On Reading Grant’s Memoirs

An interesting passage on General Braxton Bragg, whom Grant defeated at Chattanooga.

Prompted by a query from Brian Turner, I began reading Ulysses S. Grant’s Memoirs recently. For a while, we exchanged texts regarding our progress and impressions. The texts dropped off after a while, and as I write I’m not sure if Brian is still reading or has finished the 763-page tome, but I soldiered on to the end and completed it last week. Soldiering on in fact wasn’t so hard, although the book contains a multitude of detail-oriented descriptive passages, offered without flourish, along the lines of “McPherson’s corps was on the right, Hooker’s corps in the center, and Thomas’s division on the left.” These sentences and the book’s length won’t appeal to everyone, but they also don’t account for its cumulative power. Grant’s Memoirs have been often praised, but here I’ll offer a few of my own impressions, which hopefully connect to Time Now’s preoccupation with post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Before I began reading, I had it mind that I had attempted it before without finishing. Early on though, I realized this wasn’t true and so surprising to me I was in the presence of a 19th-century soldier’s memoir, the genre contours with which I was familiar, but one which was both fresher and shot through with gravitas and an almost uncanny sense of purpose. Upon completion, I was struck by the fact that it ended with the end of the Civil War. There’s almost nothing about the post-war period, to include Reconstruction and Grant’s two terms as President. Somehow I wasn’t expecting that; in fact, I was expecting quite the opposite. As they stand, the Memoirs are remarkably coherent, but I wonder if they–as with Grant’s life–would have that same unity if they had followed Grant into his presidency.

Grant’s account of his boyhood and West Point years are hurried through, but the pace slows as he describes his participation as a junior officer in the Mexican War. He was always in staff positions, never in command, but in his supporting roles was able to see first-hand the deliberations of the generals in charge of the US army. Generally admiring, Grant clearly saw much and took good notes. Lessons learned about maneuvering forces to gain advantage while being alert to the requisites of transportation, communication, infrastructure, and logistics proved invaluable in the Civil War, writ far larger in scale and with far greater implications. He also saw enough fighting to apprehend what battle entailed, particularly how to recognize the key moment when an enemy wavers and victory is achievable. Grant doesn’t say so, but it’s clear that his superb judgement in military matters and supreme sense of purpose were honed by his early years as a lieutenant in Mexico.

The interwar years and early days of the Civil War are again hurried through, with Grant slowing the pace once more to recount the maneuvering that led to his first big victory at Vicksburg. Following that account, Grant meticulously takes the reader through the campaign to seize Chattanooga. Following description of victory there, Grant is placed in charge of all Union forces, and the Memoirs describe in detail how he beat Robert E. Lee’s army in Virginia and seized Richmond, the twin victories that led to the surrender of the Confederacy.

It’s in the slow methodical depiction of these campaigns that the Memoirs gain force. The sense rendered is that Grant was unstoppable and that the Confederate generals and troops he faced were crushed as surely as a boa constrictor squeezes to death its prey. It’s clear that Grant is firmly trying to refute the reputation (often self-proclaimed, but also touted in the North) of the supremacy of Southern fighting prowess; in his account, and without bragging or even saying “I” at every turn, he and his army outmaneuvered and outfought their Southern counterparts on their own turf. In this, the prolonged descriptions accrue the same cumulative strength as Grant’s forces did in reality. While the Southern press remained hyperbolically optimistic until the end, knowing Southern leaders such as Lee and CSA president Jefferson Davis must have discerned the tenacity and shrewdness with which Grant kept coming, coming, and coming and consequently began to dread. From their point of view, the Memoirs might be read as horror-fiction, as if it were the story of an unstoppable evil genius who was going to vanquish the true heroes and ultimate victims of the story of the Civil War. Frankly, I don’t think they believed at the beginning of the war that the North would fight the secession hard, or could beat them if they tried. As Grant (greatly aided by Sherman and Sheridan) took their cities and destroyed their armies one-by-one, not only did their hope for success evaporate, but so did their sense of their moral and martial supremacy and their belief that their presumed rightness of cause would ensure their victory. As they began to understand what they were up against, it’s a wonder they didn’t make Grant’s death their goal and strive to attain it by any means possible. From the perspective of the North, it’s hard not to believe Grant’s own assertion that his design, if not his leadership, led to the fastest resolution of the war possible, and perhaps even was the only path to victory.

