ULYSSES S. GRANT
Memoirs and Selected Letters --
Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant;
Selected Letters 1839-1865
Notes by Mary Drake McFeely
nd William S. McFeely
The Library of America. 1,199 pp. $35
WILLIAM TECUMSEH SHERMAN
Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman
Notes by Charles Royster
The Library of America. 1,136 pp. $35
HOW GOOD it is to have crisp, new editions of the memoirs of two of America's finest prose stylists, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Let us, for the moment, dismiss all the old Civil War debates about the two generals: Was Grant the supreme strategist or just a butcher? Was Sherman the first man of modern war or merely a raider on a grand scale and, perhaps, America's first major war criminal?
These are legitimate questions for historical review but the business at hand is the writing of English and at this demanding craft, these two reluctant soldiers from Ohio stand with the best we have produced. In the latest pair of volumes from the much-admired Library of America series we get to read both men in top form. Grant's memoirs are as plain as the man who wrote them while Sherman's are full of the fire and panache you would expect from a Union general who struck terror into the heart of Washington as well as Richmond.
Grant's ability as a writer is one the most often overlooked keys to his military success. Perhaps because his mind had never been befuddled with university-instilled notions of what constituted literary composition, Grant wrote in simple declarative sentences that were unadorned and absolutely clear. Theodore Lyman, chief of staff for Gen. George Meade, once observed, "There is one striking feature about Grant's orders: no matter how hurriedly he may write them on the field, no one ever has the slightest doubt as to their meaning, or ever has to read them over a second time to understand them."
A small matter it might appear, but one of desperate importance in a vast conflict requiring complicated instructions. No Civil War historian can go far wrong lambasting the failure of the aged Union Gen. Robert Patterson to keep Joe Johnston's army off the board at first Bull Run. However, the telegraphed orders from Winfield Scott, a great soldier from a very old school, were so suffused with qualifiers, it is difficult to know, even with the advantage of more than a century's worth of hindsight, exactly what Patterson was expected to do. The need for clear communications was so pressing that Union Gen. John Schofield kept on his staff an otherwise inept colonel whose primary duty was to read Schofield's orders before they were sent to the field. If the colonel couldn't understand the orders, the general rewrote them until he could. Grant had no need of such a supernumerary on his staff. Here is Grant giving Meade his marching orders for the last great campaign of the Army of the Potomac, "Lee's army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also."
It was a perfect field order; in a single sentence, the commanding general laid out his strategy and then left the execution of tactical details to a skilled and proven lieutenant.
Sherman, the writer, was rather different. He liked to dapple his correspondence with references to Shakespeare and Dickens. While Grant yearned for popular acceptance, Sherman disdained it. If one would know the true meaning of popularity, Sherman wrote his not always understanding wife, Ellen, "read Coriolanus."
The two sets of memoirs share common excellence. Both are generally accurate in their retelling of the battles of the conflict and remarkably fair considering the violent storm of emotion that poured into the Civil War, "the gulf, which," in Sherman's telling phrase, "was destined to swallow up half a million of the brightest and best youth of our land."
They differ in presentation as the authors differed in character. In his memoir, Grant appears self-effacing, almost shy, as he was in life. While on campaign, Grant was considered something of a prude who always kept the flaps of his tent closed when changing his clothes. Uncle Billy Sherman was exuberant and famous for roaming his campsite at night in slippers and long johns spewing cigar ashes and chatting with the troops.
Early in his memoirs Grant tells a sad little story about how as a new lieutenant in his fresh uniform he was riding down a street in Cincinnati, when a street urchin ran up alongside and jeered him with the traditional catcall: "Soldier will you work? No sir-ee: I'll sell my shirt first." That was not the kind of story Sherman enjoyed telling on himself.
"A military life had no charms for me," Grant noted in his memoir. Contrast this with Sherman. Like Grant, Sherman had also left the service to find a large dose of failure in civilian life. But unlike his friend, Sherman grew impassioned about the profession of arms.
"To be at the head of a strong column of troops, in the execution of some task that requires brain," he wrote, "is the highest pleasure of war -- a grim one and terrible, but which leaves on the mind and memory the strongest mark."
War may have been Hell, but it was exciting.
Both memoirs are essentially accounts of the Civil War and do not go into the long and difficult postwar careers of the two generals. Grant could not write more -- he died within days of his last editorial notation -- and Sherman would not. Our loss is great in both cases. Sherman went on to be commanding general of the army for 14 years, and although he once said he hoped more to be remembered for his role in the settling of the western frontier than for his actions in the Civil War, he writes barely a word about the Indian campaigns fought under his command. In one of his few references, the firebrand general wrote in elegiac terms.
"There have been wars and conflicts . . . with these Indians up to a recent period too numerous and complicated in their detail for me to unravel and record, but they have been the dying struggles of a singular race of brave men fighting against destiny, each less and less violent, till now the wild game is gone, the whites too numerous and powerful; so that the Indian question has become one of sentiment and charity, but not of war."
The debates over the quality of Grant's and Sherman's generalship will go on for as long as people care about such things, but, my heavens, they could write.
Peter Andrews, a contributing editor to American Heritage Magazine, is currently writing a biography of General Sherman.