Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, introduction by Brooks D. Simpson, University of Nebraska Press (Bison Books), Lincoln, 1996, $26.
For Civil War buffs and scholars alike, there are certain books that are required reading, as indispensable as ErnestHemingway’s novels are to American literature students. One of these volumes is Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs.
First published in 1885 after Grant’s death from throat cancer, these recollections of the man who led the Federal forces tovictory were a means for Grant to leave some type of financial security for his family. Broke and destitute, the former generaland president was approached by the publishers of Century magazine about writing his memoirs. He decided to do so atabout the same time he discovered that he was suffering from the disease that would soon claim his life. Grant was persuadedby his close friend Samuel L. Clemens (yes, that Samuel Clemens) to allow him to publish the work. Working feverishly, oftenin great pain, to complete the memoirs before he died, Grant won his race against time, succumbing within a week of thecompletion of the manuscript. Within a year, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant had made publishing history, becoming one ofthe best-selling books of all time.
The first part of the book, covering Grant’s early years and the Mexican War, give us the warrior’s strong views against thatwar and an excellent portrait of General Zachary Taylor, to whom Grant would often be compared later in life.
It is, of course, Grant’s commentary on the Civil War that is the meat of the book. As one might expect, the reader is treatedto a literal “who’s who” as, page after page, Grant relates his experiences as he rose from a civilian volunteer, whose offer ofhis services to the war department was ignored, to general-in-chief of the U.S. Army. Resisting what must have been a greattemptation to take one last shot at old enemies and adversaries, Grant still manages to be forthright in his evaluation of friendand foe alike.
Even though he is open at times when discussing his own frailties, anyone looking for a candid discussion of Grant’smuch-publicized shortcomings should look elsewhere. After all, the man is talking about himself in this book, and he wrote itknowing that it would greatly influence how history would remember him. As a result, there is no discussion of his failures, bothpersonal and business, nor of his reputation as a drunkard. And, yes, there are times when he slightly alters facts to portrayhimself in a more favorable light. Still, when compared to some other memoirs and reminiscences of the war, Grant’s wordsshine like a beacon of frank and forthright truth.
The memoirs end with the conclusion of the Civil War, touching briefly on such issues as Reconstruction and emancipation.Whether it was merely a case of running out of time or a conscious feeling on Grant’s part that any thoughts on his term aspresident were better left unsaid is open to the reader’s personal opinion.
This edition of Personal Memoirs includes an excellent introduction by Brooks D. Simpson, a noted authority on Grant.Simpson’s insights into the work are a must read before diving into the text itself. Bison Books has also included an index thatwill be much appreciated by researchers.
Whether you bleed Union blue or Confederate gray, you cannot read Personal Memoirs without coming away with a greaterappreciation for its author. This book belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in Civil War history.
B. Keith Toney