Thoughts on the Greatness of Ulysses S. Grant

Photograph of Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) shown wearing a military uniform and posing for a portrait. He served in the U.S. Civil War at various levels of military command. Grant was promoted to lieutenant general in 1864 and given command of all Union armies. He was eighteenth president of the United States, elected in 1868 and reelected in 1872.
Stock Montage/Archive Photos

With a new biography of Ulysses S. Grant out by the man who helped put Alexander Hamilton back in the center of 21st American popular culture, I’m late to the game to sing Grant’s praises. I have not read Chernow’s book. But I have been rereading Grant’s memoirs. I began writing this post at the end of last year when the valorization of Confederate military leaders was more at the center of our public debate. But these are issues of long standing, going on two centuries. They remain as present and consequential as they’ve ever been and Grant is at the center of that.

Until relatively recently Grant, at least as President, had a poor historical reputation. His strengths as a military leader were also overshadowed in the popular imagination by Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee and others. But in both cases, much of Grant’s dim reputation was directly tied to the way national unity was built in the late 19th century on the abandonment of the country’s newly freed African-American citizens and what we might call the Union theory of the war itself. I have always found it notable that the official records of what we call the Civil War, published by the US government are entitled The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.

We’ve noted in other posts how the Confederate statues that dot the South today aren’t actually from the post-Civil War Era. Most date from decades later when they were erected as celebrations of the triumph of Jim Crow and the restoration of ‘home rule’ in the South. In 1915 D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, perhaps the first American movie blockbuster, portrayed the Reconstruction Era as one in which northern extremists, corrupt politicians and barbarous and sexually aggressively African-Americans tyrannized Southern whites until they were liberated with the help of the original Ku Klux Klan. If that was the dominant historical memory of Reconstruction – and it was in the early 20th century – the reputation of the man whose battlefield victories made it possible and who presided over it as President necessarily had to suffer.

But Grant is one of the great actors on the stage of American history: first as a general, second as President, and third as the author of what is likely the only great work of literature ever written by American President, his Personal Memoirs.

This is all the more remarkable since the Memoirs are Grant’s only piece of public writing (with the exception of a couple short magazine articles he wrote just before the Memoirs) and he wrote most of the second volume in the final weeks of his life as he was dying of cancer. He finished editing the manuscript five days before he died.

From the first page, Grant’s writing is stark and direct. We are reading the words of the North’s great military hero of the Civil War as well as a two-term President eight years after leaving office. In his preface, he tells us that while he had always insisted he would never write his memoirs or anything for publication he has agreed to do so because he is broke and dying. We are on notice from the outset that he is a man with no airs. “I consented for the money it gave me; for at that moment I was living upon borrowed money.” Grant’s basic humility is an element of his personality that is present on almost every page. As is often the case in life, this humility is joined with a deep capacity for empathy. Here it is combined with, perhaps indistinguishable from, an account which is free of conceits or personal myth-making. On hearing hostile gunfire for the first time during the Mexican-American war he tells us: “What General Taylor’s feelings were during this suspense I do not know; but for myself, a young second-lieutenant who had never heard a hostile gun before, I felt sorry that I had enlisted.” The first sentence of the Memoirs marks a central theme in a single sentence of stacked clauses which capture the ordered vigor of Grant’s writing: “My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral.”

Lee may have glamor and impeccable pedigree. He was a highly skilled general. But he was no innovator. Grant turns out to have been a military genius – something that must have been hard to predict given his solid but unexceptional service in the Army prior to the Civil War. Having retired from the military as a captain in 1854 he hesitates at first to suggest for himself the rank of colonel as Illinois is creating volunteer regiments. In three years he is Lt. General with command of the entire Union Army. Defending Grant from charges of drunkenness (likely unfounded or exaggerated in this case) when he was first gaining attention in the Western theater, Lincoln famously said of him, “I can’t spare this man; he fights.”

Lincoln was right. Grant knew that the war would not be won by preparation or winning battles but by conquering territory and destroying or capturing armies. One of the richest parts of Grant’s battlefield accounts is that we see him learning by practice. Grant’s great innovation was a new kind of highly mobile warfare, sometimes called ‘maneuver warfare.’ But again we see him learning by doing. Grant also realized the inherently political nature of battlefield questions, especially for a democracy. Narrowly military considerations cannot be understood or evaluated apart from the public need for victories which dictates the morale on which the whole war effort is sustained.

