‘We Were As Brothers’

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On August 8, 1885, the crowds that lined the route of Ulysses S. Grant’s funeral procession from New York’s City Hall to the vault at 122d Street and Riverside Drive numbered well over a million. “Broadway moved like a river into which many tributaries poured,” a spectator wrote. “There was one living mass choking the thoroughfare from where the dead lay in state to the grim gates at Riverside opened to receive him.”

Somewhere in that living mass stood a slender, alarmingly pale young man wearing smoked glasses to disguise himself. His name was Ferdinand Ward, and although he had been the late President’s business partner, he had no right to be there, had bribed the warden, in fact, to let him out of the Ludlow Street Jail just long enough to see the canopied hearse pass by before being locked up again to await the trial that eventually sent him to Sing Sing for grand larceny.

Ferdinand Ward was also my greatgrandfather, and I’m afraid, had little, if any, redeeming social value (at least none that I’ve discovered while beginning research for a book about him). Nor was a penny of the millions he was convicted of misappropriating ever passed on to any of his embarrassed descendants.

But he did indirectly leave one extraordinary legacy to the country as a whole— Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant , recently reissued as part of the Library of America series. Without my crooked ancestor, Grant would never have written his magnificent account of the Civil War; it was only his last-ditch desire to return his bankrupt family to solvency that persuaded him to undertake the writing of it despite the throat cancer that killed him just a few days after he had finished the manuscript.

“I am reading Grant’s book with a delight I fail to find in novels,” William Dean Howells told its publisher, Mark Twain, in 1886. “I think he is one of the most natural—that is best —writers I ever read. The book merits its enormous success, simply as literature.” In our own time John Keegan has called it “perhaps the most revelatory autobiography of high command to exist in any language.” Certainly it is revelatory of its author. Grant wrote his memoirs precisely as he fought the war: with complete clarity and unrelenting drive and without a hint of boast or bluster.

 

That same year, D. Appleton & Co. got out a new edition of The Memoirs of William Tecumseh Sherman (now also reissued by the Library of America at). The first edition, published in 1875, had sparked criticism from Southerners with raw memories of what Sherman had done to them and from Northern officers who felt themselves wronged by what he said about them. Sherman corrected a handful of factual errors, added appendices of letters from his critics and a new chapter on his pre-war experiences in California, but he apologized for nothing he had written. He was a “witness,” not a historian, he explained, and in “this free country every man is at perfect liberty to publish his own thoughts and impressions, and any witness who may differ from me should publish his own version of facts in the truthful narration of which he is interested. I am publishing my own memoirs, not theirs , and we all know that no three honest witnesses of a simple brawl can agree on all the details. How much more likely will be the difference in a great battle covering a vast space of broken ground, when each division, brigade, regiment, even company, naturally and honestly believes that it was as the focus of the whole affair! Each of them won the battle. None ever lost. That was the fate of the old man who unhappily commanded.”

Sherman himself commanded happily. “To be at the head of a strong column of troops,” he wrote, “in the execution of some task that requires brain, is the highest pleasure of war—a grim one and terrible, but one which leaves on the mind and memory the strongest mark; to detect the weak point of an enemy’s line; to break through with vehemence and thus lead to victory; or to discover some keypoint and hold it with tenacity; or to do some other distinct act which is afterward recognized as the real cause of success. These all become matters that are never forgotten.”

Read together, the memoirs of Grant and Sherman provide both an unrivaled account of the war they won and an indelible record of one of the most providential friendships in our history.

“We were as brothers,” Sherman wrote. “I the older man in years, he the higher in rank.” They were opposites in some ways: Grant was short, slouchy, phlegmatic; Sherman tall, railthin and voluble—"boiling over with ideas while discussing every subject and pronouncing on all,” one of his soldiers recalled. But both were Ohio boys, undistinguished in civilian life, unmoved by the thought of overthrowing slavery, utterly realistic about what had to be done to win a war, and free of the vainglory and backbiting that undid so many other Union commanders.