Campaigning With Grant

This is a book by Horace Porter, who was on Grant’s staff.  It’s generally considered to be a reliable account; however, it was written well after the fact.  It was written in 1897, well after Grant’s death.  But Porter apparently had his daily journal with him when he wrote it, so he at least had a contemporaneous source with him when he wrote this book.  But I can’t help wondering how much of the book was influenced by subsequent events and subsequent other writings.

Those caveats aside, the book is a really good read, and it gives us an up close and personal view of General Grant from the latter part of 1863 to the end of the war.

In discussing Grant’s arrival at Chattanooga, James H. Wilson claimed it was he, a member of Grant’s staff, who called Gen. George H. Thomas’ attention to the fact that Grant was “wet and tired and ought to have some dry clothes.” [James H. Wilson, Under the Old Flag, Vol 1, p. 274]  Porter, however, who at the time was on Thomas’ staff, says, “A member of General Thomas’s staff quietly called that officer’s attention to the fact that the distinguished guest’s clothes were pretty wet and his boots were thoroughly soaked with rain after his long ride through the storm, and intimated that colds were usually no respecters of persons.  General Thomas’s mind had been so intent upon receiving the commander, and arranging for a conference of officers, that he had entirely overlooked his guest’s travel-stained condition; but as soon as his attention was called to it, all of his old-time Virginia hospitality was aroused, and he at once begged his newly arrived chief to step into a bedroom and change his clothes.” [p. 4]  I think that right now I have to go with Porter on this, as it doesn’t seem likely to me that a staff officer would speak to a general officer the way Wilson claims to have spoken to Thomas.  In discussing Grant’s demeanor and actions at the conference at Thomas’ headquarters, Porter writes, “So intelligent were his inquiries, and so pertinent his suggestions, that he made a profound impression upon every one by the quickness of his perception and the knowledge which he had already acquired regarding important details of the army’s condition.  His questions showed from the outset that his mind was dwelling not only upon the prompt opening of a line of supplies, but upon taking the offensive against the enemy.” [p. 5]  He goes on to say, “After talking over a plan for communicating with our base of supplies, or, as he called it in his conversation, ‘opening up the cracker line,’ an operation which already had been projected and for which preliminary steps had been taken, he turned to me as chief of ordnance of the Army of the Cumberland, and asked, ‘How much ammunition is there on hand?’  I replied, ‘There is barely enough here to fight one day’s battle, but an ample supply has been accumulated at Bridgeport to await the opening of communications.’ ” [p. 5]

In discussing Grant at work on dispatches, Porter says, “He sat with his head bent low over the table, and when he had occasion to step to another table or desk to get a paper he wanted, he would glide rapidly across the room without straightening himself, and return to his seat with his body still bent over at about the same angle at which he had been sitting when he left his chair.  Upon this occasion he tossed the sheets of paper across the table as he finished them, leaving them in the wildest disorder.  When he had completed the despatch [sic], he gathered up the scattered sheets, read them over rapidly, and arranged them in their proper order.” [p. 7]  He writes of Grant, “I cannot dwell too forcibly on the deep impression made upon those who had come in contact for the first time with the new commander, by the exhibition they witnessed of his singular mental powers and his rare military qualities.  Coming to us crowned with the laurels he had gained in the brilliant campaign of Vicksburg, we naturally expected to meet a well-equipped soldier, but hardly anybody was prepared to find one who had the grasp, the promptness of decision, and the general administrative capacity which he displayed at the very start as commander of an extensive military division, in which many complicated problems were presented for immediate solution.” [p. 8]  Porter is the source for the anecdote of confederate pickets saluting Grant: “A sentinel of our picket-guard recognized General Grant as he approached, and gave the customary cry, ‘Turn out the guard–commanding general!’  The enemy on the opposite side of the creek evidently heard the words, and one of his sentinels cried out, ‘Turn out the guard–General Grant!’  The confederate guard took up the joke and promptly formed, facing our line, and presented arms.  The general returned the salute by lifting his hat, the guard was then dismissed, and he continued his ride toward our left.  We knew that we were engaged in a civil war, but such civility largely exceeded our expectations.” [p. 11]

