Redemption is Possible
By Patrick F. Cannon
I’m just now reading Ron Chernow’s Grant, the most recent biography of the Civil War’s greatest general, Ulysses Simpson Grant. I have read others, but this will probably be the last. It runs to nearly 1,000 pages, and is well-researched and well written, as you would expect from a writer whose biographies of Washington and Hamilton are as near to definitive as is currently possible. Many years ago, I read Grant’s own Personal Memoirs, which may be the best-written first-person account of the war. More on that later.
One of the themes of Chernow’s book is redemption. If you know anything about Grant, you will know that he was, on balance, a failure before the Civil War. He had a credible record at West Point and in the Mexican War, but when he was stationed at a lonely outpost in Oregon, where he could not afford to bring his family, his drinking – he was and remained an alcoholic – eventually led to his forced resignation from the Army in 1854.
From then until 1861, Grant failed at everything he tried. When the war started, he was working at his father’s leather goods shop in Galena, Illinois. Initially, his offer to serve his state and country was rebuffed, but eventually he received a volunteer commission and it transformed his life. Unlike most of the officers in Illinois regiments, he was an educated and experienced military officer. His organizational ability became apparent, and eventually he would be given command of troops on active service, and a commission in the Regular Army.
His first possible battle never took place. The Confederate commander refused battle and withdrew. The lesson Grant took from this was that the enemy was just as afraid of him as he was of them. He never forgot this. He made his reputation with the capture of Forts Henry and Donaldson and thereafter actively sought to bring his enemy to battle, in sharp contrast with the dithering of Eastern generals like McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker and others. Eventually, President Lincoln made him general-in-chief of the entire Union Army. Although he went on occasional drinking binges during the war, they only occurred when he was not actively engaged in operations, and never when his family was with him.
Grant commanded in the field, and personally supervised the Army of the Potomac, which directly faced the legendary Robert E. Lee. He was also responsible for overall strategy in all theaters, which was to bring the Confederates to battle, rather than just occupy territory. He was not a vindictive man, and treated the defeated enemy with respect, although he considered them traitors.
During the war and after he was a loyal friend, but that loyalty was not always returned. His presidency was marred by the actions of friends who took advantage of him to enrich themselves. He himself was never implicated in any of this. After his presidency, he was swindled by his business partner and found himself in debt.
As a way of paying off his debts and insuring the future security of his family, he was convinced by Mark Twain to write his autobiography. He did so while dying of throat cancer (he was a constant cigar smoker). He finished it just before he died in 1885. Twain was right – it was a best seller and did insure his family’s future. Its simple, direct style is as readable today as it was then.
In those days, paying your debts and writing your own books was not exceptional. I urge you to read both Chernow’s book and Grant’s Personal Memoirs as a reminder of how a leader can and should behave.
Copyright 2019, Patrick F. Cannon