The most important facts about America are often the ones obvious in our celebrations, and accordingly least attended to, for some reason. Consider our piety for the veterans of World War II, compared to the far less admired veterans of the Revolution and the Civil War. We have a reasonable preference for our own fathers or grandfathers, but those distant wars are surely more important events, to which America owes its existence and character. Those wars were fought on American territory, between brothers, as we say, and involved fundamental political questions. It is at home that we ought to learn the most needful and shocking things about ourselves.
April 27th marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of our greatest general since Washington, Ulysses Simpson Grant, the man who saved the Union in the daring Vicksburg Campaign, and who eventually commanded the Union armies to victory all the way to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, vindicating the principles of the Declaration of Independence as ratified in the Constitution. He is the great American who enacted Lincoln’s policy even after his martyr-like assassination on April 15, 1865. At the end of that eventful month, Grant turned 43, and he was the greatest man alive.
Unlike the Revolution, which preceded the Constitution, the Civil War was fought under constitutional authority, grounded in the unique Oath of Office that the Constitution requires of the president in Article II, Section 1, Clause 8: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Lincoln was the first president to take it dead seriously after a number of mediocrities allowed the country to go down a catastrophic path. America came close to losing its regime in that war, which best shows what war must mean to Americans. We turn to Grant’s Memoirs to learn from the highest military authority why the war was fought, how it was conducted, and what future wars must be like.
Grant’s teaching on the causes of the war in his Memoirs—a unique document by an American president, indeed any politician—is mostly found in Volume 1, Chapter 16. He only joined the Republican Party because the South seceded; he only contemplated voting for Lincoln—he couldn’t, for reasons of registration—because his preferred man, Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas, seemed to him hopeless, and Southern Democrat Breckinridge was anti-democratic, i.e. signaled minority rule over the majority. He even voted for Democrat James Buchanan in 1856, the man who did most to let the Civil War come. Grant wanted as much calm in the country as possible, to let Southern feeling cool, to avoid a great national passion.
Here is a serious man who loves his country and hopes the institutional bulwarks against civil war will suffice; a man who does not encourage by word or deed outbursts of passion. Caution is his watchword, not least because he trusts ordinary Americans and elite politicians to put the constitutional way of life above anything else. After all, the Constitution concludes with Article VI, establishing its supremacy, and Article VII, establishing ratification. These should be the last word in American politics, but of course, they are not. Grant outlines his commonsense constitutional reasoning and concludes:
Individuals might ignore the constitution; but the Nation itself must not only obey it, but must enforce the strictest construction of that instrument; the construction put upon it by the Southerners themselves. The fact is the constitution did not apply to any such contingency as the one existing from 1861 to 1865. Its framers never dreamed of such a contingency occurring. If they had foreseen it, the probabilities are they would have sanctioned the right of a State or States to withdraw rather than that there should be war between brothers.
War was unimaginable, even as the nation was hurtling toward it, despite the fear of disunion on all sides. Despite today’s growing divides, civil war has again become unimaginable. Because the Union proved victorious, we have fallen into complacency.
Essentially, Grant blamed oligarchy for the war. He blamed old Southern men in high office, who wouldn’t themselves fight, and who inflamed spirits beyond the call of peace to advance a desperate cause. He calls these men demagogues, the only time he uses the word in the Memoirs. He goes out of his way to admit that the Union effected by the Constitution was an experiment, a new idea rather than something hallowed by antiquity. He insists that democracy made it good, and the nation became one through increase of population and expansion. This led to new states that only national authority could make and authorize. Technological developments in communications and transportation also brought Americans much closer together than they had been in previous times. All this success is evidence of the goodness of the Constitution, which ordered the nation to the extent compatible with longstanding habit and the freedom of people to move and make their own arrangements.
American prosperity under the Constitution, however, brought the question of slavery to the fore. In his Conclusion, Grant says that since America was a free and educated country, slaves would run from their masters and free men would not wish to be involved in reenacting their enslavement. Fugitive slave laws became necessary to Southerners who humiliated Northerners’ sense that law ought to coincide with justice. Private opinions about black people or “social equality” were not in question—more fundamental questions of self-government were involved. Democracy would eventually win or die.
