A Vertible Army of Grants

(This column was first published in the January 11, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

    "William T. Sherman never hesitated to say what he thought to anyone who would listen, and he was not afraid to pass judgment. But he admitted that on one subject he was unable to offer an answer. He could never quite figure out Ulysses S. Grant. He marveled at his friend's self-confidence, his equanimity, his resilience and determination; but he could not explain the secret of his success: 'I knew him as a cadet at West Point, as a lieutenant of the Fourth Infantry, as a citizen of St. Louis, and as a growing general all through the bloody Civil War. Yet to me he is a mystery, and I believe he is a mystery to himself.'"

    We have been flooded lately with books about Grant, this famous Union general and later two term United States president. The quotation with which I have introduced this column reflects the kind of problem faced by each of these writers. Sherman knew Grant well; we know him only through hindsight and through secondary sources. And those secondary sources -- like so many political and military narratives often extraordinarily self-serving -- provide contradictory evidence for the modern writer.

    Was Grant a great strategic general or simply a butcher who ground down the enemy with his overwhelming forces, consigning thousands of his own men to the same meat market? Was he drunk when his leadership was needed in the field? Was he a crooked politician? Was he a racist? Indeed, wasn't he a failure at everything to which he turned his hand except leading men into battle?

    That initial quotation is taken from Brooks D. Simpson's stately new biography of the general's tortuous path to become commander of the Union forces, Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity 1822-1865(Houghton Mifflin, 2000). Remarkably its publication is accompanied this year by three novels, each of whose central character is Grant, Max Byrd's Grant: A Novel(Bantam Books), Ev Ehrlich's Grant Speaks(Warner Books) and Richard Parry's That Fateful Lightning: A Novel of Ulysses S. Grant(Ballentine Books). I recommend each of these novels but for quite distinct reasons; they differ quite remarkably.

    But first, I note my own long-standing interest in the general. When they were first published in the 1960s and 1970s, I found absolutely compelling Bruce Caton's histories, Grant Moves Southand Grant Takes Command. Then a few years ago I turned to the general's own account, The Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, written to provide some security for his impoverished family when the general was dying of throat cancer. Published by Mark Twain, this book is I believe one of the finest memoirs ever written. If you never read anything else about the Civil War, read this book. It has recently been reissued as a paperback by Modern Library.

    And now, reading these three contemporary novels has turned me back to two of their sources, novelist Hamlin Garland's Ulysses S. Grant: His Life and Characterand newspaper reporter Sylvanus Cadwallader's Three Years with Grant, each written by a man who knew the general. Cadwallader sheds particular light on Grant's drinking, telling a quite believable story of one incident in which the author was personally involved. (His book remained unpublished until 1955.) Both of these biographies remain good reading to this day.

    That Fateful Lightningis at its best the story of the sincere affection between Grant and his wife Julia, but it also retells many of the famous incidents of the war. Here is one that takes place after Lee's forces have withstood his first attack in the Wilderness:

    "An air of gloom hung over the men, adding a darkness to the night that even the burning campfires could not lighten. They had been here before, had done this before. They had fought hard, bled, and died in this horrible place.... They had given their all. And for what? The next move was all too depressingly familiar. McClellan, Burnside, and Hooker had led them into this wilderness to fight, to die, and then to straggle back across the Rapidan like licked dogs. The men hung their heads in shame.

    "Along the road a party of riders appeared at the head of the crossing.... It was General Grant. There could be no mistaking his hunched shoulders and ever-present cigar. He stopped beside the division officers. The men watched Grant raise his arm and point.

    "He pointed south!

    "An excited murmur ran through the ranks as orders were issued.... They were not retreating, not slinking back, not heading for the Rapidan crossing. They were marching south toward Richmond!

    "Men leapt to their feet and threw their caps into the air. Shouts, hurrahs, and cheers burst from their throats as they cried out Grant's name. Tears of joy filled the soldiers' eyes. Their sacrifice had not been in vain. The fight went on....

    "Grant turned to Porter. 'This is most unfortunate,' he said with evident embarrassment. 'The sound will reach the enemy, and I fear it may reveal our movement.'"

