Critics typically write off Ulysses S. Grant as a scandal-ridden President who only gained fame by drunkenly ordering brutal frontal assaults with his superior numbers to overwhelm a better led, but undermanned and under-resourced Confederate army. However, readers of Grant’s personally drafted memoirs published just before his death in1885 gain a vastly different view of the man, his character and his leadership abilities.
While others might have gained financially by Grant’s presidency, Grant himself found himself facing extreme poverty at the end of his life. Knowing that he was dying of throat cancer, Grant penned an account of his military years with the express purpose of providing income for his wife after his passing. Immediately, the memoirs proved popular and remain continuously in print to date.
Recently, John F. Marszalek published a newly annotated edition of Grant’s volume. Marszalek’s extensive and well-researched annotations aid both novice and experienced civil war readers to better understand the context Grant’s narrative and the backgrounds of the numerous military and civilian leaders who weave through his account. However, Grant’s original narrative needs no updating. Immediately, readers are impressed with his clarity of thought and pleasing verse. A highly talented writer, Grant had a knack for concisely describing complex strategies, campaigns and battles while interjecting engrossing vignettes.
Discerning readers will learn that he ably planned and led extremely complex military campaigns covering vast regions of the country. Turning strategy into action, Grant skillfully commanded complicated troop maneuvers, military engineering, transportation, and logistics. Tenacious as a leader, Grant did not needlessly sacrifice his soldiers as he sought to minimize both army and civilian casualties. Aggressively he moved his superior army into positions for a final massive 1865 battle to capture the Confederate Capital at Richmond and defeat Robert E. Lee. After Lee’s surrender, Grant ended the conflict in a manner to engender the healing of physical and emotional wounds while upholding Lincoln’s two chief goals – reunification and the end of slavery.
Most importantly, one does not have to be especially interested in the Civil War to appreciate this book. Grant provides numerous lessons on leadership, humility, trust, camaraderie, compassion, and integrity. Lastly, he wrote his memoirs in the early stages of the “Confederate lost cause” movement. To the dismay of those advocating a heroic stature for the Confederacy, Grant emphatically states that the Civil War was fought over slavery and ridding the country of that evil.
I highly recommend that students of leadership, military history and those interested in an overview of the Civil War read Grant’s work. Lastly, as one of the best memoirs written, anyone who is contemplating writing their memoirs should master this book.