Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Grant the Difference

Lincoln dealt with a lot of confident generals during the Civil War – at least vocally confident. To cut straight to the clearest example, George McClellan spent nine months amassing troops for an amphibious assault in eastern Virginia, sure that his plan offered the best way to win the war in one quick campaign. He defended his plan vehemently against every concern Lincoln raised over the course of those nine months, all the while taking the opportunity to parade his army through the streets of Washington and receive the adulation of the capital’s residents. But in the end, he accomplished little with his plan, except to bring Robert E. Lee onto the big stage.

In the meantime, Grant showed up in Missouri and Kentucky and Tennessee and started accomplishing things without much fanfare and with no parades. As Shelby Foote tells the story, Grant exhibited his unusual character right from the start. That character included a cool, phlegmatic acceptance of the unexpected. Born Hiram Ulysses Grant, West Point made a clerical mistake and enrolled him as Ulysses Simpson Grant. But Grant just went with it. Why fight the Army Academy? Or maybe he just enjoyed having the combination U. S. for his initials. His first expedition of the Civil War, at Belmont, Missouri, in November of 1861, resulted in defeat. But, true to his character, he kept his head during the fight and learned from his mistakes. (He made very few in the next four years.)

Three months later, having taken Ft. Henry, Grant delivered his famous ultimatum to the commander of nearby Ft. Donelson: “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” And no other terms were offered. But quietly confident Grant let his commander, Henry Halleck, wire Washington and take credit for the good news. Still, the soldiers knew who had orchestrated the victory, and they found a new meaning for those mistaken initials: Unconditional Surrender Grant.

Later in the war, Grant developed a reputation for grim indifference to death. But the man just seemed able to accept the conditions of his job and showed no signs of turning duty into personal animosity for his opponents. During the Mexican War, he wrote to his fiancée, “If we have to fight, I would like to do it all at once and then make friends.” Twenty years later, when accepting Lee’s surrender, Grant displayed the same sentiment, letting the defeated officers keep their ceremonial swords and allowing all the defeated soldiers to head home with their horses so as to have means to start up their farms again. At his second inaugural address, Lincoln urged, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, let us strive to bind up the nation’s wounds.” Grant embodied those words.

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