Without my crooked ancestor, Grant would never have written his magnificent account of the Civil War.
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.
And each was in the other’s debt. “He stood by me when I was crazy,” Sherman once said of Grant, “and I stood by him when he was drunk; and now we stand by each other always.” Grant’s memoirs never touch upon alcohol or the rumors about his fondness for it. (Mark Twain privately lamented he’d never told the General, “Put the drunkenness in the memoirs—and the repentance and reform. Trust the people.”) Sherman dutifully recalls his fury at the newspaper stories declaring him “crazy, insane and mad” that nearly destroyed his career in 1861, although he is less than forthcoming about the genuine nervous collapse that lay behind them.
In any case, each man bolstered the other’s confidence. Sherman first won Grant’s gratitude by the selflessness with which he supported him during his siege of Fort Donelson. “At the time he was my senior in rank,” Grant remembered, “and there was no authority of law to assign a junior to command a senior of the same grade. But every boat that came up with supplies or reinforcements brought a note of encouragement from Sherman, asking me to call upon him for any assistance he could render and saying that if he could be of service at the front I might send for him and he would waive rank.” Grant’s victory at Donelson, in turn, provided Sherman with hope of an eventual Union triumph, what he called “the ray of light which I have followed ever since.”
The two men stood together at Shiloh, and in the aftermath, when Grant resolved to leave the Army after Henry Halleck had relegated him to the empty post of second-in-command, it was Sherman who talked him out of it: “… you could not be quiet at home for a week when the armies were moving.”
No one moved armies more relentlessly than Grant, but even Sherman quailed when, after repeated failures in the Vicksburg campaign, Grant resolved to plunge into enemy territory, cutting himself off from his base of supply and risking attack from hostile forces whose size he could not estimate. Sherman privately urged retreat. Grant gently overruled him. “The problem for us was to move forward to a decisive victory,” Grant recalled. “No progress was being made in any other field, and we had to go on.” They did go on. Sherman kept his qualms to himself and, when the Rebel stronghold fell, made sure everyone knew that “Grant is entitled to every bit of the credit for the campaign; I opposed it.”
“The chief characteristic in your nature is the simple faith in success you have always manifested,” Sherman told Grant, “which I can liken to nothing else than the faith a Christian has in his Saviour… I knew wherever I was that you thought of me, and if I got into a tight place you would come—if alive.”
Lincoln brought Grant east to take overall command, saying, “[He] is my man and I am his the rest of the war.” Together, Grant and Sherman took on the task of completing the Confederacy’s dismemberment. This time it was Grant’s turn to back his lieutenant’s plan for a march from Atlanta to the sea, a plan so daring that even Lincoln was timorous for a time. “I never had a doubt of the result,” Grant told Sherman when he reached Savannah, and he ended his letter, “I subscribe myself, more than ever, if possible, your friend, U. S. Grant.”
In offering his “many, many thanks” for the same victory, Lincoln said, “The honor is all yours,” went on to ask, “But what next?” then cheerfully answered his own question: “I suppose it will be safe if I leave General Grant and yourself to decide.”
Sherman’s account of the war is less successful than Grant’s, he stops and starts, offers too much detail about some things and too little about others, and too often reins in his distinctive prose. But the authentic Sherman—implacable, agitated, at his most eloquent when most angry—is still present in the letters and dispatches with which he frequently interrupts his narrative. His response to a letter from the city fathers of Atlanta, who had dared protest his order that the city’s inhabitants leave their homes, is characteristic—and expressed Grant’s views as well as his own: “You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride. … I want peace, and believe it can only be reached through union and war, and I will ever conduct war with a view to perfect and early success.”
In the end success came later—and at far greater cost—than either Sherman or Grant would have liked. But without Grant’s belief in the inevitability of that success, without Sherman’s belief in Grant—and without Lincoln’s self-confident willingness to let these two friends fight the war as they saw fit—it might never have come at all.