Thursday, October 8, 2009

Grant's Memoirs

I finished read Grant's Memoirs about two weeks ago and forgot to put out the review. So better late than never.

This is the biography of US Grant, aka LT General Ulyssess S Grant winner of the US Civil War. One of my personal favorite generals of that war and in general (no pun intended there). His rep has been beat up, usually due to his drinking problem and his rather poor performance as a President. And of course, LOTS of people like to beat him down so they can build up Robert E. Lee of the Confederates.

Well, all that aside, the book. This book seems par for the course in that just because you are a great general you won't necessarily be a great writer. It starts rather slow and glosses over a great many things in Grant's early life. I was especially annoyed that he didn't write anything about his drinking issues and his business failures. I can understand why you would want to gloss over things like this, but one of the reasons I admire Grant was that he overcame some rather great adversity to quite literally get to the top. Much more than Lee did by my estimation. Much of this book focused on the Civil War, and was quite good. His insights into other generals was particularly interesting. He didn't write anything about after the end of the Civil War, so I got nothing on his Presidency (again a shame).

I would recommend that you either read this and then read something else immediately after about Grant that fills in the gaps to get a good feel for him, or vice versa. He sounds much like a general I would very much get along with and follow. He was always calm, and he conquored some major personal demons along the way. As I am very much a believer that someone who has failed and keeps at it is usually a better person for it, I can very much relate to Grant.

I also like his take on how he viewed the Civil War. He had a very high level outlook. Not just a battle (McCellan) or a campaign (Lee), but a broad a to b to c approach to win the war. He was probably one of the first American Generals to have a mental breakdown of warfare by Strategy/Operational/Tactical levels and how they interacted. Mass your men, attack where the enemy (weaker than you, outnumbered by you) has to fight, force him to defend everywhere or give up areas that will hurt him (the South had to fight for Atlanta, the Valley, Fort Fisher, and Richmond, but could NOT hold every area, so not enough set to win, but enough sent to get beat and weaken other areas). And Grant was a pretty good hand at maneuver warfare despite what critics think. You don't think so? Vicksburg. Still no? Chattanoga. Still no? Virginia 1864/65. Yeah, the last one was bloody. But old Bobby Lee never once held the initiative in that campaign, not once. He moved to Grant's tune, no one else ever did that.

Over all good book, but needs some filler to get all the details about a great man.

(PS: Thanks Jim and Maddie for the book).


  1. Did Lee ever write memoirs? Polished writing aside one wonders how the two saw some of the same battles from opposing sides.
    Still - don't disagree with what you're saying although I never quite saw Grant in the way you saw him (strategy/operations/tactics) but I will agree he did wars of manuver well from the few books of the Civil war I have read.

  2. True enough, most folks tend to see Lee as the better maneuver fighter. But Lee boloed in a major way. He was fighting a war of maneuver with the idea of a victory thru annihilation (a Cannae so to speak). But he didn't make the mental leap. There were no more Cannaes in the era of modern(er) weapons, but there could be campaigns of annihilation. But that required some serious bloody fighting, and the south could not win that battle. Grant had a longer view.

  3. And no, I don't think Lee ever did.

  4. Your Cannae comment gets me to wondering....
    Is it well known what topics of history/strategy were studied in a particular period of history by those generals?
    So if Lee was trained to study the classics at west point, does that color his strategic thinking? Likewise, battles, concepts, and strategies studied today have a very different flavor than the topics deemed highly important long ago.
    Might be interesting to see what things Grant studied that led him to these thoughts (if it is known at all) or how much he came up with it all on his own.

  5. Actually the main topics were Napoleon for history. Also some classics (Punic Wars being one). Lee was top of his class. Grant was I think middle. He didn't do so hot on Military History or tactics, so his grounding was not as rock solid as Lee's was. I have to observe that most "Top of the Class" generals in the Civil War didn't do so hot (Lee exception). Indian Fighters tended to do better and were more open minded about certain things (such as new weapons). Sherman as an example did not see combat in the Mexican War. Sheridan didn't see any either (or Indians either I think, he was really young). Grant was infantry and then ended up as a Quartermaster during much of the Mexican War. It makes for an interesting comparision when you look at the winning Union Generals versus the Southern ones.

  6. It does make an interesting comparison. Makes one wonder what the lessons of today will produce tomorrow.

  7. If history is any guide, the oddballs are going to be the ones who rock the world.

    Here is the best example of this that I can think of:

    Desert Shield/Desert Storm: the ultimate expression of conventional warfare. Here is the kicker, the most amazing and revolutionary item that came out of that war was a remote-controlled prop-driven model airplane (a drone that went on to become the Predator). If someone had told you that in July 1991, what would you have said?

  8. You are so very correct - the UAV was completely unexpected and now is probably the biggest thing coming in the US arsenal.
    Should you ever get to see the Air Force museum in Dayton, there in the WWI exhibit is an unmanned flying drone/bomb that never took off (literally and figuratively) as an idea because steering and control were not there.

  9. I have seen it, the world's first cruise missile. Looks like a biplane minus a cockpit built for a real sized snoopy.

  10. Bruce Catton wrote an excellent - if somewhat worshipful - 2-volume military biography of Grant, which covers the Civil War years.
    Try "Grant: A Biography" by William McFeely for a good overall life, including youth, Mexico, failures, President, etc.

  11. As for Grant the strategist, he admitted that he never read Jomini, who was the military theory guru of the day.
    Grant did say ""The art of war . . . is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike at him as hard as you can and as often as you can, and keep moving on."
    Hard to beat for clarity.