Tag Archives: Ulysses S. Grant

Good advice for the General: Write like you talk

As a writing teacher of several decades, I never cared for the advice “write like you talk.”

Most people don’t talk all that well. Besides, writing is a different process from talking. Talking is easy. Writing is hard.

But “write like you talk” was the advice that Ulysses S. Grant got from Robert S. Johnson, an editor at Century Magazine, in 1884 after Grant had sent the magazine a draft of an article that he had written for its Battles and Leaders of the Civil War series. The draft was a disaster.

Grant been asked to write his memoirs many times, and he had always refused. He did not believe he could write, but more than that, he did not believe anyone would be interested in what he had to say. That makes Grant, to my mind, the last truly humble politician in American history. 

Grant, of course, could not have been more wrong. Generals on both sides of the war had been weighing in with their points of view on the war — mostly favorable toward themselves — almost since the day Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. Two decades after the war, the editors of Century Magazine gave many Civil War participants yet another chance to tell their stories. Most jumped at it. Grant did not.

But in the winter of 1883-84, Grant found himself financially strapped. He had invested in what turned out to be a Ponzi scheme and had lost all of his money. After initially refusing an offer for Century Magazine to write four articles for $500 each, Grant accepted. The $2,000 would not alter Grant’s fundamental financial situation, but it promised some relief.

So, Grant wrote his first article and sent it to the magazine.

The editors read and were appalled. It was stiff, cliched, and boring. It read like a military report, which Grant was used to writing.

Robert Johnson, the youngest of the editors in charge of the Battles and Leaders project, was assigned to tell the most famous person in the country — the hero of the Civil War — that he would have to try again.

Johnson did so, and Grant took it well. He was willing to try again.

Then Johnson asked Grant to talk about some of his war experience. Grant did so. He did it was grace, humor, and humility. That’s it, General, Johnson said in effect. That’s the way you should write — just the way you have told it to me. Just the way you talk.

Grant took that advice, too, and that’s the way he began to write. Doing it that way, he found that he enjoyed the writing — enjoyed telling the stories that he had experienced and that were still in his head. 

The ultimate result was the greatest military memoir written in American literature: The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S, Grant. The story of the actual composition of the memoirs is more complex and tragic, however, and we have written about that previously.

The story here comes from a recent presentation by John Marszalek to the Knoxville Civil War Roundtable. Marszalek and his colleagues Frank Williams, David Nolan, and Louie Gallo, have recently produced a complete annotated edition of Grant’s memoirs. The work has been critically acclaimed and will be a necessary part of the library of anyone who wants to do further work the Ulysses Grant, the man who could write like he talked.


Two failures who save each other – and then saved the nation (part 2)

The battle of  Shiloh during two April days in 1862 proved to William Tecumseh Sherman that he could be what he always wanted to be – a success.

See Two failures who save each other – and then saved the nation (part 1).

Sherman had not been successful at very much during his adult life. In fact, he had come to this point in life not only lacking the success and recognition he craved but also having many people think he was “crazy.” Sherman suffered from depression and anxiety, and his previous military postings during the first year of the Civil War had not done him much good.

But when he was given a command under Ulysses S. Grant in February, his life began to turn around. His natural leadership abilities began to emerge. Most of all, he finally was serving under a man who showed real military leadership — a man who did not fear a fight and understood Sherman in all his complexities.

When the Confederate Army attacked Union forces at Shiloh Church on April 6, Sherman’s command received the brunt of the blows. Initially surprised by the attack, Sherman quickly adjusted and throughout the day showed not only leadership but great courage. He was wounded in the hand and lost three horses, shot while he was riding them, and still he pressed on. His units gave ground to the enemy, but they did not break. The next day, Union forces took the initiative and drove the Confederates back toward Corinth, Mississippi, where they had encamped.

Sherman emerged from the two days of fighting as a hero.

His mentor Grant did not fare so well.

Grant, like Sherman, had failed in most of the things that he had tried as an adult. The outbreak of hostilities between the North and the South had given him yet another chance, and he seemed to be making the most of it. He had driven the Confederate Army from Tennessee by capturing Forts Donelson and Henry on the Tennessee River earlier that year. He had moved his army southward in pursuit of the Confederates.

