Book Review: The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

I’ve heard it good things about Grant’s autobiography, and the Civil War is much in the news lately, so I thought I’d read it. Grant has the reputation of writing very clear orders, and I was interested to see Grant’s prose style was as clear. It was. The military historian (and Torygraph columnist) John Keegan writes in Mask of Command, page 202:

[Grant’s Memoirs are] n enthralling history of one man’s generalship, perhaps the most revelatory autobiography of high command to exist in any language. For, despite his modest achievement at West Point, Grant possessed formidable intellectual capacity. He had the novelist’s gift for the thumbnail sketch of character, dramatic setting of mood and introduction of the telling incident; he had the historian’s ability to summarize events and incorporate them smoothly in the larger narrative; he had the topographer’s feel for landscape and the economist’s instinct for material essentials; and he had the philosophical vision to balance the elements of his story into the argument of his apologia pro vita sua—which was how a just triumphed over an unjust cause. The result is a literary phenomenon.

(I agree with Keegan. Spoiler: There are rather a lot of battles[1].) Published by Mark Twain and completed by Grant while he was dying of throat cancer, to provide for his family, Grant’s Memoirs provide a portrait of successful generalship when being a general was about winning wars rather than merely fighting them, and there was no PowerPoint (or military-industrial complex, for that matter). I think the Memoirs also give a powerful portrait of America in the 1860s, and offer many tactical and strategic lessons, especially with regard to logistics. So Grant’s Memoirs are not just for Civil War buffs, any more than Caesar’s The Gallic Wars are for fans of Roman history, or students of Latin.

In this post, I’ll look at four passages from the book and expand on each one. I’ll conclude with a brief thesis on the lessons Grant can teach us today. Second spoiler: The left needs a Grant.

(1) John Brown


My grandmother Grant died in 1805, leaving seven children. This broke up the family. Captain Noah Grant was not thrifty in the way of “laying up stores on earth,” and, after the death of his second wife, he went, with the two youngest children, to live with his son Peter, in Maysville. The rest of the family found homes in the neighborhood of Deerfield…

Here he learned his trade, and in a few years returned to Deerfield and worked for, and lived in the family of a Mr. Brown, the father of John Brown—”whose body lies mouldering in the grave, while his soul goes marching on.” I have often heard my father speak of John Brown, particularly since the events at Harper’s Ferry. Brown was a boy when they lived in the same house, but he knew him afterwards, and regarded him as a man of great purity of character, of high moral and physical courage, but a fanatic and extremist in whatever he advocated. It was certainly the act of an insane man to attempt the invasion of the South, and the overthrow of slavery, with less than twenty men.

Brief observations: I need more proof than this to say that Brown influenced Grant’s views on slavery and the Union. However, thinking of the present day, I’m struck with how the example any one of us can set may reverberate powerfully, and in very unexpected ways, often for the good, whether we know it at the time or not. And I love the way Grant assesses sanity in terms of the correlation of forces, too.

(2) Forts Henry and Donelson


I saw everything favorable for us along the line of our left and centre. When I came to the right appearances were different. The enemy had come out in full force to cut his way out and make his escape. McClernand’s division had to bear the brunt of the attack from this combined force. His men had stood up gallantly until the ammunition in their cartridge-boxes gave out. There was abundance of ammunition near by lying on the ground in boxes, but at that stage of the war it was not all of our commanders of regiments, brigades, or even divisions, who had been educated up to the point of seeing that their men were constantly supplied with ammunition during an engagement. When the men found themselves without ammunition they could not stand up against troops who seemed to have plenty of it. The division broke and a portion fled, but most of the men, as they were not pursued, only fell back out of range of the fire of the enemy. It must have been about this time that Thayer pushed his brigade in between the enemy and those of our troops that were without ammunition. At all events the enemy fell back within his intrenchments and was there when I got on the field.

