Tuesday, May 27, 2014

My favorite general: US Grant

Photo by Matthew Brady

The late Shelby Foote was the most impressive talking head in Ken Burns's The Civil War, which was broadcast way back in 1990, but I only recently got around to reading his great narrative history of the Civil War. Foote's massive history may tell many readers more than they want to know about the battles of the war, but his response to that is persuasive: "It was a military action and was to be studied as such—not neglecting the causes, not neglecting the arguments of what went on, but it’s always primarily combat." He also appreciated U.S. Grant, the regular guy as hero---or is it hero as regular guy?

Foote was a southerner. When asked if he would have fought for the South in the Civil War, he said he would have: "Life would have been intolerable if you hadn’t. The women of the South just would not allow somebody to stay home and sulk while the war was going on. It didn’t take conscription to grab him. The women made him go."

From the last volume of Foote's book (The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox). After President Lincoln appointed Grant commander of all the union armies, he went to Washington to confer with the president:

Late afternoon of a raw, gusty day in early spring---March 8, a Tuesday, 1864---the desk clerk at Willard's Hotel, two blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, glanced up to find an officer accompanied by a boy of thirteen facing him across the polished oak of the registration counter and inquiring whether he could get a room. "A short, round-shouldered man in a very tarnished major general's uniform," he seemed to bystanding witness to have "no gait, no station, no manner," to present instead, with his ill-fitting jacket cut full in the skirt and his high-crowned hat set level on his head, a somewhat threadbare, if not quite down-at-heels, conglomerate impression of "rough, light-brown whiskers, a blue eye, and rather scrubby look withal...as if he was out of office and on half pay, with nothing to do but hang around the entry of Willard's, cigar in mouth."

Discerning so much of this as he considered worth his time, together perhaps with the bystander's added observation that the applicant had "rather the look of a man who did, or once did, take a little too much to drink," the clerk was no more awed by the stranger's rank than he was attracted by his aspect. This was, after all, the best known hostelry in Washington. There had been by now close to five hundred Union generals, and of those the great majority, particularly among those who possessed what was defined as "station," had checked in and out of Willard's in the past three wartime years. In the course of its recent and rapid growth, under new management of a pair of Vermont brothers who gave it their name along with their concern, it had swallowed whole, together with much other adjacent real estate, a former Presbyterian church; the President-elect himself had stayed here through the ten days preceding his inauguration, making of its Parlor 6 a "little White House," and it was here, one dawn two years ago in one of its upper rooms, that Julia Ward Howe had written her "Battle Hymn of the Republic," the anthem for the crusade the new President had begun to design as soon as he took office.

Still, bright or tarnished, stars were stars; a certain respect was owed, if not to the man who wore them, then in any case to the rank they signified; the clerk replied at last that he would give him what he had, a small top-floor room, if that would do. It would, the other said, and when the register was given its practiced half-circle twirl, he signed without delay. The desk clerk turned it back again, still maintaining the accustomed, condescending air he was about to lose in shock when he read what the weathered applicant had written: "U.S. Grant and Son---Galena, Illinois."

Whereupon, (for such was the aura that had gathered about the name "Unconditional Surrender" Grant, hero of Donelson, conqueror of Vicksburg, deliverer of Chattanooga) there was an abrupt transformation, not only in the attitude of the clerk, whose eyes seemed to start from his head at the sight of the signature and who struck the bell with a force that brought on the double all the bellboys within earshot, but also in that of the idlers, the loungers roundabout the lobby, who soon learned the cause of the commotion in the vicinity of the desk. It was as if the prayers of the curious had been answered after the flesh.

Here before them, in the person of this undistinguished-looking officer---forty-one years of age, five feet eight inches tall, and weighing just under a hundred forty pounds in his scuffed boots and shabby clothes---was the man who, in the course of the past twenty-five months of a war in which the news had mostly been unwelcome from the Federal point of view, had captured two rebel armies entire, and chased a third clean out of sight beyond the roll of the southern horizon.

...Forgotten now was the small top-floor room his modesty had been willing to accept. Instead, the clerk obsequiously tendered his distinguished guest "the best in the house": meaning Parlor 6, where Abraham Lincoln himself had held court in the days preceding his inauguration, less than one week more than three years ago today...

Foote's wonderful interview in the Paris Review.

Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Goreessential reading for every American.

See also Homer of the Old South on Slate.

And Bruce Catton's Grant Moves South

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