Thursday, April 14, 2011

Poignant memories and anniversaries

Personal Memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant

Two very important anniversaries fall this week here in the United States: the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Civil War, and the 146th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  There have been a flurry of news stories and articles marking the first, including several making clear the link between slavery and the war, which always sets off the Lost Cause/Gone With the Wind as history crowd. 

I wasn't really thinking of the anniversaries when I sat down with U.S. Grant's Memoirs.  I've had it on the TBR pile for quite a while.  I'd recently read Bruce Catton's Grant Moves South, as well as Charles Bracelin Flood's Grant and Sherman, the Friendship That Won the Civil War.  Last year I read Julia Dent Grant's memoirs (published only in 1975) and moved her husband's up the pile.  I'd also seen some recent references to the excellence of Grant's book (particularly in contrast to the unexcellence of George W. Bush's 2010 memoir, which cites Grant as an inspiration).

I found the Memoirs fascinating reading, if slow-going in parts.  Grant starts with his family history, briefly covering his childhood and his education at West Point (which he hoped would close while he was enrolled, sparing him from an army career). He covers the Mexican War in more detail than I expected, and I learned a lot about that war that I never knew or had forgotten - and living in Texas, I should know that history.

The bulk of the book is naturally focused on the Civil War, and it ends with the grand reviews in Washington in May of 1865.  This isn't a full autobiography; there is nothing on his presidency or life after the White House, though Julia Grant's book does cover those years in some detail.  I've had a biography of Grant on the TBR pile for more years than I am willing to admit, and I may be inspired to pick that up soon, to get the broader picture.

Grant wrote 20 years after the war ended, and with a clear knowledge that his death was imminent (he died of throat cancer just days after it was completed).  I would expect that gave him a sense of freedom in expressing his opinions of both events and people, where in the past, from what I've read of his war career, he was generally reserved and close-mouthed.  In any case, he clearly states that the Civil War came because of slavery, and he has an interesting argument that no state formed after 1789 had the right to secede.  He is especially scathing about Texas, for which he fought and so many died in 1845-1846 to bring into the union. As a resident of Texas, with a current governor who has advocated secession (because it worked so well last time), I cheered when I read those words.  Grant is also scathing about northern traitors; Buchanan's passive role in 1860 and early 1861; and about the shortcomings of generals like Halleck, McClernand, and Rosecrans, and Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War.  He also clearly shows his admiration and respect for General Zachary Taylor in the Mexican War; Abraham Lincoln, William Sherman,  Phil Sheridan, and David Porter in the Civil War.  In addition to the horror of Lincoln's murder, he sees clearly the defects of Andrew Johnson and the disaster that his administration brought, especially in Reconstruction.

Grant's Civil War battles, major and minor, are of course covered in detail, from Fort Henry to Appomattox.  The editor of this edition, renowned Civil War historian James McPherson, suggests in his introduction that the reader might want to have an atlas handy.  I wish I'd followed that advice.  It was hard enough to keep the different divisions/corps/brigades straight, let alone envisioning the country around Vicksburg, or the different roads through the Wilderness. That is where the book dragged a bit for me.

This was the perfect start to my own celebration of the Civil War's sesquicentennial.  In honor of the anniversary, I am going to clear all the Civil War books off the TBR pile - after all, I've got five years to do it!

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!