“There is so much there…A tanner’s son, failing at so much, turned savior of his country. A slaveholder turned mass emancipator. The warrior transformed into a warrior-poet.” — Ta Nehisi Coates
I don’t usually start a book review with a dust jacket blurb, but this one from Coates shows why Grant is more important today than ever. With Confederate statues coming down and Black Lives Matter rising, our era is turning out to be one of those times in U.S. history when Americans focus closely on race. The last time this happened was in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The time before that was during the 1860s and 1870s — the exact period when Ulysses S. Grant served as wartime battlefield leader, peacetime military commander and post-war president.
To understand America’s history of trying to deal with race, you need to know about Grant. One of the best ways to do that is to read his own words in the most famous military memoir since Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars.
Grant wrote his memoirs while he was dying of cancer in order to provide Julia with a comfortable living after his death. Though published by Mark Twain, rumors that Twain or one of Grant’s aides wrote all or part of the memoirs are false, as demonstrated by manuscript pages in Grant’s own hand as well as by the content and style of the memoirs, which match field orders that Grant penned personally during the war. And while the text does offer some understated humor, historian Joan Waugh asks, “If Mark Twain had written the memoirs, don’t you think they’d be funnier?”
You have many choices when it comes to Grant’s memoirs, which have remained in print since they first came out in 1885-1886. These range from original two-volume sets put out by Twain’s publishing company Charles L. Webster (first editions are available online ranging from $500 to $5000) to single-volume contemporary editions.
Two recent editions are annotated with hundreds of footnotes by scholars of Grant and his times in order to put Grant’s words in context and provide a richer reading experience.
The first of these modern annotated editions was The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant: The Complete Annotated Edition published in 2017. Edited by a team led by John F. Marszalek of the Ulysses S. Grant Association, this volume draws on the 31 volumes of Grant’s papers collected at the U.S. Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State University. Scholars and authors from Ron Chernow on have praised this edition, though I have not read it.
Following two years later, The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant published in 2019 by Liveright has an introduction along with extensive footnotes by Grant scholar Elizabeth Samet. She’s a professor at West Point, which seems to qualify her well to talk about military matters. But as a scholar of literature rather than history, Samet brings a different perspective.
Her notes, which probably add 20% to Grant’s text, helping the narrative part alone come in at 935 pages, make comments on Grant’s writing style and compare passages to others from literature of Grant’s time and beyond. Outside of Grant’s time, Samet draws especially on two other periods of war and literature, World War I and the wars of antiquity.
These notes generally enhanced the reading experience for me, though sometimes I skimmed them. But I also sometimes skimmed Grant’s own text, for example, when he lists all the commanders with all the units who he’s set up before a big battle. Or when he talks about a lot of little battles that take place in between the name brand contests. But I paid close attention to Grant’s writing, and Samet’s notes, on key events. Except to recount his role in and opinions of the Mexican War, Grant writes little about his life before the Civil War. And of course he ends the memoirs right after the Civil War.
It’s a tragedy that this great leader in both war and peace didn’t live long enough to write about his consequential two-term presidency and the misunderstood period of Reconstruction.
So this is really a Civil War book. Or, a narrative, as he styles it, of the War of the Rebellion. I especially appreciated the last 50 pages where Grant gets ready to end the war by closing the trap around Lee’s army after Richmond is evacuated.
If you’re a Grant fan, any good Grant biography will tell the story of his campaigns and battles from Belmont and Fort Donelson through Shiloh, Vicksburg and Chattanooga to the Virginia Overland Campaign of 1864, the siege of Petersburg and the Appomattox Campaign and Lee’s surrender, while sharing many of Grant’s most famous quotes and opinions.
But if you want to go deeper and see the context for those quotes and battles, then Grant’s memoirs is worth reading. And if you want to commune with the man himself by reading what he had to say about his life and times in hundreds of pages of his own words, then reading Grant’s memoirs can become a kind of spiritual practice — it takes patience, but you may just come out as a changed person after you’re done.
If nothing else, reading Grant’s memoirs proves that he actually wrote this, which opens his conclusion to the whole work:
The cause of the great War of the Rebellion against the United States will have to be attributed to slavery.
Not states rights, not tariffs.