Porter became a part of Grant’s staff and came to Washington with Grant.  Porter had a very high opinion of Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, and we can tell that from the beginning.  “Sheridan arrived in Washington on April 4.  He had been worn down almost to a shadow by hard work and exposure in the field; he weighed only a hundred and fifteen pounds, and as his height was but five feet six inches, he looked anything but formidable as a candidate for a cavalry leader.  He had met the President and the officials at the War Department that day for the first time, and it was his appearance on this occasion which gave rise to a remark made to General Grant the next time he visited the department: ‘The officer you brought on from the West is rather a little fellow to handle your cavalry.’  To which Grant replied, ‘You will find him big enough for the purpose before we get through with him.’ ” [pp. 23-24]

We can read here the story of Grant telling a reporter who asked how long it will take him to get to Richmond, “I will agree to be there in about four days–that is, if General Lee becomes a party to the agreement; but if he objects, the trip will undoubtedly be prolonged.” [pp. 43-44]  Porter tells us of a conversation with Grant about Grant’s plans for the upcoming campaign: “He said: ‘I don’t expect much from Sigel’s movement; it is made principally for the purpose of preventing the enemy in his front from withdrawing troops to reinforce Lee’s army.  To use an expression of Mr. Lincoln’s, employed in my last conversation with him, while I was speaking of this general policy, ‘If Sigel can’t skin himself, he can hold a leg while somebody else skins.’ ‘ ” [p. 46]  Porter writes that in a conversation with confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet well after the war, “the evening on which news was received that Grant intended to give personal direction to the army which was to operate against Lee, he had a conversation on the subject at Lee’s headquarters.  An officer present talked very confidently of being able to whip with all ease the western general who was to confront them, at which Longstreet said: ‘Do you know Grant?’ ‘No,’ the officer replied.  ‘Well, I do,’ continued Longstreet.  ‘I was in the corps of cadets with him at West Point for three years, I was present at his wedding, I served in the same army with him in Mexico, I have observed his methods of warfare in the West, and I believe I know him through and through; and I tell you that we cannot afford to underrate him and the army he now commands.  We must make up our minds to get into line of battle and to stay there; for that man will fight us every day and every hour till the end of this war.  In order to whip him we must outmaneuver him, and husband our strength as best we can.’ ” [pp. 46-47]

It’s well known that at the Battle of the Wilderness, Grant sat on a stump and whittled sticks with a knife while wearing gloves.  Depending on who is telling the story, the gloves are alternately white gloves, yellow gloves, kid gloves, or cloth gloves.  According to Porter, “While these preparations were progressing, General Grant lighted a cigar, sat down on the stump of a tree, took out his penknife, and began to whittle a stick.  He kept on his brown thread gloves, and did not remove them once during the entire day.” [p. 50]  He also tells us, “The occupation played sad havoc with the thread gloves, and before nightfall several holes had been worn in them, from which his finger-nails protruded.  After that day the gloves disappeared, and the general thereafter went without them in camp, and wore the usual buckskin gauntlets when on horseback.  It was not till the Appomattox campaign that another pair of thread gloves was donned.  There was a mystery about the use of those gloves which was never entirely solved.  The impression was that Mrs. Grant had purchased them, and handed them to the general before he started from Washington, and that, either in deference to her, or because he had a notion that the officers in the Eastern armies were greater sticklers for dress than those in the armies of the West, he wore the gloves continuously for the first three days of his opening campaign in Virginia; that is to say, as long as they lasted under the wear and tear to which he subjected them.” [p. 65]  Porter reported the news of Brig. Gen. [posthumously breveted to Maj. Gen.] Alexander Hays’ death to Grant.  “Upon learning the intelligence I brought, he was visibly affected.  He was seated upon the ground with his back against a tree, still whittling pine sticks.  He sat for a time without uttering a word, and then, speaking in a low voice, and pausing between the sentences, said: ‘Hays and I were cadets together for three years.  We served for a time in the same regiment in the Mexican war.  He was a noble man and a gallant officer.  I am not surprised that he met his death at the head of his troops; it was just like him.  He was a man who would never follow, but would always lead in battle.’ ” [p. 52]  At 4AM on May 6, 1864, the headquarters staff awoke and gathered for breakfast.  According to Porter, “The general made rather a singular meal preparatory to so exhausting a day as that which was to follow.  He took a cucumber, sliced it, poured some vinegar over it, and partook of nothing else except a cup of strong coffee.  The first thing he did after rising from the table was to call for a fresh supply of cigars.  His colored servant ‘Bill’ brought him two dozen.  After lighting one of them, he filled his pockets with the rest.” [p. 56]  That evening at 8PM, Hancock came by for a conference.  Grant offered Hancock a cigar and had only one left.  “Deducting the number he had given away from the supply he had started out with in the morning showed that he had smoked that day about twenty, all very strong and of formidable size.  But it must be remembered that it was a particularly long day.  He never afterward equaled that record in the use of tobacco.” [p. 70]  Earlier that evening occurred another well-known event.  “A general officer came in from his command at this juncture, and said to the general-in-chief, speaking rapidly and laboring under considerable excitement: ‘General Grant, this is a crisis that cannot be looked upon too seriously.  I know Lee’s methods well by past experience; he will throw his whole army between us and the Rapidan, and cut us off completely from our communications.’  The general rose to his feet, took his cigar out of his mouth, turned to the officer, and replied, with a degree of animation which he seldom manifested: ‘Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do.  Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time.  Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.’ ” [pp. 69-70]  That night, according to James H. Wilson, who claimed to get the information from two others, John Rawlins and Theodore Bowers that, “Grant went into his tent, and throwing himself face downward on his cot, gave way to the greatest emotion, but without uttering any word of doubt or discouragement.” [James H. Wilson, Under the Old Flag, Vol. 1, p. 390]  Porter has a different view, and he appears to have been there himself.  He tells us, “The general, after having given his final orders providing for any emergency which might arise, entered his tent, and threw himself down upon his camp-bed.  Ten minutes thereafter an alarming report was received from the right.  I looked in his tent, and found him sleeping as soundly and as peacefully as an infant.” [pp. 70-71]

