T.J Stiles gives a warm review to a new edition of the memoirs of President Ulysses Simpson Grant.
Why in the world, you may ask, should I even bother to read the memoirs of a long-dead President?
For one thing, they are the remembrances of one who was there during the four bloodiest years of our history–more there, even, than Lincoln was there. Grant records what he remembers with meticulous honesty. He does so not to shock, not to defend his faults or his mistakes, as so many memoir writers do, but because he wouldn’t dream of doing anything else. Grant was not the bumbling country bumpkin he was portrayed as on the the old TV series, The Wild Wild West, but he did endure many failures growing up in his personal life. In plain English, he wasn’t very good at living, and he knew it. A curious thing may happen when one fails a lot in life: that man drops the pretense of trying to pretend he’s better than he is and becomes exceptionally straightforward in dealing with himself and others.
That’s what happened to Grant. Rather than blow his brains out, which is the other major response to failing, he chose instead to find something he could be good at. That something was, of course, the military. His choice looks oh, so easy in hindsight to us but it was not. That choice also looks particularly bloody; and many people who don’t know much about Grant and haven’t read his memoirs will criticize him roundly for it, accusing him of simply being the general who led thousands of Union troops to their deaths.
There are two unassailable responses to that point of view. The first is that Grant’s straightforward, practical skill at organizing and driving his men likely saved the lives of hundreds of soldiers who would otherwise have been killed by fruitless skirmishes and pointless, drawn-out assaults and retreats. Recall from history, if you will, that Lincoln had great difficulty finding a general who would actually fight the enemy. George B. McClellan wouldn’t do it; neither would Joseph Hooker. Both regarded themselves as Presidential material, and they spent more time keeping themselves alive than harrying the Confederate army. The second is that, despite Grant’s willingness to engage the enemy at all costs on whatever ground, he was no bloodseeker. He knew what the fighting was all about.
We have a famous expression in the common parlance: we say, “War is hell.” We say it most often in a matter-of-fact way, as if it’s simply an inescapable truism. We have even said it in a comic way, as if we were listening to Col. Hogan on Hogan’s Heroes sigh about some shennanigans he’s just pulled or escaped from. But the expression was Grant’s. He said it; and when he said, “War is hell,” he did not mean either that war was inevitable or that it was a casual affair, to be laughed off. He said,
“War is hell. Its glory is all moonshine. I am sick to death of war.”
Let us pause for a moment over his words. War is “hell” as the living expression of the metaphorical state of human suffering. In the Christian tradition (the only tradition in which I have any competence), Protestant thought emphasizes flame and punishment and burning. The Catholic tradition, thanks to Dante, emphasizes isolation, extended trial and suffering, and eternal separation from God. The Civil War, with its cannon and musket fire, offered flame on an unprecedented scale. For the most extraordinary time in our history, it also offered a multitude of examples of those who suffered–severed limbs, wounds that could not be treated because field medics either could not be found or were unavailable or incompetent, all of them men who were separated from help and comfort to a degree that none of them could have imagined four years earlier. When Grant said, “War is hell,” he meant it literally. He is one of the few men I can think of who had the right to be so literal. “Its glory is all moonshine,” he said. I’ve never tasted moonshine, myself, but I don’t want to. The usual ingredients–contaminated as they may be by glycol and lead–are powerful and heady at first draught, but ultimately they cause blindness. Here, I think Grant was suggesting metaphor in the way war makes the soldier feel at first blush but, again, he is more literal than he may appear to be. Fight it long enough, and war–the extended violence of humans toward each other–will blind us, actually blind us, to its effects: the destruction of property and land, the waste of lives and resources, the irreparable damage to our psyches.
Grant knew, then, both what his purpose was–to compel Southern surrender and preserve the Union–and the consequences of all his planning. Less motivated than Lincoln was to deal with slavery and the political consequences of ending it, he was free to act purely as a soldier, and he did so, cutting Confederate supply lines, approving Sherman’s relentless march through Georgia that pushed Southern troops to the sea, and finally breaking the Confederate will to continue the fight. The struggle cost him a good deal. He had a migraine on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse but, by all accounts, the Southern surrender was handled on both sides with grace and tact. Few words were spoken that day. Few were needed.
In one respect, Grant should remind you of one of the most famous Presidents of our own day: Ronald Reagan. Like Reagan, Grant ran for President because, well, he’d done everything else there was to do. Reagan had been the head of the Screen Actors Guild as a Democrat, successfully leading a strike after studio bosses mistakenly thought he was bluffing. He governed California in the 1960s and 70s as a Republican, and built up a national following by airing a daily five-minute commentary espousing fiscal and social conservatism. Like Grant, he was far less foolish and far more straightforward than he was given credit for. Grant himself was no Lincoln, but he did support African-American civil rights and, by 1869, the nation had become aware of corruption in the process of Reconstruction under President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s vice-president, who was impeached but not convicted of unlawfully firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. It was thought that Grant’s leadership might prove as effective in government as it was on the battlefield. In some ways it was, but, like Reagan years later, Grant, though personally honest, was beset by corruption in his administration. He won two terms, a testament to his popularity and a remarkable feat, considering the problems of putting the Union back together, fighting Indian wars (not his finest hour), and maintaining a stable currency for trade.
Unfortunately, those who are honest expect it of others and they can be hoodwinked and swindled more easily than they should be. It happened to Grant, and he turned to writing his memoirs as a means of paying his debts. The throat cancer that eventually killed him in 1885 was just another obstacle, but the fact that Grant’s personal suffering was so visible made the memoirs all the more remarkable. Samuel Clemens helped him organize, edit, and publish the two volumes, but the language you’ll be reading is all Grant’s. There is no pomposity anywhere in the books, just a prose that is as quiet and as moving as any set of memoirs we’ve ever had. The edition that T.J. Stiles reviews is quite likely well worth the price, and the background material and commentary it offers almost certainly illuminating; but I point out that Grant’s memoirs have also been available for years as a free e-text. Grant himself, touched as he surely would be by the editorial labors of this new edition, would nonetheless favor the simplicity and directness of the e-text, which brings us as close as possible to the man most responsible for ending the first–and, we fervently hope, the last–civil war in our nation’s history.