by H.L. Mencken
A review of Meet General Grant by W. E. Woodward (Horace Liverwright, publishers); The American Mercury, 1928
THE DREADFUL title of this book is not the least of its felicities. If they had been saying such things in his day it seems unquestionable that Grant would have said, “Meet the wife.” He was precisely that sort of man.
His imagination was the imagination of a respectable hay and feed dealer, and his virtues, such as they were, were indistinguishable from those of a police sergeant. Mr. Woodward, trying to be just to him, not infrequently gives him far more than he deserves. He was not, in point of fact, a man of any great competence, even as a soldier. All the major strategy of the war, including the final advance on Richmond, was planned by other men, notably Sherman. He was a ham as a tactician, and habitually wasted his men. He was even a poor judge of other generals, as witness his admiration for Sheridan and his almost unbelievable underrating of Thomas and Meade. If he won battles, it was because he had the larger battalions, and favored the primitive device of heaving them into action, callously, relentlessly, cruelly, appallingly.
Thinking was always painful to Grant, and so he never did any of it if he could help it. He had a vague distaste for war, and dreamed somewhat boozily of a day when it would be no more. But that distaste never stayed his slaughters; it only made him keep away from the wounded. He had no coherent ideas on any subject, and changed his so-called opinions overnight, and for no reason at all. He entered the war simply because he needed a job, and fought his way through it without any apparent belief in its purposes. His wife was a slaveholder to the end.
At Appomattox he showed a magnanimity that yet thrills schoolboys, but before he became President he went over to the Radical Republicans, and was largely to blame for the worst horrors of Reconstruction. His belief in rogues was congenital, touching and unlimited. He filled Washington with them, and defended them against honest men, even in the face of plain proofs of their villainy.
Retired to private life at last, he sought out the worst scoundrel of them all, gave the fellow control of his whole modest fortune, and went down to inglorious bankruptcy with him. The jail gates, that time, were uncomfortably close; if Grant had not been Grant he would have at least gone on trial. But he was completely innocent. He was too stupid to be anything else.
Mr. Woodward, as I have said, is very generous to him. There is, on almost every page of this book, an obvious effort to make the best of his good impulses, and to gloss over his colossal imbecilities. Sometimes the thing comes close to special pleading: Freud and the unconscious have to be hauled in to make out a plausible case. There is some excuse for that attitude, for Grant, for all his faults and follies, was at least full of honest intentions. Like Almayer, he always wanted to do the right thing. The trouble with him was that he could seldom find out what it was.
Once he had got beyond a few elemental ideas, his brain refused to function. Thereafter he operated by hunches, some of them good ones, but others almost idiotic. Commanding his vast armies in the field, he wandered around like a stranger, shabby, uncommunicative and only defectively respected. In the White House he was a primeval Harding, without either the diamond scarf-pin or the cutie hiding in the umbrella closet.
He tried, in his dour, bashful way, to be a good fellow. There was no flummery about him. He had no false dignity. But he was the easiest mark ever heard of. It was possible to put anything over on him, however fantastic. Now and then, by a flash of what must be called, I suppose, insight, he penetrated the impostures which surrounded him, and struck out in his Berserker way for common decency. But that was not often. His eight years were scarlet with scandal. He had a Teapot Dome on his hands once a month.
Mr. Woodward’s portrait, despite its mercies, is an extraordinarily brilliant one. The military automaton of the “Memoirs” and the noble phrase-maker of the school-books disappears, and there emerges a living and breathing man, simple-minded, more than a little bewildered, and infinitely pathetic. Grant went to the high pinnacles of glory, but he also plunged down the black steeps of woe.
I don’t think that his life was a happy one, even as happiness is counted among such primitive organisms. He was miserable as a boy, he was miserable at West Point, and he was miserable in the old army. The Mexican War revolted him, and he took to drink and lost his commission. For years he faced actual want. The Civil War brought him little satisfaction, save for a moment at the end. He was neglected in its early days in a manner that was wormwood to him, and after luck brought him opportunity he was surrounded by hostile intrigue.
He made costly and egregious blunders, notably at Shiloh and Cold Harbor; he knew the sting of professional sneers; he quailed before Lee’s sardonic eye. His eight years in the White House were years of tribulation and humiliation. His wife was ill-favored; his only daughter made a bad marriage; his relatives, both biological and in-law, harassed and exploited him. He died almost penniless, protesting that he could no longer trust a soul. He passed out in gusts of intolerable pain. It is hard to imagine harder lines.
If, in this chronicle, he sometimes recedes into the background, and seems no more than a bystander at the show, then it is because he was often that in life. Other men had a way of running him — John A. Rawlins during the war, Hamilton Fish at Washington, Ferdinand Ward afterward.
His relations to the first-named are discussed in one of Mr. Woodward’s most interesting chapters. Rawlins was the Grant family lawyer at Galena, and had no military experience when the war began. Grant made him his brigade adjutant, and thereafter submitted docilely to his domination. Rawlins was a natural pedagogue, a sort of schoolmarm with a beard. He supervised and limited Grant’s guzzling; he edited Grant’s orders; he made and unmade all other subordinates. “I have heard him curse at Grant,” said Charles A. Dana, “when, according to his judgment, the general was doing something that he thought he had better not do…. Without him Grant would have not been the same man.”
Gossip in the army went even further; it credited Rawlins with actually sharing command. “The two together,” said James H. Wilson, “constituted a military character of great simplicity, force and singleness of purpose, which has passed into history under the name of Grant.”
Rawlins gets his due in Mr. Woodward’s story, and so do many of the other great characters of the time, most of them already grown fabulous. The book shows hard study and great shrewdness. It would be hard to surpass, for sound sense, the analysis of Andrew Johnson’s vexed and murky personality in the twenty-fourth chapter, or the picture of the Negro freedman which follows it. Here is not only good writing; here is also a highly enlightened point of view. Mr. Woodward is a man of Southern birth and grew up in the midst of the Confederate katzenjammer, but there is no sign of it in his narrative. He is magnificently impartial. The fustian of the Federal patrioteers does not deceive him, but neither is he deceived by the blather of their opponents. He knows how to be amusing without departing from the strict letter of history. He conceals erudition beneath a charming manner. He has written a biography of great merit. It more than fulfills the promise of his Washington.