Author Archives: Joel

Collapse of the Confederacy

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 469-471:

EARLY 1865 WITNESSED the slow-motion unraveling of the Army of Northern Virginia, which was gradually thinned out by massive desertions amounting to about a regiment per day. Tattered men in large groups appeared in Grant’s camps, surrendering their weapons. “Hundreds of men are deserting nightly,” Lee confessed to Jefferson Davis as such departures shaved off 8 percent of his army in January, followed by a further 8 percent in February. Driven by poor food, withheld pay, and rapidly depreciating Confederate currency, rebel soldiers were rendering their own bleak verdict on the war’s future course. In early February, Grant obtained a poster showing Lee reduced to begging from local farmers, pleading with them “to sell or loan as much Corn Meal & Molasses as they Can spare.” Southern conscription covered boys as young as fourteen and men as old as sixty.

Grant believed the southern people, once ardent to fight, had shed their taste for bloodshed. “Everything looks to me to be very favorable for a speedy termination of the war,” he predicted in mid-February, wondering whether rebel leaders would flee or be ousted by their citizens. Inside the Confederate cabinet, Secretary of State Judah Benjamin argued strenuously that blacks must be recruited or Lee would have to abandon Richmond. The Confederate legislature approved a bill to enlist slaves in the army, sidestepping the explosive question of whether to emancipate them. Its most eloquent proponent was Lee, who urgently needed fresh troops. “I think those who are employed [as soldiers] should be freed,” he argued. “It would be neither just nor wise, in my opinion, to require them to serve as slaves.” The Charleston Mercury noted the absurdity of the whole enterprise: “Assert the right in the Confederate Government to emancipate slaves, and it is stone dead.” After the Virginia legislature endorsed the bill for recruiting black soldiers, one or two black companies were assembled and briefly paraded in the Richmond streets, but they came too late to prop up the beleaguered cause. Grant tracked with consuming interest this controversy in Richmond newspapers. Slavery was slowly crumbling, as evidenced by a precipitous drop in the market price for slaves. As the Richmond war clerk John Jones indicated in his diary, “Here the price of slaves, men, is about $5000 Confederate State notes, or $100 in specie. A great depreciation. Before the war they commanded ten times that price.”

All the while, plowing remorselessly through the Deep South, Sherman eradicated supply bases and transportation networks that kept Lee’s army alive. By early January, with Savannah secure, Sherman was ready to “sally forth again,” telling Grant of his plans to carve a path of destruction through Columbia and Camden, South Carolina, followed by Wilmington and Raleigh in North Carolina. “The game is then up with Lee,” Sherman stated, “unless he comes out of Richmond, avoids you, and fights me: in which event, I should reckon on your being on his heels.” His options vanishing, Lee would soon face an unpalatable choice: either stay in Richmond and sacrifice the rest of the South, or head southward, fight in the open, and be squeezed between Sherman’s and Grant’s converging armies. Lincoln allegedly gave humorous expression to this by saying, “Grant has the bear by the hind leg while Sherman takes off the hide.”

Rolling through Georgia, Sherman’s army had collected fugitive slaves at every turn…. Sherman still complained that jubilant blacks flocking to his army hampered its progress. To deal with this surplus population, he devised one of the war’s most innovative measures. The federal government had confiscated four hundred thousand acres of land. In mid-January, Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, which set aside the Sea Islands and a large strip of territory along the Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida coasts for settlement by landless black families. They would be offered forty-acre plots in self-governing communities. By June, this remarkable experiment in reconstruction offered new life to forty thousand former slaves, although the land titles given out had not yet acquired lasting legal power. Sherman was an improbable author for this most progressive order and later explained that he had done it as a temporary wartime measure at the behest of [Secretary of War] Stanton.

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Gen. Grant and the Longest Pontoon

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 411-412:

By June 12, the weather had turned cool and windy. That night, after dark, Grant began to march his army toward the James. Staff officers noticed the tense way Grant relit cigars constantly and reacted with monosyllables. “Yes, yes,” or “Go on—go on.” On this splendid night full of moonlight, the tramp of feet lifted swirling dust that soon obscured the stars. By the next morning, in a logistical masterpiece, the Army of the Potomac had vacated the Cold Harbor trenches. Lee was completely fooled by the exodus and thunderstruck to discover that Grant’s entire army of 115,000 men had vanished in the night. While he had a hunch that Grant would swerve toward the James River, he could not be certain. To confound Lee further, Grant ordered some units to conduct diversionary feints toward Richmond.

