Among the autobiographies of generals and presidents, the Personal Memoirs of U.U. Grant ranks with the greatest. It is even more impressive in light of the circumstances in which it was created: Faced with terminal cancer, virtual bankruptcy, and a family he would leave without means of support, he took the advice of his publisher, mark Twain, and went to work. He completed the manuscript in eleven months-and died a week later, on July 23, 1885. Frank and unpretentious, Grant's memoirs tell the story of his boyhood in Ohio, his graduation from West Point, and the military campaigns in the West and Mexico that ended with his disgraceful resignation and a return to Illinois, where he ran the family store. Soon, however, began the rebellion that broke the Union and recast Grant's fortune, transforming him into the leader of the victorious Union armies in the War Between the States and giving him the perspective to describe intimately the capture of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, the battles of Shiloh, Corinth, Vicksburg, the bloody Wilderness campaign, and Appomattox. Here is Grant the tactician, the alcoholic, the plain and tough professional soldier, the ideal commander-but most of all here is Grant the writer as he assesses himself and the events that forged his character, as well as that of the nation.
Grant's writing is very direct with little hyperbole. His intelligence and direct attitude combine to produce a narrative that is focused and has great depth. He gives the reader ample detail for a full understanding of what happened and then moves on. I keep thinking of the Dragnet approach " Just the facts mam." His descriptions of the battles and campaigns he was involved with are told as he saw them in crisp, clear language.
Grant begins his story with a chapter titled "Ancestry, Birth, Boyhood". The table of contents give a short description of the material in each chapter which makes a useful reference. His narration of the events of the Civil War begins after the first 150 pages. In the first chapter on the war he makes a personal observation that I found very interesting. He was going into battle for the first time as a commander and he was nervous. His anxiety was relieved when he saw the enemy soldiers straggling into town and he realized that both sides get scared. He carried that observation with him and never mentioned any nervousness about combat again. If you are familiar with the events of Grant's career you will learn what happened from his point of view. Someone reading about the Civil War for the first time will get an excellent primer on some of the events of the war. His narration is limited to his campaigns until the time he became commanding general. After that time his description includes all of the operations of the Union Army.
There are many battlefield maps, often drawn by Army engineers, some of which are topographical. I found the facsimiles of the communications between Grant and General Buckner at Fort Donelson where Grant acquired his nickname of "Unconditional Surrender" Grant fascinating. Many of the orders Grant sent or received are reproduced in the text. I recognized items in the book which are quoted often in other accounts of Grant and the war. Grant's judgment that the Mexican war was "one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger nation against a weaker nation" appears often in other books about that war and Grant. A famous anecdote that appears in the book comes from a conversation that Grant had with Lincoln during 1864. Grant told Lincoln that by advancing all the Union troops they would force the enemy to keep detachments to hold them back, or else lay his own territory open for invasion. Lincoln's famous reply was, " Oh yes, I see that. As we say out West, if a man can't skin he must hold a leg while somebody else does. I have read that many times in books about Lincoln and the Civil War.
There are other details that I had not seen anywhere else. In the beginning of Grant's discussion of the Overland campaign he provides a three page explanation of the Union's improved quartermaster system. The Union army had wagons that were dedicated to each unit for each kind of supplies. The wagons were marked so that when they went to the supply depot they would be quickly filled and sent back to their unit. Grant's knowledge of all of the details of his command promoted efficiency which that was noticed by his soldiers. I have read that Grant referred to the conduct of the war as "the business". That attitude comes across in his book. In addition to the text there is Grant's report to the Secretary of War on the operations of the army under his command in a 60 page appendix.
Grant's description of Lee's surrender is extremely moving. He describes himself dressed in a soldier's blouse with the shoulder straps of his rank as he usually was dressed in the field. Lee presented in a fine new uniform, a man of great dignity with an impassible face. Grant felt no excitement or joy in the downfall of a foe who had fought long and hard for a cause he believed in. Even though Grant considered the cause, slavery, one of the worst for which a people had ever fought. He lapsed into conversation with Lee and then was reminded of their purpose. When Grant put his pen to paper to write the surrender terms he only knew what was in his mind and wished to express it clearly. After the terms were written and agreed upon Lee mentioned that in the Confederate army soldiers often owned their own horses. Grant acknowledged that they would need them to put in a crop before winter and he would instruct his officers that any man claiming ownership of a horse or mule would be allowed to take it with him. Lee then mentioned that his men needed food and Grant said he would "certainly" provide rations for them. They then separated and returned to their own lines. Grant's men had started a one hundred gun salute for the surrender and he ordered it stopped. "The Confederates were now our prisoners and we did not want to exult over their downfall."
This book is considered by many, myself included, as one of the best books to come out of the Civil War. I think of it as a very good book which happens to be about the war. Grant mentions in his preface that while writing the second volume he learned he was dying. With the same determination he had shown all of his life he lived just long enough to finish it. Grant had been swindled out of all his money just prior to beginning writing the book. After his death his family received over $400,000.00 from the sales of the book. In reading this book I grew to love and respect the U.S. Grant I came to know. At the end of this edition are some notes he wrote to his doctor. In the last note written shortly before his death is a quote I will always remember for what it says about the human condition. " The fact is I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun. A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three."