Here’s how Porter claims Grant felt about the end of the Wilderness battle: “He expressed himself as satisfied with the result in the main, saying: ‘While it is in one sense a drawn battle, as neither side has gained or lost ground substantially since the fighting began, yet we remain in possession of the field, and the forces opposed to us have withdrawn to a distance from our front and taken up a defensive position.  We cannot call the engagement a positive victory, but the enemy have only twice actually reached our lines in their many attacks, and have not gained a single advantage.  This will enable me to carry out my intention of moving to the left, and compelling the enemy to fight in a more open country and outside of their breastworks.’ ” [p. 76]  I’m not so sure I accept that as word-for-word what Grant said, but I imagine it could express the gist of how he felt.  In describing the reaction of the common soldiers to the movement south, Porter writes, “Troops know but little about what is going on in a large army, except the occurrences which take place in their immediate vicinity; but this night ride of the general-in-chief told plainly the story of success, and gave each man to understand that the cry was to be ‘On to Richmond!’  Soldiers weary and sleepy after their long battle, with stiffened limbs and smarting wounds, now sprang to their feet, forgetful of their pains, and rushed forward to the roadside.  Wild cheers echoed through the forest, and glad shouts of triumph rent the air.  Men swung their hats, tossed up their arms, and pressed forward to within touch of their chief, clapping their hands, and speaking to him with the familiarity of comrades.  Pine-knots and leaves were set on fire, and lighted the scene with their weird, flickering glare.  The night march had become a triumphal procession for the new commander.” [p. 79]  It seems to me that Porter may be overdramatizing the scene, but we do have other accounts of the soldiers being cheered by the move south.  Porter also gives us this glimpse of Grant the human being: “A drum corps in passing caught sight of the general, and at once struck up a then popular negro camp-meeting air.  Every one began to laugh, and Rawlins cried, ‘Good for the drummers!’  ‘What’s the fun?’ inquired the general.  ‘Why,’ was the reply, ‘they are playing, ‘Ain’t I glad to get out ob de wilderness!’ ‘  The general smiled at the ready wit of the musicians, and said, ‘Well, with me a musical joke always requires explanation.  I know only two tunes: one is ‘Yankee Doodle,’ and the other isn’t.’ ” [p. 83]

