previous next

Grant as a soldier and Civilian.

by General Dabney H. Maury.
The war which placed General Grant in the high position he so lately occupied, is so recent and was so fierce, that it is natural his contemporaries should entertain opinions widely different as to the conduct and capacity of the successful general who ended it.

Even European critics have been affected by the flood of military reports which have been poured forth by the able and ingenious historians who accompained the Northern armies-and their discrimination has been dazzled by the glare of the great results accomplished by General Grant-so that they oftentimes seem to overestimate his capacities as a commander.

On the other hand, it has been difficult for the conquered people of the South to recognize the virtues or even to admit the high capacities which may be found in the leaders who have wrought us so much evil.

But there are indications of a returning sense of justice in the factions so lately arrayed against each other in the bloodiest drama of modern times, and as the era of peace and fraternity, of which we of the South have heard so much and seen so little, is near at hand, a discussion of the military conduct of the great Captains who led the opposing hosts may now be conducted in a spirit of fairness-and in such manner as may conserve the interests of history. [228]

While I cannot agree with the extravagant estimate of General Grant in which the popular sentiment of the Northern people of these United States holds him-nor with the lower, but still overestimate in which he is held by even clever English critics, I have never been of the number of those who despised him as a General, or who attribute successes coextensive with the greatest theatre of war the world has ever seen-whether we consider the vastness of the country covered by his operations, the number of the battles, or thefierceness and duration of the struggle — to sheer obstinacy and to mere lack. Whatever the political enemies of General Grant (I believe he has no personal enemies) may think about him, they cannot deny that his career has been most extraordinary, and that no instance can be found, even in America, where the fortunes of men fluctuate most suddenly, of such strange, eventful history as his has been. Born and reared in the simple habits of plain people in a western town, his apppointment as a cadet of the United States Military Academy opened to him his first acquaintance with associates of a higher culture, and his first opportunity to measure himself with those whom it has been his destiny to overwhelm with disasters, or to reward with the highest prizes of their profession. The Academy was not, however, a sphere in which his peculiar traits could find scope or appreciation, for after the four years course there, he graduated only respectably, and was remembered as a fair mathematiciana very good fellow, and notably the most daring horseman in the riding school. His feats of horsemanship have probably never been equaled there. When his turn came to ride at “the leaping bar,” the dragoons in attendance would lift the bar from the three foot trestles, on which it rested, raise it as high as their heads, and he would drive his horse over it without a graze, clearing near six feet! In this alone can I recall any germ of the character which has achieved for him the pre-eminent success he now enjoys. I next remember him as a quartermaster of the Fourth United States infantry in Monterey, in the fall of 1846-where he was not yet esteemed more than a very good fellow, with good sense, selfreliant, no bad habits, and a shrewd judgement in horse-flesh. There I left him in December, 1846, and have never since, to this day, laid eyes upon him; but his career in the United States army, before the war, is fully recorded and well known to all the world. [229] He contracted the love of drink, which finally lost him his commission, and retired into civil life under circumstances of the most depressing nature; he struggled along in obscurity, with narrow means, sometimes sober, sometimes not-but never charged with intentional wrong done to anybody-until the war burst upon the country and brought him at once to a prominent position in the Federal army in the West. And such a retrieval of destiny as he wrought during the ensuing four years has never been known.

Grant's first military operations at Belmont were not regarded as auspicious of a brilliant future. But the capture of Fort Donaldson was masterly, and lent a brightness to his prospects, which was soon after dimmed by his defeat at Shiloh.

Many of the participants in the battle of Shiloh believe that but for the death of Sidney Johnston, Grant and his army would have been captured before the timely arrival of Buell.

Although the laurels of Shiloh were won by Buell, Grant reposed upon them during some months of inaction. It did not suit his government to give them to Buell, who was an intractable officer when the policy of the government became adverse to his convictions of right. Thinking men, on both sides, believed that Buell won the battle of Shiloh, but Grant has the reward.

Grant's next campaign was in North Mississippi, during the fall and winter of 1862. It opened with the quasi victory over Price at luka, which was followed, two weeks later, by the repulse of Van Dorn (by Rosecranz) at Corinth.

Notwithstanding the great advantages these successes gave Grant, he utterly failed to improve them, and through his inaction and sluggish conduct the whole of this important campaign was completely defeated by Van Dorn's brilliant dash, at the head of two thousand horsemen, into the depot of the Federal army at Holly Springs. In one day Van Dorn destroyed three months supplies, for sixty thousand men, and compelled Grant to fall back and abandon the invasion of Mississippi. But the Northern government soon began the organization of another and greater army, and to the surprise of us all, Grant was placed at its head.

