Mark Twain once described Grant’s memoirs as the finest piece of literature written in the English literature in the nineteenth century. It was an apt description. In the last years of his life in an extraordinary piece of courage, because he was dying of throat cancer at the time, Grant wrote his memoirs. The greatest general in American history finished the last paragraphs in the days immediately before he died.
In his memoirs, Grant described the course of his life from his early days in Ohio through to the end of the Civil War. He told his story with great humility and humor, with a sharp understanding of the political and strategic issues that the war involved, and in a style that is simple, eloquent, and perceptive. As he remarks about his time at West Point, the time he spent on the banks of the Hudson appeared to pass so slowly that one year at the point appeared to equal five Ohio years. At times Grant’s easy, clear style can mislead the reader, because the very ease with which he recounts events can result in the reader passing over some of Grant’s extraordinarily sharp observations. There is, moreover, in Grant’s narrative an honesty with his account of his conduct of war that is extremely rare among senior military officers. Perhaps only the great British general, Field Marshal William Slim, equaled Grant’s honest and perceptive account of his war in his own memoir, Defeat into Victory.
For Grant the Civil War emerged from what he regarded as the immoral American war on Mexico, at least as its triggering cause. But he also marks out the contribution that the evil of slavery made to the war’s outbreak, as well as the unwillingness of Southern whites to recognize the consequences of their actions. As a result of the Battle of Shiloh, Grant saw that there would be no simple, quick route to victory in the war. Rather, Northern armies would have quite literally to bring the war home to Southern whites, which is precisely what he and the armies that he commanded would do.
In every respect, Grant’s memoirs represent the most important account of the war by a participant, an account that by its honesty and perceptions make it one of the greatest books ever written by a general. It is a must read for any serious student of military history and particularly for students of the Civil War.