Porter is another source, perhaps the original source, for the great blow-up between Meade and Sheridan.  Meade, according to Porter, “had worked himself into a towering passion regarding the delays encountered in the forward movement, and when Sheridan appeared went at him hammer and tongs, accusing him of blunders, and charging him with not making a proper disposition of his troops, and letting the cavalry block the advance of the infantry.  Sheridan was equally fiery, and, smarting under the belief that he was unjustly treated, all the hotspur in his nature was aroused.  He insisted that Meade had created the trouble by countermanding his (Sheridan’s) orders, and that it was this act which had resulted in mixing up his troops with the infantry, exposing to great danger Wilson’s division, which had advanced as far as Spottsylvania [sic] Court-house, and rendering ineffectual all his combinations regarding the movements of the cavalry corps.  Sheridan declared with great warmth that he would not command the cavalry any longer under such conditions, and said if he could have matters his own way he would concentrate all the cavalry, move out in force against Stuart’s command, and whip it.  His language throughout was highly spiced and conspicuously italicized with expletives.  General Meade came over to General Grant’s tent immediately after, and related the interview to him.  The excitement of the one was in singular contrast to the calmness of the other.  When Meade repeated the remarks made by Sheridan, that he could move out with his cavalry and whip Stuart, General Grant quietly observed, ‘Did Sheridan say that?  Well, he generally knows what he is talking about.  Let him start right out and do it.’  By one o’clock Sheridan had received his orders in writing from Meade for the movement.” [p. 84]

During the battle at Spotsylvania, according to Porter, Grant sent an order to Meade regarding Gouverneur K. Warren, commanding the V Corps.  The order was that if Warren failed to attack at once, Meade was to relieve Warren of command and place Andrew A. Humphreys in command of that corps.  According to Porter, Grant then said, “I feel sorry to be obliged to send such an order in regard to Warren.  He is an officer for whom I had conceived a very high regard.  His quickness of perception, personal gallantry, and soldierly bearing pleased me, and a few days ago I should have been inclined to place him in command of the Army of the Potomac in case Meade had been killed; but I began to feel, after his want of vigor in assaulting on the 8th, that he was not as efficient as I had believed, and his delay in attacking and the feeble character of his assaults to-day confirm me in my apprehensions.” [p. 108]  Grant’s and Meade’s growing dissatisfaction with Warren would eventually lead to his relief by Sheridan at Five Forks almost a year later.

Grant’s staff engaged in a conversation about Meade.  “An animated discussion took place at headquarters that day regarding General Meade’s somewhat anomalous position, and the embarrassments which were at times caused on the field by the necessity of issuing orders through him instead of direct to the corps commanders.  The general-in-chief always invited the most frank and cordial interchange of views, and never failed to listen patiently to the more prominent members of his staff.  He seldom joined in the discussions, and usually reserved what he had to say till the end of the argument, when he gave his views and rendered his decision.  It was now urged upon him, with much force, that time was often lost in having field orders pass through an intermediary; that there was danger that, in transmitting orders to corps commanders, the instructions might be either so curtailed or elaborated as to change their spirit; that no matter how able General Meade might be, his position was in some measure a false one; that few responsibilities were given him; and yet he was charged with the duties of an army commander; that if he failed the responsibility could not be fixed upon him, and if he succeeded he could not reap the full reward of his merits; that, besides, he had an irascible temper, and often irritated officers who came in contact with him, while General Grant was even-tempered, and succeeded in securing a more hearty cooperation of his generals when he dealt with them direct.  The discussion became heated at times.  At the close of the arguments the general said: ‘I am fully aware that some embarrassments arise from the present organization, but there is more weight on the other side of the question.  I am commanding all the armies, and I cannot neglect others by giving my time exclusively to the Army of the Potomac, which would involve performing all the detailed duties of an army commander, directing its administration, enforcing discipline, reviewing its court-martial proceedings, etc.  I have Burnside’s, Butler’s, and Siegel’s armies to look after in Virginia, to say nothing of our Western armies, and I may make Sheridan’s cavalry a separate command.  Besides, Meade has served a long time with the Army of the Potomac, knows its subordinate officers thoroughly, and led it to a memorable victory at Gettysburg.  I have just come from the West, and if I removed a deserving Eastern man from the position of army commander, my motives might be misunderstood, and the effect be bad upon the spirits of the troops.  General Meade and I are in close contact on the field; he is capable and perfectly subordinate, and by attending to the details he relieves me of much unnecessary work, and gives me more time to think and to mature my general plans.  I will always see that he gets full credit for what he does.’ ” [pp. 114-115]