The character of the war was democratic, in an exalted sense: Lincoln and Grant led America—they were nobodies before the war. They were, of course, much more than men of the people—they pointed to the necessity that the people defend the Constitution, the last defense conceived by the Founders. Elections and a volunteer army revealed that the principles of political freedom on which America was founded were very much alive. It was not a theory of natural rights learned in schools, but the belief that by nature men were free, that is, that they have the moral and intellectual powers to organize their own affairs. Slavery was in one sense the cause of the war—the offense; but in another sense, the cause was self-government, proved by the organization of the Union to which the states contributed freely their volunteer regiments, which fought and won the war.
Like Lincoln in his First Inaugural, Grant insists that the North did not want the war; indeed, he suggests that respectable men pretended it wasn’t coming, so they weren’t prepared; but by the same measure, secession shocked them into action. The South made good on its aristocratic pride in the act of seceding and the undemocratic manner in which it occurred; the North would have to make good its democratic pride in fighting and restoring the Union. Defeating Southern armies wouldn’t suffice. Persuading the men and women of the South to accept citizenship in the Union again—this time on an explicitly democratic basis that had no more room for slavery—would also be necessary.
Throughout his account of his much-delayed rise to supreme command, Grant suggests that the difficulties of waging war as a democracy are immense. Since he was a general, he could not complain about the troops. It is the epitome of arrogant incompetence for elites to complain about ordinary people, since elites volunteer to rule them. He had to make the best of the situation—war itself, rather than prudent preparation, had to make veterans, indeed, to forge an army. Political decisions could declare war and make speeches about organizing it; and a manly popular belief in justice could act generously on those speeches; but only events, hardship, and military genius could make a real army.
Unlike the South, the North had little military character. But these men were willing to take orders and stand their posts, make their charges, and face interminable dangers, which we must put to their religion, which teaches obedience to sacred duties, whereas peaceful life in the North had little in common with the discipline of the army. The Union looked to their superior logistics and technology to make up for their relative lack of martial spirit.
Let us remember, America knew, so to speak, nothing of war in 1861. The Mexican War had been small and was already a dozen years distant. the War of 1812, almost out of living memory, had not been much larger; and the Revolution was—as Lincoln observed in his Lyceum Speech—beyond recall. Perhaps this very ignorance made people excited about war, as a long peace often does. This situation left only two kinds of things that were truly useful—the training some men had and the genius that could judge circumstances. Genius is always rare and it alone judges what victory requires, whereas a willingness to fight belongs to the people and the order of battle to the few officers or their governmental supervisors.
Worse still, the political imperative of defending the Constitution and restoring the Union meant that the South couldn’t really be treated as an enemy. Accordingly, Grant allowed his soldiers to fraternize with Southern soldiers during sieges, and always tried to take care of captured Southern soldiers, hoping to return them to their private lives. More, Grant instructed his men most severely that they were not allowed to rape, rob, or destroy wantonly, which encouraged Southern civilians to abuse their safety and humiliated Union armies, both by denying them revenge after infinite suffering and by holding their weaknesses in terrible circumstances to moral judgment.
Grant knew that he had to restore America, not conquer it, yet he had to obey the imperative of war, daring. He was constantly endangered by his own superiors and subalterns, who wouldn’t allow attacks or obey orders. His Memoirs are an attempt to teach ambitious Americans the infinite patience required to put up with setbacks and the necessity of freedom for captains to pursue opportunity when they see it. To defend democracy is also to defend it from its own greatest weaknesses—a desire for quick success mixed with hesitation in fear of failure. Democratic leaders are often both vain and silly, especially when judged from the captain’s burden—thousands of his men dying in a day.
In every campaign, Grant sought the victory that would reassure the people that their sacrifices were worthwhile and advance the strategic situation to the ultimate victory, a restoration of peace. He respected democracy enough to demand the best of his men, but he learned not to push his luck—in any given situation, he preferred innovations in strategy or even tactics to moralistic insistence on received wisdom. He understood that every battle is a test of the national character, that the war as a whole had to prove democracy right, and so his Conclusion defies the world with the news of a new republic which could withstand catastrophe, despite the historical prejudice favoring monarchy.
Grant respected his enemies, so he learned very much from them. But he thought the North rather than the South was its own worst enemy, because war policy could not be aligned to the requirements of government and popularity, including elections. Our failures in war since WWII suggest we have not yet learned Grant’s lessons, but only separated the democracy from the military, with terrible consequences for both. He taught that only manliness tied to the nation’s understanding of justice could be called a virtue and he bent his genius to that task. Nor is our interest in Grant’s wisdom merely historical—his supreme lesson for us is that we must cultivate such genius again, lest we face another civil war and, perhaps, lose America this time.