Wednesday, March 26, 2008

March Book of the Month

The Personal Memoirs
Ulysses S. Grant


Ulysses Simpson Grant

“Man proposes and God disposes. There are but few important events in the affairs of men brought about by their own choice” and thus begins the Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant.

His Memoirs have been widely recognized as the best, most noble, and most stately work set down by an American public figure. He did not write to defend his actions as General or President or to attack old enemies. He wrote what he experienced, what he did, why he did it, and has left the second-guessing to historians. Grant’s Memoirs are considered the gold standard; a model much revered but seldom emulated by current political figures.

A brief profile of Grant would include him as a Mayflower descendent, a West Point Graduate, the first General of the Army of the United States, and the 18th President serving two terms. The family was American for generations in all its branches, direct and collateral. His distinguished attributes and achievements involved a great deal of personal skill and talent as both a soldier and a politician. Grant had a take-charge personality formed during his early life in Georgetown, Ohio, where he remained until leaving for West Point in May 1839.

Upon entering West Point a military life had no charm for him and he did not expect to stay in the army; and, because of poor academic preparation he did not expect to graduate. During his first year General Scott visited West Point to review the troops and Grant noted in his Memoirs, “…I believe I did have a presentment for a moment that someday I should occupy his place on review….” Getting to that place was not easy as it has not been for those who have followed.

While reading Grant’s Memoirs one is constantly struck by the honesty he conveys to the reader. He states there must be many errors of omission because the subject is so large to be treated in such a way to do justice to all the soldiers engaged. In preparing the work for the public he, ”…entered upon the task with the sincere desire to avoid injustice to any one… other than the unavoidable injustice …where special mention is due….” All agree that he wrote without prejudice or harm to friend or foe.

One of only a few known photographs of Grant with a sword.

Grant was involved in two major conflicts during his Army career, the Mexican and the Civil Wars. It is just stunning to read the detail of these engagements written from his personal memory some years after their endings. The richness is mesmerizing; it is as if you are listening to him reciting a great and epic poem from an era gone by. The stories of the men, the engagements, the terrain, the causes, the bravery, and the responsibility are all vividly addressed.

The logistics needed to fight these Wars seem over whelming given the ease of modern day transportation. It is difficult to comprehend the movement of thousands of men and thousands of horses by river or through impenetrable swamps. The feel of early America and the wilderness of its land becomes a huge part of the story. About the politics of war Grant’s view was sometimes harsh and we still experience the same seemingly traitorous actions of individuals seeking personal or political gain at the expense of national security. War always creates an opportunity for commercial and political scoundrels.

It is particularly poignant to read the account leading to the surrender of Lee to Grant at Appomattox culminating April 9th, 1865. He separates the ‘purest romance’ of the surrender from the reality of two great Armies coming to peaceful terms and thus ending one of America’s bloodiest conflicts. When the news of the surrender reached the Union Army they began a ‘salute of a hundred guns’ in honor of the victory. However, when Grant heard of this he immediately had it stopped as “…the Confederates were now our prisoners and we did not want to exult their downfall.” One day the enemy, the next brothers-in-arms; they were once again valued citizens of The United States of America.

General Grant ends his Memoirs with a short section of Conclusions that are amazingly appropriate in today’s world. His explanation of the cause that led to the War of Rebellion against the United States is pointed and concise: slavery. Grant aptly explains that the complete absence of economic and personal freedom for some and guarantees of all such freedoms for others could not co-exist in this land of such great democratic hope. Our republican institutions had been largely regarded as experiments until the breaking of the rebellion. Other countries felt they would crumble at the slightest strain of internal strife. In all instances, since the end of that conflict, others who have doubted our economic or national political strength have met defeat.

Grant goes on to conclude that the War made us a nation of great power and intelligence. There would now be little to do but to preserve peace and prosperity at home, and the respect of other nations. He opines that our experience ought to teach us the necessity of the first; our power secures the latter. Our people had proven themselves to be the most formidable in war of any nationality; and, we were now truly a union extending from ocean to ocean. Grant felt the United States was entering the eve of a new era but that his illness would prevent him from being a living witness to his prophecy. General Grant died from throat cancer at age 63 one week after completing his Memoirs.

At the time of his death Grant and his family were destitute as he had lost his assets at the hand of a crooked business associate and there were no public pensions for ex-presidents. He was living on borrowed money from friends. Little known is that Mark Twain was a major player in the publication of The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant offering him 75% of the sales as royalties. They were an instant success selling over 300,000 copies providing over $450,000 for his widow. Again, “Man proposes and God disposes” aptly describes the shaping of the broad character of General Grant’s life and his lasting impact upon our enduring national ethos of Duty, Honor, and Country.

Many C-133 crewmembers had relatives in the Civil War and this is must reading as it is written by their General of the Army or their foe those many long years ago. Also, go to his official web site (click on: Ulysses S. Grant Homepage ) for more details.

Reviewed by Richard Spencer
39th ATS , DAFB, 1962-1965

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