Ulysses S. Grant Wins the Long Game

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Things have been looking up for Ulysses S. Grant. Historians have variously portrayed the Civil War general as a hero or a drunk, national savior or bilge pump of corruption. But recent biographies, including Ron Chernow’s 2017 best-seller “Grant,” have painted a largely admirable picture of the Union general and 18th president.

Author Elizabeth Samet, a professor of English at West Point, has for years been taking the measure of Grant as soldier, general, politician and writer. Her sweeping annotation of Grant’s memoirs, published last month by Liveright, enables us to see Grant not only as he saw himself, and as Samet sees him today, but as rivals, friends, subordinates and other contemporaries did in their own time. Her book offers a panoramic view of a complex leader who navigated a convulsive era.

I interviewed Samet, via email, in recent weeks. A lightly edited draft follows. (The opinions Samet expresses here do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.)

WILKINSON: One of the most famous lines in Grant’s memoirs concerns the Mexican-American War. Grant, who fought in the war, called it “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” He also said he had been "bitterly opposed" to the annexation of Texas. How provocative was Grant’s condemnation of the war at the time his memoir was published?

SAMET: Grant understood that few, especially among those who enjoy prominent positions in the military or in government, have the courage to speak out against a war in progress: “Once initiated,” he wrote, “there were but few public men who would have the courage to oppose it. Experience proves that the man who obstructs a war in which his nation is engaged, no matter whether right or wrong, occupies no enviable place in life or history.”

One of the public figures who did give voice to antiwar sentiments was the Massachusetts theologian Theodore Parker, who declared it “a mean and infamous war.” Another was Henry David Thoreau, whose opposition to it and to slavery — issues that were inseparable for him — motivated his essay “Civil Disobedience.”

The Mexican War sparked, as the historian Amy Greenberg has shown, the first antiwar movement in the U.S. The Whig party opposed the war, especially because they viewed it as advantageous to the Southern slave power. Of course, the pro-war enthusiasm was much louder, at least initially, and sufficient to motivate many volunteers. When the newly elected congressman Abraham Lincoln joined the Whig opposition to President Polk’s war and supported a resolution declaring it unnecessary and unconstitutional, he was, as his biographer David Herbert Donald notes, ignored in Washington, condemned in Illinois, and privately chastised by his political allies.

Grant supposed many of his fellow regular army officers “indifferent” to the conquest of Mexico. Of his own objections, he later told John Russell Young, the journalist who accompanied him on his post-presidential world tour: “I know the struggle with my conscience during the Mexican War. I have never altogether forgiven myself for going into that . . . only I had not moral courage enough to resign.”

By the time Grant wrote the memoirs in the 1880s, on the other side of the bloody 1850s and the even bloodier Civil War, his appraisal of the Mexican War had become commonplace in Republican circles. Today, of course, his attitude toward one of the nation’s nakedly imperialist moments is more widely shared.

WILKINSON: You point out that Grant’s prose avoids the romantic indulgences that saturated many of his contemporaries’ accounts of the Civil War. His tone is more gentle and calm than romantic or heroic. Can you situate Grant in his era’s culture of masculinity? Who was he as a man among men — which is, after all, how he spent his professional life?

SAMET: Grant was somewhat unusual in this respect. He was never a blusterer, and he mistrusted braggadocios. What he saw in Mexico — a man decapitated by a cannon ball, another taking months to die after the lower part of his jaw was shot off, comrades dying of sickness and fever, civilians violently abused by undisciplined American volunteers — could not be unseen. Nor could these incidents be reconciled in Grant’s mind with any romantic illusions about battle he may have harbored as an adolescent.

Without being prim, naïve or hypocritical, he deplored bloodshed even though he found himself presiding over carnage. He did not enjoy hunting (a great pastime among his contemporaries) or bullfighting, which he witnessed in Mexico. He was so averse to the sight of blood that he ate only well-done meat. And he spent a night under a tree in the rain at Shiloh rather than sheltering in a nearby cabin that had been turned into a field hospital.

In a less well-known (but telling) episode that took place after the Mexican War, a senior officer left Grant in charge of the sick when cholera broke out on a crossing of the Isthmus of Panama. Grant was exceptional in this capacity: caring for the sick and burying the dead with compassion and calm. It was that calm — an almost preternatural coolness under fire—that would have confirmed to anyone around him a recognizable kind of 19th-century masculinity.

“Ulysses don’t scare worth a damn,” soldiers of one Wisconsin regiment took to saying after they saw the general immediately resume writing a dispatch after being interrupted by a shell that exploded in front of him. I think Grant knew death in all its permutations and indignities too well ever to glory in killing.

That’s why, while commanding an army in service of a cause in which, in contrast to that of the Mexican War, he emphatically believed, he never evinced any of the zeal or vindictiveness that animated some of his contemporaries. The only time Horace Porter, one of his staff officers, saw Grant lose his temper was when the general saw a teamster beating a horse. Throughout his life, Grant displayed the intuition and patience of a “horse whisperer.” I think it is fair to say that the fundamental gentleness that characterized his treatment of these animals also governed his relationships with people.