Meanwhile, Grant’s main army crossed the Chickahominy River and reached the formidable James River barrier. Grant needed to take his massive army across a waterway two thousand feet wide and eighty-four feet deep. To Julia, he described the operation as “one of the most perilous movements ever executed by a large army” since it involved “crossing two rivers over which the enemy has bridges and railroads whilst we have bridges to improvise.” Ever the optimist, he shook off the settled gloom of Cold Harbor. “I am in excellent health and feel no doubt about holding the enemy in much greater alarm than I ever felt in my life.”

On the morning of June 14, Grant’s engineers began to span the majestic James with a pontoon bridge measuring 2,100 feet in length and 13 feet in width, making it the longest such bridge in military annals. It was anybody’s guess whether such a lengthy bridge, buoyed by 101 floats, could withstand tidal currents or gusts sweeping inland from Chesapeake Bay. Miraculously, the entire bridge was completed shortly after midnight. The next day, his hands joined behind his back, Grant gazed silently from a bluff on the river’s north side as cavalry and artillery trains moved rapidly across the river. “He wore no sword or other outward trapping except his buttons and plain shoulder straps,” one soldier had observed a day earlier. “His pants were tucked inside of a pair of long dusty boots and his whole attire looked dirty & travel stained.”

Grant officiated at one of the war’s most stirring spectacles. On this cloudless day, brilliant sunshine sparkled off the water, gun barrels, and cannon trundling across the bridge. To the crisp beat of marching bands, troops stepped briskly onto ferry boats that plied the river at a dizzying pace. Nearby gunboats kept a watchful eye on any threatening enemy movements. Before the operation was over, an enormous herd of cattle swam across the river. From the capital, Lincoln applauded Grant, telegraphing at 7 a.m. on June 15: “I begin to see it. You will succeed—God bless you all!” By around midnight the next day, the last remnants of Grant’s army had crossed the river. Incredibly, Lee still had no idea Grant’s army had slipped across the James in an operation so stupendous even one Confederate general dubbed it “the most brilliant stroke in all the campaigns of the war.”

On the day the pontoon bridge was laid down, Grant and Rawlins traveled by steamer up the James to Bermuda Hundred to consult with Ben Butler. As a general, Butler hadn’t covered himself with glory, but as a noted Democratic politician, he was too useful for Lincoln to scrap. Grant found Butler covering the Appomattox River with another amphibious bridge to carry his men on a raid into Petersburg, only six miles away. Grant hoped to take Petersburg before Lee was alerted to his whereabouts. On the evening of June 15, Baldy Smith and Winfield Scott Hancock achieved startling success when they overran the outer defensive rim of northeast Petersburg, seizing rifle pits, artillery, and several hundred prisoners. General Beauregard fielded a meager force to defend the town. Had Smith marched straight into the defenseless city, he might have scored a radical breakthrough and altered the war’s course. Grant always believed that with such a move, “Lee would have at once been obliged to abandon Richmond.”

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Grant’s Vision of Emancipation

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 228-230:

Every northern commander was sucked into the vortex of the fugitive slave issue, none more so than Grant in the heart of the cotton kingdom. As plantation owners fled his advancing army, thousands of slaves raced to freedom in Grant’s camps. Temporary towns of makeshift dwellings, overcrowded with frightened black refugees, sprang up on the fringes of army posts. The slaves’ lamentable condition demanded urgent attention. “There were men, women, and children in every stage of disease or decrepitude, often nearly naked, with flesh torn by the terrible experiences of their escapes,” wrote John Eaton, who saw slaves dropping by the wayside. “Sometimes they were intelligent and eager to help themselves; often they were bewildered or stupid or possessed by the wildest notions of what liberty might mean . . . Some radical step needed to be taken.”

