From General Ulysses S. Grant’s childhood, it was apparent that his life would be defined by the great crusade to save the Union and crush slavery. His family was sharply divided by politics (Grant, pp. 16-17). “The line between the Rebel and Union elements . . . led to divisions even in the churches” of his small Ohio town (Grant, p. 21). And, he came of age at a time during which the continuing entrenchment of the Southern slave system radicalized the politics around it.
It was less clear, however, that Grant would lead the march towards victory. Even after his father sent him to West Point, he remained “devoted to novels” and “did not take [to his] studies with avidity” (Grant, p. 22). In fact, he nearly failed out of West Point because he had “no intention then of remaining in the army” (Grant, p. 23).
Yet, Grant was a commander and a patriot who recognized early on that “[t]here are but few important events in the affairs of men brought about by their own choice” (Grant, p. 3). The memoir is therefore the story of a man, and reluctant hero, who rose to one of the most perilous crises in American history, and oversaw a successful strategy to bring the Civil War to a favorable conclusion. Principally, it tells the story of Grant’s military service—and only briefly discusses his family and presidency. This focus underscores how the military defined his life. Grant’s incisive two volume work is also his final attempt to respond to his critics and define his – and his soldiers’ – legacies.
Grant foregrounds his Civil War experience by detailing his tour in the Mexican-American War, which he viewed as “one of the most unjust ever waged” (Grant, p. 27) because Mexico was “provoked by the action of the [American] army, if not by the annexation [of Texas]” (Grant, p. 26). He served under General Zachary Taylor, – the future 12th president – who he emulated in modesty opposition to plundering, flamboyant parades–and uniform–(Grant, p. 43), particularly when he somberly accepted Lee’s surrender while wearing “the uniform of a private with the straps of a lieutenant-general” (Grant, p. 353). Grant also served with future rebel commanders, gaining crucial knowledge of their habits and character. Unlike those who deified General Robert E. Lee’s skills, Grant was comfortable facing him as he “had known him personally, and knew that he was mortal” (Grant, p. 73).
To Grant, the war with Mexico did not just prepare him for the coming crisis—it was also the proximate cause of it, generating a new, irreconcilable conflict over the expansion of slavery (Grant, p. 80). Unlike the Mexican-American War, Grant regarded the Union’s effort in the Civil War as supremely just because slavery was “one of the worst [causes] for which a people ever fought” (Grant, p. 353) and the true, non-revisionist cause of the Civil War “will have to be attributed to slavery” (Grant, p. 373). Grant also contends that the Union victory benefited black and white Southerners. In his view, secession was advanced by a small, slave-holding class that exploited the “poor white trash” who fought their wars (Grant, p. 83). These reasons help justify the massive casualties that occurred on his watch.
Grant dedicates much of the two volumes providing a chronological narrative of his Civil War exploits. He assiduously details the events antecedent to three of his major victories. The Battle of Shiloh facilitated the Union advance on the Mississippi River and clarified that the war would take time (Grant, p. 131). The Mississippi River was secured and “[t]he fate of the Confederacy was sealed when Vicksburg fell” (Grant, p. 197), for this victory “gave new spirit to the loyal people of the North” just as support for the war was ebbing (Grant, p. 199). During this siege, Grant also pioneered a program to employ Freedmen to assist his troops, and he claims that this is “where the first idea of a ‘Freedman’s Bureau’ took its origin” (Grant, p. 150). The subsequent triumph over better supplied rebel troops at Chattanooga primed the path for Sherman’s March to the Sea.
Later, he discusses his promotion to Lieutenant General, which effectively placed him in charge of the Union war strategy; Lincoln apparently delegated military planning responsibilities, saying “he did not want to know what [Grant] proposed to do” (Grant, p. 237). And, he credits his decision to unify the command structure and direct all available assets to launch a simultaneous offensive as accelerating the Union victory and preventing Northern acquiescence, as anything that “prolonged the war [another] year . . . would probably have exhausted the North to such an extent that they might then have . . . agreed to a separation” (Grant, p. 250).
Grant’s descriptions of battles center intensely on his command decisions, often illuminating the tactical importance of topography and securing local infrastructure. Here, Grant describes maneuvers during the Vicksburg campaign which resulted in over 400 Union casualties:
It was necessary to have transportation for ammunition . . . [this] country is very much broken and the roads generally confined to the tops of the hills. The troops were moved one (sometimes two) corps at a time to reach designated points out parallel to the railroad . . . Fourteen Mile Creek, a stream substantially parallel with the railroad, was reached and crossings effected by McClernand and Sherman with slight loss . . . It would not be possible for Pemberton to attack me with all his troops at one place, and I determined to throw my army between his . . . all the ferries had been guarded (Grant, pp. 172-175).
