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Discovering Ulysses S. Grant

The Autobiography of General Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs of the Civil War, Red and Black Publishers, St. Petersburg, Fla, (Excerpted from The Personal Memoirs of General Ulysses S. Grant, originally published in two volumes , 1885) 433 pages, PB. Undated and not priced.

I recently read The Autobiography of U.S. Grant, who was the most effective and eventually commanding general of the Union armies in the American Civil War and later, President of the United States for two terms, 1869-1877. I was disposed to read the memoir by a series of remarks by John Keegan’s 1987 book, The Mask of Command. Keegan found Grant’s modesty and pragmatism admirable, and took it to be exemplary of American democratic thought and behavior in military command.

I was instantly attracted to those same qualities of Grant’s, but without a profound interest in military history, I saw Grant as a possible exemplar of a kind of democratic character currently in woeful decline across Western societies and their triumphal capitalism, which I have come to think of, in complete seriousness, as a kind of Dictatorship of the Entrepreneurs.

Keegan, writing in the context of his larger study in which Grant is one of four military commanders examined, (the other three are Alexander the Great, Wellington, and Adolf Hitler) naturally focuses on the clarity of Grant’s actions as a military commander, citing in particular the remarkable clarity of his field orders. Yet along the way, Keegan gradually draws a portrait of a profoundly remarkable human being, drawing from both contemporary accounts, and his own perceptive analysis, which I’ll summarize for you with a series of excerpts from Keegan:

“…he preferred to do the work [of command] himself. He had discovered that, like Wellington, he had Herculean powers. He also knew that he was better at their jobs than any group of subordinates. Wellington could afford not to delegate because his army was always very small. Grant could afford not to because, though his armies were eventually very large indeed, they were composed of men used to shifting for themselves, which he encouraged them anyhow to do.

“…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 sua vita—which was how a just triumphed over an unjust cause.”

Keegan quotes this passage, written by a contemporary visitor to Grant’s headquarters: “ ‘He sat silent among his staff, and my first impression was that he was moody, dull and unsocial. I afterward found him pleasant, genial, and agreeable. He keeps his own counsel, padlocks his mouth, while his countenance in battle or repose …indicates nothing—that is gives no expression of his feelings and no evidence of his intentions. …there is no glitter or parade about him.’

“…he showed” Keegan summarizes, “the world that unvaryingly equitable and self-contained exterior on which all visitors to his headquarters remarked. He was quiet in speech,…undemonstrative in manner, indiscriminately courteous to all callers, and a listener rather than a talker. He…choked whisperers into silence, never swore, though he was surrounded by profanes, was careful not to chide a subordinate in public and in general tried to command by encouragement rather than reproof. …[His] simplicity of speech, style and manners was not affectation. It was an expression of deep-seated character. ..He was deeply pained by every encounter with the wounded and dead and was physically revolted by the sight of blood. He had no taste at all for the conventional glories of war, for its parades and triumphs, for its honours and rewards. He shrank from crowds, hid from tuft-hunters, muttered inaudible replies to the thanks of Congress.

“… His Memoirs, dictated (and, after his voice failed, written) while he was dying in agony from cancer of the throat, are not only a triumph of physical and moral courage—his family depended on their completion for rescue from bankruptcy—they are…perhaps the most revelatory autobiography of high command to exist in any language.”

A short passage from the Memoirs, which describes his acceptance of Lee’s surrender in April, 1865, catches the flavour of Grant’s character in his own words: “When I had left camp that morning,” he writes, “I had not expected so soon the result that was then taking place, and consequently was in rough garb. I was without a sword, as I usually was when on horseback on the field, and wore a soldier’s blouse for a coat, with the shoulder straps of my rank to indicate to the army who I was. When I went into the house I found General Lee. …[He] was dressed in a full uniform which was entirely new, and was wearing a sword of considerable value, very likely the sword which had been presented by the State of Virginia; at all events, it was an entirely different sword from the one that would ordinarily be worn in the field. In my rough traveling suit, the uniform of a private with the straps of a lieutenant-general, I must have contrasted very strangely with a man so handsomely dressed, six feet high and of faultless form. But this was not a matter that I thought of until afterwards.”

Grant goes on to describe their conversation, which began with mutual recollections of their army background, noting that while he remembered Lee “perfectly” because of Lee’s superior rank and 16 year advantage in age, he was surprised that Lee remembered him at all. “Our conversation grew so pleasant” Grant continues, “that I almost forgot the object of our meeting. After the conversation had run on in this style for some time, General Lee called my attention to the object of our meeting (to settle terms for Lee’s surrender) and said that he had asked for this interview for the purpose of getting from me that terms I proposed to give his army.”

The two men then got down to it, but Grant admits that he again got distracted, and that Lee once again had to again move the negotiation back on track. The clear civility of the negotiation is noteworthy in and of itself—another long conversation ensued the following morning, this one on horseback in the middle of a field, along with much fraternizing between the surrendered and triumphant armies—but what struck me about it is that the primary interest of Grant’s description is in getting the record straight, even if it is at his own expense in the appearance. One gets the sense from this and dozens of other similar passages throughout the memoir that Grant’s habit of self-deprecation in the interest of accuracy was a primary and not incidental character trait.

Yet Grant’s modesty isn’t lack of imagination or insight. The penetration and breadth of the values that moved him meets the highest standards of contemporary analysis. “There was no time during the rebellion,” he writes, “when I did not think, and often say, that the South was more to be benefited by its defeat than the North. The latter had the people, the institutions, and the territory to make a great and prosperous nation. The former was burdened with an institution abhorrent to all civilized people not brought up under it, and one which degraded labor, kept it in ignorance, and enervated the governing class. With the outside world at war with this institution, they could not have extended their territory. The labor of the country was not skilled, nor allowed to become so. The whites could not toil without becoming degraded, and those who did were denominated “poor white trash.” The system of labor would soon have exhausted the soil, and the small slaveholder must have sold out to his more fortunate neighbor. Soon the slaves would have outnumbered the maters, and, not being in sympathy with them, would have risen in their might and exterminated them.”

So, what I find in the volume is a genuine culture hero. But what’s the code of conduct behind it, and why is it so profoundly different than what we have today?

Glad you asked. Here it is–my extrapolation:

U.S. Grant’s Code of Modesty

1.) Never show off, or up. If you’re a general, dress like a private. Golden hats and silver gloves are excellent targets for enemy sharpshooters.

2.) Advancement of self is only valid if it is not actively sought.

3.) Never willingly speak ceremonially. If something needful can’t be communicated in a conversation with other people, nothing worthwhile and truthful is going to be said.

4.) Act on principle, without cruelty, but without compromise.

5.) Tell people exactly what you expect of them, preferably in writing.

6.) Think and speak well of others, until they prove unworthy. Then say little, but act ruthlessly.

7.) Working harder and knowing more is the only true basis for advantage.

8.) Write, speak and act with brevity and clarity. Not only is there nothing more that’s required, everything else tends to make a mess and lead to errors.

9.) Niceness has no purpose except to avoid unnecessary conflict.

10.) Keep your eye on the ball, and play with a full and precise understanding of the entire game, however illogical the game rules are.

11.) Always imagine what others will do, and why, before committing to profound actions.

12.) All political systems that do not devolve responsibility to free individual conscience are doomed to failure—on level ground, which rarely exists, but should.

January 28, 2010 1610 words

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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