U. S. Grant
American Hero,
American Myth

Joan Waugh
(North Carolina)
Dr. Waugh is quite taken by U. S. Grant. She sees him as a great general, a great president, and a great writer. He always claimed to be "more farmer than soldier," said that he didn't like being president. His job, as he saw it, was to quell the uprising of "the Rebels" and reunite the country.

He did that. More or less. Maybe.

Grant's Personal Memoirs, all agree, are excellent: probably, as Waugh proposes, the best autobiography of any American president. They are not written in a florid manner of a Churchill or a Washington, but, instead, use but the simplest language, not unlike the writings of his friend Mark Twain. But there are a few caveats floating around out there in historyland having to do with Grant's personality and his leadership.

He claimed not to be all that fond of war. Perhaps that is true: according to best estimates, almost 400,000 Union soldiers died between 1861 and 1865 under his command. The figure for the southern side was a quarter-million. This does not speak well of one who was most directly responsible for the war-making machine.

"The approximately 10,455 military engagements, some devastating to human life and some nearly bloodless, plus naval clashes, accidents, suicides, sicknesses, murders, and executions resulted in total casualties of 1,094,453 during the Civil War," wrote one expert. The number of wounded --- both physically and emotionally --- can never be counted.

"The physical devastation, almost all of it in the South, was enormous: burned or plundered homes, pillaged countryside, untold losses in crops and farm animals, ruined buildings and bridges, devastated college campuses, and neglected roads all left the South in ruins," writes Patricia Faust.

With all this destruction, we find Grant's words about war to be astounding. He wrote that "the length of the war was in some way providential." [Emphasis ours.]

What is passed over by Waugh and most other historians is that the war need never have happened. With agile statesmanship in the style of the much ridiculed but more politically insightful James Buchanan, Lincoln might have been able to call off the whole bloody business. Unfortunately, his schizophrenia drove him on: the soul of an unstable man turned into national fratricide. The ensuing war, four times more vicious than any previous or subsequent war, was virtually a mirror image of his own shattered psyche, helped to destroy the spirit of the country for another century ... much as Hitler's virulent neuroticisms created (and destroyed) the Third Reich and left portions of Germany with another forty-four years of despair.

§     §     §

Americans are strange political thinkers. They seem to think that those who butcher "enemies" on the field of war will make able executives for nation-building. Three ex-generals --- Andrew Jackson, Dwight Eisenhower, and U. S. Grant --- ended up in the White House only because they were "successful" generals. The three knew nothing about the potential grace of a working democracy.

The main charge against Grant is that he was a not only a butcher in the field but a practicing boozer. Waugh strives mightily to prove that it isn't so. But her defense ("Was U. S. Grant a Drunk?") is merely negative: that "his drinking [was] unremarkable in a profession where alcohol was consumed in astonishing amounts."

    Indeed, recent Grant scholars agree ... that as a Civil War soldier, as president, and in retirement, Grant rarely imbibed and never when it counted.

This is contradicted many times over in her own writing. William Tecumsea Sherman said "He stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk." A fellow officer spoke of "his great good nature, and his insatiable love of whiskey." A Republican of his day referred to him as a president who had a "greater fondness for the smoke of a cigar and the aroma of a wine glass." And the author herself writes that "Twain wished that Grant had written openly about his fondness for drink."

    I would have said to General Grant: 'Put the drunkenness in the Memoirs --- and repentance and reform. Trust the people."

Booze was, in those days, conjoined with soldiery. The best place to be when your companions were being killed off all about you was intoxicated. I would venture that --- rather than fault Grant for being such a drunk --- we should praise him for winning so many battles when he was out of it.

In Shiloh, in 1862, for example, he reported that the grounds were "so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping on dead bodies, without a foot touching the ground." A man who could continue to command an army under such conditions certainly deserves our attention if not affection.

§     §     §

Waugh's love for her subject is palpable. Her story of Grant's last years of life, where he raced to complete his Memoirs before dying, is visceral, if not compelling. Her lengthy descriptions of his funeral and the battle to fund the Grant Memorial do tend to wander about however... not unlike the good soldier himself.

Grant might have lived longer if he had been more of a leader on the order of George Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, or me. Like the three of them, I don't mind war as long as there are others that can be shipped out to fight it for us. For, always, there are questions as to exactly why this or that war is being fought. Waugh writes: "Today, many are hard pressed to articulate exactly what the northern side was fighting for beyond emancipation." She opines that perhaps the war was fought for preserving the Union to keep democracy alive. She refers to the blood-bath as the "revolutionary, progressive impact of the Union army's role in bringing a victory that kept the country whole."

Yet, as one historian wrote in these pages, the hostilities of 1861 - 1865 were

    nakedly and shamelessly futile: slavery was on the decline, and would have gone out of existence by the start of the 20th Century from determinism (the economic structure of the industrial revolution and the ownership of humans are incompatible).

Edmund Wilson wrote in his introduction to Patriotic Gore, that in terms of sheer quantity of blood leeched into the ground, the conflict between the American North and South was a doozy. And one of our own critics wrote in Lincoln's Melancholy,

    It should have been a quick in-and-out fight. But, as with World War I (for which, technologically, it was the precursor) it fed on itself, went on and on, draining resources, ruining the land, killing almost 650,000 men, wounding another 200,000. The tolls for death and disfigurement were four times greater than those of World Wars I and II.

--- A. W. Allworthy
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