I’d been meaning to read Ulysses Grant’s memoirs for quite some time. After reading two large biographies and a few analyses of his generalship in the Civil War, I had a pretty good portrait of Grant painted for me.

However, I wanted to get inside the mind of the man himself. I wanted to see how he himself viewed his legacy.

First, a little context. Grant wrote these memoirs while literally on his deathbed; he died 5 days after finishing final edits. A con man had swindled him out of his entire fortune late in life, leaving him nearly penniless. So Grant reached out to a publisher who had bought some Civil War essays from him and offered to write a memoir for them. They responded and offered him standard publishing terms, which Grant happily accepted.

Enter Mark Twain. He was enamored with Grant and when he heard Grant was planning to write a memoir, he went to visit him and asked him what terms the publisher had offered. The terms Grant had agreed to positively disgusted Twain; he believed Grant to be a living legend and worthy of far higher royalties than some country bumpkin. He tried to persuade Grant to let him publish his memoirs. But Grant was a man of honor, and having already agreed to terms with his publisher felt obligated to keep to the contract.

That’s when Twain slapped a check for $50,000 (roughly $1,000,000 today) on Grant’s table and told him that was merely an advance, with generous royalties to follow. Grant immediately informed his publisher he had to back out of their deal and moved forward with Twain. Anyway, on to the review!

It was very interesting to see what parts of his life Grant chose to emphasize, and which parts he downplayed. For instance, most students of Civil War era history know of Grant’s infamous General Orders 11. This was an order to remove possible Confederate spies from his Union camps which unnecessarily singled out Jewish merchants. This black spot on Grant’s record is discussed at length in most biographies but Grant did not even bring it up once.

(Which is unsurprising; I don’t suppose any of us would want to dwell on an action of ours we deeply regretted and that humiliated us whenever brought to memory)

What did surprise me is that Grant gave his family no more than a passing mention here or there. He loved Julia Dent Grant, his wife, with all his heart, and his children were precious to him. We know this from his letters that have survived. I would have thought he’d talk about them quite a bit at one point, but I suppose he thought the public at large cared only to read about his military adventures.

As a writer, Grant does an incredible job of painting a scene for the readers. You can almost see the topography of each battlefield as he describes rolling terrain, dense woods, a bend in a river, a beautiful farm house, a flat and arid desert. And he does it all in straightforward, simple language, the exact fashion in which he wrote his military orders as a Lieutenant General.

There also appears to be an ulterior motive for writing his memoirs: Grant was hoping to “clear his name”, so to speak. Even while he still drew breath, slanderers and libelists, political rivals and old battlefield does, were hard at work tarnishing his legacy, a job which unfortunately was done so successfully that only in the 20th century is Grant’s legacy beginning to recover in the eyes of the general public.

And so when it came time to write about his largest and most infamous campaigns, Grant always opened with a bit of background to the battle: discussing logistics, orders from his superiors, or orders issued to subordinates, that kind of thing. He was setting the stage and explaining his rationale for pre-battle actions. He would then describe the battle as he witnessed it, then close the chapter with some self-reflection, assessing his battle plans and the actions of his men, and offering justifications for what happened. Basically telling his critics, “This is why this happened so, and I dare you to find the flaw in my reasoning.”

Usually these ‘closing remarks’ only lasted for a page and a half, maybe two. But for the Battle of Shiloh, Grant went on for nearly six full pages in justifying what happened. This is because, despite it being a significant Union victory, Grant’s detractors used it as a cudgel to portray Grant as a bumbling, drunken fool who was saved only by reinforcements (which is not even remotely accurate). For instance, he was criticized for not having had his forces dig entrenchments when they arrived at Shiloh, but Grant points out that in 1862, no one would have opted to do so in his position because it wasn’t yet standard operating procedure. If Grant accomplished nothing else with his memoirs, he wanted to ensure that everyone got his side of the story of the Battle of Shiloh.

All in all, this book was an excellent read and exactly what I expected it to be. If you want to learn more of Grant, then in the words of famed biographer Ron Chernow, it’s a “must-have”. The edition I got was excellent as well for the annotations, which were almost a whole extra book to themselves. These were great because it told a little bit about any person Grant mentions by name, so you have a general idea of who he’s talking about. It would also clarify some of Grant’s inaccuracies on things like troop counts in a particular battle or the name of a creak or road.

Published by Peter Martuneac

Marine, Boilermaker, husband and father. I'm here to share my thoughts on all things political or philosophical.

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