Saturday, December 13, 2008

U.S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs: Literary warrior from Ill.

Have been reading U.S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs this year. Finally: Big job, won’t finish soon. But here is my book report.

This book has a reputation as one of the best autobiographies by a president or general and it fully lives up to that status. Grant wrote it, in need of money, as he battled cancer. He composed it at the behest of Mark Twain, and the writing at times reaches a level like Twain’s. It deals with the Civil War, Grant didn’t live to write about his presidency, which was a debacle, anyway.

Grant was known to be somewhat taciturn – and with a bit of a dour countenance. Yet he was known for brilliant simplicity in his war making – in the way he wrote memos, as one example. His quietness belied a deep thinker; his writing style makes for great literature.

Grant’s fame lies in the fact that he brought the Civil War to an end. Many would argue that he spilled too much blood in the process. His perspective was probably that shorter war equaled less blood. That, itself a bloody algorithm. His tale is terrible and tragic and filled with a certain Midwestern resignation. It is vast, detailed and brilliant. Grant thought things out, and the book truly opens a window on the mind of a very substantial historical player.

Throughout his life he was a figure of much derision, yet he had tremendous confidence. His calmness in battle was considered extraordinary. He was very self-effacing. During the War, he confidently and correctly estimated the merits of West Point class mates who’d seemed to better him between wars [the Mexican and Civil]. Barely heroic but densely nuanced and modern is Grant.

He does not spend much time on his early life in the memoirs. The meat is the Civil War. But of his youth one story stands out.

At about 10 he went to buy a horse. His father advised him to take along the $15 dollars that the seller was asking, but to bid initially at $10; if that was rejected to split the difference and offer $12.50; if that was rejected than buy at the original $15; or something to that effect.

Young Grant, who eventually became famed as a horseman, approached the seller and said:

“My father told me to bid initially at $10, and if that was rejected to offer you $12.50, and if that was rejected to buy for $15.” At which point he handed over the full price.

The story of this hayseed horse trading followed Grant through his youth. In his home town he could hear people joke as he passed, even after attending West Point. It seemed to contribute to create his sense of humility. When he leaves town, and goes by river boat to West Point, hell if he don’t see the same horse of his youth – an animal he’d sold when it was going blind – pulling barges up the river.

So the story has pathos. The fact was that he went to West Point to get an education, hoping to become a professor some day; and it was chance and circumstance that put him in the position to lead the Union armies. He understood this deeply. 'There are but few important events in the affairs of men brought about by their own choice,' he writes, at the book’s outset. A key. Many people conspired against his personal success; although unlikely on the face of it, he had success after success in battle and finally won the day.

He appears to have been an indifferent student – although he read novels intently. Grant had a bit of the Midwest bumpkin about him – but his literary text betrays a famous stranger – he used his bumpkin mask to disarm, all the time observing, and planning tactics. He didn’t waste words on people unprepared to hear what he had to say. He would conveniently overlook a general’s request for additional troops if, as in the case of McClernand at Grand Gulf, Tenn., he’d observed the ground and knew how many troops the general could actually there engage. He knew from a long life of observation when his opponent was a poor general – as in the case of Floyd at Nashville – and set course accordingly. When a West Point colleague Buckner, then a Confederate captured, told him he’d not of taken Donelson so easily as he did if Buckner had been in command he replied that he’d have done it differently if Buckner had been in charge. Most importantly he was flexible and aggressive.

Although he’d served as a quartermaster, his experience in the Mexican War was very deep and quite enough to instill a warrior’s sense. [Tho his quartermaster experience was key – one thing he was always sure to do his best on was to make sure his troops had ammunition.] He was flexible as when he looked at his difficulties to maintain support long lines in the campaign on Vicksburg, and determined to use the Mississippi River to draw supplies. If his troops weren’t moving they were preparing to move. And Grant prepared for multiple contingencies.

