Monday, September 30, 2019

Ulysses S. Grant

I just finished reading the Autobiography of Ulysses S. Grant.  When I was growing up, the common knowledge was that Grant was a brutal but effective general, a drunkard, corrupt, and one of the worst Presidents we've ever had.  My own research into my family history, which includes two great-great-grandfathers who fought on the Confederate side, had shown me some indications that this common knowledge may not have been accurate.  So I picked up a copy of his memoirs to learn a bit more.

What I found was a very different man.  Grant was a good writer.  His Autobiography turned out to be surprisingly readable, giving an easy-to-follow first-person narrative of the world from his single perspective.  He was also very honest, owning up to his own limitations and failures as well as successes.  And rather than being personally corrupt, he came across as having high moral and ethical standards.  He did not appear to be a drunkard at all.

Grant's military style is still the gold standard today.  He clearly saw the strategic battlefield, far beyond the geographic limitations of his particular unit, even when that "unit" was the entire Union Army.  And he was very aggressive.  "Move fast, hit hard, move fast again, and keep your enemies off balance" seemed to be a mantra.  That's the same mantra that our most effective military leaders use today, as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Speaking of which, my experience in both those countries gave me a much better understanding of his treatment of local civilian people, even those who sympathized with the Confederates.  Grant prohibited looting, stealing, and pillaging.  Yes, his soldiers took what they needed, but it was within the norms of the day.  He demanded that his soldiers treat civilians with respect, and to a great extent, they did.

The descriptions of several battles were really interesting for me.  Shiloh, for example.  I grew up largely in Memphis and we went to the battlefield park many times when I was a kid.  My sister, cousins, and I never really understood what it was all about, we just wanted to climb on the cannon and memorials.  Much later, I discovered personal connections.  One of my great-great-uncles had fought there.  My mother's family was from Corinth, Mississippi, which was a major Confederate rail transshipment center and the goal of Grant's advance through Tennessee.  So reading Grant's thoughts and activities leading up to the battle, during the fight, and the subsequent advance on Corinth, was fascinating.  I had already been in the places he described. 

The Autobiography ended at the close of the Civil War.  I had hoped it would cover his Presidency, but no.  Additional research showed that he had a very progressive agenda, even for today.  His weakness was in selecting his administration's officials as way too many of them turned out to be corrupt.  The "drunkard" bit that was common knowledge turned out to have been fake news.

One of the things I've found while reading this and other books on history, as well as listening to several podcasts on history, and while researching my own family history, is that a lot of the things going on today have been seen before.  Some of the things contributing to the rise and also the fall of Rome are true today.  Many of the things that Grant had to deal with as an Army leader are applicable today as well.  I never realized this as a young high school and college student, but yes, you really can learn from the past.

No comments:

Post a Comment