We also get some of the story of Grant’s servant, “Bill”:  “Bill, the servant who waited on the general, was a notable character.  He was entirely a creature of accident.  When the general was at Cairo [Illinois] in 1861, Bill suddenly appeared one day at headquarters with two other slave boys, who had just escaped from their former masters in Missouri.  They belonged to that class of fugitive blacks who were characterized by those given to artistic comparisons as ‘charcoal sketches from the hands of the old masters.’  Bill was of a genuine burnt-cork hue, and no white blood contaminated the purity of his lineage.  He at once set himself to work without orders, taking care of one of the aides, and by dint of his force of character resisted all efforts of that officer to discharge him.  When any waiter was absent, or even when all were present, he would turn up in the headquarters mess-tent and insist on helping the general at table.  Then he attached himself to Colonel Boomer and forced that officer in spite of himself to submit to his services.  After the colonel had been killed in the assault on Vicksburg, Bill suddenly put in an appearance again at headquarters, and was found making himself useful to the general, notwithstanding the protests of the other servants, and before long he had himself regularly entered upon the general’s private pay-roll.  When his chief came East, Bill followed, and gradually took entire charge of the general’s personal comfort as valet, waiter, and man of all work.  He was devoted, never known to be beyond call, had studied the general’s habits so carefully that he could always anticipate his few wants, and became really very useful.” [p. 130]

Porter gives us a description of an event that illustrates one of the few things that could really get Grant angry:  “As the party turned a bend in the road near the crossing of the Totopotomoy, the general came in sight of a teamster whose wagon was stalled in a place where it was somewhat swampy, and who was standing beside his team beating his horses brutally in the face with the butt-end of his whip, and swearing with a volubility calculated to give a sulphurous odor to all the surrounding atmosphere.  Grant’s aversion to profanity and his love of horses caused all the ire in his nature to be aroused by the sight presented.  Putting both spurs into ‘Egypt’s’ flanks, he dashed toward the teamster, and raising his clenched fist, called out to him: ‘What does this conduct mean, you scoundrel?  Stop beating those horses!’  The teamster looked at him, and said coolly, as he delivered another blow aimed a the face of the wheel-horse: ‘Well, who’s drivin’ this team anyhow–you or me?’  The general was now thoroughly angered, and his manner was by no means as angelic as that of the celestial being who called a halt when Balaam was disciplining the ass.  ‘I’ll show you, you infernal villain!’ he cried, shaking his fist in the man’s face.  Then calling to an officer of the escort, he said: ‘Take this man in charge and have him tied up to a tree for six hours as a punishment for his brutality.’  The man slunk off sullenly in charge of the escort to receive his punishment, without showing any penitence for his conduct.  He was evidently a hardened case.  Of course he was not aware that the officer addressing him was the general-in-chief, but he evidently knew that he was an officer of high rank, as he was accompanied by a staff and an escort, so that there was no excuse for the insubordinate and insolent remark.  During the stirring scenes of that day’s battle the general twice referred to the incident in vehement language, showing that the recollection of it was still rankling in his mind.” [pp. 164-165]

