FEBRUARY 7, 2019
“THERE ARE BUT two parties now, Traitors & Patriots, and I want hereafter to be ranked with the latter,” Ulysses S. Grant wrote his father at the start of the American Civil War. At that point, the younger Grant, a West Point graduate but now a civilian shopkeeper, had no idea that he himself would become the Union’s savior and the United States’s war hero in his own time, respected eventually even in the South. At the turn of the 20th century, he was seen with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as one of the United States’s three great presidents.
When I was a boy reading Civil War histories that were way over my head, I admired the slight and ruffled, soft-spoken commander, vividly imagining him to myself. By the time I moved to New York as a grown-up and lived across the street from his tomb, my reverence had been displaced (how could I admire someone who had led so many men to their deaths and whose armies had killed so many people?), but I got accustomed to visiting with my baby son the ever-temperate mausoleum and peering at the raised wooden polished caskets of Grant and his wife. As I got back up to speed on Civil War history, he became for me even less than a mythical hero and actually less imaginable as a person. Then, 15 years ago, as soon as I read a few pages into his Personal Memoirs (1885), I realized I was rolling along on writing that was a perfectly engineered road, with gentle banks, thrilling momentum, ever new vistas, and, finally, historical perspectives that shouldn’t sound contemporary in the 21st century but do:
There were churches in that part of Ohio [where Grant was from] where treason was preached regularly, and where, to secure membership, hostility to the government, to the war and to the liberation of the slaves, was far more essential than a belief in the authenticity or credibility of the Bible.
This was an extraordinary man! Mark Twain thought so too. Here is how he evaluated these Memoirs, which he helped persuade his dying and debt-ridden friend to complete: “General Grant’s book is a great, unique, and unapproachable literary masterpiece.” Twain told Grant that the writing was akin to that of Caesar’s Commentaries in its “clarity of statement, directness, simplicity, unpretentiousness, manifest truthfulness, fairness and justice toward friend and foe alike, soldierly candor and frankness, and soldierly avoidance of flowery speech.”
Twain rooted Grant on to do what he had been doing seemingly his whole life: going straight on at the task at hand. Grant reflects and confides:
One of my superstitions had always been when I started to go any where, or to do anything, not to turn back, or stop until the thing intended was accomplished. I have frequently started to go to places where I had never been and to which I did not know the way, depending upon making inquiries on the road, and if I got past the place without knowing it, instead of turning back, I would go on until a road was found turning in the right direction, take that, and come in by the other side. So I struck into the stream, and in an instant the horse was swimming and I being carried down by the current. I headed the horse towards the other bank and soon reached it, wet through and without other clothes on that side of the stream.
As he was completing the Memoirs that would financially set up his beloved widow Julia for life, he realized something else about himself: “I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun.” The modest man was only, in West Point professor of English Elizabeth D. Samet’s words, “the leader of an army that preserved a nation and emancipated four million people.”
In American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant (2016), Ronald C. White describes Grant’s routine in that last year of life:
In the afternoons, Grant would edit his morning’s writing, pausing to search for just the right word to express an idea or action. In the evenings, he talked over writing plans for the next day with Fred [Grant, his son] and [assistant] Badeau. Toward the end of the evening […] Ulysses would read aloud to Julia, who listened to the rhythms of his sentences and offered her suggestions.
I worried, starting My Dearest Julia: The Wartime Letters of Ulysses S. Grant to His Wife — compiled by unnamed editors at Library of America and introduced by the biographer Ron Chernow — that Grant’s love for his wife would be a one-way street. In the premarital letters, written when Grant, a would-be math professor, was effectively serving in the Mexican-American War (1846–’48), he is so devoted and tender and careful, a turtle without his shell, that I was sure Julia would refuse to marry him:
Dear Julia I told you I would not let a single chance escape of writing to you. If I could but see you I could tell you a volume on the subject of our last three days engagement, but as I write this I am laying on the ground with my paper laying along side in a very uneasy position for any one to give a detailed account of battles so you must be satisfied with a simple statement of facts, and the assurance that in the midst of grape and musket shots, my Dearest Julia, and my love for her, are ever in my mind.
He literally wrote her, then and in the Civil War, as bullets flew through the air. During the “Rebellion,” as he usually called it, when he promised to write, he always did — despite being in the midst of planning one battle or another that could turn the tide. He apologized immediately after an 1862 victory for his preoccupation: “I have written you a military letter when only my love and kisses to the children, and to yourself, was intended.”
Unfortunately, the selection’s compilers explain almost nothing about the letters’ contexts, and Chernow seems to have stepped into his role as introducer of the short volume as a last-minute speaker. He does mention something intriguing: “During her widowhood, Julia proposed to Mark Twain that he publish a selection of her husband’s letters to her. Twain never followed through, but the editors at Library of America have belatedly proven the wisdom of her inspired idea.” Nobody asked me, but I think Twain worried that the letters would reveal Grant as too vulnerable, too much like the man he was, anxiously dependent on the love and regard of his wife. I love Grant for this. Julia’s letters have been lost, but she saved every single one of her husband’s. That alone remedied my apprehensions about the Grant marriage, and as Ronald C. White shows definitively, Julia, the daughter of a slave-owning Missouri family (Grant’s family were ardent abolitionists), adored her husband, as did their four children, whom he adored in kind: “Although he showed them ‘uniform affection and kindness,’ their father adjusted himself to the distinct character of each child.” They are the happiest famous American family I’ve ever read of.