WILKINSON: In your introduction, you write, “In a world seized by an epidemic of Sir Walter disease, Grant was an impervious modern.” Can you unpack that sentence for us?

SAMET: The phrase “Sir Walter disease” belongs to Mark Twain, who published Grant’s memoirs in 1885-86. In his 1883 book “Life on the Mississippi,” Twain diagnosed the postwar American South as suffering from this malady, which was caught as a result of steeping too thoroughly in the romantic world of the Scottish novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott — specifically in what Twain saw as its “sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries.”

Twain caricatures Scott, but his diagnosis pinpoints the sensibility that infused certain parts of antebellum Southern society, which wrapped the inhumanity and deceit of a slaveholding culture in a language of honor and courtliness. This sensibility survived the war to produce the myth of the Lost Cause, complete with nostalgia for a bygone age and its fallen knights (Robert E. Lee, chief among them).

The concept of chivalry had a specific function in a slaveholding society, but it continues to texture the way many people think of military service. For example, former White House chief of staff John Kelly’s remarkable October 2017 press conference, during which he defended the president’s call to the family of a soldier who died in Niger, was likewise haunted by the “dreams and phantoms” Twain understood to be stunting the South of the 1880s.

Nostalgia characterized Kelly’s declaration that military sacrifice was perhaps the “last thing … sacred in our society.” His recollections were romantic and sentimental: “You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life — the dignity of life — is sacred. That’s gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well.”

Talking about soldiers and warfare in this way tends to obscure or deflect a more contentious discussion of causes and contexts. By focusing on the idea of sacred honor, people try to turn war into something beautiful. The ultimate popular-cultural incarnation of this attitude is George C. Scott’s Patton in the 1970 film. Surveying the corpses and still-smoking wreckage of a battle, he confesses, “I love it. God help me, I do love it so.”

That is the malady to which Grant, whom I call “an impervious modern,” proved immune. Grant relentlessly strips the story of the Civil War of its romance and myth, the stock-in-trade of so many memoirists who flooded the market with their recollections in the postwar decades. He recognizes heroism when he sees it, but his praise is never effusive. He is likewise very reluctant to accuse soldiers of cowardice. He refuses to dwell on the scene of battle because that kind of detail can also turn the business of war into a kind of sacred contest, an almost religious experience in which the simple act of sacrifice makes irrelevant the cause it serves.

Grant was never confused about causes, and he knew that soldiers could perform physically courageous acts on a battlefield in service of “unholy” causes, and that armies serving just causes were never composed, to borrow Shakespeare’s phrase, of “all unspotted soldiers.” It’s that attitude that makes Grant an anomaly among his contemporaries.

I call him a modern, but I don’t mean to condescend to him or to suggest that he anticipated what seemed obvious to later, more enlightened generations. What Grant and certain other writers figured out about the perils of romanticizing war remains opaque to many today. This mode of representing war has been eclipsed by a resurgent romance as well as by what I call a new romance of disaffection that emerged from Vietnam — a supercharged, hyper-masculine orgy of brutality that ironically succeeds in preserving combat’s sacred insularity from common experience even as it tries to condemn war. In truth, our culture’s contemplation of the wars that have consumed the 21st century have too often been distorted and confused by new and resistant strains of Sir Walter disease.

WILKINSON: You cite Civil War contemporaries remarking on Grant’s ability to size up character, making the most of an officer’s strengths while limiting damage from the officer’s weaknesses. As president, and later in business, he aligned himself with corrupt men, which surely aided the portrait of Grant as a bumbler and a drunk. How did so shrewd a judge of character surround himself with so much corruption?

SAMET: These episodes pose a challenge for anyone attempting to evaluate Grant’s legacy. He was personally honest, but he presided over an administration full of opportunists, several of whom had served with him during the war. He was fiercely loyal to these men. When one of his aides, Orville Babcock, was indicted for his involvement in the Whiskey Ring, for example, Grant offered a sworn deposition in his support. Babcock was acquitted, but Grant then dispensed with his services. Even his loyalty had its limits.

A shrewd evaluator of men in wartime, Grant’s judgment appeared to desert him when money was involved. He made poor business decisions over the decades, and was on occasion cheated or unable to collect debts owed to him. Toward the end of his life, Ferdinand Ward, known as the “Young Napoleon of Finance,” persuaded him to sink his fortune into the firm of Grant & Ward. Ward’s partner was actually Grant’s son, Buck, but it was the father who was bankrupted in what was ultimately revealed to be a Ponzi scheme. Again, Grant was innocent; Ward ended up in Sing Sing.

Grant lived in a Gilded Age surrounded by robber barons who amassed outrageous fortunes by often unscrupulous means. But he had no knack for making money himself. He could command armies but not capital.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.