There are two campaigns which propelled Grant to command of the entire Union Army: Vicksburg (Mississippi) and Chattanooga (Tennessee). The second was the more dramatic result. The first brings together each of the pieces of Grant’s emerging greatness, strategic insight, and tactical experience. Vicksburg was the one major Confederate possession which denied the Union army unimpeded control of the entirety of the Mississippi River, a critical inward waterway which, if held by federal forces, would cut the Confederacy in two. Grant spent months devising and then executing a series of maneuvers that would finally allow him to lay siege to and finally conquer the city. As these efforts unfolded there were key points at which all accepted military doctrine dictated a temporary withdrawal of forces. This Grant refused to do because he realized that war weariness in the North, illustrated by declining enlistments and a bad midterm election showing in 1862, could not bear even tactical retreats, even militarily justified ones. The North needed victories to keep up the fight.

This political insight was coupled with Grant’s other great breakthrough: mobility. Civil War-era armies were large, highly organized formations, with extensive supply lines connecting them to their sources of food and ammunition in their own territory. The need to maintain and protect these supply lines necessarily limited mobility. In other campaigns down the Mississippi during the first two years of the war, Grant had increasingly recognized the importance of mobility and maintaining the initiative in winning battles. Faced with a critical choice during the Vicksburg campaign, Grant put himself on the wrong side of all conventional wisdom by cutting himself off from his supply line and placing himself deep into enemy territory with a major river and the enemy army between him and his own territory and sources of supply.

This wasn’t theory but the result of practice, experiment, and necessity. “It should be remembered that at the time I speak of it had not been demonstrated that an army could operate in an enemy’s territory depending upon the country for supplies.” Again a short time later: “I was amazed at the quantity of supplies the country afforded. It showed that we could have subsisted off the country for two months instead of two weeks without going beyond the limits designated. This taught me a lesson which was taken advantage of later in the campaign when our army lived twenty days with the issue of only five days’ rations by the commissary. Our loss of supplies was great at Holly Springs, but it was more than compensated for by those taken from the country and by the lesson taught.”

Sherman, then a subordinate general under Grant’s command, was the more dashing figure and would later be more associated with the form of highly mobile warfare he and Grant pioneered in the Western theater. But here he pressed Grant on the folly of his decision. What Grant was coming to realize was the degree to which he could abandon his supply lines and have his armies live off the land itself. Being cut off in this way involved great risk. But in warfare, increased mobility reaches a point where it ceases to be an incremental or quantitative advantage and becomes a qualitative and transformational difference.

A century later, a military intellectual and US Air Force Colonel named John Boyd developed a theory of military operations known by the shorthand “OODA loops.” OODA stands for the process of Observe – Orient – Decide – Act, a framework to think about the constant interaction between our observation of our environment and the decisions we make in how to respond to it. Boyd’s insight was that if a combatant can move through this cycle sufficiently faster than an adversary he can get inside his opponent’s ‘OODA loops’. Specifically, if you can move rapidly enough from observation to decision and action, you can change the environment your opponent has observed while they are still deciding how to react to it.That causes a cycle of missteps and confusion leading to defeat. Boyd, a fighter pilot, developed his theory around aviation dogfights. But without the acronyms, game theory and mathematics, it was a similar insight that was allowing Grant to see the impact of mobility in defeating his opponents. Speed is not simply the pace at which actions occur. Sufficient speed changes the nature of those actions or, more specifically, changes the reactions to them and in so doing changes them as well.

I’ve given a lot of thought to where this came from, Grant’s skill and insight. Humility and deliberateness are more constant themes of his writing than daring or aggression. The answer must rest in clarity, an ability to see all the different factors in a military situation (which are not only military but tied to morale and a larger political context) and an ability to act on that ability to see and comprehend all of the moving parts. This must all be tied to the quality of his writing which, as I noted, is even more unexpected than his generalship.

The essence of all good writing is clarity. Style seems like a separate attribute of good writing. But it’s not. Style is really just a byproduct of clarity and concision. It is the personality or other uniqueness of the writer coming through on the page because they write clearly.