Then was manifested to the minds of some the mysterious force of that man, who, after misconduct which had cost better men their commissions, and in spite of widespread charges of drunkenness, was again entrusted with the most important military enterprise [230] ever undertaken in the West, and with the greatest army that had ever yet been assembled outside of Virginia. The war was now two years old; and in that time Grant's career had embraced the doubtful affair of Belmont, the capture of Fort Donaldson, the disastrous first day at Shiloh, the battle of Ilka, in which Grant did not fight at all, but by his slowness opened the way for Price's retreat, after he had repulsed IRosecranz, the battle of Corinth, won by Rosecranz during Grant's absence, who, on his return, not only failed to follow up the beaten army of Van Dorn, but allowed it to recruit and reorganize close by him, and when at last he did march against it, he moved (with overwhelming forces) so cautiously and slowly that by Christmas he was only six days march from Corinth, where his enemy had been almost destroyed three months before. This unpardonable inaction, and the grave neglect to guard his depots, gave Van Dorn the opportunity to pass behind him, destroy all the supplies of his army, and defeat his campaign. Yet, after all this, Mr. Lincoln recognized in Grant the qualities essential for the successful leader of his armies; and he then reposed in him irrevocably his absolute confidence; and there it rested, through evil report and through good report, to the very end. What made him do it, no man can tell; but he did it, and the results are before us!

I will not dwell on the subsequent military operations of General Grant. They were on a grand scale. He was never stinted in material nor in men. He would never move until his estimates were met, and they were enormous. He soon found he could only defeat our armies by overwhelming them with much greater armies, and he had the force of will to compel his governernment to furnish him with such armaments as modern war has never seen. We can almost believe the stories of Xerxes and his Persian hosts, when we remember the blue lines and the blue masses which covered the flats beyond Young's Point, surged and resurged against the works around Vicksburg, burst over Bragg's attenuated lines about Chattanooga, and swarmed over the Potomac in countless thousands to attempt and reattempt the deadly “on to Richmond,” until, at last, two hundred thousand of them enveloped all that was left of the grand old army of Virginia, then reduced to eight thousand way-worn, starving, but desperate men, who only awaited the signal of their chief to charge upon the [231] hated blue lines before them, force their way through to the mountains, or die together there.

In estimating Grant's claims as a general, we must admit that one principle by which he achieved bis success is a new one. It is known in this country as the “principle of attrition” ; and being a newly-announced principle of war, may be appropriately discussed in a paper like this. Whatever the military student may find in Grant's career to admire, he should not unadvisedly adopt this “principle of attrition.” Humanity revolts at it and history will arraign Grant for the recklessness with which he dashed his men to death.

In Virginia, he either could not or would not manceuvre, but knowing that for every thousand men who were slain by the rifles of the army of Virginia he would within ten day's time receive an equal number of recruits, he persevered in a criminal manner in this new principle of war. It is quite remarkable that the tactics of the late Commander of the Army of the United States and his successor, General Sherman, were so at variance, and yet carried both men to such substantial personal rewards.

Grant announced and acted on the principle, “I never manoeuvre.” Sherman never fought when he could avoid it, except at Chickasaw Bluff, but is the greatest of living manceuvrers.

Without doubt Grant must be held responsible for the stoppage of the exchange of prisoners, which was the most cruel act of his plan of attrition. No parallel can be found for this double crime against humanity.

In order that two hundred thousand effectives should be kept from the ranks of the Confederate army, they were incarcerated and starved deliberately in Northern prisons, while a greater number of his own men (two hundred and sixty thousand) were suffered to languish in Southern prisons. It may be said that Grant's superiors adopted this cruel measure. While I am ready to believe it was conformable with their war policy, I cannot resist the conviction that Grant could at any time have opened all those prisons, North and South, and have arrested the most cruel of all the horrors of this dreadful war. I have seen gentlemen who were confined in Northern prisons for more than two years, and who have assured me they never, during the last year of their imprisonment, knew what it was to be free from the pangs of bunger! [232] Although we have moved the greater part of our dead from Northern soil, eleven thousand still sleep in their graves about the prisons. During little over two years twenty six thousand Confederate prisoners died of starvation and hard treatment in Northern prisons, while in the same time twenty thousand Federal prisoners died in the Southern prisons. And when we remember they were all young able-bodied men, how cruel and unnecessary must have been the hardships which killed them, and how criminal the author of their sufferings!

