(1822-1885) Lieutenant General and Eighteenth President of the United States, 1869-1877
Primary sources have a particular importance for the history of the United States, because so much of the secondary work is careless, prejudiced and full of fiction. This is particularly true of the Civil War, where the more recent histories reflect more the biases or ignorance of their authors than any correct picture of the time, even when accurate in dates, places and names. Grant's Memoirs are a valuable primary source not only for Grant's own views, but as a historical record of his times and the events in which he participated. In this paper, I wish to comment only on a few things that bear on my special interests. For a full account, by all means read the book, which is still in print.
The Memoirs were written at the end of Grant's life, and he knew they were to be his final words to posterity. They represent his mature views, but the events described were sufficiently near not to be clouded with time, since they happened not much more than twenty years earlier. He realizes clearly that the agony of the war led to the rapid rise of American enterprise and power which his administration saw, and that if there had been no war, the Confederacy would eventually have been destroyed in a vast slave rebellion, and the diminished United States would have remained a poverty-stricken backwater.
Grant quite correctly views the annexation of Texas and the Mexican War as part of the necessary struggle of the slaveowners to expand their territory and retain control of the United States government, which made the Civil War unavoidable. In vol. II, p. 542, he clearly states that the cause of the War of the Rebellion was slavery. The term "Civil War" does not appear in the Memoirs; Grant uses either "war of the rebellion" (not capitalized except on p. II-542) or "war between the States" to refer to the conflict. The United States forces are usually called "National," sometimes "Union." The Confederate forces are usually called "Rebel," and, except near the end, always says the "so-called Confederate government." He did not concede that an actual government existed, nor that the struggle was between two governments or nations, but was a struggle of the country against rebels.
By reading Grant, one discovers the reason why there was not bloody retribution after the war. The people on both sides considered themselves the same, a feeling strong in both armies, where older men had served together before the rebellion. In fact, the only bitterness remained with the deposed slaveowning class, who did consider themselves different, and sowed discord and evil that is still with us. He points out quite clearly the efforts of President Johnson first to crush his superiors in the Southern upper classes, and subsequently to pander to them for popularity. Lincoln's death was a disaster for reconstruction and the South.
There is much evidence of the lack of "solidity" in the South. Grant mentions the many regiments of volunteers from states that had seceded. The whole of the mountain sections of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina were strong for the Union. The hill people were suppressed by the slaveowning elite, and were not eager to further their plans. He mentions finding loyalists in many places during his campaigns. The South, he says, was a "military camp" where the same freedoms were not enjoyed as in the areas not under Confederate control. Indeed, any disloyalty was probably silenced by murder, and practically all the white male population was in uniform (from ages 14 to 60, eventually).
Grant does not say much about the black population, but what he does is very enlightening. Wherever the Army went, slaves would escape to it, and by its protection would become freedmen, called "contrabands" for some curious reason. These men were very useful for jobs around the army, and also volunteered for service in uniform. To the Confederates, an armed black man was an outrage. Much effort had to be spent in the Confederacy to keep slaves from revolting. Grant does not mention this, but again he did not see it. It should be remembered that to most people outside the South, a black person was very exotic, a theoretical rather than an actual being. The propaganda demeaning the African was exceedingly evil in its effect on normally prejudiced Americans, and is still with us. Grant was in favor of enfranchisement, but had reservations in giving the franchise to "ignorant" people immediately. The slaves were no more ignorant than the Southern population in general, of which they were a quarter. This was a pure effect of slander.
Grant only alludes to the atrocities committed by General Forrest at Fort Pillow, and is satisfied by giving some of Forrest's grisly comments. Grant omits accounts of a sensational nature throughout the book, and goes out of his way to be fair to others. He did not see much of the South on his campaigns, which were always on its borders.
The Civil War parts of the Memoirs deal only with the events which Grant personally witnessed or directed. These begin with his first command in Missouri as an Illinois volunteer, then to Cairo and the capture of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, the great battle at Shiloh, and then Nashville and Corinth. There is the attack on Vicksburg to open the Mississippi, where the Army had to descend the river, get around to the south side, cross the river, fight at Jackson to remove the threat to the rear, and defeat Pemberton at Champion's Hill. Then Vicksburg is besieged with Johnston coming from the east, and falls in time for Johnston to be repulsed. Grant's account of this campaign is the best I have read. Having cleared the Mississippi, Grant is now assigned to the Army of the Tennessee and is victorious at Chattanooga. He is ordered to Washington, made Lieutenant General on 9 March 1864 (the only others previous to him had been Winfield Scott, only a few years earlier, and George Washington), and begins the campaign in Northern Virginia while Sherman pushes forward to Atlanta. He moves south, Lee harrassing on the west, and crosses the James to beseige Petersburg. When Petersburg is taken, and Sherman is marching north, having cut through Georgia and the Carolinas bringing war to this previously untouched region, the Confederate government abandons Richmond while Lee tries to avoid the National army and move south to join Johnston. Sheridan and Meade catch Lee, Johnston surrenders to Sherman, and it is all over.
Grant takes some pains to set the record right over events at Lee's surrender. There was no business with sabers, for example. Grant wrote the terms of surrender in his manifold order book, and there was no need for any negotiations. The terms were transcribed by General Ely S. Parker onto official stationery to hand to Lee, who did not sign them. Lee, incidentally, referred to "The Army of the United States" when addressing communications to Grant. Lee was dressed in a new uniform with a parade saber, not what would normally be worn in the field. Grant had a private's uniform with his rank straps sewn on the blouse; he was not expecting Lee and was in the field when informed that Lee was awaiting him.
