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

            Lillian Cunningham is a reporter for the Washington Post. By her own admission, she is not a Presidential scholar but that did not stop her from hosting a 44 week podcast called “Presidential.” I listened to the entire podcast and decided that there is something to the idea that if you want to learn about something in depth, teach it. It took Lillian’s lack of preconception to allow her to portray each President in a refreshing way. For example, each week Lillian would ask the question “What could I expect if I was set up on a blind date with this President?” Sounds hokey but it actually turned out to be a brilliant question for opening up a conversation about the personality and character of each President. For people without an in depth knowledge of the Presidents, “Presidential” is an accessible introduction to the subject. 

            Each week Lillian would have 2 or 3 guests who would help her tell the story of the President being discussed that week. Usually, the guests were noted experts like David McCullough or other prominent biographers as well as subject matter specialists from the Library of Congress. For Ulysses S. Grant, however, Lillian did not have a guest who had particular expertise on Grant but, as I recall, a couple Post reporters with knowledge of the Civil War and Reconstruction. These guests agreed ahead of their appearance that it would be helpful to read Grant’s Memoirs. It was their comments on that podcast that led me to read the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. I have had a copy of the memoirs for several years but have never been able to bring myself to dive in. I am glad I finally did.

            Grant wrote his memoirs during his race against cancer with the hope that his story would provide financial security for his wife. Published by Mark Twain after Grant’s death, the book was, to say the least, a bestseller. It more than accomplished his goal of securing Julia Grant’s future. 

            As I have said previously, while I love Presidential history, I am not much of a military historian. Grant’s memoirs are almost entirely a recounting of his service in the Mexican and Civil Wars. His Presidency is not discussed. Notwithstanding this, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Grant’s writing and description of events. I admit to skimming over a few of the minor battles particularly since I recently read Ronald White’s excellent biography of Grant where he deals with Grant’s military exploits in some depth. 

            Grant was a fascinating if unlikely military hero. As he makes clear, he was not enthused about attending West Point. When his father told him he was going to go to the military academy he responded that he would not. His father replied that he thought Ulysses would and, if he thought so, then Ulysses better think so too. The lines of authority in families were a little clearer then.

            After West Point, Grant hoped to do his minimum service and then get out of the military. Unfortunately, the Mexican War disrupted that plan. While Grant thought that war was an unjust war that the United States should be ashamed of provoking, he does appear to have enjoyed his time in Mexico. His description of his life south of the border is rife with interesting details and humorous anecdotes. And it undoubtedly played a significant role in preparing him for his star turn in the Civil War or, as he referred to it, “the rebellion.”

           “My experience in the Mexican War was of great advantage to me afterwards. Besides the many practical lessons it taught, the war brought nearly all the officers of the regular army together so as to make them personally acquainted…Graduating in 1843, I was at the military academy from one to four years with all cadets who graduated between 1840 and 1846—seven classes. These classes embraced more than fifty officers who afterwards became generals on one side or the other in the rebellion…The acquaintance thus formed was of immense service to me in the war of the rebellion—I mean what I learned of the characters of those to whom I was afterwards opposed…The natural disposition of most people is to clothe a commander of a large army whom they do not know, with almost superhuman abilities. A large part of the National Army, for instance, and most of the press of the country, clothed General Lee with just such qualities, but I had known him personally, and knew that he was mortal; and it was just as well that I felt this.”

            Ultimately, Grant did get out of the military and pursued a variety of vocations, all of which were unmitigated failures. He had no longing to return to the military but felt a responsibility to serve the Union when the Civil War broke out. Over half the book details his rise to leadership of the Union Army. 

            An example of the clarity of Grant’s narrative is his explanation of the importance of Vicksburg to the Union Army. While I obviously learned a bit about the battle for Vicksburg in school and have even visited the cemetery at Vicksburg, one paragraph from Grant was all it took to illuminate why he was determined to take Vicksburg.

            “Vicksburg was important to the enemy because it occupied the first high ground coming close to the river below Memphis. From there a railroad runs east, connecting with other roads leading to all points of the Southern States. A railroad also starts from the opposite side of the river, extending west as far as Shreveport, Louisiana. Vicksburg was the only channel, at the time…connecting the parts of the Confederacy divided by the Mississippi. So long as it was held by the enemy, the free navigation of the river was prevented. Hence its importance.”

