'What I Want Is to Advance'

Christopher Phillips chronicles Grant's entrance into the War:


After graduating from West Point, Grant married the daughter of an affluent Missouri slaveholder and, after an undistinguished and often drunken army career, left to farm unsuccessfully on a rocky piece of Missouri timber that his father-in-law gave him. (Appropriately, Grant named it "Hardscrabble.") Grant was even more ambivalent about slavery than his father -- enough to free the only slave he ever owned (given to him by his wife's father), but he was not sufficiently opposed to it to deter him from hiring slave field hands or sell his wife's domestic servants. Or to drive him from the Democratic Party, or even from the slave states. Or to remain largely politically uninformed. Eventually, Grant's poor head for business and ineptitude at farming forced him, debt-ridden, to seek refuge in Galena, in extreme northern Illinois, where he clerked in his father's store only months before the war began. 

There, the nation's ambition found him despite his best efforts. A veteran of the Mexican War (which he had opposed), Grant was the only man in town with military training, much less experience. He was soon beset by prominent Galenans, mostly Republicans who did not know the shut-mouthed Grant's politics, to lead its men into battle. He was unwilling to accept a volunteer commission, especially a subordinate one, and organized a company of volunteers and led them to the state capital, Springfield, where he helped to organize and train the thousands of men arriving daily. 

Unsatisfied with the volunteers, Grant appealed to Nathaniel Lyon in St. Louis (where he witnessed the fallout from the Camp Jackson affair) as well as George B. McClellan in Cincinnati for a commission in the Regular Army. When none came, he accepted the colonelcy of the 21st Illinois Volunteers, and soon marched them westward to Missouri, already plagued by warfare.

I've yet to make the time for a really solid biography on Grant. Two things interest me: First, his evolution on the question of slavery. Early Grant always struck me as relatively indifferent to the institution. During the War he advocated arming African-Americans, and was greatly angered by Confederate treatment of black prisoners of war. As president, he became one of the most aggressive defender of civil rights in American history. I'd be interested in seeing how his thoughts progressed.

Second, I'm always amazed at how Grant rose through the ranks of the Union Army. I know the basic outlines of the tail but I'd love to get a biographer's take on things. One thing that I've found frustrating about military history is the inability to tangibly demonstrate the qualities of great generalship. There's a kind of circular logic you run into. For instance, was Pickett's Charge foolhardy because it failed, or on merit? If Hooker is better prepared at Chancellorsville, is Jackson's surprise attack still a bit of genius?

This isn't particular to Lee, either. When people talk about Grant's qualities, you tend to hear these vague intangibles about "toughness," "courage," and "coolness." Perhaps that's all there is. But I'd really like to understand--in great detail--why the crossing of Mississippi below Vicksburg was such a feat. Or why McClellan was so slow. Is it really as simple as Grant being tougher?

I'm finishing up Stephen Sears' book on Gettysburg, and I'm thinking about how Mead gets a bad rap for not pursuing and finishing off Lee. But so much of this critique sounds like bad sports analysis. I'm much more interested in why--specifically--Meade didn't pursue. "Toughness" isn't enough. (For the record, Sears is pretty high on Meade. I don't know how he feels about him only giving faint chase. I'm not that far, yet.)
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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