Grant's Memoirs: Second Volume

WHICH is the more interesting matter of study for posterity in the career of a great general, the course of his campaigns or the development of his character ? The second volume of Grant’s life may be read from either of these points of view ; but probably its greatest and most lasting interest will be from its elucidation of the personal traits that marked the man, — its biographical rather than its historical aspect. Behind the battles lay the genius

or individual quality, whatever it was, which fought those battles ; and which, in the tremendous competition of military selection, left this man above all his immediate competitors in his own field. Even in regard to the lives of Cæsar and Napoleon, we can observe that for one person who enters into the details of the strategy, there are ten who are interested in the evolution of the man. But in the case of Grant a new and peculiar interest is developed, for this reason, that he is the first great and conquering commander developed by modern republican institutions. This makes it almost certain that he will be one of the monumental men in history ; and there is therefore no problem of the kind more interesting than to consider his character in the almost unerring light thrown by autobiography, and to comprehend what manner of man it is that has been added, in our own day, to those of whom Plutarch wrote.

The most conspicuous quality manifested by the second volume of these memoirs is that same simplicity which was shown in the first. It would not have been strange if the habit of writing about himself — an exercise so wholly new to Grant — had by degrees impaired this quality, as the book went on ; but it really characterizes the later pages as much as the earlier, and the work might, so far as concerns this feature, have been struck off at a white heat. The author never poses or attitudinizes; never wavers for an instant from his purpose to tell plain facts in the plainest possible way. The tremendous scenes through which he has passed never overwhelm or blur his statement; he tells of the manoeuvring of hundreds of thousands of men as quietly as if he were narrating a contest of fishing boats at Long Branch. When he describes that famous interview between himself and General Lee, in which was settled the permanent destiny of the American nation, the tale is told far more quietly than the ordinary reporter would describe the negotiations for a college rowing match. Such a description, read in connection with Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, shows that simplicity stands first among all literary gifts; that the greater the occasion, the more apt men are to be simple ; and that no time or place has ever surpassed, in this respect, the examples left behind by these two modern American men.

Next to the unconscious exhibition of character given by every man in writing about himself comes the light indirectly thrown upon his own nature by his judgments of others. In this respect, also, Grant’s quietness of tone places him at great advantage. He sometimes praises ardently, but he censures very moderately. Of Bragg’s disastrous tactics at Chattanooga he only says, “ I have never been able to see the wisdom of this move.” Of Buell’s refusal to accept a command under Sherman, on the ground that he had previously ranked Sherman, Grant says, “ The worst excuse a soldier can give for declining service is that he once ranked the commander he is ordered to report.” Again, when a question arose between Palmer and Schofield, as to whether the latter had a right to command the former, the comment is, “ If he [Palmer] did raise this question while an action was going on, that act alone was exceedingly reprehensible.” That besetting sin of military commanders, the habit of throwing the responsibility for failure upon subordinates, never seems to tempt Grant. In speaking of Burnside’s losing an important advantage at Spottsylvania, he says, “ I attach no blame to Burnside for this, but I do to myself, for not having a staff officer with him to report to me his position. " When we compare this guardedness of tone with the sweeping authoritativeness which marks many of our civilian critics of campaigns, the difference is certainly most gratifying. The only matters that rouse Grant to anything like wrath, in the telling, are those acts which imply crimes against humanity, like the massacre of colored troops at Fort Pillow ; and in this case he simply characterizes Forrest’s report of the affair as something “ which shocks humanity to read.” He does not even allow himself the luxury of vehemence against fate, or fortune, or inevitable destiny. Even when he describes his immense local obstacles in the country round Spottsylvania, — a heavily timbered region, full of little streams surrounded by wooded and marshy bottom lands, — he gently says, “It was a much better country to conduct a defensive campaign in than an offensive one.” The man who can speak charitably of Virginia swamps may certainly lay claim to that virtue which is chief among the blessed three.