At first Grant was perplexed by these masses of dislocated people. “Citizens south of us are leaving their homes & Negroes coming in by wagon loads,” he wired Halleck, adding plaintively, “What will I do with them?” Many northerners feared an abrupt influx of blacks, making it essential to employ them in the South. Nobody stood under any illusions about the extent of northern bigotry. On November 13, 1862, Grant took his first historic step in dealing with runaway slaves, naming Eaton as superintendent of contrabands for the Mississippi Valley—“contraband” of war being the term of art for runaway slaves coined by General Benjamin Butler in 1861 as a way to bypass the Fugitive Slave Act, then still in effect. A farmer’s son, born in New Hampshire, Eaton had graduated from Dartmouth College and served as school superintendent in Toledo, Ohio. After attending Andover Theological Seminary, he was assigned as chaplain to the Twenty-Seventh Ohio Volunteer Infantry. A caring, passionate advocate for the former slaves, he faced the daunting need to shelter, employ, and prepare them for the demands of freedom. He set up large contraband camps where slaves could be educated, treated for medical problems, and set to work picking cotton as hired hands. Eaton felt awed by the godlike responsibility thrust upon him—“There was no plan in this exodus, no Moses to lead it”—and sensed it would be “an enterprise beyond the possibility of human achievement.”

When Eaton first met Grant at La Grange, Tennessee, he expected to find “an incompetent and disagreeable man” whose weather-beaten face would betray signs of dissipation. Instead, he was pleasantly surprised to discover Grant’s innate modesty, simplicity, and sobriety. Other than the shoulder straps that signified a major general, Grant was indistinguishable from his officers. Grant knew that the deeper his army penetrated into cotton country, the more he would have to grapple with the destiny of a slave population fast emancipating itself. Eaton was stunned that Grant’s thinking already “far outstripped” the “meager instructions” he had received from Halleck.

In fact, Grant’s imagination had charted the entire arc of the freed slaves from wartime runaways to full voting citizenship. This man who had so recently balked at abolitionism now made a startling leap into America’s future. To Eaton, Grant delineated a lengthy list of useful tasks that “contrabands” could perform, with the men building bridges, roads, and earthworks or chopping wood for Mississippi steamers, while women worked in kitchens and hospitals. But this merely served as prelude to something much bigger. “He then went on to say that when it had been made clear that the Negro, as an independent laborer . . . could do these things well, it would be very easy to put a musket in his hands and make a soldier of him, and if he fought well, eventually to put the ballot in his hand and make him a citizen. Obviously I was dealing with no incompetent, but a man capable of handling large issues. Never before in those early and bewildering days had I heard the problem of the future of the Negro attacked so vigorously and with such humanity combined with practical good sense.” This sudden enlargement of Grant’s thinking and concern for the ex-slaves shows how the war had reshaped his views on fundamental issues.

Grant gave Eaton orders to establish the first contraband camp at Grand Junction, Tennessee, where thousands of former slaves had congregated. A central aim was to have newly liberated blacks work on abandoned plantations, picking cotton and corn that could be shipped north to assist the war effort. “We together fixed the prices to be paid for the negro labor,” Grant recalled, “whether rendered to the government or to individuals.” It was a remarkable moment—the sudden advent of a labor market for former slaves, who would now be rewarded for picking cotton. Grant found himself overseeing a vast social experiment, inducting his black charges into the first stages of citizenship. Taking the proceeds from their labor, he created a fund that was “not only sufficient to feed and clothe all, old and young, male and female, but to build them comfortable cabins, hospitals for the sick, and to supply them with many comforts they had never known before.” This brand-new Grant never wavered in his commitment to freed people. It would be army commanders in the field, not Washington politicians, who worked out many of the critical details in caring for the recently enslaved. Frederick Douglass never forgot the service Grant rendered to his people, arguing that General Grant “was always up with, or in advance of authority furnished from Washington in regard to the treatment of those of our color then slaves,” and he cited the food, work, medical care, and education Grant supplied in the months before the official Emancipation Proclamation.

