“The most remarkable work of its kind since the Commentaries of Julius Caesar.” Thus Mark Twain judged The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. Twain, to be sure, had a vested interest in offering such an endorsement. He was after all Grant’s friend and publisher. But truth can be stranger and more profitable than fiction. Since leaving the White House in 1877, Grant had declined offers to write about his wartime experiences. He protested that he had little to say and little ability to say it. That limitation had not stopped dozens of other Civil War veterans from rushing to publish their views, most of which often offered little more than an elaborate score-settling with their critics and other veterans. But when Grant fell on hard economic times in the early 1880s, not for the first time in his life, he reluctantly picked up his pen to write a series of articles on individual battles for Century magazine. After he was diagnosed with terminal throat cancer, Grant negotiated with the magazine’s publishers to produce a full-length autobiography. At this point Twain stepped in, appalled by the poor terms that Grant was being offered (and also attracted by the publicity for his new publishing firm). Grant barely won his race against mortality, dying just four days after completing the second and final volume. The product was so extraordinary and extraordinarily well received that Twain, then and now, is often (wrongly) assumed to have been Grant’s ghost writer.
What was, and is, extraordinary about Grant’s Memoirs is its clarity, which reflected the clarity of thought that distinguished Grant as a military commander. “There is one striking feature of Grant’s orders,” General George Meade’s chief of staff noted, “no matter how hurriedly he may write them on the field, no one has ever had the slightest doubt as to their meaning, or even has to read them over a second time.” With good maps at hand—one must have good maps—the logic and power of Grant’s operational approach to the war stands out even to the unschooled reader.
Grant’s Personal Memoirs briefly covered his childhood, West Point career, and time out of the Army during the 1850s, but it focused primarily on his experiences in the Mexican-American War and the Civil War. He naturally defended his generalship against those who insisted that the North won because of its manpower and industrial advantages, which overwhelmed the superior military leadership and spirit of the outmanned South. “It was not an uncommon thing for my staff-officers to hear from Eastern officers, ‘Well, Grant has never met Bobby Lee yet,'” Grant observed wryly after he took up overall command of the Union forces and moved against Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia in 1864.
Estimated in the same manner as ours, Lee had not less than 80,000 men at the start. His reinforcements were about equal to ours during the campaign, deducting the discharged men and those sent back. He was on the defensive, and in a country in which every stream, every road, every obstacle to the movement of troops and every natural defense was familiar to him and his army. The citizens were all friendly to him and his cause, and could and did furnish him with accurate reports of our every move. Rear guards were not necessary for him, and having always a railroad at his back, large wagon trains were not required. All circumstances considered we did not have any advantage in numbers.
And even though Grant had not yet fought Bobby Lee, he knew him, along with most of the other major Confederate commanders, from his time in the Army and particularly during their service in the Mexican-American war. “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. I do not pretend to say that all movements, or even many of them, were made with special reference to the characteristics of the commander against whom they were directed. But my appreciation of my enemies was certainly affected by this knowledge. 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.”
Grant offers decisive accounts of his operational conduct of the war and the strategy behind that conduct. For instance, he explained his approach upon taking command in the east in 1864.
Before this time these various armies had acted separately and independently of each other, giving the enemy an opportunity often of depleting one command, not pressed, to reinforce another more actively engaged. I determined to stop this.… My general plan now was to concentrate all the force possible against the Confederate armies in the field. There were but two such, as we have seen, east of the Mississippi River and facing north. The Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee commanding, was on the south bank of the Rapidan, confronting the Army of the Potomac; the second, under General Joseph E. Johnston, was at Dalton, Georgia, opposed to Sherman who was still at Chattanooga. Beside these main armies the Confederates had to guard the Shenandoah Valley, a great storehouse to feed their armies from, and their line of communications from Richmond to Tennessee.… We could not abandon any territory north of the line held by the enemy because it would lay the Northern States open to invasion. But as the Army of the Potomac was the principal garrison for the protection of Washington even while it was moving on Lee, so all the forces to the west, and the Army of the James, guarded their special trusts when advancing them from as well as when remaining at them. Better indeed, for they forced the enemy to guard his own lines and resources at a greater distance from ours, and with a greater force. Little expeditions could not so well be sent out to destroy a bridge or tear up a few miles of railroad track, burn a storehouse, or inflict other little annoyances. Accordingly I arranged for a simultaneous movement all along the line. Sherman was to move from Chattanooga, Johnston’s army and Atlanta being his objective points.
