Speaker Interview: Grant's Memoirs in History and Memory

Speaker Interview: Grant's Memoirs in History and Memory

Dr. Jennifer Murray is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Her most recent publication, On A Great Battlefield: The Making, Management, and Memory of Gettysburg National Military Park, 1933-2013, was published by the University of Tennessee Press in 2014. Murray is also the author of The Civil War Begins, published by the U.S. Army’s Center of Military History in 2012. She is currently working on a biography of George Gordon Meade, tentatively titled Meade at War. Prior to her arrival at UVA-Wise, Murray worked as a seasonal interpretive park ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park for nine summers (2002-2010).  She is a veteran speaker and tour guide at the Civil War Institute’s summer conference and is also a popular speaker on the Civil War lecture circuit. Dr. Aaron Sheehan-Dean is Fred C. Frey Professor of Southern Studies at Louisiana State University, where he teaches courses on nineteenth-century U.S. history, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and Southern history. Sheehan-Dean is the author of Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia (UNC Press, 2009), the Concise Historical Atlas of the U.S. Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2008), and the editor of several books.  His latest research project, With Malice and Charity: How Americans Fought the Civil War, is due out in 2018.

CWI: How did the context of the era in which Grant penned his memoirs (and Mark Twain finished them) impact the content of the memoirs themselves? For whom was Grant writing his memoirs, and why?

SHEEHAN-DEAN: Grant composed his memoirs with remarkable speed and, in the end, under terrifically trying circumstances.  He did so, as he plainly admits in the text, because his poor financial decisions had left his family without resources.  He wrote for the money.  But Grant also knew that his memoir would form one of the essential treatments of the Civil War.  He approached the task with the same seriousness of purpose and diligence as he did his offering in the Civil War.  We are lucky indeed that Grant could write well, as were his subordinates during the war, when they never had to intuit or second-guess what he intended with his orders.  His order-writing is a model of clarity and precision and the memoir maintains this practice.  So we know that Grant took care in writing, that he was aware that what he was fashioning would be read by a wide audience.  I suspect he would be surprised to know that we are still reading it 150 years later.  

There are multiple contexts to consider when thinking about what influences Grant may have felt as he wrote.  He was undoubtedly aware of the writing of other veterans, especially the campaign led by Jubal Early to enshrine a vision of the Lost Cause as the southern memory of the war.  Grant’s memoir serves as a corrective to a vision of the war as one fought between two sides of equal moral authority.  Grant is laudatory in his writing about both Confederate officers and enlisted men and equally clear that he regarded the Confederate cause "as one of the worst for which a people ever fought.”  Grant was also writing in the broader context of American political life in the 1880s, a period of partisan turmoil and omnipresent corruption.  He may have hoped that the nobility of the northern cause would remind Americans of the value of the Union.  Last, he was writing during the advent of the turn, among literary authors, toward realism.  Although this was primarily a trend in fiction writing, Grant’s memoirs, as a text, immerse the reader in chronology, description, and characterization in a style reminiscent of how many authors wrote at the time.

CWI: What are some of the greatest insights to be gained from the memoirs into Grant’s psyche and his memory of/representation of the war, his generalship, and his political career?

MURRAY: Written with the clarity and precision that reflected his generalship, Personal Memoirs provides an invaluable insight into the general most responsible for Union victory.  Originally published in two volumes, Grant focused nearly exclusively on his military career.  Introductory chapters highlight his time at West Point and offer readers a superb account of the Mexican War.  The final pages cover the Grand Review; his two-term presidency received no notice.  Personal Memoirs provide insight into Grant’s military mind and the nuances of which he understood the Civil War.  The general explicitly attributed the cause of the Civil War to slavery, understood the interplay between politics and war, and articulated a grand strategy for Union victory that centered on complete capitulation of the Confederate forces.  Readers learn that Grant understood Union victory to be obtained, not through the capturing of cities or railroads, but through the defeat of the enemy forces.  His simplistic order to General George Meade, “wherever Lee goes, there you will go also” underscores Grant’s military acumen.  Still, Grant’s memoirs showcase a general evolving with the war and its demands.  For example, Grant, like much of the civilian populace believed that “decisive victories” against the Confederate forces would bring the war to an end.  After obtaining those “decisive victories” at Fort Henry and Donelson, and as Confederate forces regrouped further South, Grant realized the war would be won only “be complete conquest” (191).  His belief in the protection of civilian property similarly evolved during the war, ultimately to using anything that could supply and support the Federal forces. 

