Sunday, June 6, 2010


A review of the Personnel Memoirs of U.S. Grant (1885, original edition) (2001, my copy)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Ulysses S. Grant is one of the most famous figures in American history. He was the Union general who had successfully led the nation’s troops to victory in the Civil War. Grant wrote these memories while dying and trying to provide an income for his wife. Mark Twain, who was his publisher and is not exactly unbiased, compared the work to that of Julius Caesar. Well having read and reviewed Caesar, I have to say that I disagree, I like Grant’s work a lot more then I liked Caesar. As my title suggests I found Grant, for a great and historic figure, to be a man very down to earth. Grant’s writing is easy to read and understand. As a reader, I had an easy time identifying with a man who died ninety-six years before I was born.

(Dying Grant writing his memoirs)

Grant begins in this introduction explaining why he is writing these memoirs, mainly his money problems and he discusses how sick he has been. He explains how his sons have helped verify certain facts for him, while working on these volumes. Most touchingly, he states that his intention is just to tell his side and not to make light of anyone else’s service during the war.

“In preparing these volumes for the public, I have entered upon the task with the sincere desire to avoid doing injustice to any one, whether on the National or Confederate side, other then the unavoidable injustice of not making mention often where special mention is due. There must be many errors of omission in this work, because the subject is too large to treated of in two volumes in such way as to do justice to all the officers engaged. There were thousands of instances, during the rebellion, or individual, company, regimental and brigade deeds of heroism which deserve special mention and are not here alluded to. The troops engaged in them will have to look to the detailed reports of their individual commanders for the full history of those deeds.” p. xxxv

The book begins with him discussing his ancestry, stories about his boyhood, and life at West Point. Grant did not like West Point at first, although that his attitude changed as time went on. West Point was also the reason he went from being Hiram Ulysses Grant to Ulysses S. Grant*.

(Young Grant all dressed up)

Grant also tells the tale of wearing his full dress uniform around town, after graduation, and having everyone laugh at him. That story is a bit of comic relief that leads up to the Mexican War. Grant throughout his entire life would have incredibly strong feelings about that conflict.

“For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war which resulted as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.” p. 22-3

“It is a credit to the American nation, however, that after conquering Mexico, and while practically holding the country in our possession, so that we could have retained the whole of it, or made any terms we chose, we paid a round some for the additional territory taken; more then it was worth, or likely to be, to Mexico. To us it was an empire of incalculable value; but it might have been obtained by other means. The Southern rebellion was largely an outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We go our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.” p.23-4

Nevertheless the conflict affected him in many ways, not only did he learn a lot about war that they cannot teach in school, he also found a role model in Major General Zachary Taylor. Grant admired him because he felt that even though he was the commanding general, his feelings on the war were the same as his. Grant would copy his attitude and concepts on military matters.

(Taylor was Grant's role model)

Hard times would fall on him he would resign from the Army, according to him, because he could not make a living of Army pay. Grant would struggle to support himself and his family. He would peddle wood, work for his father and many other things. Destiny would call to him however when the Civil War broke out.

As an officer of some experience, Grant was able to rejoin the Army as volunteer Colonel, and would quickly see a star. On the Western Front, Grant would achieve victory after victory. He would gain ground for the Union, promotions for himself, and the attention of President Abraham Lincoln.

(Lincoln was Grant strongest supporter)

(Grant as general)

In one of my reviews of Caesar, I pointed out my lack of understanding of military tactics. So, some of the best stuff in this book, for me, is not discussion of strategy but rather some of the more human moments of the work. Such as, when Grant finds himself confronted with a confederate bureaucrat after a victorious battle.

“The complainant said that he wanted the papers restored to him which had been surrendered to the provost-marshal under protest; he was a lawyer, and before the establishment of the ‘Confederate States Government’ had been the attorney for a number of large business houses at the North; that ‘his government’ had confiscated all debts due ‘alien enemies,’ and appointed commissioners, or officers, to collect such debts and pay them over to the ‘government’; but in his case, owing to his high standing, he had been permitted to hold these claims for collection, the responsible officials knowing that he would account to the ‘government’ for every dollar received. He said that his ‘government’, when it came in possession of all its territory, would hold him personally responsible for the claims he had surrendered to the provost-marshal. His impudence was so sublime that I was rather amused than indignant. I told him, however, that if he would remain in Memphis I did not believe the Confederate government would ever molest him. He left, no doubt, as much amazed at my assurance as I was at the brazenness of his request.” p. 203-4

I thought a more interesting aspect was his overview of the social political situation of the Civil War. He did not think the Founders themselves would disallow states leaving in the beginning but as soon as the union began admitting other states, that right ceased to exist. I do not think that is the most intellectual argument but it is the one that worked for him. Where Grant really is insightful was his conclusion that the South benefited from losing in the Civil War.

“There was no time during the rebellion when I did not think, and often say, that the South was more to be 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 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 who did were denominated ‘poor white trash.’ The system of labor would have exhausted the soil and left the people poor. The non-slaveholders would have left the country, and the small slaveholder 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 well worth the cost.” p.319

Grant’s story is not entirely complete; he does not talk about equivalent detail what went on after the war as he did during it. His mention of his own presidency is only in passing, and he does not discuss receiving the four star commission in 1868. It is quite possible that he meant to discuss these things but illness got the better of him and he cut it short. Or maybe those end years were not very pleasant for President Grant and therefore he chose not to go into them in much detail. Nevertheless, President Grant’s book is worthy of all the praise that it receives, and I recommend this work more then any other from this time period. I find most Victorian Age works to be too ‘stuffy’ to read but this work is written from a common man’s perspective on great events.

*Grant had always gone by his middle name, so the Congressman that appointed him, thinking Ulysses was his first name, tried to guess what his middle initial was. He guessed it was 'S' for ‘Simpson.’

{Video was posted on youtube by PlanoProf}

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