            Unlike the Mexican War, Grant had no reservations about the cause he was fighting for in the Civil War:

            “There was no time during the rebellion when I did not think…that the South was to be more benefited by its defeat than the North. The latter had the people, the institutions, and the territory to make a great and prosperous nation. The former was burdened with an institution abhorrent to all civilized people not brought up under it, and one which degraded labor, kept it in ignorance , and enervated the governing class. With the outside world at war with this institution, they could not have extended their territory. The labor of the country was not skilled, nor allowed to become so. The whites could not toil without becoming degraded, and those that did were denominated “poor white trash.” The system of labor would have soon exhausted the soil and left the people poor. The non-slaveholders would have left the country, and the small slaveholders must have sold out to his more fortunate neighbor. Soon the slaves would have outnumbered the masters, and, not being in sympathy with them, would have risen in their might and exterminated them. The war was expensive to the South as well as to the North, both in blood and treasure, but it was worth all the cost.”

            Several of the Presidents in A Presidents Story believed that slavery would run its course and not be able to survive economic reality. In the quote above, Grant appears to have held the same belief which leads one to question whether the war really was worth the cost of over 600,000 lives (almost more than all other United States wars combined). Combined with constitutionally questionable restrictions on civil liberties, the necessity and prosecution of the war is certainly, at a minimum, debatable. Grant’s response to this concern was given in his characteristically frank assessment of the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton:

            [Mr. Stanton] never questioned his own authority, and…always did in war time what he wanted to do. He was an able constitutional lawyer and jurist; but the Constitution was not an impediment to him while the war lasted. In this latter particular I entirely agree with the view he evidently held. The Constitution was not framed with a view to any such rebellion as that of 1861-1865. While it did not authorize rebellion it made no provision against it. Yet the right to resist or suppress rebellion is as inherent as the right of self-defence, and as natural as the right of an individual to preserve his life when in jeopardy. The Constitution was therefore in abeyance for the time being, so far as it in any way affected the progress and termination of the war.”

Suffice it to say that Ulysses S. Grant was more of a “living document” than “originalist” type of guy when it came to interpretation of the Constitution.

            Perhaps the most striking aspect of the memoirs is Grant’s reflections on leadership. He is unsparing with those who he held in low esteem but that list never includes the soldiers that did the actual fighting under his direction (or, for that matter, the rank and file of the opposition). I thought the following was probably gratifying to those who served under him and who read his memoirs after he died:

            “The armies of Europe are machines: the men are brave and the officers capable; but the majority of the soldiers in most of the nations of Europe are taken from a class of people who are not very intelligent and who have little interest in the contest in which they are called upon to take part. Our armies were composed of men who were able to read, men who knew what they were fighting for, and could not be induced  to serve as soldiers, except in an emergency when the safety of the nation was involved, and so necessarily must have been more than equal to men who fought merely because they were brave and because they were thoroughly drilled and inured to hardships.”

            Grant’s final chapter was the only slightly disappointing moment in his memoirs. The conclusion was perplexing for a book that, up to that point, was reasonably linear, clear and compelling. While Grant begins the final chapter with an homage to the lofty goal of ending slavery as the need for the Civil War, he quickly veers to events in Mexico during the War Between the States. He criticizes European countries for attempting to influence and control Mexico while the United States was distracted with its own problems. While this was understandably annoying, it was not at all the expected final topic.

Ultimately, I concluded that Grant had three passions in his life: 

1. His wife, 

2. Preserving the Union through ending slavery, and 

3. Travel, particularly his time in the West and Mexico.  

Having thoroughly dealt with the first two through the writing and publishing of his memoirs, he must have felt the need to make one last plea on Mexico’s behalf to assuage his oft-stated guilt over the Mexican War. In any event, it was an odd finale.

If you enjoy military history conveyed through honest and, often, clever writing, Grant’s memoirs are for you. As mentioned previously, If you want a broader take on Grant, Ronald White’s American Ulysses is an excellent treatment.