Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant - Book Review

Ulysses S. Grant (1822 – 1885) was the seventeeth President of the United States, succeeding Andrew Johnson to the presidency in 1868. His reputation, until recently placed him in the lower middle of United States Presidents, although his reputation seems to have risen in recent years. He has been tarred with blame for scandals brought on by his loyalty to subordinates who were sometimes corrupt. Grant was never seen as corrupt himself and deserves credit for having sought to conduct the reconstruction of the south according to principles he understood Lincoln to have stood for, which were undone by President Andrew Johnson. He was also instrumental in strengthening the U.S. Civil Service. His memoirs begin with his youth and childhood, follow him through his education at the U.S. Military Academy, his service in the Mexican War, a period when he was out of the Army, and his return to serve in the Army where he rose from his first appointment recruiting and training soldiers in Illinois to command of all Union forces, eventually accepting Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

The story of the publication of Grant's Memoirs is almost as interesting as the two volumes themselves. During his administration, Grant had become a friend of Mark Twain, who was a regular visitor at the White House. Upon his retirement, Grant entered into a number of business ventures, all of which failed, usually due to Grant's continued insistence on trusting undeserving people who milked him for everything he had. He was also diagnosed as having throat cancer and had little time left to live. Bankrupt and sick, he sought to write his memoirs to provide sufficient money to support his wife Julia after his death. Twain, an often failed business man himself, arranged to publish Grant's memoirs, the final parts of which were dictated as he neared death. It turned out that Grant was a fine writer, the public showed itself eager to read his story, published posthumously. The sales of Grant's memoirs, managed by Twain's publishing company, provided sufficient income to maintain Julia Dent Grant in comfort until she died. The book sold over 300, 000 copies, generating $450,000 for the Grant family. In addition, the U.S. Government restored Grant's rank, and thus his pension, allowing him sufficient comfort during his illness.

Ulysses S. Grant

Grant, as a general, developed a reputation for being a hard charging fighter who kept his troops in motion, never giving the enemy an opportunity to rest or reorganize. As a writer he shows himself to be the same man. His writing is often blunt and direct. He uses understatement to damn and condemn incompetence, laziness, or excess caution in others. He shows flashes of humor and a deep sense of irony. He's as good a writer as those who recommend his memoirs suggest. Grant distinguished himself in horsemanship rather than scholarship while at West Point and graduated without distinction. He was posted to California for a couple of years where he, unfortunately developed a reputation for heavy drinking, a reputation that followed him and hurt his advance during the rest of his career. My reading of Grant material suggests he may have responded badly to small amounts of alcohol, but never indulged during times of action. He doesn't address the issue at all in his memoirs. Apparently, Grant over-indulged in alcohol use during periods of inacivity, when bored or separated from his family. When circumstances called for him to be on top of a situation, he never seemed to have abused alcohol. Nevertheless, his reputation for drinking hindered the advancement of his military career.

According to Grant, his service in the Mexican War, which he opposed as an excessive exercise of American power, taught him a great deal about leadership, lessons which came to good advantage during the Civil War. He also came to know many brother officers who served both with him and against him during the war. His assessments of other officer's strengths and weaknesses are pointed and direct. His self assessments always modest and understated. As a general, the strongest criticism of Grant in the press and, perhaps, at the top off the military establishment lay in the fact that during his campaigns he inflicted much damage while losing too many of his own troops. Through a series of victories in the West, as he won victories heading down the Mississippi River, he carefully catalogs his own losses against those of the Confederates, building a strong case for the necessity of his sacrifices of human capital. Grant frequently rails against superiors more interested in planning and organizing than in fighting. He particularly wrangles with General Halleck, an intellectual reluctant to engage in fighting. His only major defeat came in the battle of Shiloh, which he argues cost the Confederates more than it cost the Union despite their victory. Otherwise, from Forts Henry and Donelson to Nashville and Chattanooga he commanded Union forces to Victory. When Vicksburg fell to his siege on the same day as the Union forces emerged victorious at Gettysburg, a Union victory was assured even though two years remained in the struggle.

While Grant was forging ahead in the West, a series of commanders drilled and marched in front of Washington but were unable to mount effective campaigns. Eventually, Lincoln tired of the procrastination and called Grant to command all Union forces. Grant then engaged on the costly but effective Wilderness Campaign while directing Sherman as he marched through Georgia to the sea and then headed north. At a distance, Grant was unable to get capable but dilatory generals like Thomas and Canby to move in the west, much to his frustration. Grant is generous in giving credit to subordinate officers and to certain elements of his superiors, while also capable of pretty scathing criticism. His irritation at General McClernand in the west, who refuses to do much of anything Grant orders him to do, is palpable. Eventually, Grant forces him out. There is never a point during his narrative where Grant faults soldiers. He applauds their courage, tenacity, and willingness to fight, especially as morale improves in the final rush to defeat Lee, capture Richmond, and force surrender at Appomattox. His sense of loss at Lincoln's assassination is palpable.

Grant's narrative is plain spoken and direct. Mark Twain commented about Grant's writing: “...the enemy originated the idea of [of Sherman's march]...It struck me because it was as suggestive of the General's epigrammatic fashion – paying a great deal in a very crisp sentence.” (The Autobiography of Mark Twain, 382) The only places where I found myself having difficulty lay in his descriptions of maneuvers during certain battles, and that's mostly because I don't have a very good ability to visualize such matters. To clarify these sections in my own mind, I used Wikipedia accounts of the battles with particular attention to the very good maps there. The memoirs end with an account of what Grant understands Lincoln's plans for reconstruction would have been had he not been killed. In a very few words he skewers Johnson, but that's really not news. I found these memoirs, completed in 1886 to be readable and enjoyable.

Our son Alex gave us a Kindle for Christmas, and this book was the first one I chose to read using this new approach to books, partly because it, like so many others are offered for free on the Kindle by Amazon. I'll probably write about Kindle more later, but suffice it to say I very much enjoy reading on this device. As I grow older, reading heavy books has become increasingly difficult. They just weigh too much, my hands get tired, and the growing palsy ain't helpful either. Anyway, reading Grant's Memoirs on Kindle was a joy, and I expect to use it increasingly. I'm also enthusiastic about not using paper or paying for the printing and binding process as a part of my reading experience. It also saves considerable weight and space in our small trailer. The Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant are a free download from Amazon for Kindle users. I read parts 1 & 2 covering his life until the end of the Civil War, and will read the rest in the future. Good stuff.