The severest test offered in this volume, as to Grant’s judgment on men, is in his estimate of one whom he had allowed, in the opinion of many, to be most grievously wronged, — the late Major-General Gouverneur K. Warren. The great civil war caused a vast multitude of deaths, directly and indirectly, but among all these there was but one conspicuous and unquestionable instance of broken heart, —in the case of the high minded and most estimable man who was removed by Sheridan from the command of an army corps, just before the battle of Five Forks, and who spent the rest of his life in vainly endeavoring to secure even an investigation before a Court of Inquiry. All who remember General Warren’s refined and melancholy face, with its permanent look of hopeless and crushing sorrow, will turn eagerly to those pages of this volume in which his case is mentioned. Instead of evading the subject, Grant meets it frankly. It has always been supposed among the friends of General Warren that the main objection to ordering a Court of Inquiry in his case was the known affection of the commander-in-chief for Sheridan, and his willingness to let Warren be sacrificed rather than expose his favorite officer to blame. Those who read this book will be satisfied that no such theory will suffice. It is upon himself that Grant takes the main responsibility of Warren’s displacement. He had made, as he avers, a careful study of Warren’s peculiar temperament, long before this event occurred. He had at first felt in him a confidence so great that he would have put him in Meade’s place had that officer fallen (ii. 216), but he came gradually to a very different opinion. He always regarded him as a “ gallant soldier, an able man,” and always thought him “ thoroughly imbued with the solemnity and importance of the duty he had to perform.” But he thus analyzes his character (ii. 214) : —

“ Warren’s difficulty was twofold: when he received an order to do anything, it would at once occur to his mind how all the balance of the army should be engaged so as properly to coöperate with him. His ideas were generally good, but he would forget that the person giving him orders had thought of others at the time he had of him. In like manner, when he did get ready to execute an order, after giving most intelligent instructions to division commanders, he would go in with one division, holding the others in reserve, until he could superintend their movements in person also ; forgetting that division commanders could execute an order without his presence. His difficulty was constitutional and beyond his control. He was an officer of superior ability, quick perceptions, and personal courage to accomplish anything that could be done with a small command ” (ii. 214-15).

This certainly gives a very clear analysis of a certain type of character; and whether the observer was correct or incorrect in his diagnosis, he was bound to act upon it. It farther appears that Warren was again and again a source of solicitude to Grant. In some cases he did admirably, as at Cold Harbor. “ The enemy charged Warren three separate times with vigor, but were repulsed each time with loss. There was no officer more capable, nor one more prompt in acting, than Warren, when the enemy forced him into it” (ii. 266). Again, at the siege of Petersburg, Warren obeyed orders perfectly, when Burnside paid no attention to him (ii. 313).

Nevertheless, Grant was “ very much afraid,” taking all things into consideration, “ that at the last moment he would fail Sheridan.” He accordingly sent a staff officer to Sheridan to say that, although he personally liked Warren, it would not do to let personal feeling stand in the way of success, and “ if his removal was necessary to success ” Sheridan must not hesitate. On this authority the removal was made ; and Grant only blames himself for not having assigned Warren, long before, to some other field of duty (ii. 445).

All this throws light not merely upon Grant’s sustaining Sheridan in the removal of Warren, but on his uniform refusal afterwards to order any Court of Inquiry. This was the one thing for which Warren and his friends longed; and it was always assumed by them that it was refused merely in order to shield Sheridan. Yet it was the one thing which would have been, from Grant’s point of view, utterly useless. When an officer is removed for an actual moral fault, as cowardice, drunkenness, or disobedience of orders, a formal investigation may settle the matter; for it is then a question of definite charges. But where a man of the highest character turns out to be, from mere peculiarities of temperament, unsuited to a certain post, his displacement may be just as necessary ; nor can war be carried on in any other way. The stake is too tremendous, the interests of the nation are too momentous, for the matter to rest on any other basis. Nor is it essential that the superior officer should be assumed as infallible; under these circumstances he must do the best he can. Had there been a Court of Inquiry, nothing would have been established except that Grant and Sheridan honestly believed that Warren was not the man for the place, and that they therefore set him aside, as they might have done, under like circumstances, with any other officer in himself estimable,—as, for instance, Burnside. Grant may have sincerely thought that to say this before a Court of Inquiry would really hurt Warren more than Sheridan, and that it was better for the sufferer himself to let the matter rest where it lay. This was probably mistaken kindness, if kindness it was. A man smarting under a real or supposed injustice always prefers an investigation, even if the result of that tribunal is sure to be against him. Nor is it sure that it would have been technically against Warren. The considerations which influenced Grant and Sheridan were to some extent intangible, and General Humphreys has shown that on some points they were mistaken, and Warren had done rightly. But the real question is whether Grant was also mistaken in his final analysis of Warren’s character; and it is upon this, after all, that the whole thing turned.

This particular instance has been thus emphasized because it is, more than any other, a test of Grant’s habit of justice to his subordinates ; a quality in which, we are bound to say, he surpasses almost all writers of military autobiographies. So far as justice to himself is concerned, he could not have well helped doing it, had he tried, for any man shows himself as he is, either willingly or unwillingly, when he tells his own story. Nor is there any evidence that he sought to help it.