I saw the men standing in knots talking in the most excited manner. No officer seemed to be giving any directions. The soldiers had their muskets, but no ammunition, while there were tons of it close at hand. I heard some of the men say that the enemy had come out with knapsacks, and haversacks filled with rations. They seemed to think this indicated a determination on his part to stay out and fight just as long as the provisions held out. I turned to Colonel J. D. Webster, of my staff, who was with me, and said: “Some of our men are pretty badly demoralized, but the enemy must be more so, for he has attempted to force his way out, but has fallen back: the one who attacks first now will be victorious and the enemy will have to be in a hurry if he gets ahead of me.” I determined to make the assault at once on our left. It was clear to my mind that the enemy had started to march out with his entire force, except a few pickets, and if our attack could be made on the left before the enemy could redistribute his forces along the line, we would find but little opposition except from the intervening abatis. I directed Colonel Webster to ride with me and call out to the men as we passed: “Fill your cartridge-boxes, quick, and get into line; the enemy is trying to escape and he must not be permitted to do so.” This acted like a charm. The men only wanted some one to give them a command. We rode rapidly to Smith’s quarters, when I explained the situation to him and directed him to charge the enemy’s works in his front with his whole division, saying at the same time that he would find nothing but a very thin line to contend with. The general was off in an incredibly short time, going in advance himself to keep his men from firing while they were working their way through the abatis intervening between them and the enemy. The outer line of rifle-pits was passed, and the night of the 15th General Smith, with much of his division, bivouacked within the lines of the enemy. There was now no doubt but that the Confederates must surrender or be captured the next day.

Brief observations: I underlined the passage some readers might focus on (“sheeple,” etc.); some might conclude that command consists only in giving orders. But notice first how Grant assesses the topography: “along the line of our left and centre. When I came to the right…” Then Grant assesses the reason for present failure (logistics, naturally: “the ammunition in their cartridge-boxes gave out”). Then Grant assesses the enemy: “the one who attacks first now will be victorious,” and doesn’t waste any time (“I determined to make the assault at once”). He then fixed the logistics problem (“Fill your cartridge-boxes, quick”). Then Grant gives the order to attack. And not to telegraph my conclusions, here, but compare this to the campaign described in Shattered.

(3) Trenches and the Telegraph


It may be as well here as elsewhere to state two things connected with all movements of the Army of the Potomac: first, in every change of position or halt for the night, whether confronting the enemy or not, the moment arms were stacked the men intrenched themselves. For this purpose they would build up piles of logs or rails if they could be found in their front, and dig a ditch, throwing the dirt forward on the timber. Thus the digging they did counted in making a depression to stand in, and increased the elevation in front of them. It was wonderful how quickly they could in this way construct defences of considerable strength. When a halt was made with the view of assaulting the enemy, or in his presence, these would be strengthened or their positions changed under the direction of engineer officers. The second was, the use made of the telegraph and signal corps. Nothing could be more complete than the organization and discipline of this body of brave and intelligent men. Insulated wires—insulated so that they would transmit messages in a storm, on the ground or under water—were wound upon reels, making about two hundred pounds weight of wire to each reel. Two men and one mule were detailed to each reel. The pack-saddle on which this was carried was provided with a rack like a sawbuck placed crosswise of the saddle, and raised above it so that the reel, with its wire, would revolve freely. There was a wagon, supplied with a telegraph operator, battery and telegraph instruments for each division, each corps, each army, and one for my headquarters. There were wagons also loaded with light poles, about the size and length of a wall tent pole, supplied with an iron spike in one end, used to hold the wires up when laid, so that wagons and artillery would not run over them. The mules thus loaded were assigned to brigades, and always kept with the command they were assigned to. The operators were also assigned to particular headquarters, and never changed except by special orders.

The moment the troops were put in position to go into camp all the men connected with this branch of service would proceed to put up their wires. A mule loaded with a coil of wire would be led to the rear of the nearest flank of the brigade he belonged to, and would be led in a line parallel thereto, while one man would hold an end of the wire and uncoil it as the mule was led off. When he had walked the length of the wire the whole of it would be on the ground. This would be done in rear of every brigade at the same time. The ends of all the wires would then be joined, making a continuous wire in the rear of the whole army. The men, attached to brigades or divisions, would all commence at once raising the wires with their telegraph poles. This was done by making a loop in the wire and putting it over the spike and raising the pole to a perpendicular position. At intervals the wire would be attached to trees, or some other permanent object, so that one pole was sufficient at a place. In the absence of such a support two poles would have to be used, at intervals, placed at an angle so as to hold the wire firm in its place. While this was being done the telegraph wagons would take their positions near where the headquarters they belonged to were to be established, and would connect with the wire. Thus, in a few minutes longer time than it took a mule to walk the length of its coil, telegraphic communication would be effected between all the headquarters of the army. No orders ever had to be given to establish the telegraph.

