“The most remarkable work of its kind since the Commentaries of Julius Caesar.” So Mark Twain judged The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. Twain, to be sure, had a vested interest in offering such an endorsement. He was, after all, Grant’s friend and publisher. But truth can be stranger and more profitable than fiction.
Since leaving the White House in 1877, Ulysses S. Grant had declined offers to write about his wartime experiences. He protested that he had little to say and little ability to say it. That limitation had not stopped dozens of other Civil War veterans from rushing to publish their views, most of which offered little more than an elaborate score-settling with their critics and other veterans. But when Grant fell on hard economic times in the early 1880s—not for the first time in his life—he reluctantly picked up his pen to write a series of articles on individual battles for the Century Magazine. After he was diagnosed with terminal throat cancer, Grant negotiated with the magazine’s publishers to produce a full-length autobiography. At this point Twain stepped in, appalled by the poor terms Grant was offered (and also attracted by the publicity he might obtain for his new publishing firm). Grant barely won his race against mortality, dying just days after completing the second and final volume. The product was so extraordinary and extraordinarily well received that Twain, then and now, is often (wrongly) assumed to have been Grant’s ghostwriter.
The late British military historian John Keegan judged Grant’s Memoirs to be
an enthralling history of one man’s generalship, perhaps the most revelatory autobiography of high command to exist in any language. For, despite his modest achievement at West Point, Grant possessed formidable intellectual capacity. He had the novelist’s gift for the thumbnail sketch of character, dramatic setting of mood and introduction of the telling incident; he had the historian’s ability to summarize events and incorporate them smoothly in the larger narrative; he had the topographer’s feel for landscape and the economist’s instinct for material essentials; and he had the philosophical vision to balance the elements of his story into the argument of his apologia pro vita sua—which was how a just triumphed over an unjust cause. The result is a literary phenomenon.
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What is extraordinary about Grant’s Memoirs is its clarity, which reflected the clarity of thought and expression that distinguished Grant as a military commander. “There is one striking feature of Grant’s orders,” General George Meade’s chief of staff noted, “no matter how hurriedly he may write them on the field, no one ever has the slightest doubt as to their meaning, or even has to read them over a second time.” With good maps at hand while reading the Memoirs—one must always have good maps-the logic and power of Grant’s operational approach to the war stands out even to the unschooled reader. Indeed, one of Grant’s strengths was his intuitive grasp of topography. A staff officer noted that a map “seemed to become photographed indelibly upon his brain, and he could follow its features without referring to it again.” He took full advantage of the modern technologies that were beginning to shape the battlefield, notably the telegraph and the railroad, but he also appreciated the importance of the waterways of the west and other geographical barriers and corridors.
Grant’s Memoirs briefly cover his childhood (born Hiram Ulysses Grant, the son of an Ohio tanner), West Point career (undistinguished at best, save for considerable skills as a horseman), and time as a civilian during the 1850s (a period of unremitting personal failure). Grant focuses primarily on his experiences in the Mexican-American War and the Civil War. As a young lieutenant fighting in Mexico, he learned a great deal from observing the diverse command styles of the two leading generals, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. He would later take Taylor as his model, consciously or not, in part by adopting Taylor’s modest manners—”General Taylor never made any great show or parade, either of uniform or retinue.” Grant in particular admired the way that Taylor took what he had, and made the most of it.
General Taylor was not an officer to trouble the administration much with his demands, but was inclined to do the best he could with the means given him…. If he had thought that he was sent to perform an impossibility with the means given him, he would probably have informed the authorities of his opinion and…have gone on and done the best he could with the means at hand without parading his grievance before the public. No soldier could face either danger or responsibility more calmly than he. These are qualities more rarely found than genius or physical courage.
This attitude was in obvious contrast to that of many Civil War generals, North and South, especially George B. McClellan, who constantly demanded additional resources and laid blame for his slowness and setbacks on parsimonious and meddlesome civilian authorities. Grant once called this attribute “moral courage.” It was made manifest in a willingness to make decisions and give orders, to take the initiative, and to overcome the fear of failure and disgrace if all did not go well, something that even physically brave men often shrink from doing. His performance in the Mexican War had amply demonstrated his personal courage, but he recognized that being in command required something more.