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Northern Reactions to Shiloh, 1862

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 208-209:

After Shiloh, Grant was vilified in the press with a fury that surprised him. He was shocked that the northern press construed the battle as a Union loss. Never before had he faced such national scrutiny or virulent attacks. As the war of words grew fierce, Grant was traumatized. Union camps swarmed with correspondents who wrote for partisan papers and weren’t overly scrupulous in their methods. They trafficked in rumors that quickly found their way into print. In the absence of any public relations machinery in the field, legends sprang up overnight, filling entire newspaper columns. With few exceptions, Grant adopted a sensible policy on censorship, giving reporters the liberty to report on past actions while preventing statements about future troop movements. In areas conquered by the Union army, he shut down pro-Confederate papers hawking treasonous views.

In the press Grant was faulted for being caught off guard by the Confederate attack, arriving late at the battle, and failing to chase Beauregard back to Corinth. He was made to seem inept and insensitive to the massive slaughter of his men. The most savage denunciations issued from politicians in Ohio and Iowa, home states to many victims. Grant and his staff suspected that these stories originated with craven soldiers who had fled the front lines on the first day at Shiloh, taking shelter beneath the bluff. Governor David Tod of Ohio was especially irate at such insinuations, portraying these skulkers as victims of criminal negligence by the high command. To prove his point, he sent Lieutenant Governor Benjamin Stanton to talk to Ohio soldiers near Shiloh and the latter claimed in a diatribe that there was “a general feeling among the most intelligent men that Grant and Prentiss ought to be court-martialed or shot.” It was now open season on Grant, with a chorus of voices calling for his removal. Senator James Harlan of Iowa insisted that “those who continue General Grant in active command will in my opinion carry on their skirts the blood of thousands of their slaughtered countrymen.”

Grant received his most damaging coverage when twenty-four-year-old Whitelaw Reid weighed in under the pen name AGATE in the Cincinnati Gazette. An Ohio native, slender and urbane, Reid had studied at Miami University where he absorbed a love of literature and philosophy. His voluminous Shiloh account ran to 19,500 words, occupying thirteen newspaper columns; widely reprinted elsewhere, it became the most influential account of the battle. Brilliant as a piece of narrative prose, it left much to be desired as a first draft of history. Reid took at face value myths peddled by disaffected soldiers. He gave birth to the canard that Union soldiers, caught unawares by rebels swooping down on their camps the first morning of Shiloh, were trapped in their tents and bayoneted in bed. He also falsely pictured Grant as arriving late on the scene from luxurious quarters in Savannah. In fact, Grant had galloped tirelessly across the battlefield that day, exhorting his commanders from early morning. He blamed Grant for not summoning Lew Wallace earlier and loaded Buell with praise for the second-day turnaround. There was more than a germ of truth to what Reid wrote—Grant had been caught by surprise at Shiloh, he had failed to fortify his position—but the bogus, misleading details marred the genuine reporting.

In light of this calumny, it was predictable that Grant would be accused of drinking at Shiloh. So widespread were these allegations that he told Julia, “We are all well and me as sober as a deacon no matter what is said to the contrary.” One Grant supporter told Washburne he was asked “twenty times a day” whether Grant was intemperate. “The public seem disposed to give Grant full credit for ability and bravery but seem to think it ‘a pity he drinks.’” The documentary record makes clear that Grant was sober during the battle. Jacob Ammen, who was with Grant the day before the battle and on its first day, jotted in his diary: “Note—I am satisfied that General Grant was not under the influence of liquor, either of the times I saw him.” Colonel Joseph Webster wrote of Grant: “He was perfectly sober and self-possessed during the day and the entire battle.” William Rowley disabused Washburne of any notion of Grant drinking at Shiloh and added that “the man who fabricated the story is an infamous liar.”

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Gen. Grant’s Guardian Angel

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 148-152:

Grant needed a commanding personality to manage his office and ride herd over his staff and from the outset selected John Rawlins for a special place in his entourage. Rawlins was the pallid young lawyer with the full dark beard, saturnine aura, and enormous dark eyes who had bowled over Grant with his impassioned oratory at the Galena recruiting meeting. On August 30, Rawlins was appointed assistant adjutant general with the rank of captain, effectively making him Grant’s chief of staff. With no military background, he was startled that Grant gave him such a high appointment.

