I can recommend reading this book if you either
a) can somehow get your hands on just the highlights; or
b) are really into military minutiae.
It’s a highly detailed account of Grant’s time in the military, basically from the Mexican-American War through the end of the Civil War. Scattered throughout is this kind of thing:
About four in the afternoon I sent for the corps commanders and directed the dispositions to be made of their troops. Sherman was to remain in Jackson until he destroyed that place as a railroad centre, and manufacturing city of military supplies. He did the work most effectually. Sherman and I went together into a manufactory which had not ceased work on account of the battle nor for the entrance of Yankee troops. Our presence did not seem to attract the attention of either the manager or the operatives, most of whom were girls. We looked on for a while to see the tent cloth which they were making roll out of the looms, with “C. S. A.” woven in each bolt. There was an immense amount of cotton, in bales, stacked outside. Finally I told Sherman I thought they had done work enough. The operatives were told they could leave and take with them what cloth they could carry. In a few minutes cotton and factory were in a blaze. The proprietor visited Washington while I was President to get his pay for this property, claiming that it was private. He asked me to give him a statement of the fact that his property had been destroyed by National troops, so that he might use it with Congress where he was pressing, or proposed to press, his claim. I declined.
This man is cold-blooded. But then you get this sort of passage that I find devastating:
There was no time during the rebellion when I did not think, and often say, that the South was more to be benefited by its defeat than the North. The latter had the people, the institutions, and the territory to make a great and prosperous nation. The former was burdened with an institution abhorrent to all civilized people not brought up under it, and one which degraded labor, kept it in ignorance, and enervated the governing class. With the outside world at war with this institution, they could not have extended their territory. The labor of the country was not skilled, nor allowed to become so. The whites could not toil without becoming degraded, and those who did were denominated “poor white trash.” The system of labor would have soon exhausted the soil and left the people poor. The non-slaveholders would have left the country, and the small slaveholder must have sold out to his more fortunate neighbor. Soon the slaves would have outnumbered the masters, and, not being in sympathy with them, would have risen in their might and exterminated them. The war was expensive to the South as well as to the North, both in blood and treasure, but it was worth all it cost.
I learned a lot from this book. For instance, Grant says bluntly that “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican[-American] war,” and that “The occupation, separation and annexation were, from the inception of the movement to its final consummation, a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union.” And while I’d seen it referred to in other works (e.g., David Herbert Donald’s biography of Lincoln), I’d never appreciated just how consistently the Union refused to treat the South as a real nation: Grant consistently refers to “to so-called Confederate government,” and explains “that their object was to negotiate terms of peace between he United States and, as they termed it, the Confederate Government.”
Grant believed that the war could have been over in mere months had his bosses been willing to take advantage of their early successes; instead he and the chief military officer, Henry Halleck, were in conflict throughout the war, with Halleck constantly taking a cautious approach. Grant’s reserve throughout his memoirs makes me wonder what he really thought of Halleck; Grant must have believed that Halleck’s slow pace cost tens of thousands of Union lives.
Ta-Nehisi Coates quotes a number of other passages, including a long must-read passage about the lead-up to the Civil War, about a purported Constitutional right to secede from the Union, and about much else besides. It was the passages Coates quotes that drew me to read Grant’s book. I’m very glad I did.
One bit toward the end really puzzled me. Grant says that President Andrew Johnson started out wanting to treat the South as contemptible criminals — to punish them and isolate them. Soon, though,
Mr. Johnson, after a complete revolution of sentiment, seemed to regard the South not only as an oppressed people, but as the people best entitled to consideration of any of our citizens. This was more than the people who had secured to us the perpetuation of the Union were prepared for, and they became more radical in their views.
So Johnson’s about-face caused a counter-reaction among Northerners? At the time Grant wrote — 1885, completing the book just days before his death — all his readers must have known what he was talking about; 130 years on, I do not. Nor do I understand Grant’s reference to “legislation enacted during the reconstruction period to stay the hands of the President”. Joan Waugh’s Grant biography is next in queue, so perhaps she’ll explain these things to me. Or perhaps I need to reread Foner.