HW Brands - American Ulysses: The Journey of General Grant

Uploaded by gvsu on 21.04.2011


Thank you so much for being here.
Tonight's a real treat for all of us.
We've had Bill Brands come back a number of times.
I think seven times that he's been here with us.
You know, the comment that I get again and again in my
professional life is people will come up to me and they'll
say, you know, if I only knew how fun history really is, how
great history is.
Because almost universally, people complain that when they
were in school and we can turn down the microphone just a
little bit.
When they were in school, it was boring; names and dates
memorized and that kind of thing.
And then, people get older and they realize what the stakes
are and they really enjoy history.
And why do they enjoy history?
Because there are master historians who in essence, are
master storytellers.
So the comment that I get again and again, bring Bill
Brands back because he's one of those master storytellers.
And so that's what we're doing tonight.
We're bringing Bill back.
He's developed I think four key audiences in our country
as one of the leading biographers and
historians of our day.
He's developed an audience of course with pupils-- every one
of these is going to start with P.
You'll see my theme here.
He's developed an audience with pupils, students, he
teaches at the University of Texas-Austin.
He's a very sought out professor; a professor in
demand because of the way he teaches history and makes
history come alive.
We talk a lot about his teaching.
His students are very fortunate.
He also has developed an audience with the public.
And he's done that by writing a number of books.
Just to take a series of books that he's written about the
presidents and famous founders.
So for example, if you want to read about Benjamin Franklin
or if you want to read about Andrew Jackson, Theodore
Roosevelt, if you want to read about Franklin Roosevelt,
Woodrow Wilson, turn to Bill Brands.
You're going to get the best story about these presidents
and about Franklin.
He's also written though, books about our politics,
liberals and conservatives.
He's written books about our economy with great insight.
So he's developed a great following with the public.
He's also cultivated an audience with-- here's the
third P, the presidents of the United States.
Yes, this man, your speaker tonight, has been invited to
the White House.
He's briefed President George W.
Bush and he's had two dinners with President Obama.
And he's offered some very interesting answers.
I got to be a little bit of an interloper by hearing some of
the stories from the Obama White House.
So he's developed that.
And then the fourth P that he has developed is with poets.
Yes, with poets.
And if you'll indulge me-- yes, poets.
If you go onto H.W.
Brand's website, it's hwbrands.com, you're
going to see haiku.
And some of it's actually quite interesting.
And if you want, you can even follow the haiku on Twitter.
So you're going to have a whole bunch of new Twitter
accounts there.
Let me read for you just a couple of these
so you get a flavor.
About the great awakening Bill said this, "New lights and new
hearts/ New preachers from new pulpits/ awaken the world."
Not bad haiku.
King Phillip's War from 1670: "Terror in the night/ blood
and slaughter in the day/ horror on the land." Not bad.
But my favorite is about Columbus.
"The white ships appear/ the bearded ones come ashore/ who
the hell are they?"
Bill Brands is a Pulitzer Prize finalist
for two of his books.
I think we ought to nominate him for his haiku for Pulitzer
Prize poetry.
But let me try in my own clumsy way a little
haiku for you Bill.
Our bard journeys back/ to regale us with stories/ too
long forgotten.
Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming H.W.

Well I'm delighted to be back in Grand Rapids and at the
Ford Museum and with the Hauenstein Center.
One of the reasons I enjoy coming back so much is that
Gleaves is always so flattering when I get here.
I think I owe it to myself and maybe to you to explain how
the haikus came about.
I've been teaching American history for, oh gosh, I guess
30 years now and over the course of that time, I present
my students-- they have to write papers for me.
They write a lot for me.
And so I give them tips on how to configure their papers the
most effective way.
I tell them it's critical for any writer to figure out who
the audience is and what the expectations of
the audience is.

