by Victor Davis Hanson
New Criterion, November 2004
A review of Ulysses S. Grant, by Josiah Bunting III (Times Books, 2004)
What are we to make of Ulysses S. Grant? At thirty-nine he was seen as a wash-out—no job, no money, forced resignation from the U.S. military after occasional drinking binges, nearly destitute with a dependent wife and four children, ex-junior officer, ex-farmer, ex-woodcutter, ex-real-estate agent, and at last, in 1860, a rumpled leather store clerk in Galena, Illinois. Historians would be hard pressed to ascertain whether Grant or Sherman was the greater prewar failure, both meeting nothing but setbacks almost in direct proportion to the degree that they continued to exhibit talent, honesty, and hard work. Yet a little less than three years later by Congressional decree Grant was appointed Lieutenant-General in command of all Union forces. A mere seven years after he left Galena, at age forty-six, Grant became the youngest elected President in the young nation’s history.
If contemporaries were mystified by the sudden ascendancy of this nondescript Midwesterner without either a distinguished academic record or friends in high places, 140 years later historians are still confused in their assessments of how he pulled it off. Drunk, corrupt, butcher, slob—Grant was slurred with these epithets and still more, both now and then.
Charitable critics rejoin that Grant alone defeated Lee and so won the Civil War, tried to help Blacks and Indians, did not really profit from the rampant graft in his midst, and wrote memoirs that impressed the literati by their style and candor. Recent academic biographers are amused by Grant’s clumsy ascendance into the nouveau-riche world of the Gilded Age, and how out of place this lucky bumpkin was amid sophisticated society here and abroad. Yet both detractors and admirers agree that he was otherwise in the right place at the right time, an ex-officer in need of work when what was left of the United States suddenly needed thousands of military men of any background, age, and ability—with a premium on any who had graduated from West Point (even if he might have finished twenty-first in a class of thirty-nine).
Josiah Bunting III in his new engaging biography—written for Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s “The American Presidents” series—rejects much of such conventional wisdom, both pro and con, in making the case that Grant’s rise was both logical and understandable, given his innate talents and proven discipline. Indeed, to Bunting, his accomplishments are so legion as a great captain, a two-term president, an astute protector of Blacks and Indians, a man of humble and generous temperament, and a masterful writer that we need to reassess all the old appellations like “average,” or “mediocre,” and instead appreciate Grant as the truly great man he was.
In his revisionist efforts Bunting—himself a combat veteran, officer, and superintendent emeritus of the Virginia Military Institute—looks at a variety of criteria often ignored by the professors and journalists who so often write our biographies. Military leadership is not an easy thing in itself, but Grant was more than either a supreme commander or combat leader, but rather both and still more. He was a Patton and an Eisenhower all in one, stalking the front lines under fire and issuing his famous crisp, laconic orders to division commanders, even while as a grand military vizier he telegraphed orders over a continent-sized theater to Sherman, Thomas, and Sheridan confronting Confederate forces nearly two thousand miles distant.
As far as innate intelligence goes, very early on, Grant proved to be a gifted student of engineering. Despite his so-so aggregate record at West Point, a few thought he could have eventually become a professor of mathematics. Surely his later grasp of logistics reflects both a quick mind and West Point training. He may have been the best horseman in the U.S. army office corps. Bunting compares his unique equestrian talent to “horse-whispering,” an almost uncanny understanding of the effects of noise, hearing, and emotions upon animals, an extra sense that would serve him equally well with people.
Bunting also reminds us that the shy and nondescript Lieutenant Grant was often courageous in the Mexican War (which he later condemned as “one of the most unjust wars ever waged by a stronger nation against a weaker one”), as evidenced by hair-raising but little discussed exploits where his imagination and horse-mastery saved his life. And by the time Grant was drilling the Illinois state militia—after a series of embarrassing job rebuffs from well-entrenched mediocrities in the War Department—he was probably the most capable young officer in the North.
So how did Grant accept the fact that despite his wide travel, education, combat experience, and job history at almost forty he had earned little more than scorn and rumor? Bunting implies that for all his insecurities, there was a certain serenity in Grant, a sort of philosophical acceptance that merit was often trumped by fate and luck: do your best and hope your excellence is recognized, although there is a good chance that it might not be.
What made him a great general? The campaigns to take Forts Henry and Donelson were inspired; the capture of Vicksburg was beyond the powers of any contemporary Northern general save Grant. But it was not just know-how that made Grant singular. As Bunting rightly notes, “Grant understood that his predecessors in command in the East had failed not because of inferior tactical brains but because they lacked, simply, will.” And he adds of Grant’s bulldog tenacity—quoting Thucydides—that “quiet obduracy in a leader is equally formidable.”
All his predecessor supreme commanders that tried to crash the Army of the Potomac on through to Richmond—Irwin McDowell, George McClellan (in two terms), John Pope, Ambrose Burnside, and Joseph Hooker—were sickened at the ensuing terrible arithmetic of thousands of combat dead. None quite understood that the tragic price of victory in the new industrial-age war was often unprecedented casualties (“not war, but murder” an officer remarked of Cold Harbor), nor that the purpose of the Union army was not necessarily the possession of enemy territory or even the capture of Richmond, but the destruction of the Army of Northern Virginia.