His aggressiveness was in contrast to his predecessors as leaders of the Union army. He would always try to follow up one victory with another, and he always knew where he should go next. His first choice was to pursue a vanquished opponent. More than other Union generals, he did not wait to be hit. He’d attack an army before it could gain reinforcements; so many times his colleagues would wait and miss the march. His eye was on the big picture too; rapid movement meant acquisition of territory; it promoted Northern volunteerism that had tailed off from the beginning of the conflict. His tactic was violent, but the message in his book was that he was damned determinted to end this thing.

By the way, as I read this book, I read a piece as if companion. Grant (from the Great Generals series) by John Mosier. This is one of the best military books I have ever read. It is a part of a series of short treatises on famous generals. Without a deep background in Civil War history and geography, Grant’s story can be hard to follow. This book helped. It was quite interesting in its own right. Why does one read military biographies? To learn how the general managed resources, planned campaigns, reacted to adversity, dealt with personalities, encouraged his troops. This book is useful in that sense. Deeper folks than I have faulted it on Amazon. I’d say, if you are reading more than one or two books on Grant, this is useful, if your interests lean toward the matters of tactics and strategy. It is an incredibly refined mix of what many people are looking for in a military history. It is carefully distilled and incredibly focused on what is essential. Wesley Clark provides an interesting foreword.

To give a feel for Grant’s literary skill, I offer here a passage that covers the 1850s, when San Francisco was the Apex of the Gold Coast. Don’t tell me his novel reading did not pay dividends. It is interesting and a hopeful sign that our president elect in Dec 2008 seems to have literary skills on par with this great general’s.

San Francisco at that day was a lively place. Gold, or placer digging
as it was called, was at its height. Steamers plied daily between San
Francisco and both Stockton and Sacramento. Passengers and gold from the
southern mines came by the Stockton boat; from the northern mines by
Sacramento. In the evening when these boats arrived, Long Wharf--there
was but one wharf in San Francisco in 1852--was alive with people
crowding to meet the miners as they came down to sell their "dust" and
to "have a time." Of these some were runners for hotels, boarding
houses or restaurants; others belonged to a class of impecunious
adventurers, of good manners and good presence, who were ever on the
alert to make the acquaintance of people with some ready means, in the
hope of being asked to take a meal at a restaurant. Many were young men
of good family, good education and gentlemanly instincts. Their parents
had been able to support them during their minority, and to give them
good educations, but not to maintain them afterwards. From 1849 to 1853
there was a rush of people to the Pacific coast, of the class described.
All thought that fortunes were to be picked up, without effort, in the
gold fields on the Pacific. Some realized more than their most sanguine
expectations; but for one such there were hundreds disappointed, many of
whom now fill unknown graves; others died wrecks of their former selves,
and many, without a vicious instinct, became criminals and outcasts.
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. It was a long way
off then, and the journey was expensive. The fortunate could go by Cape
Horn or by the Isthmus of Panama; but the mass of pioneers crossed the
plains with their ox-teams. This took an entire summer. They were very
lucky when they got through with a yoke of worn-out cattle. All other
means were exhausted in procuring the outfit on the Missouri River. The
immigrant, on arriving, found himself a stranger, in a strange land, far
from friends. Time pressed, for the little means that could be realized
from the sale of what was left of the outfit would not support a man
long at California prices. Many became discouraged. Others would take
off their coats and look for a job, no matter what it might be. These
succeeded as a rule. There were many young men who had studied
professions before they went to California, and who had never done a
day's manual labor in their lives, who took in the situation at once and
went to work to make a start at anything they could get to do. Some
supplied carpenters and masons with material--carrying plank, brick, or
mortar, as the case might be; others drove stages, drays, or baggage
wagons, until they could do better. More became discouraged early and
spent their time looking up people who would "treat," or lounging about
restaurants and gambling houses where free lunches were furnished daily.
They were welcomed at these places because they often brought in miners
who proved good customers.

Some Grant on Gutenberg – Project Gutenberg
Mosier Grant book on Amazon – Amazon
Grant book on Barnes & Noble – Barnes & Noble

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