And so I say that if you're writing a novel, audiences
expect one thing.
If you're writing a seminar paper in history, audience
expect something else.
And I give them a template for writing an
effective research paper.
The model is an academic article.
And I say that this article ought to be-- oh about 7,000
words or so.
And it ought to have an introduction that's maybe 400
words long.
And you ought to break it up into a certain number of
sections that'll make it easier to digest. And so you
can organize your thoughts more effectively.
And I tell them that I'm not going to actually require you
to follow this template.
I'm going to encourage you to do so.
I will tell you that in the past, students who had used
this template have tended to write better papers
than those who don't.
And it has a lot to do with the expectations.
When you're reading a certain kind of paper you expect to
see certain things in certain places.
But I always would say that if you think that you want to do
it your own way, if your genius is such that it cannot
be confined to this kind of model, then go ahead.
It's my belief that you can write, for example, any
historical subject at any length.
You can write the history of the world at 800 words or 8
million words.
It's just a matter of the level of detail and what you
expect to get in there.
And as a throwaway line, for years, I would say you know,
if you want to write your history paper in the form of
haiku, go ahead.
And it was just a throwaway line until about three
or four years ago.
One of my students said, well, Professor Brands have you ever
tried writing a haiku?
And I said, well, no, I hadn't.

But then I thought about it and I thought, yeah, well OK.
Why not?
And it was just about this time-- I don't how many of you
use Twitter, but for those who don't, it's this form of very
quick, short messages and you limit yourself to 140
And so I thought I have been-- the writer in me wants to
reach out to audiences and broader audiences.
And one hesitates to guess the ages of people, but I look out
in the audience this evening.
And I'm trying to think if I'm going to have a reading
audience 20 years from now, 30 years now, I'm going to have
to find some younger people than are occupying some of the
seats here.
So we writers, we take our message to
where the readers are.
And Twitter is a way young people communicate.
And it just so happens that the 140 characters is
sufficient that you can pretty easily get a haiku in there.
The 17 syllables of a haiku: 5 syllables, 7
syllables, 5 syllables.
So I thought, why not combine these two.
So I started and I thought, well this will be fun; just do
it as a lark.
So I started writing American history at the beginning.
And the first one, the first installment was about the
migrations from Asia to North America.
And it's been going on.
It's fun.
When I have just a spare moment when I'm on a plane I
just think, OK, so what can I write
about the Great Awakening?
Well, I can do this.
So anyhow, it's taken on kind of a life of its own.
Now I realize I'm digressing and I'll
get back to the subject.
But I was talking with my editor at Random House in New
York last fall.
And I told her I was doing this.
She said that's really interesting because she's
looking for stuff to publish.
And I thought, you know, maybe-- and I was just
thinking out loud at this point.
I said, well, I've been thinking about adding
illustrations to this.
And so doing sort of a picture book, maybe for young adults
or something like this.
But instead of having just the-- I mean I hesitate to say
the dumbed down captions you get in picture book.
How about adding a little bit of a literary touch to this.
And the captions would be these haiku.
So I had a bunch of-- I had maybe the first 20
installments of the haiku.
And I found illustrations for this.
And so I started putting together this combination
picture book, haiku book.
And I liked doing it at first. But then, then I decided you
know, there's something about the pictures the tends to
detract from-- I would say actually overwhelm the words.
Because sort of if you see something, then when you try
to sort of paint the picture with the words, you've either
inserted a kind of redundancy if they go together or a
contradiction if they don't.
So I gave up the pictures and it's just going to be haiku
all the way.
Anyhow, now I have not yet gotten in my haiku history of
the United States-- I've gotten up to, I think-- oh,
we're writing the Constitution.
So I'll let you know how it turns out.
Or you can tune in and find out.
But anyway, I haven't gotten up to Ulysses Grant, which is
the topic of discussion tonight.
Now I'm going to tell you a little bit about why I wrote
on Ulysses Grant, why I'm writing about Ulysses Grant.
I was speaking at the reception before this about
how I embark on this subject with a bit of trepidation.
Because I do not consider myself by any means to be an
expert on the Civil War.
And there are a lot of experts on the Civil War out there.
And they come with knives and the knives are sharpened.
And they all have their opinions and they all have not
just opinions, opinions are easy to deal with.
They all have lots of facts.
And the facts are harder to deny.
The opinions you can object to.
And I don't pretend to be a military historian.
And I know that there are people with strong opinions
and lots of facts about Ulysses Grant, Robert E.
Lee, William Sherman.
You pick your favorite Civil War general and your battle
and your campaign and there are going to be people out