But Grant was not well liked by others in the army, particularly his immediate superior Henry Halleck. Despite Grant’s victories, Halleck treated Grant with professional discourtesy and lack of respect. He seemed to be waiting for Grant to make a mistake.

At Shiloh, Grant obliged.

Grant had no idea that the Confederate Army was as close as it when Union forces landed at Pittsburg Landing and moved toward Shiloh. He had no battle plan, and he had done nothing to prepare for a possible attack. He even discounted reports from his officers that a major Confederate force was close by.

On the morning of the first day of the battle, Grant was seven miles away from his army, staying at the Cherry Mansion in Pittsburg Landing. He moved swiftly toward the battle once he heard that it was on, but there was little he could do at that point to shore up the Federal lines. Grant showed a great deal of personal courage during the day as he braved bullet and shell to help his commanders bring order to their chaotic forces.

And, although the Confederates were retreating by the end of the second day of the battle and Shiloh was counted as a Union victory, Grant was blamed for a fight that many had come to believe never should have happened. Toward the end of the second day, Halleck appeared and took command of the army, effectively demoting Grant.

On that Monday evening when the battle was over, Grant believed that his military career, which seemed to hold great promised 48 hours before, was finished. He decided to quit the army.

This time, it was Sherman who saved Grant.

Sherman heard what had happened to Grant and what he was planning to do. He rushed to the army’s headquarters and found Grant in his tent packing his bags and his papers. Grant told Sherman he was leaving.

Sherman protested vigorously. The battle had given him new life, Sherman said. That opportunity would come for Grant, too, he told his commander. He was sure of it. Grant had to be there when it happened.

Whatever Cump Sherman said to Sam Grant in those few moments after that terrible battle had the desired effect. Grant reconsidered his resignation and decided to stay. Not only afterward, Halleck was recalled, and Grant was back in charge. More than a year later in July 1863, Grant would accept the surrender of the Confederate Army at Vicksburg.

After that, President Lincoln appointed him the commander of all Union forces, and he took charge of the Army of the Potomac, which set out in pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Meanwhile, Sherman — acting as Grant’s lieutenant — took over the Union army that dove into Georgia and eventually captured Atlanta.

These two men — Sherman and Grant — save the nation, but not before they saved each other.


The major sources for the information above are the excellent biography of Sherman (Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order) by John Marszalek and Winston Groom‘s Shiloh, 1862, an outstanding description of the battle that demonstrated to both sides what the next three years of the Civil War would be like.


Image: A quick sketch of Pittsburg Landing, on the Tennessee River, by Alfred Waud, artist-correspondent for Harper’s Weekly. The Battle of Shiloh, with its 23,000 casualties, far exceeded in death and destruction anything that had ever occurred on American soil. Almost as soon as the battle was joined on that April Sunday, controversies arose on both side about the actions and competence of the commanders of both armies. Albert Sidney Johnston led the Confederate Army and was killed during the battle. Despite his death, many Southern partisans saw him as no hero for having led his men over rough terrain and into a battle they were unlikely to win. Grant was accused of his incompetence and drunkenness; the alcoholism rumors followed Grant for as long as he was well known to his deathbed, and they continued well into the 20th century.



Two failures who saved each other – and then saved a nation (part 1)

Well into his adult life, Cump Sherman considered himself a failure. So did others. He had attended West Point and had accomplished some relative successes in his military career. But when he left the army, he proceeded to fail at everything he tried. His health — he suffered from asthma — and his mental stability were the big question marks in his life.

Much the same could be said for Sam Grant. He, too, went to West Point and excelled there only at horsemanship. His experience in the Mexican War showed that he could lead men into combat effectively. Otherwise, like Sherman, Grant knew only failure as a civilian. Unlike Sherman, Grant’s health, mental and physical, was not in question, but he had demonstrated a weakness for alcohol.

Then in April 1861, the Civil War began, and both men got a second chance.