Brief observations: First, we can see clearly how 1860’s Civil War prefigures 1914’s World War I, tactically: Grant mentions trenches (“intrenching”) and the telegraph, but he was also a master of rail. Second, note “the organization and discipline of this body of brave and intelligent men.” I would hazard that this is not only the effect of Army life, but of working class men transferring their skills, both technical and collaborative, from industry to war. Third, the Confederacy lacked this capacity, both technically and industrially. Hence, unlike the Union, the Confederacy could not direct its armies in near-real time. Fourth, “No orders ever had to be given to establish the telegraph.” Are there examples of anything like this in actions or campaigns by the left? Finally, this passage is a fine example of the lucidity with which Grant writes; you can practically see the wires put up.

(4) Strategy

From the “APPENDIX: REPORT OF LIEUTENANT-GENERAL U. S. GRANT, OF THE UNITED STATES ARMIES 1864-65,” which is a long memo (as we would call it today) from Grant to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton:

SIR: I have the honor to submit the following report of the operations of the Armies of the United States from the date of my appointment to command the same.

From an early period in the rebellion I had been impressed with the idea that active and continuous operations of all the troops that could be brought into the field, regardless of season and weather, were necessary to a speedy termination of the war. The resources of the enemy and his numerical strength were far inferior to ours; but as an offset to this, we had a vast territory, with a population hostile to the government, to garrison, and long lines of river and railroad communications to protect, to enable us to supply the operating armies.

The armies in the East and West acted independently and without concert, like a balky team, no two ever pulling together, enabling the enemy to use to great advantage his interior lines of communication for transporting troops from East to West, reinforcing the army most vigorously pressed, and to furlough large numbers, during seasons of inactivity on our part, to go to their homes and do the work of producing, for the support of their armies. It was a question whether our numerical strength and resources were not more than balanced by these disadvantages and the enemy’s superior position.

From the first, I was firm in the conviction that no peace could be had that would be stable and conducive to the happiness of the people, both North and South, until the military power of the rebellion was entirely broken.

I therefore determined, first, to use the greatest number of troops practicable against the armed force of the enemy; preventing him from using the same force at different seasons against first one and then another of our armies, and the possibility of repose for refitting and producing necessary supplies for carrying on resistance. Second, to hammer continuously against the armed force of the enemy and his resources, until by mere attrition, if in no other way, there should be nothing left to him but an equal submission with the loyal section of our common country to the constitution and laws of the land.

Brief observations: This statement of the war-winning strategy Grant devised (and Grant and Sherman carried out) is so crisp and clear I can’t really add anything to it. The ideas seem simple enough, individually and in combination, but no other General — most especially Illinois Central director, failed General, and 1864 Democrat presidential candidate George McClellan — came up with them, until Grant. (If I mention Dean’s “50 state strategy” in conjunction with “hammer continuously,” readers will see where I am going in the Conclusion.)


I finished reading Grant’s Memoirs on the bus to the Burlington and Montreal meetups, and for the ride, by a happy coincidence, I also laid in his week’s New Yorker, for an even greater supply of reading matter. Nathan Heller’s article — in print, “Out of Action,” and online, “Is There Any Point to Protesting?”–poses the question “Do protests work?” The article is long, but well worth a read, and I’ll quote from the conclusion:

What is striking about the [Montgomery] bus boycott is not so much its passion, which is easy to relate to, as its restraint, which—at this moment, especially—is not. No outraged Facebook posts spread the news when Colvin was arrested. Local organizers bided their time, slowly planning, structuring, and casting what amounted to a work of public theatre, and then built new structures as their plans changed. The protest was expressive in the most confected sense, a masterpiece of control and logistics. It was strategic, with the tactics following. And that made all the difference in the world.

[Zeynep Tufekci’s “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest”] suggests that, among that era’s successes, deliberateness of this kind was a rule. She points out how, in preparation for the March on Washington, in 1963, a master plan extended even to the condiments on the sandwiches distributed to marchers. (They had no mayonnaise; organizers worried that the spread might spoil in the August heat.) And she focusses on the role of the activist leader Bayard Rustin, who was fixated on the audio equipment that would be used to amplify the day’s speeches. Rustin insisted on paying lavishly for an unusually high-quality setup. Making every word audible to all of the quarter-million marchers on the Mall, he was convinced, would elevate the event from mere protest to national drama. He was right.