    Grant: A Noveltakes place not during the war but much later. It begins when the general and his wife have returned from their world tour, taken after his second term as president while his one term successor Rutherford Hayes was in office. All the scandals of his presidency seem now to be judged separate from him and his name is put forward for a third term. It appears that he will win but old enemies and petty politics intervene. And things go downhill for the Grants from there. It is a moving story with Twain and Sherman and an evil Henry Adams playing central roles and the war still a presence through flashbacks. Here is a Grant deathbed diary entry, as envisioned by Byrd but with the idiosyncratic spelling typical of Grant:

    "July 8, 1885, 4:00 AM. If I live long enough I will become a sort of specialist in the use of certain medicines if not in the treatment of disease. It seems that one mans destiny in this world is quite as much a mystery as it is likely to be in the next. I never thought of acquiring rank in the profession I was educated for; yet it came with two grades higher prefixed to the rank of General officer for me. I certainly never had either ambition or taste for a political life; yet I was twice president of the United States. If any one had suggested the idea of my becoming an author, as they frequently did I was not sure whether they were making sport of me or not. I have now written a book which is in the hands of the manufacturers. I ask that you keep these notes very private lest I become authority with treatment of diseases. I have already too many trades to be proficient in any. Of course I feel very much better from your application of cocain, the first in three days, or I should never have thought of saying what I have said above."

    I have left for last my favorite among these novels, Grant Speaks. Having said that, I freely admit that I was well into this book before I came to this high regard. But by the time I finished I felt that I was reading a contemporary Jonathan Swift.

    Here's the problem. I hold Grant in great affection. He was a fine if flawed man. His greatest fault, in fact, was not his drinking but his trust in others not worth his support. How can anyone not like someone like that? And Grant Speaks, like Thurber's fractured history in "If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox," is a burlesque. My dictionary defines burlesque as "A literary or dramatic work that makes a subject appear ridiculous by treating it in an incongruous way, as by presenting a lofty subject with vulgarity...," and that is exactly what this book does.

    That is very difficult for us Grant lovers to take. Here, for example, is what one Amazon.com reviewer says: "Grant was perhaps the greatest American of his age after Lincoln and doesn't deserve this sickening character assassination." That reader must not have finished reading this book, however, because Ehrlich honors Grant at least as much as I do -- and that's a lot.

    Ehrlich's conceit is that this is an early draft of Grant's memoirs in which the general pulls no punches. Grant says here what he really thinks before expurgating everything down for the final version. There are some other plot devices, most notably a second Grant with whom Hiram (Ulysses original given name which was really changed at West Point through a bureaucratic botch-up) is confused, but they simply help to drive the story.

    And Grant's takes on many of his contemporaries are often very funny. Here are two that cut close to the bone:

    "I told Halleck if we took Fort Henry, then Columbus would be isolated and we would force Polk out into the open. The day after Donelson fell, Polk beat a retreat down to Memphis, which made the upper Mississippi navigable for Union traffic and isolated the Rebel guerrillas across the river in Missouri, allowing them to be cleared out. Albert Sidney Johnston, the ranking Confederate general in the region and the mastermind who had chosen not to reinforce Donelson when he had the chance, panicked and prepared to disembark Nashville, though a long seventy miles lay between us. The Rebels thus packed in all of Kentucky and Tennessee. With one bold attack, I had saved two states for the Union.

    "I hoped my father was reading the papers.

    "Everybody else was, and everybody cheered me -- everybody, that is, except Halleck.

    "That fatuous, double-dealing, conniving louse! He reacted as if my victories presented him with such problems that he would have preferred I'd lost...."

    But his best is reserved for the revered Robert E. Lee:

    "I fought Lee, and I know that Lee was no better than the last hole he dug. And of course, he had a callous disregard for human life, a disregard so striking that Longstreet, the brute, could barely stomach relaying Lee's order to Pickett to charge Hancock's positions along Cemetery Ridge. Fifteen thousand of his own men, mowed down like wheat, a testament to Lee's genius.

    "What was Lee thinking at Gettysburg? Move north, take Harrisburg, then Philadelphia and sue for peace? We'd have trapped Lee's army inside Philadelphia and annihilated them. Either way, he'd have come up a loser."

    Here is the way Ehrlich has Grant end his time in office:

    "And so my Presidency ended. It was as if I had emerged from a long, dark tunnel, as if time suddenly regained its cadence, as if the blur of events once again regained their clarity. My Presidency began with the challenge of reuniting the nation and bringing it peace. It ended with graft, oligarchism, and oppression. It was my fortune, or misfortune, that I was called to the office of the Chief Executive without any previous political training. Mistakes were made, as all can see and I admit, but my errors were errors of judgment, not of intent. Being a great man doesn't mean being an infallible one, I suppose, and being called to a great destiny doesn't mean answering every call. After all, even the great ballplayers like Cap Anson and King Kelly don't get a hit every time they're called to bat."

    Like those ballplayers this author takes a real chance in his book and with many of his readers he strikes out. Not with me. I came to enjoy his excellent prose and organizational skills and his highly creative and often hilarious retakes on history. For me, knowing the accepted version from standard treatments helped turn this finally into a great read.-- Gerry Rising