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In recounting one of his first actions in Missouri in 1861, Grant describes a moment of epiphany as a commander. He approached a rebel camp with considerable caution, only to find that it was abandoned:
My heart resumed its place. It occurred to me at once that Harris [the enemy commander] had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterwards. From that event to the close of the war, I never experienced trepidation upon confronting an enemy, though I always felt more or less anxiety. I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his. The lesson was valuable.
This insight naturally fits into Grant’s military philosophy, which imbues his Memoirs (although the quotation is from elsewhere): “The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can and as often as you can, and keep moving on.” This was in contrast to many of the standard tenets of war that Grant and other cadets learned at West Point (assuming Grant was paying attention, which is a big assumption) including the need to maintain secure lines of communication and the importance of key geographic locations—all of which suggested a cautious, conservative strategy.
His weakness as a commander, if any, was a tendency to take his natural aggressiveness too far—to assume that the enemy commander’s fears would always lead him to cede the initiative. This confidence led to setbacks in his Tennessee campaign during the attack on Fort Donelson and especially in the near-debacle at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, when Grant was surprised by a major Confederate attack. But these events also revealed another critical aspect of the moral courage of command, the refusal to accept defeat even in the face of horrific casualties that would have caused any other northern general to retreat. Grant did not allow himself to be paralyzed by a situation gone bad and by the panic of others. He perceived opportunity, not disaster. He knew that reinforcements were on the way and he took steps to expedite their appearance. He assumed, correctly, that the Confederates were just as disorganized and battered as the Union Army. His calmness and decisiveness reassured others. When one of his staff members suggested that he consider pulling back after the first bloody day at Shiloh, Grant snapped, “No, sir, I propose to attack at daylight and whip them.” One of Grant’s division commanders, William Sherman—no shrinking violet—had similar thoughts about withdrawing. According to historian Bruce Catton, Sherman found Grant that night taking shelter from the rain under a tree, smoking a cigar. “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” “Yes,” Grant replied, “lick ‘em tomorrow, though.” And they did.
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It was the same doggedness that caused Grant to inform the War Department in May 1864 that, despite the difficulties he was facing in the Overland Campaign against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” That was the quality that had recommended Grant so strongly to Abraham Lincoln—”I can’t spare this man; he fights.” Lincoln appreciated that Grant, following the model of Zachary Taylor, did not constantly demand more men and time before he moved but got on with what he had. Lincoln, like Grant, also possessed moral courage—he too had come to recognize that the South would not be subdued by a few set-piece Northern victories, or the seizure of this or that major city. The war would have to be fought to the bitter end. Grant, for his part, understood and appreciated that Lincoln had his back in the snake pit of Washington politics, and he was careful to avoid any suggestion that he was a potential political rival to the president.
Some have suggested that Grant’s aggressiveness—and his occasional lapses of judgment on the battlefield—can be attributed to “liquid courage.” Grant unquestionably had some sort of drinking problem while serving on the west coast after the Mexican War. In the expression of the day, he could not hold his liquor. He likely resigned his commission in order to avoid facing a court martial on this account. His Memoirs are silent on this matter. Most modern biographers do not think that Grant’s alcoholism, if it was that, had any real effect on his command performance, even if he very occasionally fell off the wagon.
His determination to press the attack home also led to accusations, then and now, that he was a “butcher,” the Civil War analog to the World War I British General, Sir Douglas Haig. The Memoirs naturally defends Grant’s generalship against those who insisted that the North won solely because of its manpower and industrial advantages, which overwhelmed the superior military leadership and spirit of the outmanned South (a view which fits easily into the “Lost Cause” legend). Grant describes with justifiable pride his campaign against Vicksburg in 1863, which combined persistence, innovation, and operational brilliance in defeating natural obstacles as well as the challenge of operating between two enemy armies deep in hostile territory without secure lines of communication. Military historians rightly regard this as one of the great campaigns of the modern age, worthy of a Napoleon or Wellington. Lincoln later wrote to Grant to apologize for doubting his approach.
