Drooling on the Pillow

Monday, November 15, 2004

U.S. Grant 

Oh, boy. Two new books on U.S. Grant. I love reading about the Civil War so anyone without similar tastes should moveon.

The story of Grant, is so comprehensively American that it can't be overtold. You know that, at the start of the war, having failed at everything he had turned his hand to, he was working as a clerk in his father's leather goods shop in Nowhere, Illinois. Essentially, he was wearing a red vest at Target. Within a couple months of the outbreak of hostilities he was a brigadier. Within a little more than six months he was the hero of Fort Donaldson, a major general and well on his way to saving the Union.

Why was he so successful when so many Union leaders were so disastrous? Not all of them were fools.

This is the part of his story I love. He had a small, odd skill set that was useless to him as a civilian and vital to his military success.

He loved horses and was a superb horseman. From childhood the thing he loved the most was to get on a horse and ride. All day, every day he would ride over the countryside. I've read that this habit may have contributed to one of his greatest skills. He could read a map better than anyone else. He could look at a map, take a quick look around and he could see the ground in his head. And he could carry it around in his head. If he needed a brigade at a certain place at a certain time he knew better than any of his contemporaries which brigade could plausibly be there and which ones could not. He could tell realistically how many men he could get through a gap in a set amount of time to be where he needed them. He didn't need to waste time thinking about it -- he knew.

The other thing that set him apart was his perfectly lucid prose style. Anyone who's read his autobiography knows what I'm talking about. It's not unembellished. There is humor, irony and modesty. There is also bitterness, envy and guilt. None of it gets in the way of perfect comprehension. His narrative is simple and spare. No one who got an order from Grant ever had the smallest doubt about what he was supposed to do, where he was supposed to go and when it was supposed to happen. Compare this with Burnside, whose ambiguous orders to General Franklin may well have doomed the Union at Fredericksburg.

That last point relates to another quality of Grant's. Moral courage. So much of the bloodletting in that horrible war was the result of the general staff's reluctance to fully engage the enemy. The result was the war dragged on and on and more and more young men were fed into the shredder. Grant had the reputation of being bloodthirsty, but he was not. He was not the only one who saw what needed to be done. He was the only one willing to take on the responsibility to do it. He was less willing to kid himself than anyone other than Lincoln.

Here's a link to information about Grant.
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