“The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant,” edited by Elizabeth D. Samet, is everything a work of popular scholarship should be: Authoritative, thorough and compulsively readable. Where many annotated editions come across as perfunctory and unimaginative, this one truly illuminates its text with an abundance of relevant historical, biographical and literary material. If you’re at all interested in the Civil War, you’ll want to own it.
For a first-time reader, the book consistently dispels several half-truths and myths. Back in the 1950s and ’60s when I was growing up in Ohio, schoolchildren were regularly taught certain “facts” about the Civil War, notably that the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, wasn’t only a superb military tactician but also the 19th-century equivalent of Chaucer’s “parfit gentil knyght.” We even learned the name of his horse: Traveller.
By contrast, Lee’s Northern counterpart Ulysses S. Grant would typically be characterized as a drunk with a certain brute aptitude for command. This view James Thurber immortalized in his brilliant incursion into alternate history, “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox.” In it, the soused and confused Union commander surrenders to Lee. No wonder old-time comedians regularly quipped “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” The man was, in short, something of a joke.
Samet, a professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, utterly rejects this reductionist view of Grant as well as all the romantic hooey still surrounding Lee and the Confederacy. The so-called Lost Cause was, as Grant firmly declared, “unholy” and at its heart festered the immoral enslavement and exploitation of men, women and children.
“The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant” — as the two volumes were titled when they first appeared in 1885-1886 — has long been regarded as a classic of American autobiography and history. Grant’s many strengths as a writer include his seemingly total recall of complex military engagements, the avoidance of bluster and self-
glorification and, not least, what Henry James called the “hard limpidity” of his style. Both Gertrude Stein and Gore Vidal — two very different writers — thought it, in Vidal’s words, “the best American prose.” Moreover, contrary to persistent legend, Mark Twain didn’t ghost-write the memoirs. Samet points out that Grant’s earliest letters and wartime memorandums consistently demonstrate his distinctive clarity and forcefulness.
Born in Ohio in 1822, the young Ulysses never showed any particular aptitude for a soldier’s life. The sensitive son of a tanner and leather-goods merchant, the boy liked to read the romantic adventure fiction of Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, as well as more lurid fare such as Eugène Sue’s “The Wandering Jew.” Admitted to West Point, Grant proved a middling student overall, though he excelled in drawing and mathematics. In fact, he dreamed of becoming a math teacher at a small college.
His military career began in earnest when he served under Zachary Taylor during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). In Grant’s view, the highhanded American “invasion” of Mexico — part of Manifest Destiny — was callously conceived by Southern politicians and was “from its inception . . . a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed,” starting with Texas.
Grant’s detailed account of this ignoble conflict reveals much about his character. The young second lieutenant forthrightly admits that before his first battle he was sorry he’d enlisted. While he and his men do act with courage and dispatch, he concludes that the Americans would have won the Battle of Resaca de la Palma even if his company hadn’t been there. Above all, in “Old Rough and Ready” Taylor — who wore casual civilian clothes even when leading his army — Grant found a model for the kind of unassuming, ultracompetent general he himself would become.
Most of all, though, Mexico provided a testing ground for the men who would fight in the Civil War. Not only was Grant there, so were Lee, George McClellan, P.G.T. Beauregard and a dozen other important commanders. One often hears that from 1861 to 1865, brother might confront brother on the battlefield. Grant reminds us that the Civil War was also a struggle between former brothers in arms, soldiers who had been friends and West Point classmates. That intimate knowledge of his opposing generals’ strengths and weaknesses would later help shape Grant’s own tactics and campaigns.
The April 12, 1861, attack on Fort Sumter, which opened hostilities between the South and the North, occurs in Chapter 17 of the “Memoirs.” Virtually all the rest of the book, which contains 79 chapters and a conclusion, focuses on Grant’s experiences during the four subsequent years. Above all, we learn of his thinking and decision-making at Shiloh and Vicksburg, Chattanooga and Spotsylvania, as well as the strategy behind controversial operations, such as William Tecumseh Sherman’s scorched-earth march from Atlanta to the sea.
There’s no room here to look closely at Grant’s accounts of numerous battles or to discuss the Civil War buff’s perennial question: “What if?” But I want to reemphasize how much this edition’s notes enhance the main narrative. Besides providing maps and photographs, Samet draws on contemporary documents and the specialist work of many other researchers, including Margaret Leech, author of the classic “Reveille in Washington.” Most originally, though, Samet cites a wide variety of literary works that provide additional insight and context for Grant’s own observations. Besides classical authors such as Xenophon, Plutarch, Livy and Julius Caesar, she quotes, with often surprising appropriateness, passages from Shakespeare, Scott, Dickens, Tolstoy, World War I memoirists, Joseph Heller, Ta-Nehisi Coates and others.
So let me end as I began: “The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant” is an outstanding example of thoughtful appreciation and long-considered scholarship. Still, a magisterial work — one that you will live in, learn from and regularly go back to — really ought to have an index.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
Edited with an introduction by Elizabeth D. Samet
Liveright. 1,068 pp. $45