Still we must recognize the great capacities of a general which bore Grant steadily on to his success, sometimes through disaster and defeat, but ever onward to the ultimate successful end, through four years of surging war. Pre-eminently he possesses the first and highest of all virtues-courage. Not merely that physical courage which calmly meets personal danger, but the courage to execute his own plans, regardless of the opposition of all opposers. His judgment of military men is good. He gathered good men about him during the war, and made them work and fight. His reticence, his self-reliance, and his tenacity of purpose, are the qualities which have mainly borne him to fortune. The success of his military operations has often been attributed to the counsels of one or another of his generals, who have been supposed to have “more head” than some critics are willing to accord to him; but this is a great mistake. Grant has “head” enough to conceive his own plans, with nerve and ability to accomplish them. At the same time he does not hesitate to ask the opinions and suggestions of his subordinate officers. A remarkable instance of this has been related to the writer in such manner as entitles it to full credit, and as it is not generally known, I will state it here.

In the spring of 1863 Grant had failed to capture Vicksburg by the canal through which the Mississippi would not run, and summoned to his headquarters on Young's Point, opposite Vicksburg, Generals Sherman, Frank Blair, and McPherson, and submitted to them in council of war his plan of taking that place. He invited their opinions upon it, and called first on General McPherson to speak. McPherson was accounted by our officers the ablest general in the Western armies, and his gentlemanlike character had impressed itself upon his enemies, while he was held in high and just esteem by General Grant. On this occasion he expressed himself [233] opposed to the execution of the plan proposed by Grant, and gave his reasons against it with much earnestness and force. After hearing him Grant called on Sherman to state his views, which was done with a fluency characteristic of that commander. He also opposed Grant's plan. General Frank Blair was then invited to give his opinions of his Commanding-General's designs; but with a modesty and frankness which do him credit declined to express himself upon the question, on the ground that he did not feel justified in giving an opinion after the superior wisdom which had been evolved before him. Grant dismissed the council with orders to reassemble at 10 A. M. the next day, when he would communicate the result of his consideration of their views. Accordingly, next morning, on the reconvening of the officers, they were informed by Grant that he had given full attention to the opinions expressed by them, but that he had not been shaken in his own plan of operation; that on returning to their respective headquarters they would find the orders that had already been issued for the movement, which would begin at once. That movement captured Vicksburg!

Abundant other instances might be cited to show that, such as it was, Grant's military policy was all his own. No man controlled it. And oftentimes he not only enforced it on reluctant subordinates, but on his government itself

It has often been said that General Sherman inspired some of Grant's happiest decisions, but notwithstanding Grant's generous acknowledgments in the beautiful letter Colonel Chesney reproduces in his biographical sketch of Grant, and which Grant wrote to Sherman when he was on the eve of going to assume command of the armies of the United States, I cannot believe it at all probable that so erratic and undignified a character as Sherman's could have ever influenced Grant much; and it is noteworthy in this connection, that irreverent and vainglorious as Sherman is, Grant alone seemed to be the object of his real respect. It is far more likely that Sherman, in the only independent operations he ever conducted which did not result in failure — I mean those from Dalton to Atlanta — was aided by the sound sense of his superior commander; and I have some direct testimony on this point.

During these remarkable operations a Southern gentleman was permitted to pass through the lines of both Johnston and Sher. [234] man on an errand of mercy and affection to an aged relative north of Dalton. His mission accomplished, he was not allowed to return through Sherman's lines, but was required to go to City Point, on James river, to get a pass from General Grant. When the General was informed of his arrival and wishes he courteously sent for him to come to his headquarters, and entered freely into conversation with him, and left upon the mind of my friend the impression that General Grant himself was the real deus ex machina of Sherman's army while manceuvreing in front of Johnston before Atlanta. He explained that by the aid of the electric telegraph he had free and instant communication with Sherman, and stated that every night they passed some time in telegraphic conversation with each other relative to the day's movements as well as to those to be made on the morrow; and the inference is plain that through all of that campaign Sherman had the benefit of Grant's advice at every stage of it.

After Atlanta was passed, Hood having removed his army from Sherman's path, there was no longer any obstacle to his “march to the sea.” It lay through a pleasant and abundant country, occupied only by women and old men, and Sherman could go on and have his pleasure of the unprotected people — as he did.

