contemplate. It would be but the beginning of war. The demands of the South would know no limits. They would demand indemnity for expenses incurred in carrying on the war. They would demand the return of all their slaves set free in consequence of war. They would demand a treaty looking to the rendition of all fugitive slaves escaping into the Northern states, and they would keep on demanding until it would be better dead than to submit longer.

The bluff soldier seemed to know a great deal indeed about the problems of civil administration, and these political problems demanded quite specific military extensions.

Avoiding heated rhetoric, using logic on a pragmatic scale Grant achieved, not a determinist view of the events, but a moral view that responded to the given facts much as Edmund Burke or Dr. Johnson might have done. It is a defense based not on theory but on the necessities of a good man faced by overwhelming problems. Whether or not one accepts the moral conclusions, it is a most realistic view of the issues in war per se and is a necessary supplement to theoretical sparring about states’ rights versus slavery. It is neither a happy warrior approach nor a sentimental effusion for the boys in blue. It does not deal with what men should have felt about slaves or war, as does a revisionist view like McFeely’s. It deals instead with the actual responses of men in the limitless field of possibility that is war. The war led many men to become greedy plunderers. It lead others to brutal acts which were sometimes dedicated to a humane cause, sometimes not. Grant notes both types with a brief, austere detachment that suggests no very great illusions about men or mankind.


If Grant chooses to analyze only sparingly those who acted and reacted in such chaotic circumstances, we can see why he might have had little to say about the civilians who followed their own interests during his political administration. He tries to present himself, stylistically, as an objective reality. One can then join sides with him or reject him, in war or in peace, insofar as one believes in his essential soundness. This is perhaps the best strategy he could have chosen to justify himself to his own age, and the Memoirs are a monument not only to Grant’s abilities as thinker, warrior, and writer, but also to the age it was designed to address. Its great weakness in our time is that much of our criticism is largely shaped by determinist rhetorics propped up by the observations of oxymoronic “social sciences.” The basic assumptions about human nature in Grant’s day are no longer universally shared in ours. This makes him quite difficult to approach for any sort of collectivism On the other hand, the mass reading public is devoted more than ever to a demonstrative, sentimental rhetoric that Grant did not care to produce. He is thus hemmed in on two sides, a most confounding position for any general, even a literary one.

If, however, one becomes accustomed to the antihistrionic style of the Memoirs, the breadth of Grant’s mind becomes apparent and deeply impressive. The record of his memory is legendary. Even though his son and Adam Badeau helped him with some records and research, the specificity of battle descriptions, intervening events, and the overall portrait of persons and the American people are largely his own. They constitute a comprehensive look at the Civil War matched only by the best of American historical scholars—even after we make allowances for the fact that he describes only the campaigns for which he held responsibility. He gives us, almost en passant, canny assessments of public opinion and resolve before, during, and after the war. His discussions of the lack of material organization for the war and the ensuing difficulties show clearly why it took four years to produce an army capable of operating on a unified national basis, and why creating that army changed the American economy and consciousness forever. His grasp on the issues of slavery and the interconnected problems of administering invaded territory demonstrate his sense of social dynamics and their political and economic expressions. His strategic mastery of a continental war should alone command our respect, in the absence of these other gifts. While it might be objected that his thoughts, written some 20 years after the fact, were hindsight or the product of other minds, a look at the private and official correspondence of the general during the war years shows that these ideas were developed on the spot by a keen intelligence, and only refined by time.

The defects of the book are not those of a simple-minded, limited man elevated above his station; rather, they are the excesses of a self-imposed technique. As Sherman, Twain, and others would testify, Grant was hardly closed-mouth or dour; indeed he was positively chatty, talking for hours with close friends or strangers, as long as suspicion or a sense of doubtful motives did not bring on his legendary stone face. Grant was quite capable of pretending to a college president that he had absolutely no acquaintance with Charles Dickens’ novels (which he had not only read, but had referred to in his correspondence of the war) and then going home to chuckle about it with his wife, while the college president went on to spread rumors about poor Grant’s mental horizons. Few people think of Grant as a man who had instances of telepathic linkage with his wife, or as one who spoke French and Spanish. They seldom conceive of him received with respect by the crowned heads of Europe and Asia, or, more significantly, loved by such acerbic judges of men as Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln. Grant is much to blame for this. He chose to hide himself both in his personal approach and in the writing that so strikingly embodied that approach.

