Back in the sunny pastures of high school APUSH, or Advanced Placement U.S. History, I first heard of Ulysses S. Grant, a cigar chomping general that later became president. I had only heard that he commanded troops at the Battle of Shiloh, but was unaware of his significance and scope in U.S. history. But who was he – really? I figured one of the best places to discover the essence of Grant would be his acclaimed memoirs, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Complete, that were mentioned in class. Fortunately, the memoirs are completely free and accessible online at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4367/4367-h/4367-h.htm. My journey to find the historical Grant had begun.
My first impression was surprise due to the sheer impressive nature of the work. He wrote the memoirs in two volumes. This contradicted what I had always envisioned of him as the ‘strong-silent’ type, rather than an avid writer. It appears Grant wrote the memoirs in New York around 1885 after injuring himself and becoming financially destitute as he described his situation in the preface. The work was composed in over seventy chapters, which seemed to be comprehensive from his boyhood through major engagements of both the Mexican American War and the Civil War, until the final surrender of the South. Like a competent officer, he included several annexes such as maps, ‘fac-similies’, and illustrations to further explain his points. The prose was very clear and concise, just like his orders during the war.
In the early chapters, Grant recounted his background. He noted his ancestors had settled in American in the 1630s – truly an ‘All-American’ background. He also emphasized the military service of his ancestors in the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, which set a family precedent. He recorded his initial exposure to school and remarked, “I was not studious in habit.” I found his reaction to being appointed to West Point to be almost comical. Grant’s father had been friends with Senator Thomas Morris, and had been planning to get Grant appointed to West Point, unbeknownst to him. When his father told him of the appointment in the winter of 1838-1839, he initial refused to go as he felt the possibility of failure at the academy. Ultimately, Grant was convinced by his father and his wander-lust to attend the United States Military Academy. He was personally motivated by an inspection by General Winfield Scott, one of the main heroes of The War of 1812. During the wish list of branch selection, he chose dragoons over the infantry, but got assigned as a foot soldier. However, he was mocked in Ohio because of his uniform by a scruff child and by an innkeeper. Grant’s initial reaction to military life was interesting because he had his own personal adventure with it, and did not always get the consequence he hoped for, just like any officer cadet.
Grant then recorded the various combat engagements he fought in. In the Mexican-American War, these included the Battles of Palo Alto, Buena Vista, and the invasion of Mexico City itself. He was promoted during these campaigns, rising to the rank of First Lieutenant. After this period of intense conflict, he moved to California, started a family, and even resigned from his commission.
However, he soon returned to the fray during the Civil War, initially in the West, fighting at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, then at Shiloh, and climaxing in the Siege of Vicksburg – ending the first volume. The second volume started with the Battle of Chattanooga. Grant, taking control of the Army in 1864, then detailed the campaigns of his subordinates William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan, as well as major battles, such as Cold Harbor, Spotsylvania, and the siege of Petersburg. He concluded the memoirs with the negotiations at Appomattox and his overall remarks on the war. Slavery, which at first he had no opinion on, “was a degradation which the North would not permit any longer.” These views coincided with acclaimed historian James M. McPherson text For Cause and Comrades, especially the fact of Union troops who had no side in the slavery debate became de facto abolitionists during their occupation of the South as they were repulsed by the wretched condition of slaves. He also gave poignant prescriptions such as, “To maintain peace in the future it is necessary to be prepared for war.” Such quotes are both stirring and haunting – truly the work of a wise man and an interesting way to close his memoirs.
So who was Grant? He was an ordinary man from Ohio, with a compelling background, who experienced engagements during the Mexican War that he applied in the Civil War, both in the Eastern and Western theatre of operations. Despite some character flaws, he was an outstanding general, the commander the United States needed to win the Civil War in its darkest hour. His memoirs were comprehensive – more so than I realized – and thought provoking almost 150 years after they were written.
Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, Complete. New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1885. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4367/4367-h/4367-h.htm#ch2
McPherson, James M. For Cause & Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.