While many of his contemporaries used postwar narratives to cast, shape, and malign professional reputations, Grant avoided such toxic, divisive topics.  To be sure, the general use his memoirs as a platform to shape the historical narrative and the war’s collective memory and defended some of his controversial decisions.  For instance, he justified the removal of General Gouverneur K. Warren from command, claiming his removal “necessary to success” (534).  Grant also understood that critics charged him with poor leadership at Shiloh and used his memoirs as an opportunity to refute these charges.  He termed the battle of Shiloh the most “persistently misunderstood” engagement of the war (192).  For any Civil War scholar or enthusiast wanting to understand Union victory, Grant’s memoirs must be a starting point.

CWI: How have historians and public historians used Grant’s memoirs to support different interpretations of Grant as a general and a president over the years?

MURRAY:  Grant’s memoirs stand among the greatest literary works of the Civil War.  Mark Twain declared Grant’s memoirs equal in mastery to Caesar’s and distinguished military historian John Keegan declared them “the single contemporary document” to explain Union victory.  Since its publication in 1885, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant has stood as a cornerstone to researching and interpreting the Civil War.  While immediately hailed as a literary success, Grant’s memoirs fell out of popularity as the nation grappled with the challenges of Reconstruction, the efforts at Reconciliation, and the entrenchment of Jim Crow.  Historians championed the failures and corruptions of Grant’s presidential administration.  As historians molded Grant into a scapegoat for the failures of Reconstruction, Lost Cause advocates crafted Grant’s military reputation into clichés of drunkenness and butchery.  To be sure, some of the rhetoric in Grant’s memoirs helped facilitate this narrative.  Grant’s acclaim of saving the Union through “complete conquest” and his aggressive determination during the Overland Campaign underscored these interpretations.  Such interpretations of Grant as the bloodthirsty general emerged in William McFeely’s Pulitzer Prize winning Grant.  “Grant’s strategy,” McFeely wrote, “was to make sure more Southerners than Northerners were killed” (157).  In the three decades following McFeely’s publication, recent scholars, most notably Brooks Simpson and Jean Smith, have resurrected Grant’s reputation, both militarily and politically.  In treating Grant objectively, and drawing upon his memoirs, modern Grant scholars have established an interpretation of Grant thoroughly in line with the one that emerges in Personal Memoirs.  To be sure, the recent release of Ron Chernow’s Grant will once again place Grant at the center of the Civil War narrative and, hopefully, expose a new generation of historians to the value of Grant’s Personal Memoirs.

CWI:  How do Grant’s memoirs compare, both in style and in scope, to the memoirs/autobiographies of other famous Civil War generals such as Sherman, Longstreet, Chamberlain, or E.P. Alexander?  What do the differences and/or similarities reveal about these individuals, their literary/political goals, and the postwar era?

SHEEHAN-DEAN: Grant, by virtue of his position as the general-in-chief of all the Union armies at the war’s end, and his two terms as president, occupied a stance of distance and remove that other authors could only envy.  In short, he did not write his memoirs to score points or settle old scores.  Like most Civil War memoirs, Grant is careful to include original documentation to buttress his explanation of events.  But unlike William T. Sherman, who included much of his correspondence with John Bell Hood regarding Atlanta, in order to repair his reputation as the war’s most ruthless despoiler of civilian spaces, Grant does not use the memoir this way.  He also occupies a unique position because his career maps the not just the whole of the war chronologically but his rise to prominence tracks the Union’s overall success.  In other commanders’ memoirs, we spend time in backwaters or waiting, as they did, for promotions that arrived late.  Given his role in the conflict, Grant’s experience remains the central one to understand if we are to understand the war itself.