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Things did not go quite as smoothly when Grant took the field in the east in 1864, and it is here that the accusations of his butchery took particular hold. “It was not an uncommon thing for my staff-officers to hear from Eastern officers, ‘Well, Grant has never met Bobby Lee yet,'” he observed wryly. Grant, unlike some later historians, did not assume that he had an overwhelming material advantage.
Estimated in the same manner as ours, Lee had not less than 80,000 men at the start. His reinforcements were about equal to ours during the campaign, deducting the discharged men and those sent back. He was on the defensive, and in a country in which every stream, every road, every obstacle to the movement of troops and every natural defense was familiar to him and his army. The citizens were all friendly to him and his cause, and could and did furnish him with accurate reports of our every move. Rear guards were not necessary for him, and having always a railroad at his back, large wagon trains were not required. All circumstances considered we did not have any advantage in numbers.
Even though Grant had not yet fought Lee, he knew him, along with most of the other major Confederate commanders, from his time in the Army and particularly during their service in the Mexican-American war.
The acquaintance thus formed was of immense service to me in the war of the rebellion—I mean what I learned of the characters of those to whom I was afterwards opposed. I do not pretend to say that all movements, or even many of them, were made with special reference to the characteristics of the commander against whom they were directed. But my appreciation of my enemies was certainly affected by this knowledge. The natural disposition of most people is to clothe a commander of a large army whom they do not know, with almost superhuman abilities. A large part of the National army, for instance, and most of the press of the country, clothed General Lee with just such qualities, but I had known him personally, and knew that he was mortal; and it was just as well that I felt this.
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Grant offers decisive accounts in his Memoirs of his operational conduct of the war and the strategy behind that conduct. For instance, upon taking overall command of the Union armies in 1864, he ordered that northern campaigns henceforth would be conducted simultaneously and coordinated to deny Confederate forces the advantage of operating on interior lines.
Grant offers decisive accounts in his of his operational conduct of the war and the strategy behind that conduct. For instance, upon taking overall command of the Union armies in 1864, he ordered that northern campaigns henceforth would be conducted simultaneously and coordinated to deny Confederate forces the advantage of operating on interior lines.
Before this time these various [Union] armies had acted separately and independently of each other, giving the enemy an opportunity often of depleting one command, not pressed, to reinforce another more actively engaged. I determined to stop this…. My general plan now was to concentrate all the force possible against the Confederate armies in the field. There were but two such, as we have seen, east of the Mississippi River and facing north. The Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee commanding, was on the south bank of the Rapidan, confronting the Army of the Potomac; the second, under General Joseph E. Johnston, was at Dalton, Georgia, opposed to Sherman who was still at Chattanooga. Beside these main armies the Confederates had to guard the Shenandoah Valley, a great storehouse to feed their armies from, and their line of communications from Richmond to Tennessee…. We could not abandon any territory north of the line held by the enemy because it would lay the Northern States open to invasion. But as the Army of the Potomac was the principal garrison for the protection of Washington even while it was moving on Lee, so all the forces to the west, and the Army of the James, guarded their special trusts when advancing them from as well as when remaining at them. Better indeed, for they forced the enemy to guard his own lines and resources at a greater distance from ours, and with a greater force. Little expeditions could not so well be sent out to destroy a bridge or tear up a few miles of railroad track, burn a storehouse, or inflict other little annoyances. Accordingly I arranged for a simultaneous movement all along the line.
When Grant explained this strategy to President Lincoln, he noted that it required no increase in manpower:
[I]t was necessary to have a great number of troops to guard and hold the territory we had captured, and to prevent incursions into the Northern States. These troops could perform this service just as well by advancing as by remaining still; and by advancing they would compel the enemy to keep detachments to hold them back, or else lay his own territory open to invasion. His [Lincoln’s] answer was: “Oh, yes! I see that. As we say out West, if a man can’t skin he must hold a leg while somebody else does.”
Grant did not want a war of attrition but he had no choice to accept it if Lee, with the advantages of terrain and with an experienced and highly motivated army, so insisted. Grant and the Army of the Potomac had to be prepared to hold the leg, at high cost, in order to allow Sherman and other Union commanders the freedom to maneuver elsewhere in more favorable situations.