Porter recorded his observations of the troops at Cold Harbor the night before the June 3 assault:  “In passing along on foot among the troops at the extreme front that evening while transmitting some of the final orders, I observed an incident which afforded a practical illustration of the deliberate and desperate courage of the men.  as I came near one of the regiments which was making preparations for the next morning’s assault, I noticed that many of the soldiers had taken off their coats, and seemed to be engaging in sewing up rents in them.  This exhibition of tailoring seemed rather peculiar at such a moment, but upon closer examination it was found that the men were calmly writing their names and home addresses on slips of paper, and pinning them on the backs of their coats, so that their dead bodies might be recognized upon the field, and their fate made known to their families at home.  They were veterans who knew well from terrible experience the danger which awaited them, but their minds were occupied not with thoughts of shirking their duty, but with preparation for the desperate work of the coming morning.  Such courage is more than heroic–it is sublime.” [pp. 174-175]  Brooks and Kevin have already mentioned this on their blogs [here and here].  I’ve gone back and forth on this.  Right now I’m at the point of accepting this account, though also accepting that Porter is overdramatizing a little bit in order to make a point about the courage of the common soldiers.  Others claim it’s because the men knew the assault would be futile, but I don’t think that’s Porter’s intent.  After the attack was over, according to Porter, “The general said: ‘I regret this assault more than any one I have ever ordered.  I regarded it as a stern necessity, and believed that it would bring compensating results; but, as it has proved, no advantages have been gained sufficient to justify the heavy losses suffered.  The early assault at Vicksburg, while it was not successful, yet brought compensating advantages; for it taught the men that they cold not seize the much-coveted prize of that stronghold without a siege, and it was the means of making them work cheerfully and patiently afterward in the trenches, and of securing the capture of the place with but little more loss of life; whereas if the assault had not been made the men could not have been convinced that they could not have captured the city by making a dash upon it which might have saved them many months of arduous labor, sickness, and fatigue.’ ” [p. 179]  Grant, in his Memoirs, writes this: “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made. I might say the same thing of the assault of the 22d of May, 1863, at Vicksburg. At Cold Harbor no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained. Indeed, the advantages other than those of relative losses, were on the Confederate side. Before that, the Army of Northern Virginia seemed to have acquired a wholesome regard for the courage, endurance, and soldierly qualities generally of the Army of the Potomac. They no longer wanted to fight them “one Confederate to five Yanks.” Indeed, they seemed to have given up any idea of gaining any advantage of their antagonist in the open field. They had come to much prefer breastworks in their front to the Army of the Potomac. This charge seemed to revive their hopes temporarily; but it was of short duration. The effect upon the Army of the Potomac was the reverse. When we reached the James River, however, all effects of the battle of Cold Harbor seemed to have disappeared.  There was more justification for the assault at Vicksburg. We were in a Southern climate, at the beginning of the hot season. The Army of the Tennessee had won five successive victories over the garrison of Vicksburg in the three preceding weeks. They had driven a portion of that army from Port Gibson with considerable loss, after having flanked them out of their stronghold at Grand Gulf. They had attacked another portion of the same army at Raymond, more than fifty miles farther in the interior of the State, and driven them back into Jackson with great loss in killed, wounded, captured and missing, besides loss of large and small arms: they had captured the capital of the State of Mississippi, with a large amount of materials of war and manufactures. Only a few days before, they had beaten the enemy then penned up in the town first at Champion’s Hill, next at Big Black River Bridge, inflicting upon him a loss of fifteen thousand or more men (including those cut off from returning) besides large losses in arms and ammunition. The Army of the Tennessee had come to believe that they could beat their antagonist under any circumstances. There was no telling how long a regular siege might last. As I have stated, it was the beginning of the hot season in a Southern climate. There was no telling what the casualties might be among Northern troops working and living in trenches, drinking surface water filtered through rich vegetation, under a tropical sun. If Vicksburg could have been carried in May, it would not only have saved the army the risk it ran of a greater danger than from the bullets of the enemy, but it would have given us a splendid army, well equipped and officered, to operate elsewhere with. These are reasons justifying the assault. The only benefit we gained—and it was a slight one for so great a sacrifice—was that the men worked cheerfully in the trenches after that, being satisfied with digging the enemy out. Had the assault not been made, I have no doubt that the majority of those engaged in the siege of Vicksburg would have believed that had we assaulted it would have proven successful, and would have saved life, health and comfort.” [PMUSG, pp. 344-345]  I tend to think Porter wrote his account with Grant’s account in mind and embellished a bit on what Grant may have actually said, if Grant even commented at that time.