If his style hid his ambition and his pride, it also hid the vulnerabilities which a demos demands of anyone it claims to love. Grant would have none of that. He would show weakness only in a jest, never in public sorrow. We could forgive the fact that he hid himself, for we know that even emotional leaders hide just as surely. But his reticence made him unable to give voice to the emotions of the nation itself in any way demonstrative enough for our time. Both Lincoln and Lee were able to do so and are the better loved for it.

Various accounts are given for what we now consider a failure of expression. Some feel he was simply stupid. McFeely suggests that it was a legacy from Grant’s strangely silent mother and the result of an interior hollowness. Catton implies more usefully that it is connected with the Westerner’s sense of identity, perceivable in the style of the Army of the Tennessee and the Army of the Mississippi. I would go on to say that this sense of identity defined itself neither by education, as in the East, nor by gentility, as in the South. Instead it valued a sense of competence based on a moral righteousness not very far removed from a Roman’s sense of his life as a unified act which might tolerate correction but not contradiction. Thus Grant can write in response to one slander, “Your paper is very unjust to me, but time will make it all right. I want to be judged only by my acts.” This breathes the assumption that a man needs to explain very little, but that what he is will be apparent to all. Grant’s style, with all its strengths and its limits, was well suited to this sense of himself as a private and a public man. Quintillian and Cicero emphasize that the good orator must be a good man, believing that the evil man, no matter how clever, would be perceived as such. Grant seemed to follow this model implicitly, perhaps in imitation of the English translation of Caesar’s Commentaries (published by William Duncan in 1858). Perhaps it was a quality that the West was fostering in those who could not point to the books from which their fathers and grandfathers had gotten such a notion before their long treks out to Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri.

At one point in Grant Moves South, Catton summarizes a few of Grant’s achievements:

He began as a colonel and he became a lieutenant general; by maneuvering and hard fighting he captured three rival armies entire; in four years he won command of all the troops in the United States, making himself the completely trusted instrument of the canniest judge of men who ever sat in the White House, enforcing unconditional surrender on dedicated men who had sworn to die rather than to submit.

With this summary, Catton dimisses the notion that Grant had a drinking problem for any part of his life but those years spent in the far Northwest. The historical record is on his side. I would argue further that the notion of a small man overwhelmed by his office should be likewise jettisoned. If Matthew Arnold saw an interesting mind in an American, surely we may too. The simple man with a big stick badly distorts our picture, not only of the man, but of the public who elected him twice. Indeed the distortions are self-supporting. The subtle and comprehensive grasp of Civil War issues shown in the Memoirs should alert us that it is time to see the problems of his administration in a more complex light. This would be one that has far less to do with a Gilded Age than with a time divided from our own by its conceptions of the role of a Federal power vis-à-vis private trade. More, it would have to do with an age divided in itself about the powers of the separate branches of government and their roles in deciding the constitutional questions which underlay both the Civil War and Reconstruction. Grant presented himself as a model of action. But he also presented himself as one who knew when not to act, as one who knew when the application of power would be inappropriate, especially on the part of a federal government. Whether he is praised or dispraised for action or inaction is trivial unless we are aware that both proceeded from logical thought and moral grounding. Once this is seen, his Memoirs and his deeds inform us of what the central figure of almost two decades of our history believed to be the proper role of the Federal government. Unless we feel that we have resolved this question to our entire satisfaction, it might be prudent to look to such models for all the wisdom we can garner on that vexatious topic. The Memoirs are a classically powerful and revealing place to start.


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