During that first year of the war, neither man seemed to be able to move much beyond their civilian failures. Sherman — whose family was well placed politically — wound up as the chief military commander for the forces in Kentucky, but his mental instability became public, and the criticism that ensued drove him more deeply into his depression.

Grant rose quickly through the ranks and achieved some notable successes at Forts Henry and Donelson as Union forces began their invasion of Tennessee. But his reputation for drinking dogged him, and although President Abraham Lincoln was impressed with his accomplishments, his military superiors, particularly Henry Halleck, had little use for him. Hallack, however, could not ignore Grant’s accomplishments and the favorable impression he had made on the public, so he promoted Grant to commander of the Union forces in West Tennessee.

At the same time, he put Sherman in charge of a department under Grant.

Sherman had been taken with Grant’s style of military command, decisive and forceful. He saw in Grant someone he could respect and trust, and his confidence in his military abilities was restored. Grant, in turn, showed respect for Sherman’s ability and confidence that he could lead soldiers into battle. That confidence was confirmed as the Union forces moved southward on the Tennessee River and landed near a small Methodist church name Shiloh.

It was there, at Shiloh, that Cump Sherman became the William Tecumseh Sherman that history has given to us. It was also at Shiloh that Sherman’s partnership with Ulysses S. Grant was forged, though in a strange and surprising way.

Part 2: Shiloh, the battle and beyond (next week)


The major sources for the information above are the excellent biography of Sherman (Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order) by John Marszalek and Winston Groom‘s Shiloh, 1862, an outstanding description of the battle that demonstrated to both sides what the next three years of the Civil War would be like.

The life of Ulysses Grant: ending with a triumph

Ulysses S. Grant lived a life of devastating defeats and mind-boggling triumphs. As such, he gives biographers a rich mine of material to work with. The latest biographer, Ron Chernow, seems to have done fairly with the material of Grant’s life, according to the book’s critics.

One such critic is David Blight, an American History prof at Yale University who in a recent essay in The New York Review of Books, The Silent Type, writes of  Grant:

In the end, he ruthlessly crushed the experiment of the Confederacy and became a national hero. He has variously been considered a military icon who won a total victory; a presidential model for overcoming his own considerable flaws and a tragic weakness for scoundrels to achieve fame and glory; a literary phenomenon who crafted the most famous deathbed writing in American letters; and a celebrity who was a paragon of humility and modesty.

And he writes of Chernow’s book:

Chernow is one of Grant’s affectionate biographers: it is hard not to love a soldier on the right side of a just war who drinks too much, smells perpetually of cigars, rarely wears uniforms of his rank, is expressionless and tough, and who, as Lincoln put it about his military leadership, “makes things git!” Chernow gives us a troubled, humble warrior, a man lost and yet found through amazing feats if not grace.

Blight saves his highest praise in his essay for  The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant: The Complete Annotated Edition, edited by John F. Marszalek, with David S. Nolen and Louie P. Gallo (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 784 pp.) Of that volume, he writes:

. . . John F. Marszalek, and his colleagues at the Grant Papers at Mississippi State University have brought together a wealth of helpful information for all future readers and researchers on Grant, his two wars, and his era. The notes are a scholarly achievement, and they could have helped Chernow craft part of his military narrative. Grant probed deeply into his memory and his documents while enduring unbearable pain from throat cancer, which rendered him near the end unable to speak or eat. He settled a few scores, put a few myths to rest, described campaigns and battles with his distinctive clarity, defended himself, hid many elements of his life, and told his favorite stories with an abiding humility.

I have written before about Grant and the writing of his memoirs at the end of his life. It was indeed a triumphal way to exit this existence.


Writing and dying, in public view; The Devil’s Dictionary

This newsletter was sent to the people on Jim’s email list (3,988) on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017.


Fence rows, tractor lifts, chainsaws, and hayrolls — they’ve all been a big part of my life lately. The farm offers an endless variety of experiences and possibilities.

Don’t forget the victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate. The wildfires in California are causing unprecedented destruction. The people affected directly by these disasters need our help. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to yours.

Viewing tip: Click the display images link above if you haven’t done so already.