During the conversation before recited General Grant remarked to my friend, “When I heard, sir, that your government had removed General Johnston from command of that army, I felt as much relief as if I had been able to reinforce General Sherman with a large army corps.”

Not only has Grant been capable of forming and executing his own plans, but we must give him credit for ability to handle the great armies he forced his government to give him with more facility than any of his predecessors of the Army of the Potomac, McClellan excepted. When Grant took command of that army it had been successively commanded by McDowell, McClellan, Burnside, Pope, Hooker, and Meade. The Army of Northern Virginia had struck the Army of the Potomac under all these generals seriatim, and always, except at Antietam and at Gettysburg, the Army of the Potomac had been utterly defeated, and could only be marched away from the presence of its victorious enemy to be reinforced, refitted, and brought back again after repose and reinforcement to attempt anew the “on to Richmond” under another experimental general. [235]

Antietam was a drawn battle. It made Lee abandon his first campaign beyond the Potomac, and saved the Federal capital and cause. But McClellan was too high-bred, too broad in his philanthrophy, too honest a gentleman to serve Lincoln and Stanton. Therefore he was retired, even after a service so signal, and in spite of the fact that he was known to the Confederate and Federal armies as the most accomplished of the Federal commanders.

After Grant came to the Army of the Potomac it never left the field. It was punished more severely under him than it had ever been under any of his predecessors. Some accounts show that it lost 100,000 men!-one hundred thousand men from the first movement in May, 1864, till the battle of Cold Harbor closed, in June, 1864! Yet Grant never suffered it to get beyond his control. After his repulse at Cold Harbor he could not get it to fight any more there, but he held it near the victorious army, and marched it in order by flank to his new base on the James, where he kept it till the end. This was what no other commander of that army had ever done, and stamps him an able general.

He has been severely criticised for fighting all those battles and losing so many men to gain a position which he might have reached without any loss at all. But, in justice, we can say he was not chargeable with want of military capacity for adopting that plan of campaign. It was a moral, and not a strategical error, on his part. From unquestionable authority we know that when Stanton first told Grant that he was to be placed in command of the armies of Virginia he was well pleased, and said: “I shall at once change the plan of campaign, and make my base of operations upon the James river south of Richmond.” Stanton said, “No, you must operate from the other direction.” “But,” said Grant, “if I do it will cost us one hundred thousand men before we can get to where we can take Richmond.” “Well,” said Stanton, “you shall have the hundred thousand men to lose rather than this administration, by abandoning its plan and route of operations in which we have so long persisted shall be convicted before the country of having persisted in error.” Said Grant: “If you furnish me the men to do it I will execute your plan.” So that, while he had military capacity to appreciate the surroundings of the Secretary's campaign, and to foresee the tremendous slaughter of his men which it would involve, he consented to be the instrument of its execution! [236]

A fair review of Grant's career will not rank him high amongst the generals of history, and will not furnish such illustrations of the art of war as will cause military men to study his campaigns. But they may learn from him how fortitude may retrieve even the most depressing personal misfortunes, and how supreme in war are self-reliance, constancy, and courage. These were the peculiar capacities for war which the United States Government required of him in its emergency. And it is a consolation to us who fought against him that he possessed them in an extraordinary degree, and that the vast resources of the Northern States, wielded by his inexorable will and unyielding tenacity, were insuperable by our unhappy people, and would long before the final issue have overwhelmed any other army than the Army of Northern Virginia.

I have endeavored to place General Grant fairly in this paper. I desire to set down naught in malice, if I can nothing extenuate. I should not do this if I did not acknowledge one shining characteristic which has ever been the accompaniment of the highest courage. In the whole course of his career no acts or words of personal cruelty or insult to his prisoners or others whom the misfortunes of war threw into his power have ever been attributed to him. Vicksburg was his first great victory;, it was the very culmination of his career; it was won after unexampled efforts and cost of time, of treasure, and of blood. Grant evinced no vulgar exultation in his triumphs. He neither did nor permitted any acts of insult or injury to any member of the conquered army, but showed every attention, not only to their material wants, but to the feelings of his prisoners.