Before the march, Martin Luther King, Jr., had delivered variations on his “I Have a Dream” speech twice in public. He had given a longer version to a group of two thousand people in North Carolina. And he had presented a second variation, earlier in the summer, before a vast crowd of a hundred thousand at a march in Detroit. The reason we remember only the Washington, D.C., version, Tufekci argues, has to do with the strategic vision and attentive detail work of people like Rustin. Framed by the Lincoln Memorial, amplified by a fancy sound system, delivered before a thousand-person press bay with good camera sight lines, King’s performance came across as something more than what it had been in Detroit—it was the announcement of a shift in national mood, the fulcrum of a movement’s story line and power. It became, in other words, the rarest of protest performances: the kind through which American history can change.

(I helpfully underlined “logistics,” though “strategic” is emphasized in the original.) Grant would, I think, have been happy with all this; and not so happy with, let us say, other protests of more recent vintage. More:

Tufekci’s conclusions about the civil-rights movement are unsettling because of what they imply. People such as Kauffman portray direct democracy as a scrappy, passionate enterprise: the underrepresented, the oppressed, and the dissatisfied get together and, strengthened by numbers, force change. Tufekci suggests that the movements that succeed are actually proto-institutional: highly organized; strategically flexible, due to sinewy management structures; and chummy with the sorts of people we now call élites. The Montgomery N.A.A.C.P. worked with Clifford Durr, a patrician lawyer whom Franklin Roosevelt had appointed to the F.C.C., and whose brother-in-law Hugo Black was a Supreme Court Justice when Browder v. Gayle was heard. The organizers of the March on Washington turned to Bobby Kennedy—the U.S. Attorney General and the brother of the sitting President—when Rustin’s prized sound system was sabotaged the day before the protest. Kennedy enlisted the Army Signal Corps [!!] to fix it. You can’t get much cozier with the Man than that. Far from speaking truth to power, successful protests seem to speak truth through power. (The principle holds for such successful post-sixties movements as Act-Up, with its structure of caucuses and expert working groups. And it forces one to reassess the rise of well-funded “Astroturf” movements such as the Tea Party: successful grassroots lawns, it turns out, have a bit of plastic in them, too.) Democratizing technology may now give the voiceless a means to cry in the streets, but real results come to those with the same old privileges—time, money, infrastructure, an ability to call in favors—that shape mainline politics.

At this point, before shaking our fists too hard at “chummy with the sorts of people we now call élites,” let’s remember that the Duke D’Orleans, the King’s brother, favored a Constitutional monarchy (one of the earlier revolutionary demands); splits in the elites go all the way to the top.

If all this is true, much depends on how the left, collectively, is able to think, strategically — and who is doing the thinking. For example, the “hammer continuously” principle, if applicable, would urge both acting within the Democrat Party and strengthening structures outside the Democrat party, to bring pressure to bear on it (as opposed to the sterile “either/or” logic now prevailing). And if the left doesn’t have the numbers or the agility to do both, then it might as well pack it in anyhow, right? However, if such a strategy were to be implemented within the Democrat Party, then the tactical manual of that party would be used, virtually guaranteeing strategic failure (contrast the Better Deal to the People’s Platform). On the other hand, if such a strategy were to be implemented outside the Democrat Party (like the Civil Rights movement, and Act-Up, both successful), then there is no tactical manual, and one would have to be written. By whom? Sanders 2.0, presumably (though the only organization that I have seen with a manual is the Clintonite Indivisible, and most definitely not Our Revolution). IMNSHO, Sanders 2.0 needs to be a Grant, but whether Sanders 2.0 turns out to be a person, an institution, a candidate, or a support structure for properly-minded candidates has yet to be seen….


[1] If you want to read just one thing, read the Appendix from which I quote in section (4); the Memoirs are available on Gutenberg in full. Not only is Grant an excellent memoirist, he’s a brilliant memo writer. You know how Pentagon Generals like Petraeus — who didn’t write his own biography, but did have an affair with the woman he hired to do so — are always being lionized as “soldier scholars”? Feh.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.