Some of the insights into society can now be mentioned. Grant's comments on schools in Ohio in the 1830's are interesting:
The schools of the time of which I write, were very indifferent. There were no free schools, and none in which the scholars were classified [divided into classes by year]. They were all supported by subscription, and a single teacher--who was often a man or woman incapable of teaching much, even if they imparted all they knew--would have thirty or forty scholars, male and female, from the infant learning the A B C's up to the young lady of eighteen and the boy of twenty, studying the highest branches taught--the three R's, "Reading, 'Riting, 'Rithmetic." I never saw an algebra, or other mathematical work higher than the arithmetic, in Georgetown, until after I was appointed to West Point. I then bought a work on algebra in Cincinnati; but having no teacher it was Greek to me."
Grant intended to become a Professor of Mathematics, but the Mexican War intervened. He was excellent in mathematics, poor in military science. When he went east to West Point from Ohio in May 1839, he took a steamboat from Ripley to Pittsburgh, and then the Main Line to Philadelphia. He found the trip on the canal boats and over the Portage Railway very comfortable, taking this route, he said, to see the scenery. The railway trip from Columbia to Philadelphia was his first.
You might have heard the straps that keep trousers up (US suspenders, UK braces) were called "galluses." Grant mentions them as "gallows," which shows the origin of the word. Mexicans smoked cigarettes avidly at the time. The wrappers were made from dry corn husks, the tobacco rolled between the hands. He tells the story of the government tobacco monopoly in Mexico, and how the cultivation of olives and grapes was prohibited, and that of tobacco specially licensed, to protect Spanish producers and produce revenue before independence, and that the monopoly had been preserved.
Wooden mortars were used at Vicksburg in the spring of 1863, consisting of wooden staves bound with iron, to lob shells into the defenses. This is a curious throwback to the earliest days of cannon.
There are tantalizing references to Admiral Porter and Colonel Ellet of the marine brigade in connection with operations on the rivers of the west. Major advances were made either along navigable rivers, or railways. The difficulties of transport in military operations are constantly mentioned. This includes finding horses or mules, of training them, and of feeding them once found. Wagons cannot move through mud, and sometimes not even horses or marching men can. Roads are "corduroyed" or paved with logs laid transversely, and here and there plank roads are found, paved with boards. Both kinds of road were extremely unpleasant. Wagon trains congest and obstruct roads. Artillery also obstructs roads and hinders movement. In Northern Virginia, Grant disposed of excess artillery to free up the roads for supplies.
Railways were obviously the most valuable military transport. The Civil War was the first war in which they played a role. They were ripped up and laid down everywhere in the theatre of operations. The speed with which a destroyed railway could be restored to service was amazing. Grant includes the story where a rebel says to his captain that "it would do no good to demolish tunnels, because Sherman brought spare tunnels with him." [The Confederates, however, suffered from a severe shortage of iron made more severe by mismanagement, and were not as good at engineering.] Grenville Dodge's remarkable engineering efforts are praised.
Grant also mentions telegraphs and signals. He says that as soon as a headquarters moved, the telegraph corps was there with their mules with reels of wire on their backs and poles to raise the wires so that they would not be cut by wheeled vehicles. He always had telegraphic communication promptly without having to order it himself. The signals he mentions were flag semaphore signals, widely used at the time. The signals of the enemy could also be observed, and this provided valuable intelligence. Important messages, he said, were in "cipher." U. S. and Confederate cryptography is discussed at the end of Alphabets, Ciphers and Codes.
Grant gives valuable insight to many men of the time, mainly military men, but also President Lincoln, whom he greatly admired. He contrasts Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, regarding both very highly. Of the Civil War generals, he is certainly the best, and some of the reasons are evident from his book. He was extremely displeased by any kind of delay or lack of promptness. He holds this against General Thomas, who really was extremely successful, but of a different nature. Grant was annoyed at Thomas' remaining in Nashville as Hood marched towards him, but Thomas made certain he smashed Hood with little difficulty. Most of the other generals that Grant accuses of dilatoriness had other faults of which this was evidence. Next to Grant, Sheridan and Sherman are of top quality, followed by Meade, McPherson, Hancock and, of course, Thomas. The Confederates had few good generals, but many gallant and brave ones. I think Joseph Johnston was the best, follwed by Lee and Longstreet, and Grant may have held the same opinion. In any case, there were a great many excellent men who did not happen to hold high command on both sides. On the United States side, one can mention Logan, Ord, Chamberlain, Dodge, Terry and others. Halleck was a blundering political general, Stanton insufferable, but Grant damns them only by faint praise.
Grant's language is straightforward and unaffected, his descriptions orderly and clear. He uses the spellings "centre" and "criticise" which are actually quite correct for American English at the time, before the later rise of excessive pedantry. Toward the end, one finds a few examples of "rolé" where he means "rôle." For readers unacquainted with military terminology, a "bivouac" is an overnight encampment without tents. The word comes from the German Beiwacht.
U. S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, 2 vols (New York: Charles L. Webster & Co., 1885/6).
Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 10 March 2001
Last revised 16 March 2001