WHEN any great historical event is past, fame soon begins to concentrate itself on one or two leading figures, dropping inexorably all minor ones. How furious was the strife waged in England over West India emancipation, and then over the abolition of the cornlaws ! Time, money, intellect, reputation, were freely bestowed for both these enterprises. But those great sacrifices are now forgotten; the very names of those who made them are lost; posterity associates only Wilberforce and Clarkson with the one agitation, Cobden and Bright with the other. In the same way, out of all the heroic gladiators of the long anti-slavery struggle, men will soon remember only Garrison and Phillips, or Garrison and John Brown. When we turn to the war which saved the Union and brought emancipation, we find that the roll of fame is similarly narrowing. There is scarcely an American under thirty who is familiar with even the name of John P. Hale, whom Garrison called “ the Abdiel of New Hampshire,” or of Henry Wilson, VicePresident of the United States, and historian of that slave power which he did so much toward overthrowing. The acute and decorous Seward, the stately Chase, the imperious Stanton, even the high-minded and commanding Sumner, with his reservoirs of knowledge, — all these are already fading from men’s memories. Fifty years hence, perhaps, the mind of the nation will distinctly recognize only two figures as connected with all that great upheaval, — Lincoln and Grant.
Of these two, Grant will have one immeasurable advantage, in respect to fame,— that he wrote his own memoirs. A man who has done this can never become a myth ; his individuality is as sure of preservation as is that of Cæsar. Something must of course depend upon the character of such an autobiography: it may by some mischance reveal new weaknesses only, or reaffirm and emphasize those previously known; it may disenchant us, like the late memoirs of Carlyle and Hawthorne. Here again Grant is fortunate: his book is one of the greatest of his victories, and those who most criticised his two administrations may now be heard doubting whether they did, after all, any justice to the man. These memoirs — or the single volume from which alone an estimate can yet be formed — have that first and highest quality both of literature and manhood, simplicity. Without a trace of attitudinizing or a suspicion of special pleading, written in a style so plain and terse that it suggests the reluctant conversation of a naturally reticent man, they would have a charm if the author had never emerged from obscurity except to write them. Considered as the records of the foremost soldier of his time, they are unique and of inestimable value.
This value is reinforced, at every point, by a certain typical quality which the book possesses. As with Lincoln, so with Grant, the reader hails with delight this exhibition of the resources of the Average American. It is not in the least necessary for the success of republican government that it should keep great men, so to speak, on tap, all the time; it is rather our theory to be guided in public affairs by the general good sense of the community. What we need to know is whether leaders will be forthcoming for specific duties when needed; and in this the civil war confirmed the popular faith, and indeed developed it almost into fatalism. It is this representative character of the book which fascinates; the way in which destiny, looking about for material, took Grant and moulded him for a certain work. Apparently, there was not in him, during his boyhood, the slightest impulse toward a military life. He consented to go to West Point merely that he might visit New York and Philadelphia ; that done, he would have been glad of any steamboat or railroad accident that should make it for a time impossible to enter the academy. The things that he enjoyed were things that had scarcely the slightest reference to the career that lay unconsciously before him. Sydney Smith had a brother, known as Bobus, who bore through life this one distinction : that he had been thrashed as a boy by a schoolmate who subsequently became the Duke of Wellington. “ He began with you,” said Sydney Smith, “ and ended with Napoleon.” Grant began by breaking in a troublesome horse, and ended with the Southern Confederacy.
There is always a certain piquant pleasure in the visible disproportion of means to ends. All Grant’s early preparation or non-preparation for military life inspires the same feeling of gratified surprise with which we read that the young Napoleon, at the military school of St. Cyr, was simply reported as “ very healthy.” At West Point, Grant was at the foot of his class in the tactics, and he was dropped from sergeant to private in the junior year. A French or German officer would have looked with contempt on a military cadet who never had been a sportsman and did not think he should ever have the courage to fight a duel. It would seem as if fate had the same perplexing problem in choosing its man for commander-in-chief that every war-governor found in his choice of colonels and captains. Who could tell, how was any one to predict, what sort of soldier any citizen would be ? Grant himself, when he came to appoint three men in Illinois as staff officers, failed, by his own statement, in two of the selections. What traits, what tendencies, shown in civil life furnished the best guarantee for military abilities? None, perhaps, that could be definitely named, except habitual leadership in physical exercises. Of all positions, the captaincy of a college crew or a base-ball club was surest to supply qualities available for military command. But even for athletic exercises, except so far as horses were concerned, Grant had no recorded taste.
