- Historic Sites
U.s. Grant: Man Of Letters
June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
The answer is that he was surprisingly good. His Personal Memoirs stays alive and is read today, not simply because it recounts the wartime experiences of a famous soldier but primarily because it is a first-rate book—well written, with a literary quality that keeps it fresh. Mark Twain’s famous verdict—that it is “a great, unique and unapproachable literary masterpiece”—is probably a little excessive, and yet the book has a quality that lifts it far above the other soldier-memoirs of its time and place. The English critic Matthew Arnold, no great admirer of Grant or of Americans generally, found Grant’s literary style “straightforward, nervous, firm, possessing in general the high merit of saying clearly, in the fewest possible words, what had to be said, and saying it, frequently, with shrewd and unexpected turns of expression.”
Grant was one of the most articulate of American soldiers. The prose style in which he took such pride is marked above all by clarity of expression. There is never any doubt about what Grant means, and this characteristic is visible in his wartime correspondence. His letters and orders are never foggy, and some of the most memorable sentences of the whole Civil War come straight from Grant’s pen.
There is, for instance, his note to General Buckner: “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.” And to Meade, outlining the plan for the 1864 campaign: “Lee’s army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Not to mention the note to Halleck, after Spotsylvania: “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” In this one, it is interesting to notice that Grant originally wrote “if it takes me all summer” and then went back and crossed out the word “me”; he was the stylist even then, knocking out one word in order to make a sentence more effective.
In his private correspondence, Grant was careless. Spelling was a minor bother to him—not because he did not know how to spell, but apparently because he just didn’t care much about it. It is common to find him spelling a word one way in one sentence and another way in the next one. He often wrote to his political sponsor, Congressman Elihu Washburne of Illinois, and he was quite capable of spelling Washburne’s name both with and without the final e in the same letter. Once during the war he wrote to his twelve-year-old son Fred, from whom he had just had a letter, advising the young man to keep a dictionary with him when he wrote letters so that he could check his spelling; but like many another father, Grant preached what he did not himself practice. One of his aides, Horace Porter, wrote that Grant never had a dictionary in his tent, never bothered to write a word out on a scrap of paper to see if he had it right, and altogether spelled “with a heroic audacity.”
But that was for private letters. Otherwise Grant used care, and long before he ever thought of writing his memoirs he took a modest pride in his writing style. His chief of staff, John A. Rawlins, in the winter of 1864 complained that to get Grant’s report of the battle of Chattanooga into final shape “is a very unpleasant and I may say thankless undertaking, for the General is very tenacious of the claim that he writes his own reports and it is necessary for us to follow the text as nearly as possible.” Inasmuch as Rawlins’ own literary style was atrocious, one can only add that General Grant was well advised to impose this rule.
All in all, Grant emerges as a man of letters of real distinction. Go back, again, to his performance in the Memoirs . He wrote this book against pain and death, and he stuck to it as long as he could hold a pencil—not because someone else could not finish the thing for him, thereby assuring his family a proper estate, but simply because as a writing man he wanted the book done his way. No professional author could have written a sturdier declaration of dedication to his craft: “I do not want a book bearing my name to go before the world which I did not write to such an extent as to be fully entitled to the credit of authorship.”