In an account of Meade at Petersburg, Porter wrote, “Indeed, Meade had shown brilliant qualities as commander of a large army, and under the general directions given him had made all the dispositions and issued all the detailed orders.  Grant felt it necessary to remain at City Point in order to be in communication with both Meade and Butler, as Lee’s troops were that day moving rapidly south past Butler’s front.  My duties kept me on Meade’s front a large part of the day.  He showed himself the personification of earnest, vigorous action in rousing his subordinate commanders to superior exertions.  Even his fits of anger and his resort to intemperate language stood him at times in good stead in spurring on every one upon that active field.” [p. 209]  He also had this to say about Meade: “General Meade was a most accomplished officer.  He had been thoroughly educated in his profession, and had a complete knowledge of both the sciences and the art of war in all its branches.  He was well read, possessed of a vast amount of interesting information, had cultivated his mind as a linguist, and spoke French with fluency.  When foreign officers visited the front they were invariably charmed by their interviews with the commander of the Army of the Potomac.  He was a disciplinarian to the point of severity, was entirely subordinate to his superiors, and no one was more prompt than he to obey orders to the letter.  In his intercourse with his officers the bluntness of the soldier was always conspicuous, and he never took pains to smooth any one’s ruffled feelings.” [p. 247]  Here we see in print a famous sobriquet applied to Meade.  A physician had complained to Meade that one of the men had called him an “Old Pill Pusher,” and Meade replied, “Well, what of that?  How can I prevent it?  Why, I hear that, when I rode out the other day, some of the men called me a ‘d—-d old goggle-eyed snapping turtle,’ and I can’t even stop that!” [p. 248]

Porter also made observations of Grant’s writing:  “In writing his style was vigorous and terse, with little of ornament; its most conspicuous characteristic was perspicuity.  General Meade’s chief of staff once said: ‘There is one striking feature about Grant’s orders: no matter how hurriedly he may write them on the field, no one ever has the slightest doubt as to their meaning, or ever has to read them over a second time to understand them.’  The general used Anglo-Saxon words much more frequently than those derived from the Greek and Latin tongues.  He had studied French at West Point, and picked up some knowledge of Spanish during the Mexican War; but he could not hold a conversation in either language, and rarely employed a foreign word in any of his writings.  His adjectives were few and well chosen.  No document which ever came from his hands was in the least degree pretentious.” [pp. 240-241]

We’ve already seen one instance of Grant as an animal lover who hated to see animals treated cruelly.  Porter gives us some more detail.  “The general was no sportsman himself, and never shot or fished … He never gave a reason for not hunting, but it was evident that he felt that certain forms of it furnished a kind of sport which was too cruel to suit his tastes.  He described the only bull-fight he ever attended as presenting ‘a most sickening sight,’ and never seemed to take any pleasure in sports which caused suffering on the part of either animals or human beings.” [p. 365]  We also get a glimpse of Abraham Lincoln as an animal lover.  “Three tiny kittens were crawling about the tent at the time.  The mother had died, and the little wanderers were expressing their grief by mewing piteously.  Mr. Lincoln picked them up, took them on his lap, stroked their soft fur, and murmured: ‘Poor little creatures, don’t cry; you’ll be taken good care of,’ and turning to Bowers, said: ‘Colonel, I hope you will see that these poor little motherless waifs are given plenty of milk and treated kindly.’ Bowers replied: ‘I will see, Mr. President, that they are taken in charge by the cook of our mess, and are well cared for.’  Several times during his stay Mr. Lincoln was found fondling these kittens.  He would wipe their eyes tenderly with his handkerchief, stroke their smooth coats, and listen to them purring their gratitude to him.” [p 410]

Porter gives us personal glimpses of the men we read about who did great things.  While I suspect some of what he wrote was influenced by what subsequently happened and subsequently was written, most of it rings true as we would expect it to sound knowing he wrote his book with his daily journal at his side.  Anyone who wants to consider themselves a serious student of the war has to read this book.  It’s well written in an engaging style, and is an excellent source for understanding these men and their actions.

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4 comments

  1. This is another one I own thanks to B&N’s free Nook books program. Haven’t finished it (at 415 pages, it’s not a quick read), as I keep getting distracted by other books that come in from library loan – reading How the North Won right now thanks to some other blogger’s recommendation. 😉 But yes, from what I’ve read, your review is spot on. It’s like getting to go back in time and hear a guy who really knows Grant first-hand talk about him in detail.

    1. Bert, if you were following this blog in its early days you would have gotten that recommendation sooner. 🙂

  2. True, A LOT sooner. I might even be half way done with it by now. 😉 It is quite the massive tome. Looking at the comments from that page, I wonder if Jim ever finished it. 🙂

    1. I read it back in the ’90s and thought it was a bit slow going but still outstanding.

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