Nor does his career in the Mexican war seem to have settled the point; and his animated sketch of that event, though one of the most graphic ever written, fails to give any signal proof of great attributes of leadership. This part of his book is especially interesting as showing the really small scale of the military events which then looked large. It is hard for us to believe that General Taylor invaded Mexico with three thousand men, a force no greater than was commanded at different times by dozens of mere colonels, during the war for the Union. It is equally hard to believe that these men carried flintlock muskets, and that their heaviest ordnance consisted of two eighteen-pound guns, while the Mexican artillery was easily evaded by simply stepping out of the way of the balls. It is difficult to convince ourselves that General Taylor never wore uniform, and habitually sat upon his horse with both feet hanging on the same side. Yet it was amid so little pomp and circumstance as this that Grant first practiced war. The experience developed in him sufficient moral insight to see, all along, that it was a contest in which his own country was wrong; and the knowledge he gained of the characters of his fellow officers was simply invaluable, when he came to fight against some of them. At Fort Donelson he knew that with any force, however small, he could march within gunshot of General Pillow’s entrenchments; and when General Buckner said to him, after the surrender, that if he had been in command the Union army would not have got up to the fort so easily, Grant replied that if Buckner had been in command he should not have tried in the way he did.
He was trained also by his Mexican campaign in that habit of simple and discriminating justice to an opponent which is so vital in war. The enormous advantages gained by the Americans over superior numbers during that contest have always been rather a puzzle to the reader. Grant makes it clear when he says that, though the Mexicans often “stood up as well as any troops ever did,” they were a mere mob for want of trained supervision. He adds, with some humor, “ The trouble seemed to be the lack of experience among the officers, which led them after a certain period to simply quit without being whipped, but because they had fought enough.” He notes also that our losses in those battles were relatively far greater than theirs, and that for this reason and because of the large indemnity paid at last, the Mexicans still celebrate Chepultepec and Molino del Rey as their victories, very much as Americans, under circumstances somewhat similar, celebrate the battle of Bunker Hill. Finally, Grant has the justice to sec that, as Mexico has now a standing army and trained officers, the war of 1846-8 would be an impossibility in this generation.
When Grant comes to deal with the war for the Union itself, his prevailing note of simplicity gives a singularly quiet tone to the narrative. In his hands the tales of Shiloh and Donelson are told with far less of sound and fury than the boys’ football game in Tom Brown at Rugby. In reading the accounts of these victories, it seems as if anybody might have won them; and so the traveler, looking from Chamonix at the glittering slopes of Mont Blanc, feels as if there were nothing to do but to walk right up. Did any one in history ever accomplish so much as Grant with so little conscious expenditure of force, or meet dangers and worries so imperturbably ? " I told them that I was not disturbed.” “ Why there should have been a panic I do not see.” This is the sort of remark that occurs at intervals throughout the memoirs, and usually at the crisis of affairs; and this denotes the conquering temperament. Perhaps the climax of this expression is found when Grant says incidentally, " While a battle is raging one can see his enemy mowed down by the thousand, or even the ten thousand, with great composure ; but after the battle these scenes are distressing, and one is naturally disposed to do as much to alleviate the suffering of an enemy as [of] a friend.” It is the word “ composure ” that is here characteristic ; many men would share in the emotion, but very few would describe it by this placid phrase. Again, the same quality is shown when, in describing the siege of Vicksburg, after “ the nearest approach to a council of war ” he ever held, Grant pithily adds, “ Against the general and almost unanimous judgment of the council I sent the following letter,”— this containing essentially the terms that were accepted. Indeed, it is needless to point out how imperturbable must have been the character of the man who would take with him on a campaign his oldest son, a boy of twelve, and say of him at the end, “ My son. . . caused no anxiety either to me or to his mother, who was at home. He looked out for himself, and was in every battle of the campaign.”