The Memoirs contain remarkably little personal anecdotes and description of soldiering beyond the grand sweep of moving corps and divisions left or right, and only terse evaluations of other generals on either side of the conflict. But those offered are impactful. Witnessing the carnage in the aftermath of a direct hit on a Navy gunboat on the Mississippi seems to have sparked his utmost apprehension of the gruesomeness of combat (and this after Shiloh!). Grant speaks with admiration of the toughness of the Union soldiers, especially toward the end of the war, when they could march and fight for days on half-rations and no sleep, while becoming expert in ancillary arts of war such as trench-digging, bridge-building and both destroying and laying railroad tracks. His most common praise for junior officers is “gallant,” by which he seems to mean courage in battle. Of his senior officers he appreciated prompt obedience to orders, smart decision-making in the absence of orders, and willingness to press the battle unto victory. Officers who were slow to act or too independent of his designs irritated him to no end, and he found ways to get rid of or sideline them. He hated self-promotion, and in one place writes to the effect that an officer who actively agitated for a higher position almost never did as well as a humbler, quieter officer who took care of the business in front of him until asked to take on bigger responsibilities. Grant never admits for a second that the South had any right to secede, and never grants them the dignity of suggesting that they were a true independent nation. Likewise, he never waivers in affirming that slavery was wrong and was the root cause of the rebellion.

So much of Grant’s military ethos informs the doctrine of the Army in which I served as an officer for 28 years that I wonder that no one ever told me how much of it was on display in the Memoirs and perhaps even distilled from them. Combined arms and maneuver warfare, unity of action concentrated at decisive points, and the importance of commander’s intent were staple concepts of Grant’s Army and the late 20th and early 21st century Army, too, at least in peacetime and in training. Grant was never not aware that the North’s resolve to win the war was never as great as his own, and that victories first small and then big were important to maintain enthusiasm and support. He never let the wavering enthusiasm of the Northern populace and press trouble his own resolve, except as a reminder that he needed to pursue victory firmly and quickly. He was also ever-aware that fighting on offense against the South while in the South, surrounded by an unfriendly population and far from bases of support, made his job astronomically more difficult than that of Pemberton, Bragg, and Lee, the generals respectively in charge of the defenses of Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Richmond.

Reflecting on these matters as they pertain to Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s clear that they all had correlatives but also that they all went kablooey in our 15+ years of military muddling in those countries. That’s not to say that a Grant might have saved those wars, although the cycling through of four-star general commanders betrayed something of a hope that one of them might have miraculously turned out to be another Grant. Reading the Memoirs places in high relief the differences between how we waged war unto victory then and how we have not done so more recently.

The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Edited by John F. Marszalek with David S. Nolen & Louie P. Gallo. Belknap-Harvard, 2017.

6 thoughts on “On Reading Grant’s Memoirs”

  1. I read them probably over 20 years ago. A few things struck me. Primarily, he didn’t sound like a 19th century writer. He sounded like a 20th century voice to me. No flowery language. Also remember he felt like he was fighting certain elements of his own team, mainly the press. And he took the time to specifically name people he thought were useless. I didn’t learn until many years later that he was literally dying while he finished it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it.

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. Yes to all observations! Grant seemed not to want to trash anybody unnecessarily in the Memoirs, but also wanted to explain firmly and clearly why some officers were not up to the tasks he asked of them, and how his higher-ups in Washington were often more of a hindrance than a help, if not downright oppositional. He liked Lincoln, but worried that he was “too nice” and so tried to make everyone happy, as well as overly concerned, as he had to be, about popular support for the war. Re Grant’s writing, it is oft-praised and for good reason. He wrote clearly, and directly, but not in the simplistic manner of a naive youth or a condescending adult. The many letters he wrote during the war to his subordinate officers that are included in the Memoirs make the point he was a fine writer even without the assistance of Mark Twain or anyone else who helped him compose the Memoirs.

  2. Peter:
    I read Grant’s Memoirs a few years ago and the terse, to-the-point style seemed stunningly like Thucydides and Caesar. (I’m doomed to read everything in terms of the classics!) Your reaction is illuminating.

    1. Hi Ken, good to hear from you–I can’t comment on the resemblance to Thucydides and Caesar, but as a professor of Classics, you certainly can, so that’s high praise! It would be great if our paths might cross again someday. -Best, Peter

      1. Peter:

        I found myself still thinking about this and wanted to elaborate!

        The tradition of Thucydides and Caesar stands in contrast to that of Herodotus and Livy. The latter two were inclined to tell anecdotes, describe colorful personalities, introduce irrelevancies, and go off on tangents about individual exploits. They are generally easier to read, and probably many military historians (Stephen Ambrose?) know that, and follow that genre. I’ve admired the way Antony Beevor mines long-lost diaries and interviews to give a close-in view.

        Grant won’t have any of that.

        I’m relying on a decade-old memory, but I recall almost nothing that can be described as a true digression. Focus ferociously on the essentials, in prose and in the field.

        One of these days I’ll be driving up and down I-95 and hope to stop for lunch!


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