Writing and dying – all in public view

Writing is hard enough, particularly when you are facing a deadline. For Ulysses S. Grant, the deadline was literal. He was dying of throat cancer in 1885 as he was trying to complete the story of his actions during the American Civil War. The cancer was painful and exhausting. Drugs might have helped, but they would have clouded his mind and made writing impossible.

Grant was the general who led the Union to victory in 1865. Three years later, he was elected to the first of two terms as president. In his post-presidency, Grant became a generally beloved and respected public figure. When it became known that he was writing his memoirs — and that he was dying — journalists flocked to his door and produced daily reports on his condition and on the progress of his writing.

The story of the writing of Grant’s memoir — which was both a commercial and critical success — is set forth in more detail in this post on JPROF.com. It is a tale of extraordinary courage and willpower.

The First Amendment, free expression and “hate speech”

Still looking for your thoughts about the First Amendment and free expressions and any of the current controversies related to these ideas.

I opened up the topic a couple of weeks ago with this picture. The photo shows Virginia Arnold, a suffragist who stood in front of the White House with a banner that was headlined “Kaiser Wilson” in August 1917. The nation was at war with Germany at the time, and it’s likely Arnold’s banner would have been termed “hate speech” if we had used those terms.

I received some excellent responses to this topic and would like to hear from more of you. Unless you say otherwise, I’ll be sharing some of the responses in this newsletter. And don’t forget Jill Lepore’s short and excellent articlein the New Yorker magazine on the recent history of free expression in American.

Any thoughts of free expression, First Amendment values, “hate speech,” or related issues? I would enjoy hearing from you.


Crooks, Outlaws and Gangsters. This Instafreebie giveaway goes through Oct. 22 and has a lot of fun reading if you are into crooks, outlaws and gangsters. Have a look here: https://www.instafreebie.com/gg/MphRWQwmitjFRys8TW…

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery/

The Devil’s Dictionary

The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce is probably not a book that you are familiar with (I wasn’t until recently), but you should be. It is the American answer to much of the wit and satire found in Samuel Johnson’s more famous dictionary. The book was published in 1906 and was a compilation of Bierce’s writings over more than 30 years. It was named as one of “The 100 Greatest Masterpieces of American Literature” by the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration in the 1970s. Here’s a sample of the entries:

BENEFACTOR, n. One who makes heavy purchases of ingratitude, without, however, materially affecting the price, which is still within the means of all.

DICTIONARY, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.

GRAMMAR, n. A system of pitfalls thoughtfully prepared for the feet for the self-made man, along the path by which he advances to distinction.

Bierce is an interesting character, and I will have more to say about his later. You can get a free copy of The Devil’s Dictionary in a variety of formats through Project Gutenberg.

Finally . . .

October is a bittersweet month for the baseball fan. We have lots of exciting playoff and World Series games to watch, but we also know that when it’s over, it’s over. We have to face the winter without the sport we love. So, I am enjoying this month but dreading the fact that it will end, and nothing will take its place.

And I have to confess to an eccentricity. I would much rather listen to a radio broadcast of a baseball game than watch one on television. I have lots of reasons for this preference, and one of these days I will outline them in a blog post or something. For now, however, I’ll just enjoy the games.

The best quote I have come across this week:

Don’t be seduced into thinking that that which does not make a profit is without value. – Arthur Miller, playwright and essayist (1915-2005) 

Keep reading and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter

4-star review: You have to love a female lead character set in the sixties whose storyline isn’t about getting knocked up or becoming a drug addict in an abusive relationship, this may well be a first for a YA female in a story set in the the 60s or 70s, a rarity for any historic setting unfortunately.
A good story with a strong female lead.

Kill the Quarterback

5-star review: An excellent book with building suspense that makes it hard to put down even for a little while. The characters are fresh and nicely developed with some gentle humour.

Unsubscribe | 2126 Middlesettlements Road, Maryville, Tennessee 37801 

Ulysses Grant: Writing and dying – in public view

His memoir was eagerly awaited by the public while he was still writing it.

His death, for several months before it occurred, was tracked almost daily by the newspapers of the time.

Both occurred at the same time in the spring and summer of 1885.

