Without this great soldier, our nation would not exist in anything like its current form. It is certain that absent Grant, the civil war would have ended differently. He was a modest man with a modest intellect and modest ambition. But his character was beyond reproach and his courage magnificent. He embodied not just physical courage, though he had that, but emotional courage as well. He was willing to risk failure to advance his objective; he took responsibility for failure when it visited him. In financial matters it was seemingly omnipresent; in military matters it was rare, and he always learned from it.
He always looked after the troops. He disliked making them undergo hardship unnecessarily. And he took care that they had equipment, food, and clothing having learned the importance of logistics while serving under Zach Taylor in Mexico. After Shiloh he ordered wagons to come to the aid of the some wounded he had encountered. When he noticed that only the Union troops were being aided, he ordered that the enemy wounded also be evacuated to the field hospital.
His troops loved him, but in a different way than did Lee’s. When he passed, rather than the cheering that would greet his counterpart, the troops greeted Grant with casual greetings such as befit two friends meeting on the street: “Good morning, general”, “a pleasant day, general”. At Chattanooga while surveying the front on horseback, he came upon the Union pickets who called out “form up for the commanding general”. Across the creek from them was heard “form up for the commanding general, General Grant”; the Confederate troops lined up and saluted him and he returned it. After another battle he was riding across a bridge with several union officers when they came upon bedraggled confederate prisoners crossing in the other direction. Grant alone among the officers raised his hat as he encountered the first prisoner and kept it raised until he had passed the last of them. Before what was to become the Wilderness campaign he had to make a crucial strategic decision whether to attack around Lee’s left toward the Shenandoah or his right toward the Wilderness. He chose the latter in no small part becasue he would have several north south waterways to quickly evacuate the wounded.
He will be remembered for his unconditional surrender demand at Fort Donnelson. He will be remembered for his brilliant Vicksburg Campaign which is still studied today. He will be remembered for the relief of Chattanooga. He will be remembered for forcing Lee to the defensive and pursuing him relentlessly until he was defeated. He will be remembered for his magnanimous surrender terms at Appomattox.
But let us also remember General Grant for his last loving act on this earth. While dying of cancer, he worked tirelessly to write his memoirs in order to pay his debts and to provide for his wife, Julia. He wrote the last page just before he died. Today they are widely regarded as the greatest military memoirs ever written in the English language.
On this Memorial Day, I remember and I thank General Ulysses Grant.