Tales of Brave Ulysses

I finished recently The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant which I read once before about fifteen years ago. It’s a hard book to put down. Grant writes with such clarity and directness that you feel like he is sitting next to you and telling a story. My only complaint is that there should be a map for each chapter. Grant spends a lot of time on the terrain and topography, as you would expect a general would, and I found I needed more than the handful of maps provided in the edition (I have the 1982 version from Da Capo Press, E.B. Long, ed.).

The “personal” part of the memoirs is a bit of a misnomer. Grant spends only a little time on his boyhood and background and no time at all on his presidency. The book is a chronicle of his military life. He was a reluctant soldier and did not particularly enjoy his time at West Point. He served in the Mexican War, which he viewed as immoral, imperialism run amok. His time in the regular army after that, which included a stint in Panama and in California, was mostly unhappy. Grant discusses his leaving the army, which he claims were for personal reasons (low pay, lack of opportunity, separation from his family), and his celebrated drinking is not mentioned at all. Grant was most likely an alcoholic in the sense that he could not control his drinking once started. But his drunkenness is mostly exaggerated by history. After all, one could hardly command troops in a war, win battles, get promoted to commander-in-chief, and ultimately become president in a drunken state. Most likely Grant drank when he was lonely and separated from his beloved wife Julia and his children. It was not an issue in the Civil War. He was a teetotaler, his only vice was his constant cigar-smoking. Throat cancer ultimately killed him just as he finished his famous book.

Why this book? First, insight into the man. He was a kind of quintessential American. Quiet, reserved, and formal, but not timid or a pushover. In fact he was a man of extraordinary determination and resolution. He mentions several times that he found himself in tough spots and lacked “the moral courage” to turn around or run away. That is, once he went forward he could not go backwards! The entire book is one of forward motion. He’s constantly looking ahead and preparing for the next move and you are eager to stick with him.

Second, his prose. The language is brisk, forceful, and matter-of-fact. He obviously wrote copious quantities of orders, dispatches, and reports while an officer in the Civil War (many are reproduced in the book), and he had a sure hand. You know exactly what he is trying to say—he makes his meanings plain. It’s difficult to imagine a subordinate not knowing precisely what was expected of him.

Third, the sweep of history. The American Civil War was obviously a watershed event and Grant played a major role. We get Grant’s thoughts on all the other military leaders of the time. He was either a classmate of or served with (in the Mexican War) almost every important battlefield commander on both sides of the conflict. We also get his thoughts on political leaders (Lincoln, in particular, whom Grant greatly admired) and issues of the day. One can hardly get a handle on “the rebellion” as Grant termed it without reading this book. He has a great facility for the thumbnail sketch—in a few sentences he gives you a sharp, insightful picture of a famous personage.

In the end you can’t help but be drawn to Grant the man. He is loath to insult or denigrate another person even if that person’s actions were reprehensible to him. Grant is honest and forthright but does not have an ax to grind. He is cognizant of his place in history but there is absolutely no conceit in his words. He tries his best to be fair while also explaining and justifying himself. He speaks kindly of his foes and recognizes the sincerity of their efforts even if he feels their cause was unjustifiable. You come to appreciate his even temper and his calm, dispassionate outlook. Grant comes across as a man who did his best with what faced him, never shirking or complaining or demanding from others what he was not willing to do himself.

The story of his meeting with Robert E. Lee at Appomattox to discuss the terms of surrender is typical of the entire narrative. This momentous event is rendered in the same plain English, in the same thoughtful, self-effacing style as the rest of the story. Grant relates how he received instructions to meet Lee while he was in the field, on horseback, and hastened to the spot, feeling eager and triumphant. Yet upon entering the scene he is overtaken by a great sadness and is hardly able to compose his thoughts. He is embarrassed by his rough field uniform as Lee is in full dress for the occasion, and feels the need to apologize for his appearance. Lee was General Winfield Scott’s executive officer in the Mexican War, so he was well known to Grant and most other Union officers. Grant mentions his surprise that Lee remembered him as well (Grant was a captain and regimental quartermaster at the time), and that they both conversed easily and discussed old times and mutual acquaintances. Finally, with the business concluded, Grant rides off, but orders his troops to behave with dignity toward their vanquished opponents, and silences celebratory cannonades.

U.S. Grant is one of the most interesting characters in American history. Possessed of a fierce, unwavering streak, and great moral force, he could see things through to the end. A master strategist, he had a native grasp of critical points, both geographical and political, in a conflict. He understood the big picture. He did not seek to command, only to serve, but when given command he led by example. Simple and modest in his personal habits, with little in the way of ambition, he became an international celebrity for his accomplishments.

The Personal Memoirs is the story of a man thrust, against his nature, on to history’s center stage, but who nonetheless seizes his moment and gives his all because he can’t imagine doing any less. This man, unlike so many who are touched by power and fame, remains true to himself: manly, dignified, sincere, sensitive, gracious, and humble. I can’t recommend this book highly enough!