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Grant’s Memoirs reveal not only his mastery of particular battlefields and campaigns but the clarity of his understanding of the grand strategy of the Civil War. It begins with his understanding of the first cause of the war—slavery. “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war,” he writes. “Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.” The war with Mexico and the acquisition of its northern territories “were, from the inception of the movement to its final consummation, a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union.”
For Grant, the principal schwerpunkt (focal point) of the Civil War was not any particular fixed point, battlefield, or confederate army but public opinion in the North, the support of which was necessary to bring the superior social and economic system of free labor fully into play. Confederate strategy, in its various forms, aimed to undermine Northern support for the war by demonstrating the superiority of Southern arms and the unbearable human costs that they could impose on the Union. The one additional element that could tilt the material advantage against the Union was foreign intervention on behalf of the South, which was made correspondingly more likely to the extent that the North seemed to be losing the war. Grant fought with these facts constantly in mind.
“The campaign of Vicksburg [in 1863] was suggested and developed by circumstances,” Grant notes. “The elections of 1862 had gone against the prosecution of the war. Voluntary enlistments had nearly ceased and the draft had been resorted to; this was resisted, and a defeat or backward movement would have made its execution impossible. A forward movement to a decisive victory was necessary.” At one point Sherman suggested that his command fall back to Memphis in order to guard his base of supplies—an eminently prudent military move. Grant replied,
the country is already disheartened over the lack of success on the part of our armies…if we went back so far as Memphis it would discourage the people so much that bases of supplies would be of no use: neither men to hold them nor supplies to put in them would be furnished. The problem for us was to move forward to a decisive victory, or our cause was lost. No progress was being made in any other field, and we had to go on.
When Grant finally succeeded at Vicksburg in July 1863,
[t]his news, with the victory at Gettysburg won the same day, lifted a great load of anxiety from the minds of the President, his Cabinet and the loyal people all over the North. The fate of the Confederacy was sealed when Vicksburg fell. Much hard fighting was to be done afterwards and many precious lives were to be sacrificed; but themorale was with the supporters of the Union ever after.
The war was not yet over, however, despite these successes in 1863. Grant pressed forward his all-fronts campaign in 1864 despite the appalling casualties entailed in his operations against Lee in northern Virginia because he felt he had to create the circumstances for decisive, public-pleasing success somewhere before the fall elections in the North. (That success turned out to be with Sherman and his campaign against Atlanta, and thence to the sea). Grant believed that of all the Confederate leaders, General Joseph Johnston, who fought a defensive campaign against Sherman before being relieved by Jefferson Davis, best understood the proper grand strategy of the South.
For my own part, I think that Johnston’s tactics were right. Anything that could have prolonged the war a year beyond the time that it did finally close, would probably have exhausted the North to such an extent that they might then have abandoned the contest and agreed to a separation…. The North was already growing weary, as the South evidently was also, but with this difference. In the North the people governed, and could stop hostilities whenever they chose to stop supplies. The South was a military camp, controlled absolutely by the government with soldiers to back it, and the war could have been protracted, no matter to what extent the discontent reached, up to the point of open mutiny of the soldiers themselves.
Grant came to understand the importance of Southern as well as Northern public opinion on the outcome of the war, and on the possibility of peace. His own and particularly Sherman’s and Philip Sheridan’s campaigns in 1864-65 were designed not only to free Northern armies from their logistical bases, deny the South essential military resources, and prevent Confederate armies from aiding each other, but also to bring home the costs of war to ordinary Southerners. For political as much as military reasons, Robert E. Lee and his army had to be defeated—which meant, if necessary, a willingness on Grant’s part to absorb very heavy casualties. The Union had to demonstrate that it could operate militarily wherever it chose in Southern territory. The North could then offer a relatively conciliatory peace, one that would preclude the resort to guerrilla war on the part of bitter-enders as well as any future thought of secession while reconstruction of the South took place. What exactly that reconstruction would look like was for the future to determine.
Grant’s Memoirs confront us with the case study of unexpected genius arising from the most unusual and humble circumstances, evidence that democracy can produce great and reflective commanders as well as great statesmen like Lincoln.
The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, in 2 volumes, were originally published 1885. The full text is available here.