This was a frightening task that would require backbone when reports flooded in about what Lee’s sharpshooters could do to thousands charging fixed positions. In the face of it all, Grant reiterated, “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer” and “there will be no turning back”—the first general to take to heart Lincoln’s continual harangue about Lee that “Wherever the enemy goes, let our troops go also.”
Bunting cites, but perhaps does not quite give full credit to, Grant’s rare military superior and subordinate, Lincoln and Sherman. Both in some ways made him what he was. Lincoln gave him complete trust, and more importantly a preexisting strategic blueprint of Winfield Scott’s so-called Anaconda Plan that directed Union forces to blockade the Southern coast and squeeze the Confederacy from the west, north, south as well as Grant’s east. Sherman may have sounded wild and crazy, but he too was an authentic American genius the likes of which this country has rarely seen since. If Grant chewed up Lee, Sherman rampaged through the very heart of the enemy’s heartland, thus eroding the enemy’s economic, social, and psychological ability to resist. And just as Sherman could march 600 miles freely because Grant stuck to Lee, so Grant could cling to Lee’s shrinking army because the latter’s entire country was falling apart to his rear.
The first Grant presidential term was relatively successful. Southerners remembered Appomattox and realized that a moderate Midwesterner who was magnanimous to the defeated was about the best that they could hope for after the unbalanced Andrew Johnson, who hated Secessionists as much as he did new Black citizens. Radicals in turn saw Grant as a sort of proto-Wesley Clark, the liberal’s tool whose war record and reputation for no-nonsense command might provide cover and then force for their own revolutionary ideas about punishing and reconstituting the South.
When Grant took office he ran the country like he did the Army of the Potomac, delegating authority with the expectation that subordinates would not be heard from again since they would obviously take the initiative and need little further guidance. But unfortunately the county was in the greatest cycle of economic, cultural—and ethical—transformation in its history. The Industrial Revolution created wealth as never before, and with it an ancillary cargo of inflated bonds, stocks, and shaky credit—all enormously lucrative and completely unregulated.
Grant agonized over how to save the achievement of the Civil War and thus ensure freedom to Blacks—when protecting civil rights required millions of dollars and thousands of Federal troops to keep vigilantes and ex-Klansmen from lynching freedmen and terrorizing Republican judges. As his administration wore on, as recession demanded budget cuts, as the country came both to fear the idea of real racial equality and to lament the past horrendous damage wrought on the South, Grant almost alone still insisted on protecting Lincoln’s idea of a free and equal Negro populace. Bunting argues, reminiscent of Frederick Douglass, that Grant may well have been the best friend that American Blacks ever had. Had he been nominated for a third term in 1876 or even in 1880, he might well have seen Reconstruction through and thus avoided the rendezvous a century later with the messy effort to end Jim Crow.
As for the terrible scandals—the Credit Mobile, the Sanborn Contracts, the Back Pay Grab, the Indian Trading Scandal, and the Whiskey ring—they finally did Grant the politician in, rapidly eroding all the political capital so incrementally gained from Vicksburg to Appomattox. Bunting notes that Grant was probably neither enriched by nor involved in the malfeasance. But he gives Grant no pass, lamenting that the modesty and diffidence toward detail and acrimony that were his trademarks on the battlefield were near fatal characteristics as president in such an age—a truly heroic man on a horse who nonetheless behind the desk “could not say no to a friend, and not even to a very good friend at that.”
We assume that thousands of stinky cigars caused the throat cancer that felled Grant. Perhaps. But what really killed him at sixty-three was the sudden loss, the year before, of all his hard-earned fortune, through the dishonesty and/or incompetence of his partners (and son)—and his own reoccurring naiveté that this last time really did catch up with him. At sixty-two Ulysses S. Grant was once more flat broke, and reduced to writing Civil War essays (sometimes nit-picked by demanding editors) for $500.
He had come full circle, but just as he kept at it selling leather in Galena, so too now he ignored the disgrace and poverty, and pressed on to write his way back to praise and security. Bunting, the novelist and veteran, warms to the often-told saga of Grant’s last heroic struggle to finish his vast 275,000 word memoir and—thanks to Mark Twain, his publisher—leave his family secure in his death in a way he could not in life.
This is a wonderful account about a quintessential but singular American. Some of us might have been more critical of Grant’s brand of war as annihilation and still more impressed by the counter-strategy of attrition embraced by William Tecumseh Sherman. More could be said of Grant’s continual Clintonian weakness of being awed and impressed by empty celebrities, the talentless rich, and petty Whitewater-like crooks. That being said, Bunting is surely right that without Grant, the Civil War could not have been won in four years—or perhaps won at all, with an unconditional surrender and the abrupt elimination of chattel slavery.
The 60,000-word biography of American presidents, world conquerors, and classic authors—without footnotes—is the latest hot literary genre, as both the present anthology and the celebrity-written Penguin series suggest. I have read many of them. None are more engagingly written or more attuned to clarity of thought and expression than Josiah Bunting’s. Grant, the stylist, would have approved.
©2004 Victor Davis Hanson