Grant’s MemoirsPosted: November 3, 2019
“Man proposes and God disposes.” There are but few important events in the affairs of men brought about by their own choice.
So Grant begins his memoirs. Grant’s voice is clear and unashamed and humble. The role of chance, fate, circumstance, God in determining the course of events, and the much smaller role played by character or our actions, is a key theme.
Grant never would’ve gotten to West Point if not for what happened to young Bartlett Bailey:
Finding before the January examination following that he could not pass, he resigned and went to a private school, and remained there until the following year when he was reappointed. Before the next examination he was dismissed. Dr. Bailey [his father] was a proud and sensitive man, and felt the failure of his son so keenly that he forbade his return home. There were no telegraphs in those days to disseminate news rapidly, no railroads west of the Alleghenies, and but few east; and above all, there were no reporters prying into other people’s private affairs. Consequently it did not become generally known that there was a vacancy at West Point from our district until I was appointed. I presume Mrs. Bailey confided to my mother the fact that Bartlett had been dismissed, and that the doctor had forbidden his son’s return home.
Grant later notes:
Major Bailey was the cadet who had preceded me at West Point. He was killed in West Virginia, in his first engagement.
A poignant family story between these lines.
Maybe it’s no surprise that Grant is an excellent, understated writer. Much of his job as a general was to communicate clear, succinct orders and directives under stressful conditions. Many written orders are included in the book. Compact expression of clear meaning must’ve been a key skill to a Civil War general. Probably a military commander in any era.
Then again I tried to read Sherman’s memoirs and can’t recommend them.
Grant didn’t really want to be a soldier.
Going to West Point would give me the opportunity of visiting the two great cities of the continent, Philadelphia and New York. This was enough.
Later he mentions:
a military life had no charms for me, and I had not the faintest idea of staying in the army even I should be graduated, which I did not expect.
Grant says at this time, he hoped to become a math professor.
The Mexican War breaks out. Grant doesn’t approve, but there he is. He rides from Corpus Christi to San Antonio without seeing a single person until he’s within thirty miles of San Antonio. He joins the expedition to Mexico City.
Considering in tranquility some movements during the Mexican War:
It has always seemed to me that this northern route to the City of Mexico would have been the better one to have taken. But my later experience has taught me two lessons: first, that things are seen plainer after the events have occurred; second, that the most confident critics are generally those who know the least about the matter criticised.
Occupying Mexico City he sees a bullfight:
The sight to me was sickening. I could not see how human beings could enjoy the sufferings of beasts, and often of men, as they seemed to do on these occasions.
Grant is sent to California:
Many of the real scenes in early California life exceed in strangeness and interest any of the mere products of the brain of the novelist. Those early days in California brought out character.
He leaves the army. But the Civil War is approaching:
The great bulk of the legal voters of the South were men who owned no slaves; their homes were generally in the hills and poor country; their facilities for educating their children, even up to the point of reading and writing, were very limited; their interest in the contest was very meagre… Under the old regime they were looked down upon by those who controlled all the affairs in the interest of slave owners, as poor white trash who were allowed the ballot so long as they cast it according to direction.
Grant, quickly, is elevated to command, and starts marching down the Tennessee River, taking Forts Henry and Donelson along the way. But his army is almost driven back into the river on the first day at Shiloh.
Shiloh, as you’ve probably heard, was not a good scene. Two big armies ran into each other and murdered each other for pretty much an entire day. The night after the first day, Grant tries to sleep under a tree in pouring rain:
Some time after midnight, growing restive under the storm and the continuous pain, I moved back to the log-house under the bank. This had been taken as a hospital, and all night wounded men were being brought in, their wounds dressed, a leg or an arm amputated as the case might require, and everything being done to save life or alleviate suffering. The sight was more unendurable than encountering the enemy’s fire, and I returned to my tree in the rain.
Yet, he’s confident:
So confident was I before firing had ceased on the 6th that the next day would bring victory to our arms if we could only take the initiative, that I visited each division commander in person before any reinforcements had reached the field. I directed them to throw out heavy lines of skirmishers in the morning as soon as they could see, and push them forward until they found the enemy… To Sherman I told the story of the assault at Fort Donelson, and said the same tactics would win at Shiloh.
After day two:
I saw an open field, in our possession on the second day, over which the Confederates had made repeated charges the day before, so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping on dead bodies, without a foot touching the ground.
Jason Robards read the Grant parts in Ken Burns Civil War
Every one has his superstitions. One of mine is that in positions of a great responsibility every one should do his duty to the best of his ability where assigned by competent authority, without application or use of influence to change his position.
After Vicksburg fell, Grant was almost killed in New Orleans by a horse that was scared by a locomotive and fell on him. But he makes it out, though he’s on crutches for a bit. Imagine all the times when Grant could’ve been killed, and it was a spooked horse in occupied New Orleans that almost got him.
During the movements around Chattanooga, Grant pauses to consider:
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. With the outside world at war with this institution, they could not have extended their territory. The labor of the country was not skilled, nor allowed to become so. The whites could not toil without becoming degraded, and those who did were denominated “poor white trash.” The system of labor would have soon exhausted the soil and left the people poor. The non-slaveholders would have left the country, and the small slaveholder must have sold out to his more fortunate neighbor. Soon the slaves would have outnumbered the masters, and, not being in sympathy with them, would have risen in their might and exterminated them. The was was expensive to the South as well as to the North, both in blood and treasure, but it was worth all the cost.
That’s enough of Grant’s memoirs for now.