Through the years I’ve often seen favorable references to the “Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant” but had yet to read the book. With the arrival of 2011 and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, I concluded now was the time to remedy that omission. Having just finished the book, I have to agree with Mark Twain’s description of Grant’s story as a “literary masterpiece.”
This book will be especially valuable to anyone interested in the Civil War. In plain language, Grant not only describes what happened in each of his battles, he also explains why he acted as he did. The book offers much insight into why Grant was such a successful combat commander in a conflict that saw so many others fail in that task.
Grant received a solid military education at West Point from which he graduated in 1843. A short time later, he saw combat in the Mexican-American War and served in the active duty Army until his resignation a few years later. In none of his pre-Civil War endeavors – either as a soldier or as a civilian – did Grant exhibit the leadership qualities and strategic genius that made him so successful during the Civil War.
There’s an old saying in the army that a good general masters tactics while a great general masters logistics. This was true with Grant. His rise to prominence came not in the densely-packed Eastern Theater that extended only 100 or so miles from Washington to Richmond, but in the more spacious and geographically challenging west; a theater in which the importance of logistics was magnified.
After reading his memoirs, the source of Grant’s expertise in supplying an army is clear: From the beginning of his military service, Grant was always made the quartermaster of whatever unit he was assigned to. During the Mexican War, Grant joined in attacks and was often under fire, but his primary duty was ensuring that his regiment be supplied with ammunition and food. He undoubtedly had a knack for it, but the lessons he learned in Mexico would prove invaluable when the Civil War commenced. The finest example of that was when General Sherman asked permission of Grant, then his commander, to abandon his supply lines and move his 60,000 man army through the hostile south, supplying itself from the land and carrying only its ammunition. The entire military and political hierarchy (both in the north and the south) thought the request insane, but Grant not only authorized it, he writes in his memoirs that had Sherman not made the request, Grant would have ordered him to do so.
Besides Grant’s logistical skills, his lack of pre-Civil War high command experience may have served him well. Career military officers in the pre-War army had immersed themselves in the study of European conflicts and had adopted very precise, regimented rules of strategy. Grant brought a directness and a knack of practical problem solving to his commands. This element of his personality is evident in his prose which mirrors his directness of thought and action. But Grant was not a simple man. His memoirs explain in simple and direct language very complex strategies that he devised and executed during the war.
One criticism of Grant during the war and afterwards was his willingness to take high casualties. For instance, in the summer of 1864, the Army of the Potomac suffered 60,000 casualties in just 30 days. In his book, Grant explains that the length of the war and its high cost were sapping the determination of the citizens of the Northern states to persevere. Because of that, he decided to keep pressing no matter what the cost in order to bring the war to a successful conclusion as quickly as possible.
After the war, Grant was elected and re-elected President but his administrations were characterized by corruption. Had he not been elected President, the esteem in which he was held today, which would be based solely on his military accomplishments, would be much higher. After serving as President, Grant became a wealthy man but he was swindled and lost everything. Penniless, he was also diagnosed with esophageal cancer and had not long to live. Grant set out to write his memoirs as a way of earning money for his family’s support. He finished the book only days before he died a very painful death. The book was an instant bestseller and remains a classic work of literature.