The Unpronounceable Man

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Somebody once called Ulysses S. Grant “the unpronounceable man,” and the phrase will do until a better one comes along. This little chap was a man you couldn’t quite figure, somehow—seemingly uninspired, ordinary as an old shoe, a straightaway plodder who undeniably liked to drink more than was good for him . . . and yet, at the same time, a fascinating and complex person with flashes of genuine brilliance, who belongs finally, faults and all, in the gallery of great Americans.

Earl Schenck Miers examines six months of Grant’s career in an uncommonly rewarding book, The Web of Victory , which is a detailed study of Grant’s Vicksburg campaign.

Miers presents Grant at the beginning of 1863, when he came shambling unobtrusively off of a transport a few miles above Vicksburg to take charge of a campaign that by all indications was headed for failure. A few G.I.’s saw him, were highly unimpressed, and muttered: “Hell—he’s no soldier.” He sat in his tent and chewed half-length cigars, while people denounced him as a drunken failure and his soldiers complained about the army, about life on a flooded Mississippi levee, and about the general idea of having a war at all. Then, at last, U. S. Grant made up his mind.

What followed was one of the most “brilliant” campaigns of the entire war. The story has been told a good many times: how Grant went downstream, bypassing the Vicksburg batteries, marched inland to the capital of Mississippi, kept Confederates Joe Johnston and John Pemberton from combining against him, forced Pemberton to take his army back into the Vicksburg lines, and wound up by capturing city, general and army en bloc—a stroke which, more than any other single thing, determined how the war was going to go. But if this is a familiar story, it has never (in this writer’s opinion) been told better than Mr. Miers tells it here.

For Mr. Miers has done two excellent things. For one, he has kept the ordinary soldier in the forefront of his narratives. His wearing marches and desperate battles are not mere exercises out of a textbook, in which inanimate inked blocks move here and there across a bloodless map. They are things that involved living, breathing men, and the price which the marches and battles exacted of those men is never lost to sight. In addition, he has shown this campaign, not as a freakish bit of brilliance incomprehensibly emanating from a dull and essentially uninteresting general, but as something that came naturally out of the person Grant was. This, in other words, was not just Grant on one of his good days: this was Grant. This bold and dazzling achievement flowed out of the little man who was a great deal bigger than he seemed to be, and perhaps the legends about Grant need a lot of revision.

He drank too much? To be sure: but, somehow, not when the chips were down. He was more of a person, in fact, than people figured, then or now, a warm and immensely interesting man who is well worth knowing. Mr. Miers has written a wholly charming and readable book about a most remarkable American.

The Web of Victory , by Earl Schenck Miers. Alfred A. Knopf. 320 pp. $5.