Rawlins’s family history with alcohol abuse gave him a special purchase on Grant’s drinking troubles, making it an all-consuming preoccupation. Before joining his staff, he extracted a pledge from Grant that he would not touch a drop of liquor until the war ended, and he would monitor this vow with Old Testament fervor, carrying on a lonely, one-man crusade to keep Grant sober. That Grant agreed to this deal shows his strong willingness to confront his drinking problem. The mission perfectly suited Rawlins’s zealous nature. With Grant’s consent, he laid down draconian rules to curb drinking, forbidding the open use of liquor at headquarters. In general orders that announced Rawlins’s appointment, Grant berated men who “visit together the lowest drinking and dancing saloons; quarrel, curse, drink and carouse . . . Such conduct is totally subversive of good order and Military Discipline and must be discontinued.” With Rawlins on the premises, even senior officers drank secretly in their tents. Any staff member who furnished Grant with alcohol faced the fervid wrath of Rawlins and likely dismissal. Rawlins fretted over Grant, agonizing over suspected lapses from the straight path of abstinence. He had no compunctions about chastising Grant for lapses, and his unflagging vigilance was remarkable in its forthright passion and candor.

Grant never discussed publicly his drinking pact with Rawlins, but he must have taken it to heart since Rawlins became his right-hand man and alter ego during the war. He allowed Rawlins to be the moralistic scourge and resident conscience of his staff. Later in the war, Grant wrote that Rawlins “comes the nearest being indispensable to me of any officer in the service.” In entering the army and assuming tremendous responsibilities, Grant must have feared he would be hurled back into the hard-drinking world of officers from which he fled in 1854, endangering the hard-earned sobriety of his St. Louis and Galena years. A general could not afford even occasional bouts of dissipation. In the army Grant would also lack the firm, restraining hand of his wife. Prolonged absence from Julia could easily set him up for a major relapse into the periodic degradation of his West Coast years. With some notable exceptions, Rawlins largely succeeded in his role as self-appointed watchdog. In later years, Grant’s Galena physician, Dr. Edward Kittoe, paid tribute to “Grant’s repeated efforts to overcome the desire for strong drink while he was in the army, and of his final victory through his own persistency and advice so freely given him by Rawlins.”

The ever-watchful Rawlins enjoyed special license to be frank and even scold Grant. “It was no novel thing to hear the zealous subordinate administer to his superior a stiff verbal castigation because of some act that met the former’s stern disapproval,” said the cipher operator Samuel Beckwith. “And Grant never resented any reprimand bestowed by Rawlins.” Rawlins spoke to him with a freedom that flabbergasted onlookers. Only he could slap Grant on the back or engage in familiar banter. Grant shrank from profanity, yet he tolerated with amusement the barrage of oaths that constantly poured from Rawlins’s mouth.

Because of the purity of his motives, Rawlins became Grant’s closest friend. “Gen. Grant was a man who made friends very slowly,” noted a journalist. “While he had a great many acquaintances, I think he had a very limited circle of friends—I mean men whom he trusted or whose advice he accepted.” Only Rawlins could penetrate the zone of privacy that Grant drew subtly about himself. With his single-minded devotion, Rawlins could confront him with uncomfortable truths and fiercely contest his judgment, spouting opinions in a stentorian voice. With his thoroughgoing skepticism and mistrust of people, he was the ideal foil to Grant’s excessively trusting nature. Rawlins “was always getting excited about something that had been done to Grant,” recalled Lieutenant Frank Parker. When someone showed disrespect for Grant, “he would prance around and say, ‘General, I would not stand such things’ to which Grant would say, ‘Oh, Rawlins! what’s the use in getting excited over a little thing like that; it doesn’t hurt me and it may make the other fellow feel a little good.’”

Perhaps because it contrasted vividly with his listless manner at the Galena store, Rawlins never forgot his initial glimpse of Grant at Cairo: “He had an office in a great bank there, and I was amazed at the quiet, prompt way in which he handled the multitude of letters, requisitions, and papers, sitting behind the cashier’s window-hole, with a waste basket under him, and orderlies to dispatch business as he did.” Fresh from personal calamity, Rawlins threw himself into a whirl of military activity. Before long, he worked day and night, tidying up Grant’s office, creating files, and instituting sound working procedures. Long politically active—Grant thought him the most influential young man in northern Illinois—Rawlins also assisted Grant in perfecting his relations with Washington. When Washburne boasted to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase that Grant in Cairo was “doing wonders in bringing order out of chaos,” Rawlins surely deserved much of the credit.