At the surrender of General Lee, Grant evinced a consideration of his fallen enemy worthy of all honor. He indulged in no “stage effect” exultations over his grand victory. He granted promptly the terms of surrender proposed by Lee, observed the most careful respect for his feelings, provided liberally for the comfort and transportation of the captive army, and abstaining even from entering Richmond, proceeded direct to City Point, whence he embarked for his office in Washington city, and addressed himself to the final duties his great conquest had devolved upon him. History has honored the young Napoleon for refusing to humiliate old Wurmsur by his presence at the capitulation of [237] Mantua. So will it honor Grant for the respect he showed to the feelings of his conquered foes. He was capable of appreciating their high courage, and he did more at that time to restrain the ferocity of the non-combatants of the North, and to tranquilize the unhappy people of the South, than was accomplished by his whole government.

Grant's interposition in behalf of General Lee and his bold resistance of the purpose of the government to disregard the paroles which we had given, gave great hope to our prostrate people that he would worthily sustain the grand role he had assumed.

But in sadness and sorrow we must now turn to the record of his civil life, and as we read it feel that Grant misunderstood the value and the uses of the great opportunity his sword had placed before him.

Had he justly appreciated his high responsibilities he would never have sold himself to the party whose principles he had all his life opposed, but content with the fame he had earned and with his position as head of the army, he would have remained faithful to his convictions, well knowing that with him rested the power to restrain the reckless men who had been undermining the foundations of the republic, and who have sought to overthrow it for their personal ends.

Instead of turning a deaf ear to the allurements of these conspirators against his country, we have seen Grant silently deliberate over the prizes before him, and then abandon his own party and pass at once without progression to the head of that which paid him best.

They won him from his life-long allegiance by the high prize of the Presidency, and so soon as he gained it he began to prostitute it to the accomplishment of the designs of the basest set of politicians this continent has ever known, and to his own personal convenience and emolument.

He gathered about him and filled the most responsible positions of the government with venal partisans or incompetent relations. His “republican court” became the focus of the chief gift-givers and gift-takers of the land; and from the moment of his acceptance of the supreme power it was evident there had been no “sweetness for him in the uses of adversity” for having been born [238] and always lived in poverty. The one clearly-marked policy of his eight years reign was, that he “never intended to be poor any more.”

In reviewing the history of this century it will be impossible to find a rule so barren of statesmanship, or of evidences of broad national policy, as Grant's has been. When we consider our foreign relations we can point only to the Samana speculation as an effort to extend our influence.

And when we turn to our domestic affairs, we see the sad spectacle of States overthrown and constitution and laws set aside by the man who had sworn to protect them, and all the rights of the people subordinated to the one prime object of placing a centralized power in the hands of him who was incapable of statesmanship broader than the bounds of his own personal convenience or pecuniary profit.

To this condition he strove to reduce us all, and first sought to secure the nomination by his party for a third presidential term. When that effort failed, he thought to possess, by fraud and force, the control of the government, and hoped to keep it till his life's end. Only a few months have passed since the people realized the danger in which we stood, and rose in their might and rebuked this usurper and scattered the power of his confederates.

Those who have believed in the capacity of our people for selfgovernment, and who had begun to despair of the republic, now take heart again, and once more hope to enjoy the blessing of freedom.

Let not Grant misconstrue the recent honors paid him by the monarchical powers of Europe. They are but the tributes paid by those who owe their offices to force to the military prowess of him who has ever been ready to use force to perpetuate his power.

They only defer, they do not avert his ultimate destiny, and when he returns to his people he will soon pass, followed by their curses and contempt, to his native obscurity.

It is uncharitable and of little profit to speculate upon the remnant of his life left to him. But we may well believe “his days will be few and evil.” Without taste for literary and intellectual pursuits, bereft of power and of influence, deserted by those who have hung about him for what he gave them, with a growing propensity [239] for the special sin that besets him, when the morning telegrams shall announce that Grant is dead, men will lament and wonder that capacities so good, with opportunities so great, should reach a conclusion so impotent.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Grant (63)
Sherman (16)
Dorn (5)
Stanton (4)
Fitz Lee (4)
Buell (4)
McPherson (3)
McClellan (3)
William Preston Johnston (3)
Rosecranz (2)
Price (2)
Abraham Lincoln (2)
Frank Blair (2)
Xerxes (1)
Sher (1)
Gederal Meade (1)
McDowell (1)
Dabney H. Maury (1)
Charles E. Hooker (1)
Hood (1)
Christmas (1)
Chesney (1)
Burnside (1)
Bragg (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
June, 1864 AD (1)
May, 1864 AD (1)
1863 AD (1)
1862 AD (1)
December, 1846 AD (1)
1846 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: