- Historic Sites
Grant Writes Home
October 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 6
According to enduring Irgend, General Ulysses S. Grant was a hunt man of war who understood nothing hut fighting, had no lighter moments except for those occasionally evoked by a bottle of whiskey, kepi his steel-Imp mouth closed so firmly that neither jests nor casual chitchat ever emerged, and had about as much tender sentiment in his make-up as a disillusioned grizzly bear.
This legend has roots thai go back for a century and more, and probably it will endure for some time. Actually, however, it is almost entirely wrong—its only correct fioint is that he was a hard man of war—and people who have bothered to get acquainted with the general have always known it. Officers who were intimate with him during the Civil War said that after hours he was more than commonly talkative, gwen to amiable reminiscences thai could go on and on without a check. Anyone who has read his memoirs knows he had a sly but active sense of humor that he could express with quiet skill; and to examine the letters he sent to his wife during the war is to discover that this stern general was as lonely, as homesick, and as anxious to get back to his family as the greenest soldier in the whole Army. Under his professional coating the fearsome General Grant was indeed something of a softy.
During recent years a few of the letters Grant wrote to his wife, Julia Dent Grant, have been published, but most of them remained hidden until a pro/essor at Southern Illinois University, John Y. Simon, became executive director of the U. S. Grant Association and managing editor of the mil 11 ivol u Hied publishing project sponsored by thai association, The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant. Under Dr. Simon’s guidance the association has collected scores and hundreds of Grant’s letters, and the Southern Illinois University Press is publishing them. Volume 5 in this series is being brought out this fall; and by permission of Dr. Simon, the Grant Association, and the Press, A MERICAN H ERITAGE is privileged to present herewith a small bill revealing sampling of Grant’s wartime letters IH Julia Grant.
The letters presented here cover a short space of time—from April 8 to June 16, 1862. The first was written just after the terrible Battle of Shiloh; the last was written shortly before Grant was placed in sole rommand of the whole area between the Tennessee and Mississippi rivers, from Cairo, Illinois, on the north to as far as Grant might be able to penetrate on the south.
During this time the Civil War in the West took its shape, and Grant, as a rising soldier, at last found himself.
Shiloh was a significant battle—a Northern victory of prodigious importance—hut it was a very ragged fight in winch the commanding general learned his trade under fire at the cost of a great many casualties. After the battle Grant came under severe criticism. It was charged that he had been caught by surprise, that only the timely arrival of reinforcements led by General Don Carlos Bnell had saved him /rom defeat., and (military mythology being what it is) that lie had probably had too much to drink. For a time it seemed possible that he would be driven out of the Army altogether; and wjien General Henry W. Hallech, then supreme Federal commander in the West, came down to western Tennessee shortly after Shiloh had been fought, he pulled Grant’s claws by giving him the post of second in command, in which position Grant had a fine title and almost nothing at all to do. However, Grant rode out the storm; and when Halleck at the beginning oj the summer was called to Washington to be general in chief, he restored Grant to his old authority and entrusted him with continuation of the offensive that was eventually to capture I’lcksburg, open the Mississippi River all the way to the Gulf, and permanently wreck Confederate power in the western theatre of war.
So Grant’s letters home, which follow, were written at a crucial time; and yet they reflect very Hilt? worry or unease. What was (in (traut’s mind seem.s largely to have been a yearning to see his wife and children, a hunger for family gossip, an anxiety to make .sure that Julia was getting the money he kept .sending home, and the age-old complaint of the soldier—“Why don’t you write oftener?”
Grant knew that he was being criticized, hut il does not seem to have holhered him very much. He spoke of it now and then, hut it was not on his mind. He had not yet got into polities, but he had an idea tlial even seasoned politicians do not often get, namely, that the best way to contradict hostile newspaper reports is not to contradict them at all. Meanwhile, he wanted to know how lus wife and chddren were getting along, and he spoke at some length about the btg revolver—a “five shooter”—that he was sending home to his son Jess, who at that moment was ail of ßve years old. Jess finally got the shooting iron, apparently without cartridges.
It will be noticed that (irant was careless about his spelling. Read enough of him and you conclude that the general could spell hut that most of the lime he just didn’t care about it. Often enough he spells a word correctly in one paragraph and incorrectly in the next.