Monday, September 10, 2012

The Last Great American

Growing up in Virginia, I've had my fill of the Civil War. From the moment you can read in this place, they drill into you all the myths of the South - that they fought bravely, that Lee was a brilliant soldier and a wonderful human being, that it wasn't entirely about slavery. Which is all bullshit. But as the majority of Americans still concerned with the Civil War are Confederate apologists, you don't often hear contrary rhetoric.

Unless you read The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant thankfully doesn't cover his whole life. Just his youth, the Mexican War, and the main event. His life between the wars is glossed over, though it's quite clear civilian life didn't agree with him. Grant without a war to fight would have been just another embittered drunk and there's never been any shortage of those in Michigan.

Grant got to escape that obscurity because there was a war on and he's the best damn soldier this country's ever had. From mounting a cannon in a church steeple down in Mexico to his drive through the Western Theater culminating in the conquest of Vicksburg, Grant's career was one of astounding success driven by that distinctly American blend of audaciousness and pragmatism. While his battle plans were hardly complex - he agreed with Sherman's assessment, "These complex arrangements nearly always fail..." - he always pursued them with a grit and determination unequaled by the celebrated Southern commanders.

It really shocked the Good Ol' Boys how driven and unclouded by sentiment Grant proved to be, as illustrated in a letter exchange between him and General S.B. Buckner over the latter's surrender of Fort Donelson. Buckner indulged in Southern Sentimentality, going on at length on the honor of all the gentlemen involved and respect and yadda yadda. You can look it up 'cause I'm not quoting that damned traitor. Grant's response though deserves to be quoted in full -

Yours of this date, proposing armistice and appointment of Commissioners to settle terms of capitulation, is just received. No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.

"And give me your lunch money."

Ya ever heard the phrase "I don't make threats, only promises?" Grant may be the only individual who could ever make that claim legitimately. He wasn't boasting to Buckner, wasn't puffing up his own ego. Simply stating the facts.

Will, that's what elevated Grant so far above his Confederate counterparts. A stolid, Roman will to get the job done. The determination so celebrated as an integral part of the American character, which is in such short supply these days.

And he's succinct. Too many American writers of the 19th century tried to out Victorian the Victorians, ballooning up their books with the same tedious overwriting of Dickens and still practiced in the Romance market. Grant gets to the point, giving only those details necessary to understand the scene. For someone who's waded through purple prose more times than I'd like to remember it's refreshing.

But he's not flat either. Though infrequent, Grant has a cuttingly sardonic wit for all those previously mentioned revisionists, trying to tart up the Southern Cause as something romantic - "IFS defeated the Confederates at Shiloh. There is little doubt that we would have been disgracefully beaten IF all the shells and bullets fired by us had passed harmlessly over the enemy and IF all of theirs had taken effect."

Grant has no patience for these confabulators and rightly so. He recognized - and frequently states - that the whole war hinged on the issue of slavery and that it wasn't even worth debating. It was evil and indefensible, which is likely why so many of the suckers who fought for the South did so for "liberty" and "state's rights." Their rhetoric, as recounted by Grant, is nearly indistinguishable from the noise coming out of the Modern Right since a black guy became president.

Which is a shame, 'cause we sure don't have a Grant to put them in their place this time.

1 comment:

  1. I beg to differ.

    Franklin D. Roosevelt

    Hunter S. Thompson

    Noam Chomsky

    Those are a few contenders I'd throw in that came after Grant.

    Terrifying how so few rays of light exist.