Sunday, April 27, 2014

The most fascinating man in American history

"My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral."

- Opening lines of Grant's memoirs, in the very first chapter

If you asked your average person what historical individual they find most interesting, you might hear an answer like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, or another Founding Father. These would be excellent choices. But the person I find most interesting would not make most people's list. Although he was voted President of the United States, he is not remembered as a statesman, but as a soldier. He may have been the finest general in American history, but he is mostly forgotten today.

The man was Ulysses S. Grant. Even as a soldier, he does not always get the respect he deserves; but in my book, he has no equal. His detractors then and now have said that he was a drunk, and there is some truth in this; but there is a more serious accusation, which was that he was a butcher, with no regard for human life. In my mind, there is no evidence whatsoever to support this. It is true that there were tremendous casualties in his campaigns, but quite simply, victory would have been impossible without them. Had they not been sustained, I think slavery might still be a part of American life today.

In my mind, Grant deserves as much credit for the Union victory over slavery as Lincoln did. This is part of why he so fascinates me. But it is not only his tremendous accomplishments as a soldier that make him interesting, but the fact that they were recorded in great detail by many sources, including Grant himself. Grant wrote his memoirs after the war; and they are, to put it simply, extremely well-written. The writing is literary in quality, and his simple language with its simple sentences may have more in common with 20th-century writing than with the long and flowery prose of his native 19th century. It is easy to understand, and it chronicles his dramatic story with enormous eloquence.

Burial of the dead at Cold Harbor

The war in which he fought (the Civil War) was the bloodiest war in American history. Over half a million Americans died in it, which was some 2% of the population. Thus, his outstanding generalship was sorely needed, and arrived on the scene none too soon. It's amazing to think now that both sides put up with such casualties, but they did; and the casualties made this the most dramatic period in our history. This is another reason why Grant's memoirs are so interesting. But there is one other significant factor contributing to their greatness, which is the circumstances under which Grant wrote them. Despite his considerable talent as a writer, he had not wanted to write them; but debt brought on by what he called "the rascality of a business partner" forced him to do so. (He was cheated out of a great deal of money by his business partner.) His considerable reputation would practically ensure the book financial success, and writing his memoirs was the only option available to him for getting his family out of debt.

To make matters worse, he was diagnosed with throat cancer partway through writing the memoirs. If he were to complete his memoirs before he died, he would have to hurry. Yet his work does not feel rushed, and he successfully went through the end of the Civil War, finishing three days before he died. Had he lived, he might have talked about postwar events (such as his presidency); but the account of his military career not only got his family out of debt, but sold half a million copies, earning the equivalent of millions of today's dollars in royalties for the widow he left behind.

Grant writing his memoirs

And one other noteworthy accomplishment deserves mention: Despite being in a tremendous amount of pain, which sometimes included the sensation of being unable to breathe; this man formerly known for his substance abuse (specifically, heavy drinking) refused painkillers, so he could keep his mind clear. This triumph over his substance abuse problems adds to the poetry of the heroic (albeit painful) way in which he died.

So that's a little about why I find this man so interesting. I hope this has explained why I made this rather unusual choice for my hero, and why I find Grant's story so endlessly fascinating.

"The first volume, as well as a portion of the second, was written before I had reason to suppose I was in a critical condition of health. Later I was reduced almost to the point of death, and it became impossible for me to attend to anything for weeks. I have, however, somewhat regained my strength, and am able, often, to devote as many hours a day as a person should devote to such work."

- Preface to Grant's memoirs (written 1885)

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Ulysses S. Grant movie

U.S.-Mexican War 1846-1848 program

Civil War miniseries (PBS)

Full text of Grant's memoirs online

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