Reflections on the Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant
In The Mask of Command, John Keegan writes that you can tell why the North won the Civil War by reading General Ulysses S. Grant’s Memoirs. That insight stayed with me for almost 16 years before I finally picked up Grant’s Memoirs. For whatever reason, I had the bias that General Grant won the war through his persistence, almost bull-headedness. Reading his Memoirs, it became apparent that he won because of a towering intellect and a profound approach to leadership.
Some of the first chapters, on his upbringing and early military career, make for some of the best reading. He writes that he did not want to go to West Point because he thought the academics too demanding and he “could not bear the idea of failing.'' Grant matched that anxiety with a persistence perhaps never seen before in the history of war and not witnessed again until George S. Patton. “One of my superstitions had always been when I started to go any where, or to do anything, not to turn back, or stop until the thing was accomplished.” This doggedness, this fear of failure, and his intellectual grasp of the requirements of warfare and leadership would make him arguably the greatest American general from the American Revolution to the 20th century.
One early incident made me laugh out loud: “We traveled at least eighteen miles an hour….This seemed like annihilating space.” Barely twenty years after he died, the automobile and airplane made this comment laughable.
Before reading the book, I did not know Grant opposed the Mexican War. He fought in it, because of his military obligations as a recent West Point graduate, but still regarded the war “as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” He ascribes the causes of the Civil War to the chain of events unleashed by the Mexican War: the annexation of additional southern states, thereby spreading slavery, and so on. He even calls the Mexican War a “transgression” for which the United States deserved the punishment of the Civil War.
Throughout, Grant examines the abilities and characters of a number of his contemporaries. He writes of his high esteem for General Winfield Scott, as a man and soldier. Grant contrasts the military bearing of Generals Scott and Zachary Taylor at the end of chapter X. In two short paragraphs, Grant captures the essence of both men, probably better than long biographies would. These short, pointed sketches make for some of the best reading in the book.
On General, later President, Taylor: “No soldier could face either danger or responsibility more calmly than he. These are qualities more rarely found than genius or physical courage.” Indeed, General Grant would see many men buckle under the burden of high command in the Civil War.
On General, later President, Franklin Pierce: “Whatever General Pierce’s qualifications may have been for the Presidency, he was a gentleman and a man of courage.”
On General C.F. Smith, former Commandant of Cadets at West Point: “His death was a severe loss to our western army. His personal courage was unquestioned, his judgment and professional acquirements were unsurpassed, and he had the confidence of those he commanded as well as those over him”
On Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston: “He was a man of high character and abilities.” However, Grant qualified that praise, “he was vacillating and undecided in his actions.”
On Confederate General Braxton Bragg: He “was a remarkably intelligent and well-informed man….But he was possessed of an irascible temper, and was naturally disputatious.”
On General George Meade: “It is men who wait to be selected, and not those who seek, from whom we may always expect the most efficient service.”
Of course, Grant writes much about President Lincoln. “Mr. Lincoln gained influence over men by making them feel that it was a pleasure to serve them. He preferred yielding his own wish to gratify others, rather than to insist upon having his own way.”
Throughout the book, Grant excoriates the Southern cause. To offer one example: “The South claimed the sovereignty of States, but claimed the right to coerce into their confederation such States as they wanted….They did not seem to think this inconsistent.” However, he was an even-keeled and noble victor. He allowed Southern officers to keep their horses and side arms after surrender. He felt relief, and not joyful, at the surrender at Appomattox: “I felt anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though the cause was…one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass o those who were opposed to us.”
After the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, Grant almost immediately returned to Washington “with a view to putting a stop to the purchase of supplies, and what I now deemed other useless outlay of money.” What general, admiral or government official would say this today?
The above represent just a few of my favorite passages from the book, and some of its keen lessons. The book teaches the great lesson of persistence well. The other lesson for me, as someone who seeks to lead men and women in a noble challenge, came directly and indirectly. Grant writes that he always sought to do the best job he could do, whatever the job. At the start of the war, he served in the Illinois volunteers, mustering in new volunteers. He never expressed disappointment that he deserved a higher-ranking job; he just did the job well. His book stands as a testament to that position: he did every job given to him well. By doing his job well, he rose from volunteer colonel to Lieutenant General, the first since George Washington, in three years. Sometimes, we focus too much energy on studying or preparing for leadership challenges ahead. Grant offers us a great lesson: do today’s job well, and perhaps greater challenges and opportunities await.
Originally published March 13, 2010. Edited February 2022.
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