The death of George Floyd (1973-2020) initiated a chain of events that have resulted in a criminal trial and more discussions about race in America. It is a subject that will never go away and many still struggle to confront it with the honesty that is sometimes necessary. I have noticed that when it comes to race in America and the nation’s history, it is almost impossible to grasp the entire picture without factoring in the effect of the American Civil War (1861-1865). The conflict tore the nation apart over several issues, the most important of which was the topic of slavery. Many states in the North had already abolished slavery, but in the South, it remained a way of life. And because it was so critical to the South’s existence, the states that formed the Confederacy were willing to fight to the death to preserve what they felt was their right. Today we know with the benefit of hindsight that it was a lost cause from the start but the battle that ensued was a long and bloody conflict that left thousands dead and others critically wounded. Veterans who survived the conflict were forced to live with horrible memories of war that remained with them until their final days. Among the war’s combatants was the Eighteenth President of the United States and former General Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885). In these extensive personal memoirs, he discusses the Civil War, the Mexican American War and his life which took him to places he could have never imagined, including his roles as a father and husband.
I should point out that the book is quite long at more than six hundred pages. However, at no point while reading the book, did I find myself bored with his writing. From the start the book is engaging and Grant writes in a highly focused style that prevented him from veering off topic and employing rambling text. The book is broken down into dozens of smaller chapters pertaining to a particular subject or time frame and it does help keep the reader’s attention from waning. Readers will notice that Grant is very frank in his discussions of the events he witnessed during his time. He does not mince words even at the expense of possibly offending some. Although he fought on the American side of the Mexican War, he was not averse to giving his honest opinion and this quote should give readers and idea of the frankness in which the author gets his points across:
“The war was one of conquest, in the interest of an institution, and the probabilities are that private instructions were for the acquisition of territory out of which new States might be carved.”
The beauty in this book is that Grant does not hide behind patriotism and freely conveys his true feelings on various matters. Some might be surprised that a former general and president is writing in this way but as can be seen in the book, Grant believed in transparency and the soul of the nation, even if it meant calling it out on its faults. And make no mistake, he supported the Union unconditionally even if that meant his own life being taken from him. Further, I feel that his words are crucial for Americans today in understanding the darker parts of our past including the founding of the United States. Grant’s account should help remove the mask of a “peaceful transition” between America and the continent’s native inhabitants. Further, Grant makes an admission towards the end of the book regarding the future of Black Americans and the Caribbean city of Santo Domingo that will raise some eyebrows.
As the story progresses, we eventually come to the part in the story which every ready will be waiting for: The Civil War. Grant lays out the foundations for the war allowing the reader to understand just how important the issue of slavery was, and the threat Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) posed to the South. I personally learned a couple of things and my eyes were glued to the screen when I read these statements by Grant:
“The Republican party was regarded in the South and the border States not only as opposed to the extension of slavery, but as favoring the compulsory abolition of the institution without compensation to the owners.”
“The 4th of March, 1861, came, and Abraham Lincoln was sworn to maintain the Union against all its enemies. The secession of one State after another followed, until eleven had gone out.”
For all intents and purposes, the stage was set for the war in which America was fighting to save itself from an enemy within. And Lincoln would become a savior and a casualty before the war’s conclusion. The discussions about the war and the individual battles are extensive and it might benefit some readers to take notes while reading what Grant has to say. Maps are provided but I think that a paperback or hardcover version might be better for those wishing to see actual positions on the terrain. The Kindle display is acceptable but does not match the clarity of a printed version. To be expected, Grant focuses on the technical aspects of the campaigns which military buffs will love. He does not go into political discussions for the most part except for when he reveals who he voted for in the presidential race and what he thought of Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson (1808-1875). This is battlefield 101 and all its goodness. Grant was strategist and his brilliancy is on full display as the Union takes hold of the war and step by step, dismantles the Confederate Army. Legendary figures on both sides enter the story as Grant knew nearly all quite well and he gives his assessment of them as military figures and leaders. History buffs will find themselves unable to put the book down at times.
If there is one subject about which I wished Grant had discussed more, it is the assassination of Lincoln. Grant mentions little about it largely mentioning his reasons for not going to Ford’s Theater that night. As to why Grant avoided a lengthy discussion of the murder, I am not sure but it in no way detracts from the incredible story he is telling. What is clear though, is that he not only liked Lincoln but respected him highly as the nation’s leader. Lincoln in return, respected Grant’s abilities on the battlefield during a conflict the Union had to win by all costs. Following Lincoln’s murder, Andrew Johnson assumes the presidency and Grant makes observations about that as well. Nothing slanderous will be found in his account but I strongly recommend that readers follow-up this book with material on Johnson’s impeachment trial in which he narrowly avoided conviction. The recent events of the past year will seem like history repeating itself. However, America survived the Civil War and will continue to survive more challenges that lay ahead as we continue to correct course. And if we need words of wisdom about our past and the dark side of war and human rights, we have this book by a former president that still stand the test of time. Highly recommended.
Readers interested in the viewpoint from the Confederacy might enjoy this diary by Leroy Wiley Gresham (1847-1865) called The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham 1860-1865, which is a very good look at the conflict from the eyes of a southerner firmly behind the Confederate cause. Gresham died not long after the war ended but his observations about the war’s progression are interesting for a young man who had not yet reached his eighteenth birthday.
“Everyone has his superstitions. One of mine has always been when I started to go anywhere, or to do anything, never to turn back or to stop until the thing intended was accomplished.” – Ulysses S. Grant
ASIN : B08CDW51LB