Ulysses S. Grant
By Josiah Bunting III
(Times Books, 180 pages, $20 )
On 13 July 1863, President Abraham Lincoln wrote this remarkable letter to “My Dear General,” Ulysses S. Grant:
I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as grateful acknowledgement for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do, what you finally did — march the troops across the neck — run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition, and the like, would succeed. When you finally got below, and took Port Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks, and when you turned Northward East of Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right, and I was wrong.
Yours very truly, Abraham Lincoln.
To this letter from his commander-in-chief, the president of the United States, General Grant made no reply.
One can easily imagine the scene: Grant, reading the letter, folding it into his pocket, shifting his stogie from the right side to the left side of his mouth, and then putting the presidentÃ-s letter out of his mind, sitting down on a tree stump, taking a stick and a pocket knife, and whittling while thinking about his next plan of attack. That was Grant’s way. He was — notes Josiah Bunting, former superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute and author of this incisive new volume on Grant, an installment in the “American Presidents Series” edited by Arthur Schlesinger — the sort of man who gives himself “uncalculatedly to the work.” For Grant, taciturn, imperturbable, undemonstrative, what mattered was executing the job before him — winning battles and winning the war. Praise, blame, reward, and any other considerations were superfluous, dismissed immediately, if recognized at all, in the single-minded pursuit of his objective.
As such Grant epitomizes a certain sort of American hero — an archetype of American Democratic man just as much as Robert E. Lee is an archetype of a gallant, lost, aristocratic Virginia. The first sentence of Grant’s memoirs reads: “My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral.” He was the silent American hero: a man who does rather than talks. This was no source of comfort to such as Henry Adams, who wrote that to trace a line from Alexander the Great to George Washington to Grant was to disprove DarwinÃ-s theory of evolution.
The usual comparison is between Grant and Lee. Bunting encapsulates the standard portraits: “Lee’s reputation is as a tactical genius, always making do with less. Beyond this he was seen, in both North and South, as an embodiment of nobility, as humbly allegiant to a cause… a cause he had not made his own without the searching of a patriot’s soul. He was a paragon of modest stillness, forbearance, and humility, and in his person incarnated the virtues of Washington, indeed of Marcus Aurelius.”
As for Grant, Lee’s very virtues “implied the less attractive quality of his opponent. A casual compilation of adjectives describing Grant’s appearance provides evidence of a plebeian character: slouching, rumpled, stooped, sloppy, stubby, grubby, slovenly, dusty, shuffling — all the superficial indicia of what a contemporary called a pachydermism — exactly the kind of character, ruthless and unfeeling, that it must have taken to subdue Lee.” One of Grant’s own staff officers at Appomattox said that Grant was “covered with mud and in an old faded uniform, looking like a fly on the shoulder of beef.” And another regretted that the war had not been “closed with such a battle as Gettysburg…. As it is, the rebellion has been more worn out than suppressed.”
But what the standard comparison misses is how similar in other ways Grant and Lee were. If Grant gave himself uncalculatedly to his work, so too was this a prime attribute of Lee’s. Both men were exemplars of Christian humility. Both men were West Pointers. Grant’s best friends at West Point — and throughout his life — were Southerners and Midwesterners. When Lee wrote about abolitionist New Englanders with rare sarcasm — “Is it not strange that the descendants of those pilgrim fathers who Crossed the Atlantic to preserve their own freedom of opinion, have always proved themselves intolerant of the Spiritual liberty of others” — he wrote of a regional elite with whom Grant always felt uneasy as well. Both generals were veterans of the Mexican War. After three years of battles in the War Between the States, they were the notable victors: the two great generals who at last had to confront each other. Grant was a master strategist, Lee a master tactician. And when the two men met at Appomattox, they emerged from the encounter with such fellow feeling that their meeting set the stage for the reconciliation of North and South. After the war, Lee never allowed anyone in his presence to speak ill of General Grant.
For the voters who elected him president — and for the president who elevated him to command the Union armies — Grant’s greatest quality was that he was a winner. He brought Lincoln victory in the West, when other generals were timorous. He conducted a masterful campaign at Vicksburg. And he was the one Union general that Lee could not evict from Virginia. Lee parried Grant for a year and inflicted such casualties on the Federals that Northern newspaper-readers were drained of any enthusiasm for the hard-slogging campaign and the long siege of Petersburg. But Grant’s dogged pursuit had its reward: he finally cornered the Grey Fox and ended the Confederacy’s only hope.
BUNTING SEES GRANT’S MASK of command as both a virtue and a liability. It helped establish his reputation for coolness under fire, but it also served to buttress the arguments of his critics: that he was unfeeling, morally obtuse, an insensate butcher. Bunting erases the caricature; and in addressing Grant’s much-maligned presidency, he discerns that as in war so in peace, Grant set himself one overriding goal, a goal that justifies a word that is rarely applied to Grant: the word is “noble.”
Like most Northerners, Grant began the War Between the States caring far less about slavery than he did about preserving the Union. But as the war developed, so too did Grant’s sense that abolishing slavery would be the war’s second — and necessary — great accomplishment. As president, Grant’s highest purpose was to honor the cause for which his men had died. Thus his platform: to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, to protect the freedmen, to maintain unity within the Republican Party, and to conciliate the South. He did the best he could to achieve these aims. But few mark his presidency as a success.
Like most military men turned politicians, Bunting observes, Grant was a “closet moderate.” That moderation distanced him from the Radical Republicans. But his insistence on equal rights for blacks also alienated those in North and South who thought political and civil equality for the Negro was a mere rhetorical sop for idealists; they denied that it was a legitimate and enforceable goal of political action. But what Grant said, he meant: and he meant that the black man be given his rights as a full American citizen. Grant felt similarly about the American Indian, whom he wanted integrated into American society — while his old colleagues Generals William Sherman and Phil Sheridan thought “Native Americans” should be sped to their happy hunting ground in the sky.
As a politician, to compare Grant to his British contemporaries Disraeli and Gladstone is to feel a tremor of the truth of Henry Adams’ dismissal of the mud-spattered general turned president. But if one looks at Grant’s military correspondence — crisp, clear, and fluidly composed, written without pause and only rarely with correction — and if one reads his memoirs, routinely ranked as the best of presidential autobiographies and one of the best of military commentaries, the comparison does not seem so bad at all. As Grant once said about learned soldiers, they “always knew what Frederick the Great did at one place, and Napoleon at another. Unfortunately for their plans, the rebels were always thinking of something else.” Admittedly, Grant was no soaring Victorian polymath, but he never claimed to be, and to his credit, he never took his eyes off what he thought truly mattered. No one could accuse him of affectation, or hypocrisy, or using a smokescreen of words to obscure plain, cold, hard reality.
Bunting’s is a deft, marvelously written, and perceptive biography of Grant. It carries no excess baggage. It is certainly the best short book on America’s under-appreciated 18th president.
H. W. Crocker III is the author of Robert E. Lee on Leadership; the prize winning comic novel The Old Limey; and Truimph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church. All are available in paperback. This review ran in the February issue of The American Spectator.