Grant: A Biography tells of the extraordinary life and legacy of one of America's most ingenious military minds
A modest and unassuming man, Grant never lost a battle, leading the Union to victory over the Confederacy during the Civil War, ultimately becoming President of the reunited states. Grant revolutionized military warfare by creating new leadership tactics by integrating new technologies in classical military strategy.
In this compelling biography, John Mosier reveals the man behind the military legend, showing how Grant's creativity and genius off the battlefield shaped him into one of our nation's greatest military leaders.
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About the Author
John Mosier is the author of The Myth of the Great War, and from 1989-1992 he edited the New Orleans Review. As a military historian, he received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop an interdisciplinary curriculum for the study of the two world wars. He lives in Jefferson, Louisiana.
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By John Mosier
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2006 John Mosier
All rights reserved.
An Ordinary Life
Grant's early life presents us with a vexing problem. We know little about it, and Grant said even less. This statement is as true about biographical details as it is about his retrospective remarks on warfare. In his memoirs, considered one of the great works of American literature, Grant wrote wonderfully evocative descriptions of what he saw. He said next to nothing about what he felt, and surprisingly little about what he did, confining himself to bare descriptions of events.
Aside from being a military genius of the first order, Grant was a perfectly ordinary human being, and there is hardly anything in his childhood and youth, his family background and education, to suggest future greatness. Grant was almost forty years old when the Civil War broke out, and one scours the records of those first four decades in vain for any clues as to his greatness.
Biographers are storytellers. Very much aware that there is not much of story to tell about Grant's early years, his biographers have created one. "Triumph over Adversity" is how one of the most accomplished Grant biographers puts it, referring to a story with which almost every American is familiar: Grant, a failure in civilian life, a man with a serious drinking problem, became a great general.
Although the temptation to create an interesting tale is understandable, the title of this chapter is closer to the mark. Grant's was an ordinary life. There are only a few hints to his future greatness, and those are subtle.
* * *
Ulysses S. Grant was born Hiram Ulysses Grant on April 27, 1822. His birthplace, Point Pleasant, Ohio, was a small town on the north bank of the Ohio River, about twenty-five miles to the south of Cincinnati. Through an error, his appointment to West Point was in the name of Ulysses Simpson Grant, probably owing to the fact that his mother's maiden name was Simpson. Bureaucracies being what they are, Grant was stuck with the name, and early in the war he was called "Unconditional Surrender" Grant. However, the nickname is misleading: Grant generally extended terms to his vanquished opponents that were quite generous, which, in the first years of the war, led to criticism from armchair generals in Washington.
Grant's father was a self-made man who did well in life, well enough for Ulysses to be able to work in the family business in the years directly before the war. He clearly wanted his son to excel, but the characteristics for which Grant became well known later in his life — modesty, reserve, and tolerance — are directly attributable to his mother. He took after his mother physically as well: he was slight, never weighing much more than 130 pounds, and of medium height, although his slouch often made him appear shorter than his perfectly average five foot six inches. His physical endurance is what we would expect of a son whose mother survived six childbirths in the 1820s.
Although by legend his grandfather had been a captain in the American Revolution, this is uncertain; in any event, there was no particular military strain in either side of the family.
Grant went to West Point at seventeen because it offered an excellent college education for free. The fact that Grant could pass the entrance exam suggests education and intelligence, as about half of the applicants failed it. Other than this success, and evidence that he was en expert horseman, the only sign in his early life that suggests unusual intelligence was that he managed to teach himself algebra, which, as any ordinary person who has ever tried it can attest, is an impressive feat.
But there is nothing in Grant's early years to suggest his future fame. Nor was the choice of West Point an indicator of any interest in matters military. The majority of its graduates had no real interest in a military career, but used the excellent technical education as a stepping stone in civilian life.
West Point offered one of the best modern university degrees in the world. The curriculum consciously opposed the traditional college study of Latin, rhetoric, and the classics with three major subjects: mathematics, physics, and engineering.
The only surprising point about the course of study required of all cadets was that drawing was also a subject, but there was a practical military reason for this. In the 1840s — and for decades afterwards — there were no contour maps. The West Point degree was basically a civil engineering degree, and officers were taught to size up the ground over which they would maneuver. Landscape painting and drawing was a good way of teaching this on a practical level.
The required language was French, a choice that reflected the reputation and influence of Napoleon in the study of war. As hardly any of the major works on or by Napoleon had been translated into English at this time, the clear idea was that future officers would learn enough French to enable them to read those works in the original. The dominant theorist of Grant's time was a Swiss officer, Henri Antoine Jomini, who had served under Napoleon and then written extensively about his campaigns. As Jomini's most influential work, On the Art of War, was not translated until 1862, the only direct exposure possible for Grant and his colleagues was by reading it in the original French. As potential military attachés to American embassies, French would also be useful, since it was the common tongue of diplomacy and statecraft.
The primacy of French theorists in Grant's time may be surprising as we are accustomed to associating science in general and military science in particular with the Germans. Carl von Clausewitz, the great German military theorist, had also fought in the Napoleonic wars, and his most famous work, On War, had appeared in 1832, four years before Jomini's treatise On the Art of War. But it languished in almost total obscurity until after Germany defeated France in 1870; the first translation did not appear until 1872.
We are told that Grant had a difficult time with French. However, given how French was taught at the time, that does not necessarily mean that he was unable to read Jomini. For that matter, we do not know precisely what portions of Jomini (and other, lesser, French military historians) were taught in class. All the early West Point records were destroyed in a fire in 1938. Thus an important part of his military formation is simply missing.
* * *
Historically, the prevailing idea among Civil War historians and biographers has been that Grant was either ignorant or indifferent to military theory. The evaluation is based mostly on inferences about his language skills. This rush to judgment is understandable, and brings us to grips with one of the major difficulties in understanding Grant.
Grant was extremely reserved in discussing himself either intellectually or personally. He was an intensely private and personal individual, and, as one of his best biographers remarks, "Taciturn and imperturbable are among the most common adjectives in the lexicon of Grant commentary."
His contemporaries found him puzzling, and successive biographers have found his character almost impervious to analysis. The equestrian statue of Grant on a plinth, surveying the Vicksburg battlefield, his face obscured by shadow in any light, is the perfect symbol of how little we know about the man (see photo insert). Most of it comes down to conjecture and inference.
In terms of the academic accomplishments usually seen as an indicator of intellectual ability, all we really know that is concrete can be summed up in a sentence. He entered West Point in 1839, and graduated in 1843, twenty-first in a class of thirty-nine. But it is difficult to make anything of this. There were 79 cadets in the entering class, so 40 of them failed to graduate. Depending on how we calculate these matters, Grant was either in the top quarter of his class or well towards the bottom.
Complicating matters further is a peculiarity of the West Point system. Rank was first computed according to grades, but that standing was then adjusted according to how well one met the traditional obsessions of any peacetime army with dress, deportment, and an attention to minutiae. Judging by his future indifference to such details, Grant had no interest in these matters, and since he hardly planned to make the army a career, he was justified in seeing them simply as irritations.
In a nutshell, then, based on the facts, Grant's basic character seems obscure right from the start. What little we know is derived from scattered anecdotes related by his classmates at West Point. The relevance and authenticity of these are unfortunately compromised by the fact that they all emerged long after the fact. By the time anyone had any interest in hearing about Grant's life as a cadet, he was already a very famous American.
For what it is worth, the tenor of these retrospective reminiscences is that he was reserved but well liked, said little but was listened to with respect. Given later events, these recollections may well be true, but amiability is not a very good predictor of military success, or of intellectual abilities.
For that matter, high performance in school is not a particularly accurate indicator of intelligence nor is it a very good predictor of future success. Schools and peacetime armies tend to reward people for achievements that have very little to do with success later on in life. Bernard Montgomery emerged in the Second World War as his country's most successful commander, one of military history's great captains. In later years, as a field marshal, he was called on to be present at the graduation ceremonies for Sandhurst, the British equivalent of West Point. When Great Britain's most distinguished students were called out to be honored at their graduation ceremony, Montgomery was heard to remark that they would: "never be heard of again." The comment seems harsh, but in reality it is charitable. When the Civil War began, many of Grant's more distinguished West Point colleagues failed to live up to the promise of their early careers.
Given Grant's achievements as a general, and the fact that he was twice elected to the presidency, we would assume that anyone who predicted his future success, based on his personal knowledge of the young man, would have stepped up and told the world about his judgment. The absence of such testimony is suggestive. What exists are extremely divided evaluations of the man, evaluations that began during his lifetime and have never ceased.
Because Grant did not show any outward signs of greatness or leadership, or evince any particular interest in or aptitude for the military until he was forty years old, it is easy to see why his character befuddled his contemporaries and his chroniclers. Most of us find the model exemplified by Napoleon or Alexander the Great more congenial, to cite only the most famous examples. Here were men whose achievements began at an early age. Napoleon, born in 1769, was already a French general winning stunning victories while still in his twenties. Alexander the Great had already conquered an enormous part of the known world by the time of his death at age thirty-three.
In the broader context of military history, of course, it is equally possible to find another path, men who emerged as great captains only later in life: Julius Caesar and Marlborough, who, although less familiar to Americans, is generally regarded by British military historians as his country's greatest general. This path would be Grant's. Marlborough never fought "a battle he did not win, nor besieged a town he did not take," in the words of one eighteenth century biographer. The same could be said of Grant. Both men became generals relatively late in life, and proved themselves masters of the battlefield.
There are always analysts who will seek the key to such success in other factors, stripping the great general of responsibility for his achievements, but Grant was the sole architect of his victories. These achievements suggest a talent bordering on genius. The question for the biographer is to what extent can we divine that genius in the young man.
* * *
Genius is different from success. The question to ask is not can we see indicators of future success in his early life; it is, can we see signs of genius there? Or, for those uncomfortable with the word and its implications, can we see signs of the sort of unusually high aptitude that are often missed? Put that way, Grant's character becomes much less of a puzzle. It is fairly easy to detect three important signs indicating that Grant was an unusual young man.
The first is an extraordinary capacity for abstract thought, as evidenced by his ability in mathematics. It is, interestingly enough, a trait that Grant shared with Napoleon, whose mathematical talents shone out amidst otherwise middling scholastic achievements.
As we shall see, one of Grant's characteristics as a general was his ability to compute precisely all the quantitative data required to make correct decisions on the battlefield. Again, although one might suppose that this skill is less required in the computing age, it is even more important, given the enormous amounts of information available to decision makers.
We have two very concrete indicators of this capacity. On the one hand, Grant taught himself algebra. This is no minor feat. On the other hand, we have one of the very few — almost the only — revealing personal remarks Grant ever made about what he wanted to do, that he hoped to return to West Point and teach mathematics. Mastery of mathematics is one thing: seeing it as a career is quite another.
The second key to understanding Grant's genius is his talent in drawing and painting. As we remarked earlier, the subject was taught at West Point for practical reasons. The German officer training schools that were being created at this time taught this principle religiously. Mastery of the terrain of the battlefield was indispensable. As Field Marshal Montgomery lectured British officers over and over again during the Second World War, it was one of the main reasons why the Germans were such formidable opponents.
It might be supposed that in an era of satellite photography and digital images being transmitted in real time, this skill would no longer be required. On the contrary; the highly mobile world of modern combat is three-dimensional, so the skill of visualization is even more of a necessity now than it was in Grant's time.
At West Point, future officers were in theory trained not only to read maps, but to produce their own sketches based on what they saw. The key word here is theory. More than one Civil War general was unable to understand the basic principle of the contour map. Grant, on the contrary, seems to have had an almost instinctive grasp of the terrain. He had a remarkable faculty for casting his eye over the ground and then retaining a picture of it in his mind.
Drawing, which requires an understanding of perspective, is one aid to learning how to visualize terrain. Consequently, all students at West Point took lessons in the subject. Where Grant was an exception was in the quality of his work. Unlike many amateurs, Grant's landscapes reveal a sure sense of perspective as well as an almost photographic reproduction of the scene.
Both Hitler and Churchill were artists as well. Contrary to popular legend, Hitler was a decent enough painter to be able to sell his paintings of Viennese scenes to tourists. Hitler and Churchill preferred to paint landscapes; what sets Grant apart, as best we can judge from the surviving works, is his interest in portraits, often of unlikely subjects, such as horses and Indians. Curiously, when Grant drew a horse, he did not draw a military charger, he drew a horse peacefully standing in a pasture. When he drew Indians, he drew them engaged in ordinary life, as though he saw them as ordinary people — an intriguing insight, given the attitudes towards Indians prevalent in American society at the time.
The combination of interests in two wildly different areas, algebra and painting, suggests a character with an unusual combination of skills and interests, and this is reinforced by one of the few things we know about Grant's intellectual behavior and the third sign of his exceptional nature. He read voraciously. Curiously his preferred readings were novels, not military histories, although in later years he frequently amazed witnesses by his detailed and extensive knowledge of the subject. Clearly he had read widely in the field. But this was a given for aspiring officers; the curiosity is the interest in fiction, particularly for Anglo-Americans, who have historically seen the idea of the novel as entirely separate from the notion of history.
Excerpted from Grant by John Mosier. Copyright © 2006 John Mosier. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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