In his two terms as president (1869–1877), Grant was, from his first inauguration speech onward, the champion of civil rights for people of color and for Native Americans. He answered governmental financial scandals with forthrightness, but there were an awful lot of them, even in his own cabinet. Grant’s worst errors were the result of trusting people, some of whom he had got to know very well in the war, but whose weak necks were turned by money or political power. He, who had most often outfoxed his military foes, could be naïve about typical politicians who had mastered the game of face-to-face deception.
In the Memoirs, with a novelist’s appreciation, Grant assesses friends and foes, who during the Civil War were sometimes the same people; many of Grant’s classmates at West Point became traitors and fought for the Confederacy. Of his colleague, George G. Meade, the hero and partial goat of the Battle of Gettysburg, Grant writes:
General Meade was an officer of great merit, with drawbacks to his usefulness that were beyond his control. He had been an officer of the engineer corps before the war, and consequently had never served with troops until he was over forty-six years of age. He never had, I believe, a command of less than a brigade. He saw clearly and distinctly the position of the enemy, and the topography of the country in front of his own position. His first idea was to take advantage of the lay of the ground, sometimes without reference to the direction we wanted to move afterwards. He was subordinate to his superiors in rank to the extent that he could execute an order which changed his own plans with the same zeal he would have displayed if the plan had been his own. He was brave and conscientious, and commanded the respect of all who knew him. He was unfortunately of a temper that would get beyond his control, at times, and make him speak to officers of high rank in the most offensive manner. No one saw this fault more plainly than he himself, and no one regretted it more. This made it unpleasant at times, even in battle, for those around him to approach him even with information. In spite of this defect he was a most valuable officer and deserves a high place in the annals of his country.
He dismisses no one; everyone must be confronted, on the battlefield and in personal relations. And at times he can be quite funny. Here is his assessment of the dastardly Jefferson Davis, the former senator from Mississippi and United States secretary of war who became, in early 1861, the president of the Confederacy: “Davis had an exalted opinion of his own military genius […] On several occasions during the war he came to the relief of the Union army by means of his superior military genius.”
Elizabeth D. Samet, who has already written a book about teaching literature at West Point, has assembled an edition of Grant’s Memoirs that keeps the book, which is focused almost wholly on Grant’s military career and not at all on his presidency, ever engaging. There are other scholarly editions, among them John F. Marszalek’s The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant: The Complete Annotated Edition from 2017, but I find the predictable quality of the footnotes in such scholarship wearying. On the other hand, by the second half of Samet’s marvelous edition, I noticed that I was as eagerly looking at her notes about what I was reading — as on Grant’s perfectly vivid, unromantic accounts of the dismaying though ultimately successful battles in the environs of Richmond, Virginia, in the last year of the American Civil War.
Samet’s annotations strike me not so much as scholarly as teacherly. What would we and her students at the United States Military Academy at West Point need to know — and be interested in knowing — about the circumstances and people Grant describes? She wants us to reflect on war, war writing, and Grant’s unusual integrity. She refers us to and quotes from (almost always relevantly and interestingly) work by, among others, Frederick Douglass, Louisa May Alcott, Leo Tolstoy, John Milton, Ezra Pound, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and even Monty Python and the Holy Grail (she likes war movies). Her notes and first-rate introduction and afterword give me the pleasurable feeling of sitting in on her class as we discuss the book. We marvel at Grant’s clarity and moral consciousness. She lets fly repeated arrows at the historical “revisionism” and national hypocrisy that have been promulgated since the Civil War itself:
To celebrate [Robert E.] Lee as a hero is to sever him from the cause for which he fought: not, as enthusiasts would have it, for some totemic investment in the soil of Virginia, but rather for the preservation of the state right that trumped all others, the right to own other human beings.
Grant’s grip on the primary cause of the Civil War is just as firm: “As time passes, people, even of the South, will begin to wonder how it was possible that their ancestors ever fought for or justified institutions which acknowledged the right of property in man.” And yet I couldn’t help wondering how, after the Civil War, he could so wholly let bygones be bygones. He forgave his old friends and enemies who had fought for the Confederacy as soon as they swore allegiance to the United States Constitution and its amendments and to peace. Perhaps he, who had done more than any other warrior for that peace, could forgive them because he was good and generous and, despite hard-earned experience, had faith in the country’s united future.
Bob Blaisdell, a graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara, is a professor of English in Brooklyn, New York, who frequently writes about Russian literature. He is the editor of The Civil War: Great Speeches and Documents (2016) and Civil War Letters: From Home, Camp and Battlefield (2012).