Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Grant's Memoirs

I spent a good part of the summer reading the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. He's one of those historical figures who has become almost a caricature -- the hard-drinking, cigar-chomping general who, as the 18th President, led an administration criticized for corruption and bumbling policy.

Grant was rarely out-maneuvered on the battlefield, but he was often nearly undone by gossip and political wrangling, so it's not hard to imagine that his presidency would be undermined by the same kind of elements. But that's just my speculation, so I'm planning to follow up the memoirs with some more objective historical views on his life and presidency.

Grant's intelligence and thoughtfulness define his writing. He was candid, deliberate, fair-minded, and had a knack for incorporating dry humor. My take on him from reading the memoirs is of a thoroughly decent man who held others to his own standards...and was often disappointed. He had no use for pretense, didn't try to duck responsibility or criticism, and didn't waste much time defending himself from the negative press or the petty gossip of his peers. I admired his competence, his doggedness in the face of adversity, and his deep patriotism. There's nothing dry about the writing, even though he gets pretty deep into the weeds of strategy and maneuvers. It seemed to me that he was always weighing the consequences of failure in the face of the overwhelming brutality of the war, and that's how he was able to continue to absorb its blows.

Later in the war, when the battlefield losses in the Wilderness campaign were staggering, beyond even what had come before, Grant was criticized for being no better than a butcher. But in his view, enduring the monumental loss of life was the only way to end the war. Prolonging it without completely crushing the south was not an option -- there could be no negotiated peace, and there could be no compromise on the issue of slavery. At the beginning of Volume 2, after Vicksburg had fallen to Union forces and Gettysburg had been decided in the North, Grant interrupted his narrative on the military progress of the war to give his opinion on why the South must be defeated -- for its own good.
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. 
He goes on to describe the bleak and ruinous future that he believed awaited the South if it had succeeded in making itself a nation, separate from the Union, and concluded, "The war was expensive to the South as well as to the North, both in blood and treasure, but it was worth all it cost."

Of course, I was reading Grant just as the Confederate flag controversy was rearing its ugly head again in the news, which made me realize how much the Civil War still haunts us, how it is not so far removed in time, and how little some people have heeded its lessons.

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