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grant's final victory

30 september 2012

The writing of Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs is a story frequently told in American history. It combines heroism, the stoic facing-down of death, the Civil War, the financial skullduggery of the Gilded Age – and speaking of the Gilded Age, it features Mark Twain as a central character.

The story of Grant's memoirs (a meta-story, in that case, I guess) has been told so often that one doesn't expect to learn much new from Charles Bracelen Flood's book Grant's Final Victory, and indeed one doesn't. Unlike Charles Lachman's Secret Life, which presents new research on some long-hidden aspects of Grover Cleveland's behavior, Flood sticks to the well-known drama, indeed the melodrama, of the long decline of General Grant, and his race to complete his big bestseller.

For a book like Grant's Final Victory to succeed, it must have the chutzpah to believe in its style, its story, and its energy. "What oft was researched, but ne'er so well expressed," might be its motto, to paraphrase Alexander Pope. Flood does write extremely well, and tells the story with both mystery and plenty of exposition – but never patronizing even a knowledgeable reader as he informs.

Above all, though its theme is victory, Flood's book is about the existential mysteries of impending, inevitable death. Grant spent considerable time in agony, staring dissolution in the eyes. Much of what has come down to us about his bravery in his last days is rhetoric. (Who wants to portray a dying great man as a sniveling complainer – even if, as Philip Larkin put it, "death is no different whined at than withstood"?) But from what one knows of Grant, who had looked pretty directly at death and disaster at key junctures in his life, it's reasonable to suppose that the stories of his grace under pressure are not exaggerated.

I admit to a deep fascination with Grant and his lifelong friend William T. Sherman. One looks into the eyes in their photographs and sees men who had experienced the limits of what humans could undergo. They managed hundreds of thousands of men in vast, unprecedented operations of conflict, and they did so closer to the front than later commanders of similar or larger armies. Grant was under fire at Shiloh; Sherman was actually shot in that battle. Both saw their men's suffering immediately, and met their enemies face to face (the latter dynamic makes the personal level of Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox still the affecting story it was for their contemporaries).

I may just be indulging in masculine reveries, but I don't know that masculinity is really the essence of Grant and Sherman. They transcended easy categories, as they transcended all the pettinesses that had ruined many another Civil War general. They were very plain personalities, and far from military geniuses (in fact, a keynote of their relationship was continually having to bail the other out of self-inflicted trouble). But when enormous things had to be done with an entire nation at stake, they were capable of going straight to the business at hand, without rumination, hand-wringing, or second-guessing. Awful as their lives were, there is probably something we can learn from them. As Flood shows us, there is certainly something we can learn from their deaths.

Flood, Charles Bracelen. Grant's Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant's heroic last year. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo [Perseus], 2011.