Such was the influence of John Rawlins over Grant that some observers would later exaggerate or misinterpret the nature of his power, attributing to him the military acumen that properly belonged to Grant. He had excellent common sense and swiftly grasped many basic principles of warfare, especially the need to concentrate forces instead of spreading them too thinly. And he became a formidable warrior in his own right, personally signing off on every letter and plan of campaign that came from Grant’s command and never hesitating to differ with him. Nevertheless, Rawlins had no military background and lacked Grant’s general knowledge of warfare. He could never have done what Grant did. While Grant developed tremendous respect for Rawlins’s fearless judgment, it was Grant who originated the plans, Grant who improvised in the heat of battle, and Grant who possessed the more sophisticated strategic sense.

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What the War on Mexico Taught Grant

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 49-51:

THE MEXICAN WAR did more than just educate Grant in strategy and tactics, it also tutored him in the manifold ways wars are shot through with political calculations. “The Mexican war was a political war,” he would observe, “and the administration conducting it desired to make party capital out of it.” Monterrey’s fall made Zachary Taylor the darling of the Whig press. When this was followed by Whig victories in the November elections, giving the opposition party control of both houses of Congress, President Polk grew leery of Taylor as a Whig rival for president. In a Machiavellian maneuver, he decided to divest Taylor of most of his troops and replace him with Winfield Scott, a Whig lacking Taylor’s brand of popular charisma.

In high-handed fashion, Polk dispatched Scott to Texas without notifying Taylor of what was afoot. When Scott arrived in Point Isabel after Christmas, he informed Taylor by letter that he had taken over the Army of Invasion and was radically revamping the war strategy. …

Grant was with Taylor when he received the shocking news of his demotion and never forgot his hero’s befuddled reaction. … This early experience made Grant tend to view war as a hard-luck saga of talented, professional soldiers betrayed by political opportunists plotting back in Washington.

Between the founding era of the Republic and the Civil War, no figure embodied the American military more splendidly than Winfield Scott, who was promoted to brevet major general by the War of 1812. Straddling two eras, he would serve under presidents as far apart as James Madison and Abraham Lincoln. Mocked as “Old Fuss and Feathers” behind his back, he had never seen a parade ground he didn’t long to tread or a uniform he didn’t wish to wear. With his enormous height, wavy hair, and ample flesh, he loved to flash medals, flaunt plumed hats, and preen before mirrors, a vanity that made him susceptible to flattery. Grant noted how Scott sent word ahead to commanders of the precise hour he planned to arrive. “This was done so that all the army might be under arms to salute their chief as he passed. On these occasions he wore his dress uniform, cocked hat, aiguilletes, sabre and spurs.” Such vainglory was so alien to Grant that it is sometimes hard to say whether he modeled himself after Zachary Taylor or in opposition to Winfield Scott.

For all that, Grant credited Scott with a brilliantly resourceful mind and strategic daring. To travel from Veracruz to the capital, an army of twelve thousand would quit a secure supply base, traverse 250 miles of mountainous terrain, then face a much larger and well-fortified enemy in a populous capital. To do this, Scott assembled a first-rate team of bright junior officers, including Pierre G. T. Beauregard and George B. McClellan and a rising star on the engineering staff, Robert E. Lee. Throw in a host of other officers who later reappeared in the Civil War—Joseph Johnston, John Pemberton, James Longstreet, Winfield Scott Hancock, Albert Sidney Johnston, Joseph Hooker, George Thomas, Braxton Bragg, and George Gordon Meade—and the Mexican War seemed a dress rehearsal for the later conflict. With a retentive memory for faces and events, Grant accumulated a detailed inventory of knowledge about these varied men that he drew on later.