So how does one write clearly? The writing is the easier part of it. Once you know precisely what you mean to say, writing it is usually straightforward if not always easy. At least 90% of poor writing stems from the writer not knowing exactly what it is they mean to say. We’re all lazy like this. Half-formed thoughts pop into our heads and we push them out as words that have some relation to the hazy ideas and feelings in our minds. This may do in talking to your coworker or spouse about simple topics over the course of the day. The points are simple. In speaking we have physical cues and intonation. If you’re not clear the first time you can try again.

Writing is different. If you are writing it down the ideas must be significant or else you wouldn’t be writing them down. You only have one shot to make your meaning clear. There is no follow-on interaction to fill in the gaps. Often what you mean to say is still more a feeling than a thought or a not fully worked through set of ideas and connections between them. Jargon and vaguenesses are added to the mix to cover spots in the writer’s thinking that aren’t clear in their own head. Or they paper over things the writer means but is not ready to say.

Take a wordy or clumsy sentence you may write. Examine it and you will almost always see that it is wordy or clumsy because the idea is unclear in your head. Fuzzy parts of your thinking, connections that don’t fully bear out or don’t connect in a clear way end up on the page in fuzzy or vague groupings of words. If you work at the idea in your head long enough that you know exactly what it is, precisely how one idea or action connects to the idea or actions that came before and after it, the language can be direct, brisk and clear. It all but writes itself … once you know precisely what you mean to say. Absent that clarity it never can because the language you use to express your ideas can never be clearer than the ideas or thoughts as they exist in your mind. Work over the ideas, how each connects to each other, the order and progression that connects them and the words will, largely, take care of themselves.

Clarity is simply taking the meaning in the writer’s head and conveying it as clearly as possible in words. This kind of directness is the power and force driving Grant’s Memoirs. They are important to read because what he describes is incredibly important – in national terms, in military terms, in terms of everything that is and was involved in the Civil War. We also get a clear sense of the man. How did he come to this? I think he tells us, albeit obliquely, perhaps even not entirely consciously (though that lack of awareness I tend to doubt.)

Early in Memoirs Grant describes Zachary Taylor, the general who commanded him in the Mexican-American War and later a President who died in office. Comparing him with the more voluble and polished Winfield Scott, Grant writes this.

Taylor was not a conversationalist, but on paper he could put his meaning so plainly that there could be no mistaking it. He knew how to express what he wanted to say in the fewest well-chosen words, but would not sacrifice meaning to the construction of high-sounding sentences.

Grant here could have been talking about himself. Perhaps he was. The sentence has all the lucidity and concision it describes. The point is important. Especially before the advent of electronic communications, a General must be clear in his communication and commands. “He could put his meaning so plainly that there could be no mistaking it.” This is something we can all aspire to and a goal few of us realize. Again, for a general of that era who must send precise instructions and commands out into the hands of messengers and couriers and sometimes spies and have them understood in their specifics and understood in the same way by different people – this is critical. Grant thought Taylor had this ability. Grant did as well. He must have cultivated it in a similar fashion since this was Grant’s only true experience as a writer: as a writer of reports, commands, dispositions and so forth. Again, the need for clarity, the ability to see all the moving parts, to think through their interconnections and then communicate about them clearly.

Part of the effect of the valorization of not only the Confederacy but Confederate generals is that Union generals remain a kind of historical blank. They got the job done. But there’s not much to say about him. One reason for the extreme valorization of Lee is that all could see, basically from the beginning, that Jefferson Davis was a pedestrian and unremarkable figure. Lee was elevated as the South’s answer to the emerging cult of Lincoln. Grant is the other remarkable figure of the Civil War, not just a great military leader and writer and President but a man who was central to the continuation and successes of Reconstruction through 1877. His politics and values are not only not poisonous as Lee’s were but are as close to those we embrace today as the nature of the time can allow. Yet his grave – Grant’s Tomb in New York City – had by the middle of the 20th century fallen into disrepair, covered in graffiti and occupied by drug dealers. (It has now been largely restored.) This is history we should embrace, ideals and perseverance and creativity in which we can see some of our best selves.

I’m sure Chernow’s book is great. It’s flying off the shelves. But do not miss the Memoirs. They are for the ages.

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