Grant

front cover of Grant biographyI posted a review of the more than thousand page Ulysses S. Grant autobiography and thought I should follow that with the 173 page biography by John Mosier for those who want to know more about Grant but don’t have many days of reading time to commit. I understand that, although I will comment that the autobiography gives a much richer insight into the man and his remarkable accomplishments as a general. My primary complaint about Moiser’s book is that he could have reduced it by any number of pages if he hadn’t spent so much time comparing Grant’s military actions to those of other great generals. A couple of instances would have been appropriate and instructive, but there are dozens of instances.

Moiser is indeed a Grant fan. The fly cover says, “…Mosier reveals the man behind the military legend, showing how Grant’s creativity and genius off the battlefield shaped him into one of our nation’s greatest military leaders.” Grant had many critics, and the book attributes much of the criticism to other generals (read Halleck) who feared Grant’s successes would detract from their careers. Newspapers were filled with stories about the horrible slaughters of Civil War battles, and there emerged an image that Grant was a drunken butcher who won battles by sacrificing the lives of thousands of the soldiers in his overwhelmingly large forces. My belief is that Grant was indeed a master strategist who cared deeply about human life, understood the need for solid logistics, and was amazingly quick at determining proper tactics to take advantage of terrain. In short, I believe Grant was a leader in the true definition of what would make the average soldier in the trenches or on the march look at him and decide he was a man worth following. I submit the absolute trust given Grant by William Sherman, who famously said something to the effect “I know that you will come save me, if alive.” I can’t think of a more powerful endorsement of trust between comrades in arms.

One of the most interesting aspects of Grant’s biography is how little we know of him in his life outside the military. “Aside from being a military genius of the first order, Grant was a perfectly normal human being, and there is hardly anything in his childhood and youth, his family background and education to suggest future greatness. Grant was almost forty years old when the Civil War broke out, and one scours the records of his first four decades in vain for any clues to his greatness.” Grant was not an imposing figure. He never weighed more than 130 pounds and looked smaller than his five foot six inches because of his famous slouch. We know his real name was Hiram Ulysses Grant, but he was appointed to West Point as Ulysses Simpson Grant (Simpson was his mother’s maiden name), and West Point rules required that the name on the appointment could not be changed. He excelled at drawing landscapes, which was a crucial skill for military commanders in the days before contour maps. He seems “…to have had an almost instinctive grasp of terrain.” Critics later decided the incorrect name Ulysses Simpson stood for U.S., and that was derived from his demands for Unconditional Surrender. All of that was inaccurate, because Grant often offered “parole” to surrendering soldiers rather than being saddled with the logistics of dealing with many thousands of prisoners.

One of the most touching descriptions of Grant is how he fell in love with Julia Dent. Her family was slave owners, and Grant’s parents were adamantly opposed to slavery. Dent’s parents were unimpressed with his prospects. The two overcame parental opposition, married, suffered though many difficult times, and “…proved a remarkably stable couple…Of all the great captains of history, Grant was the most uxorious (devoted to his wife)…Whatever his weaknesses were…a wandering eye was not one of them.” He was deeply in love with Julia from the early days, and that didn’t change.

Grant first made his mark militarily in the War on Mexico, although he believed it was an unjust conflict to “…augment the number of states where slavery was still practiced. The conflict taught him that war required the need to understand the ordeal of seeing friends killed and wounded. It also taught him that soldiers need ammunition. He had to run the gauntlet of enemy fire to bring ammunition to soldiers who were running out, and he never forgot.

The situation for Ulysses and Julia Dent was typical for many soldiers after the Mexican War. She was pregnant and he wasn’t able to make enough money as a soldier to support a family. “That meant a separation, and that in turn led to depression and the bottle for Grant…” He resigned his commission and he moved to Galena, Illinois to work in the family business. It is written that he was “…hard-working, a devoted family man, and while he was not much of a success in civilian life, he was not a failure either and his life was ordinary to the point of banality.” How many of us would readily accept that despite remarkable “success” in life that we were “…hard-working, a devoted family man…” It is remarkable that Grant suffered severe criticism for his legacy despite such a remarkably powerful description of how he displayed his character before he was called back to service for the Civil War.

Grant originally turned down appointment to be a company commander and was rewarded the position of brigadier general under John Fremont. His initial inclination, which he followed through his military career, was that the fight had to be carried to the enemy. The final hundred pages or so of the book describes how Grant had military successes because he understood the enemy was also afraid, and that the battle had to be engaged without delay. Other Union generals wanted to slowly acquire territory while Grant wanted to punish the enemy and make them want to quit the field.

There is an aside about the Dieppe raid by the British against the Nazi-defended French Coast on August 19, 1942. Churchill used the massive failure of that raid as proof that an invasion across the channel was a mistake. The raid had been brutally defeated by the Germans, and Churchill believed the second front had to be almost anywhere other than against the French Coast. Stalin and Roosevelt overrode Churchill’s concerns, and the invasion was against the French Coast with thousands of casualties (although less than what Churchill feared).

There are detailed descriptions of how Grant was able to be achieving Union victories over Confederate forces in battle after battle. Overall, a worthwhile book if you are interested in learning more about Hiram Ulysses Grant who was incorrectly listed as Ulysses S. Grant.

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