Book Review: Personal Memoirs Of Ulysses Grant, Volume One

Personal Memoirs Of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume One, by Ulysses S. Grant

Although I have long read about the excellence of Grant’s personal memoir, written as he was dying of throat cancer and seeking to provide for his family after he was gone in the aftermath of financial reverses (which are alluded to in the introduction to the memoirs) [1], it is a different matter to read the memoirs for myself. The first volume of the memoirs, which covers Grant’s family background briefly and ends in late 1863 as he was ordered to relieve the rebel siege of Chattanooga, is a masterpiece of writing that includes small but telling details of his life with a great deal of discretion and modesty and also provides at least some of the explanation for Grant’s success as a general and his difficulties in peacetime. Among the more telling and interesting anecdotes that Grant provides is his family’s brief time just outside of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where my father’s family has farmed for more than two centuries as well as his attempts to profit as a potato farmer in Vancouver, Washington, which failed because of the overflow of the Columbia. Grant talks about his bad luck and his disinclination for tasks like clerking and secretarial work with a great deal of dry and understated humor, and his accounts of battle and accidents and travel are vivid and entertaining.

The story itself follows a pretty strict chronological account. Grant spends some time talking about his indifferent early education, his general lack of political ambition, his generally humane and Lincolnian views on political philosophy, and his empathy to the common people whom he considers to be much like himself. He very indirectly discusses the importance of his chief adjunct as a sobriety partner and writes openly about his loneliness in the prewar army when economic conditions as an impoverished officer kept his wife and children far from him. Overall, the vast majority of the first book is taken up by the Civil War, including the fact that he was subject to the ambitions and goals of others and seems to have been a bit of a naïve fellow in lacking the sort of pushiness that many other people had. His statements about his military service, his intuitive understanding of human nature in the context of combat but his general lack of discernment about the character of others in peacetime, and his focus on doing his duty and making the best of it in crises show him as a sympathetic person but one who was well suited to be a heroic general but also a person with clear vulnerabilities and weaknesses that led him into great financial embarrassment because others around him were so untrustworthy.

This book does not pretend to be a complete account of the Civil War, and it is far better as a memoir than as an autobiography, given that Grant’s modesty does not allow him to brag about himself, but in the context of discussing (and sometimes defending, as in the case of Shiloh) his actions, an understanding of his character and particular genius is revealed. Since a memoir is a more indirect form of self-revelation than an autobiography (which is generally only written by narcissists who consider their lives of importance, rather than the context of those lives), it allows for praise to be given where it is due. As a critical reader, this volume provides some pretty fierce commentary against some officers. While Grant is gracious towards some rebel officers, he is scathing towards Floyd’s treasonous weakening of the army and his desire to arm the rebels, and also has some harsh things to say about the way the Union failed to effectively arm its Western armies, to the extent that the arms surrendered by the rebels at Vicksburg were used to arm the victorious soldiers of Grant’s army. Additionally, Grant is not afraid to call those officers who failed to defend their posts constitutional cowards, showing that he can call a space a spade, and his respect for foes does not extend to giving them any superhuman status (especially true when it comes to his views on Robert E. Lee).

Readers of this volume will likely want to finish the set and read volume two, which I hope to do. Additionally, they will gain fascinating insights on army-navy relations in combined operations (where Grant’s modesty seems to have led him to relate successfully to skillful naval officers like Foote and Porter), supply and logistics (including the realization that the Confederacy’s absence of good infrastructure and the reality of sabotage made it desirable to live off the land, which in turn lowered the morale of the South for continuing in their rebellion), as well as the problems of division of command. These lessons are told rather matter-of-factly through a compelling personal narrative about some of the most dramatic events in American history from one of the foremost protagonists of the American Civil War. Very rarely are books by people this important in history this entertaining and worthwhile to read, and this free of dissembling and arrogance. It is little wonder, after reading this book, that Grant’s memoirs are considered among the best of their kind. If only all people who wrote about their lives could be so modest and so open, and so gracious to those they happened to work with so as to give glory to those who would otherwise have been entirely forgotten, as is the case with Brig. General Crocker, whose efforts in the Vicksburg campaign are particularly praised by Grant, and whose lengthy decline from consumption denied him of a long life full of postwar glory. Such humane behavior, and the elegance of the prose, make this a most excellent book to read.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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