The latter part of the book bears literary marks of the tremendous strain under which it was written, but it bears no moral marks of it; and he keeps clear, from beginning to end, of all that ill-concealed enthusiasm about himself which is the common bane of autobiographies. He is perfectly content to stand for what he was,— a combination of plain and almost commonplace qualities, developed to a very high power, and becoming at length the equivalent of what we call military genius. This, at least, is the inference to be drawn from his book. Whether he was or was not, in the way of distinctive genius, a greater man than he thought himself must be left for the military historians of a future generation to determine. In any case, the spectacle of an eminent commander who habitually underrates himself is rare enough to be very pleasing.

This process of self-development is never, of course, directly stated, or even intimated, in this book. Had it been otherwise, the quality of unconsciousness would have been wanting. But the adaptation of supreme good sense to the conditions and exigencies of army life may constantly be traced here, not merely between the lines, but in maxim alter maxim, each an obiter dictum, given with a homely simplicity that half disguises its real wisdom. What Lincoln would have put into an anecdote or local proverb, — as when, for instance, he expressed his unwillingness to swap horses while crossing a stream, or to cross Fox River before he reached it, — Grant condenses into some plain statement: “ Accident often decides the fate of battle ” (ii. 212). “It would be bad to be defeated in two battles fought on the same day ; but it would not be bad to win them” (ii. 20). “It is men who wait to be selected, and not those who seek, from whom we may always expect the most efficient service ” (ii. 117). “The fact is, troops who have fought a few battles and won, and followed up their victories, improve upon what they were before to an extent that can hardly be reckoned by percentage” (ii. 109). “ No man is so brave that he may not meet such defeats and disasters as to discourage him and dampen his ardor for any cause, no matter how just he deems it” (ii. 419). “It had been my intention before this to remain at the West, even if I was made lieutenant-general ; but when I got to Washington, and saw the situation, it was plain that here was the point for the commanding-general to be. No one else could probably resist the pressure that would be brought to bear upon him to desist from his own plans and pursue others ” (ii. 116).

In each passage we see clearly the working of Grant’s mind. When once his convictions had taken shape in one of these simple formulæ, it was no more necessary for him to reconsider it than for a mathematician to go behind a preceding proposition. This clear and pellucid mental habit, joined with much reticence and a good deal of obstinacy, made a very powerful combination; kept him from being entangled by his own plans or confused by those of others ; enabled him to form a policy, to hold to it, to overcome obstacles, to escape depression in defeat or undue excitement in victory. With all this — and here comes in the habit of mind generated by a republic—he never forgot that he was dealing with his own fellow-countrymen, both as friends and foes, and that he must never leave their wishes and demands, nor even their whims and prejudices, out of sight. Many of his early risks were based upon the conviction that the friends of the Union needed a victory or two, and must have it. All his strategy, during the closing campaign, was based upon the conviction — a conviction which Wellington or Von Moltke might very probably have missed — that the Confederates were thoroughly tired of the war, and were losing more men by desertion than they could possibly gain by impressment. Even in the terms at last given to Lee, the same quality of what we may call glorified common sense came in ; and there is no doubt that the whole process of reconstruction was facilitated when Grant decided that the vanquished Confederate soldiers had better keep their horses, to help them in getting in their crops. All these considerations were precisely those we should expect a republican general to apply. It would be natural for him to recognize that the war in which he was engaged was not a mere competitive test of military machines, human or otherwise, but that it must be handled with constant reference to the instincts and habits that lay behind it. The absence of this ready comprehension helped to explain the curious failure, in our army, of many foreign officers who knew only the machine. The fact that Grant and Lincoln, however they might differ in other respects, had this mental habit in common was that which enabled them to work together so well. A striking instance of this was their common relation to the slavery question, which both had approached reluctantly, but which both accepted at last as the pivotal matter of the whole conflict. Both saw that it could be met in but one way, and both divined that the course of events was steadily abolitionizing all Union men. In general, Lincoln with sympathetic humor and Grant with strong sense kept always in mind the difference between a people’s war and a mere contest of soldiers.

In other words, they were both representative Americans. So much stronger is the republican instinct among us than any professional feeling which even West Point can create that Grant, though trained to the pursuit of arms, never looked at things for a moment merely from the soldier’s point of view. This was the key to his military successes, — the time, the place, the combatants being what they were, — and this was the key to the readiness with which, at last, both Grant and the soldiers under him laid down their arms. Here at last, Europe thought, was the crisis of danger ; here was the “ man on horseback,” so often prophesied as the final instrument of Providence, surely destined to bring this turbulent republic back among the mass of nations that obey with ease. The moment of fancied peril came; and it turned out that old Israel Putnam, galloping in his shirtsleeves to the battle of Bunker Hill, was not more harmless to the liberties of America than this later man-on-horse-back, Grant.