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U.S. Grant’s Literary Masterpiece

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. xix-xxi:

Seldom, if ever, has a literary masterpiece been composed under such horrific circumstances. Whenever he swallowed anything, Grant was stricken with pain and had to resort to opiates that clouded his brain. As a result, he endured extended periods of thirst and hunger as he labored over his manuscript. The torment of the inflamed throat never ceased. When the pain grew too great, his black valet, Harrison Terrell, sprayed his throat with “cocaine water,” temporarily numbing the area, or applied hot compresses to his head. Despite his fear of morphine addiction, Grant could not dispense entirely with such powerful medication. “I suffer pain all the time, except when asleep,” he told his doctor. Although bolstered by analgesics, Grant experienced only partial relief, informing a reporter that “when the suffering was so intense . . . he only wished for the one great relief to all human pain.”

Summoning his last reserves of strength, through a stupendous act of willpower, Grant toiled four to six hours a day, adding more time on sleepless nights. For family and friends his obsessive labor was wondrous to behold: the soldier so famously reticent that someone quipped he “could be silent in several languages” pumped out 336,000 words of superb prose in a year. By May 1885, just two months before his death, Grant was forced to dictate, and, when his voice failed, he scribbled messages on thin strips of paper. Always cool in a crisis, Grant exhibited the prodigious stamina and granite resolve of his wartime effort.

Nobody was more thunderstruck than Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, who had recently formed a publishing house with his nephew-in-law Charles Webster. To snare Grant’s memoirs, sure to be a literary sensation, Twain boosted the royalty promised by the Century’s publishers and won the rights. Twain had never seen a writer with Grant’s gritty determination. When this man “under sentence of death with that cancer” produced an astonishing ten thousand words in one day, Twain exclaimed, “It kills me these days to write half of that.” He was agog when Grant dictated at one sitting a nine-thousand-word portrait of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox “never pausing, never hesitating for a word, never repeating—and in the written-out copy he made hardly a correction.” Twain, who considered the final product a masterwork, scoffed at scuttlebutt he had ghostwritten it. “There is no higher literature than these modest, simple memoirs,” he insisted. “Their style is flawless . . . no man can improve upon it.”

For Twain, the revelation of Grant’s character was as startling as his storytelling. Eager to spare his family, Grant was every inch the stoic gentleman. Only at night, when he was asleep, did his face grimace with pain. “The sick-room brought out the points of General Grant’s character,” Twain wrote. “His exceeding gentleness, kindness, forbearance, lovingness, charity. . . . He was the most lovable great child in the world.” For one observer, it was wrenching to watch Grant “with a bandage about his aching head, and a horrible and mortal disease clutching his throat.” He felt “a great ache when I look at him who had saved us all when we were bankrupt in treasure and in leaders, and see him thus beset by woes and wants.” In a magnificent finale, Grant finished the manuscript on July 16, 1885, one week before his death in upstate New York. He had steeled himself to stay alive until the last sentence was done and he could surrender his pen.

The triumph of the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, which sold a record-breaking three hundred thousand copies in two-volume sets, was vintage Grant. Repeatedly he had bounced back from adversity, his career marked by surprising comebacks and stunning reversals. He had endured many scenes, constantly growing and changing in the process. Like Twain, Walt Whitman was mesmerized by Grant and grouped him with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the quartet of greatest Americans. “In all Homer and Shakespeare there is no fortune or personality really more picturesque or rapidly changing, more full of heroism, pathos, contrast,” he wrote. The plain unadorned Grant had nothing stylish about him, leading sophisticated people to underrate his talents. He was a nondescript face in the crowd, the common man from the heartland raised to a higher power, who proved a simple westerner could lead a mighty army to victory and occupy the presidential chair with distinction.

Dismissed as a philistine, a boor, a drunk, and an incompetent, Grant has been subjected to pernicious stereotypes that grossly impede our understanding of the man. As a contemporary newspaper sniffed, Grant was “an ignorant soldier, coarse in his taste and blunt in his perceptions, fond of money and material enjoyment and of low company.” In fact, Grant was a sensitive, complex, and misunderstood man with a shrewd mind, a wry wit, a rich fund of anecdotes, wide knowledge, and penetrating insights. Many acquaintances remembered the “silent” Grant as the most engaging raconteur they ever met.

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