When Grant explained this strategy to President Lincoln, he noted that it required no increase in manpower. “It was necessary to have a great number of troops to guard and hold the territory we had captured, and to prevent incursions into the Northern States. These troops could perform this service just as well by advancing as by remaining still; and by advancing they would compel the enemy to keep detachments to hold them back, or else lay his own territory open to invasion. His answer was: “Oh, yes! I see that. As we say out West, if a man can’t skin he must hold a leg while somebody else does.”
One is also impressed with the clarity of Grant’s account of the grand strategy of the Civil War. It begins with his understanding of the first cause of the war—slavery. “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war,” he wrote. “Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.” The war with Mexico and the acquisition of its northern territories “were, from the inception of the movement to its final consummation, a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union.”
For Grant, the schwerpunkt (focal point) of the Civil War was not any particular battlefield or confederate force but public opinion in the North, which would determine whether the superior social and economic system of free labor could be brought fully into play. Foreign intervention would follow as soon as Northern public opinion, and the performance of the Union armies, showed any sign of flagging. Grant fought with this fact constantly in mind. “The campaign of Vicksburg [in 1863] was suggested and developed by circumstances. The elections of 1862 had gone against the prosecution of the war. Voluntary enlistments had nearly ceased and the draft had been resorted to; this was resisted, and a defeat or backward movement would have made its execution impossible. A forward movement to a decisive victory was necessary.” When Sherman suggested that he fall back to Memphis on order to guard his base of supplies—an eminently prudent military move—Grant replied, “the country is already disheartened over the lack of success on the part of our armies … if we went back so far as Memphis it would discourage the people so much that bases of supplies would be of no use: neither men to hold them nor supplies to put in them would be furnished. The problem for us was to move forward to a decisive victory, or our cause was lost. No progress was being made in any other field, and we had to go on.'” When Grant finally succeeded at Vicksburg in July 1863, after one of the most remarkable military operations in American history, “this news, with the victory at Gettysburg won the same day, lifted a great load of anxiety from the minds of the President, his Cabinet and the loyal people all over the North. The fate of the Confederacy was sealed when Vicksburg fell. Much hard fighting was to be done afterwards and many precious lives were to be sacrificed; but the morale was with the supporters of the Union ever after.”
But the war was not yet over despite these successes in 1863. Grant pressed forward his all-fronts campaign in 1864, despite the appalling casualties entailed in his operations against Lee, because he felt he had to create the circumstances for decisive, public-pleasing success somewhere before the fall elections in the North (and that success turned out to be with Sherman and his campaign against Atlanta, and thence to the sea). Of all the Confederate leaders, General Joseph Johnston, who fought a defensive campaign against Sherman before being relieved by Jefferson Davis, best understood the proper grand strategy of the South. “For my own part, I think that Johnston’s tactics were right. Anything that could have prolonged the war a year beyond the time that it did finally close, would probably have exhausted the North to such an extent that they might then have abandoned the contest and agreed to a separation. … The North was already growing weary, as the South evidently was also, but with this difference. In the North the people governed, and could stop hostilities whenever they chose to stop supplies. The South was a military camp, controlled absolutely by the government with soldiers to back it, and the war could have been protracted, no matter to what extent the discontent reached, up to the point of open mutiny of the soldiers themselves.”
Modern scholarship indicates that Grant may have underestimated the role that Southern public opinion played in the outcome of the war. But he missed little else. As with Abraham Lincoln, we are confronted with unexpected genius arising from the most unusual and humble circumstances, evidence that democracy can produce great and reflective commanders as well as statesmen.