Ulysses S. Grant (watercolor and line)

For more than a century after his death, the presidency of Ulysses Grant rated barely one-star with most historians. His generalship had been a major factor in defeating the Confederate forces of the South during the American Civil War and thus preserving the Union. He had been honored as a hero of the republic and had been swept into the presidency by an adoring public in 1868.

But he was a political neophyte, and some of the men whom he appointed a president betrayed him with their avarice. Grant was an honorable man. No one has ever believed that he personally benefitted from the graft that occurred during his administration. But he assumed the honor of his friends, something he should not have done.

In the past few years, historians have reassessed Grant and found him to be more than just an honorable neophyte. His actions in support of voting rights for blacks and against the actions of the Ku Klux Klan have led current biographers to cast his presidency in a more favorable light. Ron Chernow’s recently published Grant has given the general many benefits of doubt he rarely ever received. (Chernow’s book was reviewed in the New York Times by former president Bill Clinton, which makes the review fascinating in itself.)

Grant’s life had been filled with extraordinary acts and events. During his post-presidency, Grant had tried to do what he had always done — live a quiet life and gain financial security for his family. He had vowed many times that he would never write his memoirs because he believed that no one would be interested in them. Indeed, for a time, he might have been correct in that assumption.

But by the 1880s, situations had changed. There had been a revival of interest in the Civil War, and many of the participants were publishing books or magazine articles about their experiences. In 1885, one of the major surviving participants who had never been heard from was Ulysses Grant. His personal situation had also changed. Grant had been involved in business dealings that had gone sour, and he was in debt. He had to do something to relieve the debt and secure his family’s future.

Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), a friend of Grant, had urged Grant to write his memoirs for some several years, and when the time was ripe for Grant, Clemens offered him a contract that would guarantee his wife’s future security. At around the same time, however, Grant began to feel a scratchiness in his throat. He had rarely been without a cigar for much of his adult life, and the habit was catching up with him. His doctors eventually concluded that what was causing his discomfort was a tumor, that it was malignant, and that it would get worse — much worse.

The New York Times story about Grant’s illness on March 1, 1885, four months before he died. The story is a highly detailed — and not always accurate — account of the president’s condition and activities.

Grant began working on the memoirs in his Wall Street office in New York City in late 1884 and continued there through the spring of 1885. Word had gotten out that he was writing his autobiography, and newspaper reporters latched onto the story. Grant had become a revered figure in America — even in many parts of the South — and what he had to say about the war stoked speculation and anticipation.

Grant had a couple of research assistants who provided him with the documents he needed. He found the writing somewhat easier than expected, and he was able to make substantial progress. But the pain in his throat grew, and he got weaker, especially within such a busy environment as New York City. Grant moved to his house near Saratoga. He tried various treatments to relieve the pain, none of which were satisfactory. He received visitors and visited with family. 

Through it all, he continued to write.

It was as if he willed himself to live until he could satisfy himself that he had finished the memoirs. When that finally happened, he took his leave from his family and died on July 23.

The memoirs were hugely successful both with critics and with the public. Historians have praised them for their simplicity and straight-forwardness. Grant’s unadorned and unassuming writing style mirrored the way in which he presented himself throughout his life. Here is the section where he describes Robert E. Lee in his meeting at Appomattox Courthouse to accept the surrender of the Confederate Army in April 1865.

What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us …

Great dignity and power exist in such writing. In that, Grant won a final victory.

His memoirs, published in two volumes, became an immediate best-seller and ultimately netted the Grant family $450,000 (about $12 million in today’s dollars). They are highly valued by historians and have been in print since they were first published, more than 130 years ago. Grant did all of this, as he had done much of his adult life, in public view.

Civil War Trust provides excellent video introduction to Gettysburg

Editor’s note: Once again we share a post with the Knoxville Civil War Roundtable website, KCWRT.org.


With the approach of the anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3), KCWRT.org will be providing some information about the battle during the next couple of weeks.

A great place to start is the video introduction to the battle produce by the Civil War Trust, which you can see below.


Historian Garry Adelman gives a quick run-through of the battle with lots of animation and supplementary footage.

Continue reading