This phlegmatic habit made General Grant in some respects uninteresting, as compared, for instance, with the impulsive and exuberant Sherman ; but it gave him some solid and admirable minor qualities. " Our army,” said Uncle Toby, “ swore terribly in Flanders,” but the commander of the great Union army, by his own statement, was “ not aware of ever having used a profane expletive ” in his life. There is no more curious and inexplicable characteristic than the use of language. Lincoln impresses one as representing, on the whole, a higher type of character than Grant; more sympathetic, more sensitive, more poetic. Yet Lincoln would tell an indelicate story with the zest of a bar-room lounger, while Grant, by the general testimony of his staff officers, disliked and discouraged everything of the kind. There is a mediæval tale of a monk who was asked by a peasant to teach him a psalm, and he chose that beginning with the verse, “ I will take heed to my ways that I offend not with my tongue.” Having learned thus much, the peasant went away, saying that he would try and practice it before going further; but he never returned, not having succeeded in living up to the first verse. Grant was apparently more successful.
Mere imperturbability would, however, be useless to a commander without that indefinable quality known as military instinct; and it was this which Grant possessed in a higher degree, probably, than any other man of his time. Like all instinct, it is difficult to distinguish from the exceedingly rapid putting of this and that together ; as where Grant at Fort Donelson, finding that the knapsacks of the slain enemy were filled with rations, saw at once that they were trying to get away, and renewed the attack successfully. Again, when General Buell had some needless anxiety at Nashville and sent for large reinforcements, Grant told him, on arriving at the scene of action, that he was mistaken; the enemy was not advancing, but retreating. General Buell informed him that there was fighting in progress only ten or twelve miles away ; upon which Grant said that this fighting was undoubtedly with the rear-guard of the Confederates, who were trying to carry off with them all the stores they could: and so it proved. Indeed, it was from an equally prompt recognition of what was really needed that he pressed on Vicksburg at all. Sherman, usually classed as daring and adventurous, dissuaded him, and wished him to hold fast to his base of supplies. Grant, usually esteemed cautious, insisted on going on, saying that the whole country needed a decisive victory just then, even if won at a great risk.
The very extent of Grant’s military command has in one respect impaired his reputation; because he marshaled more men than his opponents, he has been assumed to be less great as a soldier than they were. The Saturday Review, for instance, forgetting that interior lines may make a small force practically equivalent to a large one, treats Grant’s success, to this day, as merely the irresistible preponderance of greater numbers. But it was precisely here that Grant was tested as Lee was not. To say that it is easier to succeed with a larger force than a smaller one is like saying that it is easier to get across the country with a four-in-hand than in a pony phaeton : it is all very true if the road is smooth and straight and the team well broken ; but if the horses are balky and the road a wilderness, the inexperienced driver will be safer with a single steed. The one thing that crushes a general of secondary ability is to have more men than he knows how to handle ; his divisions simply get into one another’s way, and his four-in-band is in a hopeless tangle. Many a man has failed with a great force who would have been superb with a Spartan band. Garibaldi himself did not fit well into the complex mechanism of a German army. “ Captain,” said a bewildered volunteer naval lieutenant, accustomed to handling his own small crew upon the quarter-deck of his merchant vessel, — “ captain, if you will just go below, and take two thirds of these men with you, I ‘ll have this ship about in no time.” It is possible that Lee might have commanded a million men as effectively as Grant did, but we shall never know, for that brilliant general had no opportunity to make the experiment. Meanwhile, it is a satisfaction to observe that the most willing European critic can impair the fame of one great American soldier only by setting up that of another. In the next national war — may it be distant — our Grants and our Lees will form a part of one army.
The claims of Grant to permanent fame will lie first in the fact that he commanded the largest civilized armies the world ever saw ; secondly, that with these armies he saved the integrity of the American nation ; thirdly, that he did all this by measures of his own initiating, rarely calling a council of war, and commonly differing from it when called; fourthly, that he did all this for duty, not glory, and in the spirit of a citizen, not the military spirit, persisting to the last that he was, as he told Bismarck, more of a farmer than a soldier ; then again, that when tested by the severest personal griefs and losses in the decline of life, be showed the same strong qualities still; and finally, that in writing his own memoirs he was simple as regards himself, candid towards opponents, and has thus given us a book which will be, if it goes on as it has begun, better worth reading than any military autobiography since Cæsar’s Commentaries.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson.