Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant

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It is both fitting and surprising that Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) wrote a Civil War memoir. By the end of the war, Grant was the highest-ranking general of the victorious Union army; and he rode his immense popularity to two terms as president of the United States (1868–1876). In America during the late nineteenth century, many celebrated figures wrote autobiographies, and many Civil War heroes less prominent than Grant published memoirs to great acclaim. Yet for all his fame, Grant was a private man not given to literary pursuits. More known for his reticence than for his eloquence, he was often depicted as a cigar-chewing stoic rather than a leader who expressed himself publicly. What caused Grant to become not simply a memoirist but one of the most successful memoirists of his day? As with so many of his achievements, necessity and circumstance figured heavily.


After stepping down as president, traveling the world, and seemingly settling toward retirement, Grant fell victim to bad investments run by his son and a fraudulent business partner. Suddenly bankrupt, the sixty-two-year-old Grant was also diagnosed with fatal throat cancer, leaving him little time to clear his debts and return his family to financial security. For years Grant had declined to write his memoirs despite interest from publishers and the public; but as his health declined, he took up the task, initially writing four articles for the Century magazine series, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, and later agreeing to write a book that became Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (1885). Working feverishly from his home in Mount McGregor, New York, Grant found support on a number of fronts. His friend Mark Twain (1835–1910) published the book and offered him a favorable book contract; his sons served as research assistants; stenographers took down his dictation until speaking became too painful; and cocaine (used medicinally at the time) brought temporary energy and relief. Grant spent less than a year composing his lengthy memoirs; and with the public tracking his decline, he died just a few weeks after completing the manuscript. Indeed, as Elizabeth Samet has emphasized, the strain of finishing the project may have hastened Grant's demise, for he called the work of writing his life "adding to my book and to my coffin" (Samet, p. 1117).

As with many of his Civil War battles, Grant's sacrifice was a hard-won success. In economic terms, the book was a triumph, selling 300,000 copies in the first two years and earning $450,000, more than enough to cover Grant's debts and guarantee his family's wellbeing. Yet Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant did much more than secure Grant's financial legacy. Twain, Gertrude Stein, and a grudging Matthew Arnold appreciated the literary qualities of the book. As opposed to his presidential farewell address, which tried to explain in apologetic tones the scandals that plagued his administration, Grant's memoirs focus on the war experiences that made him a hero of American history. In doing so, Grant participated in a broader cultural effort to heal (or perhaps more accurately to repress) sectional differences that, as David Blight shows, survived beyond the Civil War. Personal Memoirs is critical of slavery, secession, and romantic Southern accounts of the war, but it also makes a strong case for national unity, calling for forgiveness and either de-emphasizing or vindicating some of the most divisive aspects of the war. As Nina Silber has argued, post–Civil War literature advanced the cause of sectional reconciliation. No less than novels, poems, and speeches—or for that matter memorials, paintings, and pageants—Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant tells a story of recovered nationalism.


Grant's style is plain, his background modest, his stories often self-deprecating, and he largely focuses on what he knows best: the details and decisions of the Civil War battles in which he participated. Yet as much as Grant presents himself as a soldier struggling with the exigencies of his time, the ambitious claims of Personal Memoirs should not go unnoticed. By tracing his family history from the great Puritan migration of 1630 to Bunker Hill and through a series of westward movements, Grant offers himself as a representative man rooted in a (Yankee) narrative of U.S. history and bolstered by the fact that Grant and his family were artisans, farmers, and above all "American" (p. 5). Even the opening line of the book—"Man proposes and God disposes"—suggests a humble but deep-seated confidence, for while Grant acknowledges the power of God he also implies that his personal success is part of God's design (p. 3). Grant's opening line also indicates another element of Personal Memoirs. Though Grant's prose is forthright and simple and though he remarks on his indifferent educational achievements, he also addresses profound topics—from the nature of humans to the principles of justice, to questions of perception and agency. In the tradition of Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln, Grant presents himself as a self-made man who learns mainly by experience and rises to both wisdom and prominence through a combination of character, labor, and luck.

One formative experience is particularly revealing. As a child, Grant wanted to buy a horse, and so his father gave him money and bargaining instructions. But when Grant went to the owner of the horse, he said, "Papa says I may offer you twenty dollars for the colt, but if you won't take that, I am to offer twenty-two and a half, and if you won't take that, to give you twenty-five" (p. 13). Grant relates other humorous anecdotes (causing some readers to suspect Twain's influence). For Grant, however, the story of his horse trading was not simply funny, for it circulated through his boyhood home of Georgetown, Ohio, embarrassing the young man who would come to face more pressing negotiations. Grant's first major victory at Fort Donelson was marred by complaints that his terms of surrender were too lenient; and so in his subsequent capture of Vicksburg, Grant initially offered only "unconditional surrender," offending his opponent and Mexican-American War acquaintance J. C. Pemberton (p. 307). Grant's staff eventually convinced him to offer lighter terms, but in Personal Memoirs the challenge is clear: Grant must find a way to defend the interests of the Union without humiliating an enemy that must eventually be reintegrated into the nation.


What General Lee's feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassable face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result. . . . I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.

Grant, Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, pp. 601–603.

For Grant and the newly reunited states of America, the problem of reconciliation remained in 1885; for despite the end of the Civil War and the Compromise of 1876, differences between the South and North continued to generate conflict. In Personal Memoirs, Robert E. Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox stands as a model solution. Grant debunks romantic myths of the meeting (for instance, Lee never offered Grant his sword). More importantly, the negotiations do not feel like negotiations at all. Without formality or bargaining strategy, the two men agree on terms of surrender as colleagues or even friends might, looking forward not to future battles or historical reputations but rather to the coming winter and the need for soldiers to return to their farms. In the scene, which is the closest thing to a climax of the book, Grant finally overcomes his struggle with negotiation just as the Union finally overcomes the threat of Confederate victory. In the grand tradition of American autobiography, the personal and the national become one, so much so that Grant's initials ("U. S.") equate him with the country as a whole.

None of which should imply that Personal Memoirs underestimates the trauma of the Civil War or the challenge of reconciliation. Grant does ignore some of the war's worst moments, such as the horrors of Andersonville Prison and the massacre of black troops at Fort Pillow. However, Grant does defend at length William T. Sherman's March to the Sea, an incendiary topic in the South in 1885 and beyond. Grant also supports, if somewhat tersely, African American political rights, an abiding source of conflict between the North and South. Grant explicitly names the sin of slavery as the main cause of the war, a position that became increasingly unpopular with the rise of the "Lost Cause" myth. As might be expected from his battle-field tactics, Grant does not shy away from controversy. He explicitly criticizes fellow generals and politicians for bad judgment and character flaws. He provides statistics and descriptions that chronicle the unprecedented carnage of the war. Despite some efforts to defend his own decisions, Grant even admits some mistakes of his own (for instance, during the unfortunate battles of Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor). Rather than deny the failures and tragedies of the Civil War and rather than exonerate the South under the aegis of romance, Grant offers the balanced but subjective perspective of an antislavery Union man who neither forgets nor dwells upon the animosities of the past.


It is probably well that we had the war when we did. We are better off now than we would have been without it, and have made more rapid progress than we otherwise should have made. . . . monarchical Europe generally believed that our republic was a rope of sand that would part the moment the slightest strain was brought upon it. Now it has shown itself capable of dealing with one of the greatest wars that was ever made, and our people have proven themselves to be the most formidable in war of any nationality.

But this war was a fearful lesson, and should teach us the necessity of avoiding wars in the future.

Grant, Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, pp. 634–635.

Instead, Grant moves toward national unity. Like many northerners and southerners alike, he looks to Lincoln as a figure for reconciliation, praising the president's wisdom, benevolence, and ability to forge consensus: "He always showed a generous and kindly spirit toward the Southern people. . . . never in my presence did he evince a revengeful disposition" (p. 563). As with his Appomattox meeting with Lee, Grant finds in Lincoln a model for peace; for while Grant describes the Civil War as ultimately advantageous for both sections, he believes that the war "should teach us the necessity of avoiding wars in the future" (p. 635). It is something of a tense position. On the one hand, Grant bemoans the waste and horrors of the war, not unlike the way he criticizes the war with Mexico. On the other hand, Personal Memoirs sees the Civil War leading to justice, praises both Union and Confederate soldiers, and suggests that war forms strong characters for both individuals and nations. Grant's view of the Civil War and of war in general is complicated and personal. He spends much time recounting battles, strategies, and geography while also describing the conflicts and affinities between important leaders of the time. Grant's perspective and accuracy can be measured against memoirs by his colleagues Horace Porter and Adam Badeau as well as against historical studies by William McFeely, Brooks Simpson, and others. But for readers less committed to military and political history, Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant also speaks to broader concerns: the morality of war, the burdens of leadership, the literary form of autobiography, the ongoing construction of national identity for both communities and individuals. No one predicted that Grant—a middling student, failed businessman, failed farmer, and low-ranking officer—would rise to become a preeminent general and president of the United States. Neither would one suspect that the most important Civil War memoir would come from a dying man with limited literary experience. Nonetheless, in his letters as in his public life Grant won unexpected success.

see alsoAutobiography; Civil War Memoirs


Primary Work

Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant. 1885. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Secondary Works

Blight, David, W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001.

Keegan, John. The Mask of Command. New York: Penguin, 1987.

McFeely, William. Grant: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1981.

McPherson, James. Introduction to Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Samet, Elizabeth. "'Adding to My Book and to My Coffin': The Unconditional Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant." PMLA 115, no. 5 (2000): 1117–1124.

Silber, Nina. The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865–1900. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Simpson, Brooks. Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity, 1822–1865. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Wilson, Edmund. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Maurice S. Lee

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Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant

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