Horace Porter’s memoir of his time serving as one of Grant’s aides during the Civil War, Campaigning with Grant, is the source of much of what is widely known about Grant during the period of the second half of the war when Porter was attached to Grant’s staff. A dozen or more illustrations from Porter’s book have become famous as well.
For example, Porter is one of the main sources to describe Grant’s appearance at Appomattox, in contrast to the carefully dressed Robert E. Lee.
“The contrast between the two commanders was singularly striking, and could not fail to attracted marked attention as they sat, six or eight feet apart, facing each other,” Porter writes. Then he starts in on Grant:
General Grant, then nearly forty-three years of age, was five feet eight inches in height, with shoulders slightly stooped. His hair and full beard were nut-brown, without a trace of gray in them. He had on his single-breasted blouse of dark-blue flannel, unbuttoned in front and showing a waistcoat underneath. He wore an ordinary pair of top-boots, with his trousers inside, and was without spurs. The boots and portions of his clothes were spattered with mud….He had no sword or sash, and a pair of shoulder straps was all there was about him to designate his rank. In fact, aside from these, his uniform was that of a private soldier.”
Porter then goes on to describe Lee, 6’1″, erect for his age (16 years Grant’s senior), gray-haired, wearing a new uniform with a fancy sword presented by a group of ladies in England, and new boots with “some ornamental stitching of red silk” near the top. Everything he wore was clean.
This description has been cited by many as a sign of Grant’s informal, democratic style as opposed to Lee’s more dignified and more aristocratic personality. Such comparisons usually come at the expense of Grant, who comes off as slovenly and undignified compared to Lee.
But reading the rest of Porter’s section on Appomattox shows that Lee didn’t dress like this all the time. A few days earlier, pressed by Union cavalry, Lee and his officers had to destroy all their baggage to lighten their load on a fast retreat. So if they could only travel with the clothes on their backs, naturally each officer chose his best outfit and left the rest behind.
For his part, Grant didn’t dress so informally on purpose to meet Lee. Quite the opposite. Grant also had a luggage problem. But his was driven not by rapid retreat, but by quick advance. The Union commander had gotten ahead of the wagons carrying his luggage in haste to take the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, the leading Confederate force, while the rebel general was willing. Grant was especially concerned to prevent Lee’s troops from splitting off into guerrilla bands by taking their weapons and names and swearing them to formal paroles not to keep fighting as quickly as possible.
When Grant had access to his baggage throughout the war, he often dressed differently. For example, Porter describes Grant at the beginning of the Virginia Overland campaign of 1864, mounted on his bay horse Cincinnati. This time he’s not wearing a short private’s jacket with no other signs of rank than shoulder boards. Instead, Grant is in a general’s uniform coat (long, frock coat) “and was equipped with a regulation sword, spurs, and sash.”
It would be a mistake to view Grant as some kind of Oscar Madison too lazy to care about his appearance or else an iconoclast who insisted on bucking convention in order to display his contempt for military ceremony and show. Grant was not a clothes horse like his old commander in the Mexican-American War, Winfield Scott (known as “old fuss and feathers” for his love of pomp) and Grant was not as carefully put together as McClellan or even George Meade. But by the standards of other Union commanders, Grant may not have been as casual as we’ve been taught.
This and other insights will help the reader to counter myths about Grant with descriptions from Porter’s first hand observation. Porter is also the source of many anecdotes about and quotes from Grant, such as the famous quote about Grant’s tin-ear for music.
After the hellish Battle of the Wilderness, a regimental band serenades Union commanders with a popular Black spiritual called “Ain’t I Glad to Get Out of the Wilderness.” Grant doesn’t recognize the tune, and has to have it explained to him. “The general smiled at the ready wit of the musicians, and said, ‘Well, with me a musical joke always requires explanation. I know only two tunes: one is “Yankee Doodle” and the other isn’t.'”