Ironically, these tableaux often make the Civil War seem like a huge game—of chess, with the noble players moving pieces around the board until one graciously attains victory. Grant’s frequent recollections of the fighting before major battles as nearly rising to the “dignity” (Grant, p. 306) of battle reinforce this notion of the Civil War as a so-called gentleman’s game, and obscure the reality that even small engagements involved Americans killing Americans. This motif is further evident when Grant relates how he so enjoyed chatting with Lee at Appomattox, that it was Lee who had to pull him back to the topic of their meeting—the surrender – and an end to the bloodshed. Indeed, this is the crucial insight missing from Grant’s work: the Civil War was a huge human tragedy, especially for the enlisted men who bore the brunt of Grant’s command decisions, but their voices are conspicuously, though – not surprisingly – absent.
Concurrently, Grant’s account offers a glimpse of how different warfare once was. For example, Grant visits his troops on the picket line facing down Confederate troops mere feet away at Chattanooga. Instead of decapitating the Union leadership by killing Grant, the Confederate troops recognize him and “facing [him] . . . gave a salute, which [he] returned” (Grant, p. 211). Today, such chivalry is almost unthinkable.
During the same battles, Grant frequently notes how “the most friendly relations seemed to exist between the pickets of the two armies” (Grant, p. 212), with the soldiers exchanging friendly comments one moment and lethal fire the next. Those vignettes are a somber reminder of the barbaric reality of the Civil War: it was family against family, friend against friend—American against American.
Later, Grant defends Sherman’s March to the Sea—arguing that “the worst acts that were attributed to Sherman’s army were [likely] committed by” Southern criminals (Grant, p. 313); he details the maneuvers that let him surround Lee’s army and negotiate his surrender at Appomattox, and appraises his many adversaries and political rivals within the Union and Confederate realms, such as Lee, whom he regarded as “the ablest general in the Confederate army” (Grant, p. 239).
Grant often inserts copies of letters to detail his orders to troops and negotiations with adversaries, which lend credibility to his account. For instance, when he describes the closing episodes of his negotiations for Lee—surrounded and cut-off from supplies—to surrender at Appomattox, Grant uses letters from Lee to show how he set-up negotiations and laid down terms (Grant, pp. 351-352). This exchange also highlights how the adroit Grant was as a military commander and diplomatic negotiator.
While Grant does not delve into his political career or his thoughts about President Johnson, he praises President Lincoln and alludes to his complicated relationship with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Although only superficially discussed in this work, Grant’s evolving views on Reconstruction are implicit in his kind treatment of captured Southerners, and his initial apprehension about preventing Jefferson Davis from fleeing the country, fearing that he would be executed (Grant, p. 365). Grant concludes with a plea for reconciliation and a warning: that peace is only sustainable if America is “prepared for war” (Grant, p. 375). An appendix with more letters provides further context.
Despite his epic efforts to preserve the Union, Grant embraces some almost authoritarian positions. For one, he argues that the Constitution and its guaranteed freedoms were inapplicable during the Civil War because the Framers did not envision a rebellion, nor, by extension, the Constitution being applied in such a scenario (Grant, p. 83). Similarly, he was so perturbed by what he perceived as malicious misrepresentations by his critics that he labels the Northern press as “an auxiliary to the Confederate army” (Grant, p. 358) because they allegedly “magnified rebel successes, and belittled those of the Union” (Grant, p. 230). He even “admired the South . . . [for silencing] all opposition and all croaking, by press or by individuals, within their control” (Grant, p. 157).
These memoirs provide rich material for historians and researchers. They provide an incisive lens into America’s darkest days – albeit a filtered one. The primary source – Grant – is not objective. Written from a somewhat selective memory, Grant neglects to explain his infamous General Order Number 11, which, according to historian Jonathan Sarna, briefly expelled all Jews from his military district by blaming the Jewish race for lawbreaking. Moreover, despite Grant’s extensive use of supporting letters, the phrases “my recollection is” (Grant, p. 331). and “I quote from memory” (Grant, p. 359) are ubiquitous and require further verification.
The memoir assumes that readers have a broad knowledge of the Civil War, but Grant’s audience lived through it. Today, they need additional information to understand the full context; having a battle map filled with Grant’s descriptions helps.
At the very least, reading this classic is a lesson in fully appreciating the vision, courage, and turmoil behind the tough decisions a commander must make in battle–even if they cause divisions–or death–between brothers and friends.
Quentin Levin is a college student majoring in Communications, Law, Economics, and Government and is passionate about history.