I’ve been busy reading about the U.S. plans for nuclear war with the Soviet Union in the late 1940s and fell behind on reading on other history subjects. No worries, I found a review of Grant’s autobiography in my file when I was writing reviews under the title of “Amateur Historian.” Volume I is 584 pages and Volume II is 554 pages with a 78 page Appendix. The origin of Grant’s books is interesting. Mark Twain was suffering financial problems and heard that Grant was interested in publishing his memoirs to overcome similar financial problems. He visited Grant and offered to publish the book with a 75/25 split of profits. Grant knew by the time he accepted the offer that he was dying of mouth and throat cancer. There are reports Twain furnished Grant with cases of Vin Tonique Mariani, a Bordeaux wine combined with cocaine. The “tonic” allowed Grant to overcome pain and finish his writing before he died.
Grant’s books details troop movements before, during, and after various battles, complete with names of officers commanding various segments of both armies. Logistical efforts and geography of the battle sites are described, along with detailed hand drawn maps. Although I understand the significance of these descriptions, I admit to skimming while looking for anecdotes that would reveal more about Grant. Grant’s actual name was Hiram Ulysses Grant, but he was appointed to West Point as Ulysses Simpson Grant, with the Simpson being taken from his mother’s maiden name. West Point had a policy of not accepting any name other than what was on the nomination form, so the incorrect name stuck. Current lore finds it ironic that the general who led Federal troops at the end of the Civil War had U.S. as his first two initials. His detractors said his initials stood for “Unconditional Surrender Grant.”
I was struck by the description of Grant’s devotion to his wife, Julia Dent Grant. “Of all the great captains of history, Grant is the most uxorious.” I of course had to look up the meaning of “uxorious,” and found it to mean, “…doting upon, foolishly fond of, or affectionately over submissive toward one’s wife.” Mrs. Grant had strabismus, or was “cross-eyed.” When it was suggested to her that she have it corrected after Grant became President, he is reported to have said, “I like her that way.”
Grant’s military service after graduation from West Point was as a junior officer with the Army during the war on Mexico, and he would later reflect on the unfairness and “folly of the Mexican adventure.” He said the Civil War was in large part an outgrowth of the Mexican War, and that “…annexationists wanted more territory than they possibly could lay claim to….” The Mexican War was brutal for the invaders. The number of casualties expressed as a percentage of men deployed was the highest in American history, although only slightly higher than the percentage during the Civil War. Grant was introduced to many of the principle characters of the Civil War during that campaign, including becoming best friends with Lee and Longstreet. Longstreet was the best man at the Grant’s wedding.
An interesting aside is given about hearing what he thought to be at least twenty wolves howling while he was in Mexico. He then saw there were only two, and says, “I have often thought of this incident when I have heard the noise of a few disappointed politicians who had deserted their associates. There are always more of them before they are counted.”
Grant is credited with being one of, if not the greatest, generals in American history. There are examples given comparing him to other great generals in world. He is credited with beginning the policy of treating prisoners well. This “…became enshrined in American military traditions, as evidenced by the massive German surrenders to American forces during the Second World War.”
There are those who question whether Grant was a great general or a butcher. He led many victories because he ordered aggressive attacks, which Lincoln appreciated despite the large numbers of casualties that alarmed the public. Grant’s critics went to Lincoln and complained that he was a drunk. Lincoln is said to have replied, “I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.”
Grant recorded few reactions to the slaughters while battles were being fought. He did once describe trying to sleep by a tree in the rain with a badly injured ankle at Shiloh. “I moved back to the log-house…This had been taken as a hospital, and all night wounded men were being brought in, their wounds dressed, a leg or an arm amputated as the case might require…The sight was more unendurable than encountering the enemy’s fire, and I returned to my tree in the rain.” He also observes that his troops occupied a rebel hospital after the battle of Champion’s Hill. “While a battle is raging one can see his enemy mowed down by the thousand, or ten thousand, with great composure; but after the battle these scenes are distressing, and one is naturally disposed to do as much to alleviate the suffering of an enemy as a friend.”
Grant was distressed about financial dealings ordered during the war. “Among other embarrassments, at the time of which I now write, was the fact that the government wanted to get out all the cotton possible from the South and directed me to give every facility toward that end. Pay in gold was authorized…”
Grant was a colonel at the beginning of the war, and he and his regiment were transferred to Missouri. He was pursuing a Confederate officer named Thomas Harris, and he followed a simple principle that characterized his actions throughout the war. He said, “The only way to whip an army is to go out and fight it.” He deployed his regiment straight toward where he believed Harris and his soldiers were camped. He admitted “…my heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything to be back in Illinois.” He discovered the Confederates had pulled out, and realized “…Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him.” It was common for him to see soldiers flee in fear from a battle. He never forgot his own fear, and never discredited enlisted men as cowards when they allowed their fear to cause them to run away. He only asked that they return to the fight. He had different standards for officers.
There are compelling descriptions of Vicksburg, Petersburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and other bloody battles. Grant writes of Appomattox, “What of General Lee’s feelings were I do not know…my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant…were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed…”
Grant is described as being poorly prepared to be President. There are persistent stories that he was an alcoholic, but I found no references to him being drunk and unable to perform as a commander. He found be “…that in the military everyone does what he’s told, and in civilian life, they don’t.” Grant’s successes as a soldier did not prepare him for the ugly world of civilian government.