there, probably people in the audience tonight who know a
lot more about this subject than I do.
So we launch into these new fields, as I say, with a bit
of hesitation.
But it's what makes it all interesting.
It's why I do this stuff.
It can't be any worse than when I launched into the field
of Texas history.
I wrote a book about Texas history.
I'm not a Texan.
In Texas, I don't know what the rule is in Michigan.
But in Texas, every seventh grader in the state take this
Texas history class.
And it inculcates in the students, those elements of
Texas history and myth that are required for anybody who
pretends to be a Texan.
And I wasn't in Texas in the seventh grade.
And so there's a lot of stuff that is just common knowledge
that I don't have.
Now I have to think that I bring something to the study
of Texas history that they don't have. I mean, I've got
to bring something.
And I bring the perspective of an outsider.
Which often, I think, the fact that the most trenchant
commentary on America democracy was written by Alexi
de Tocqueville, a Frenchman, a foreigner.
Very often the foreign eyes, the outsider's eyes give you a
perspective that the insider's don't have.
Nonetheless, when I write about the Battle of the Alamo
there is, I would call it a cottage industry, it's a
mansion industry in Texas.
There are people who know everything about the Battle of
the Alamo, including-- I mean there are a lot of seventh
graders who know more about the Battle of the
Alamo than I do.
So I would talking to audiences and they would ask
me things and I'd try to-- I didn't know what they were
talking about and I would try to retreat.
Well, in fact, there was one time when I was giving a
lecture to seventh graders.
How hard can it be to lecture to seventh graders?
OK, and so the teachers who brought the seventh graders in
said, well, would it be OK if they ask questions?
Of course, I'm a teacher.
This is what we do, we answer questions.
I didn't realize that she had made the assignment to be a
version of stump the chump.
Where you've got to come up with a question that the
professor can't answer.
So I figured, they're seventh graders, what do they know?
So I gave my 20 minute talk and I'll be happy
to take your questions.
First question, Professor Brands-- now one of the
charming things about seventh graders is their utter lack of
perspective on what's important and what's not.
When you've been in the business for a while as a
historian, I have an idea that there's certain things that
are important, big issues, big questions and other things
that might be interesting, but they're historical trivia.
But with seventh graders, there is none of that kind of
And if you know this and you don't know that,
well, you're an idiot.
So anyhow, first question: "Professor Brands, what was
Sam Houston's middle name?" What are you going to do?
All right, I'll tell you what you do.
You think fast. You put on your professor face.
How can I do this?
Now those of us who are in the teaching business, we have
what we like to think of as these teaching moments when
you've got your students attention.
Oh, I had their attention.
They were waiting to see what I was going to say.
They thought they had me.
No, I wasn't going to retreat.
I was going to say, well, this is a
very interesting question.
First of all, I had no idea what Sam
Houston's middle name.
I was pretty sure that Sam Houston did not have a middle
name, but those of you who are versed in philosophy know it's
kind of hard to prove a negative.
There's nothing that says, Sam Houston never wrote an
affidavit and signed it that says I have no middle name.
So I would have to infer this from something else.
But I didn't want to do that.
And I realized that would be considered sort of a weasel
answer and utterly unsatisfactory.
So I thought fast and I said-- oh, and I did know that Sam
Houston had run away from home at the age of-- and this is
where you have to bring your audience in.
At the age of-- why, about the same age you all are.
And how old are you?
You know, working for time here.
And he ran off to live with the Cherokees because he
didn't like his-- his mother was asking him to do stuff he
didn't want to do.
So he ran off.
And I said-- and I knew this.
The wheels are spinning.
And I knew that the Cherokees had fiven him a Cherokee name
that translates to raven.
And so I said, I suppose we could say that Sam Houston's
middle name was raven.
They were kind of skeptical.
They were like you.
They're not sure.
I'm not going to buy that or not.
So I thought a little bit more.
I said, well, OK.
Well then, when Sam Houston came to Texas, which he did in
1832, he was required by Mexican law-- Texas was part
of Mexico at the time.
He was surprised by Mexican law to convert to Catholicism.
That was part of the deal.
You come to Texas, you come to Mexico-- Texas, you have to be
baptized in the Roman Catholic church.
And the typical practice was to take on a saint's name.
Now I did remember seeing in my research for the Texas book
something that was signed-- it was a contract that was signed
Sam Pablo Houston because he had taken the
saint's name, Paul.
And so I said, so I guess we could say that Pablo was his
middle name.
And I said, you know what?
I think that ends the question period.
Thank you very much.
Well, aside from the wonderful work that Gleaves is doing at
the Hauenstein Center, one of the reasons that I really like
to come to Grand Rapids and the Hauenstein Center is
Gleaves gives me an opportunity to try out ideas
on audiences just like you.
I've been working on Ulysses Grant for, I guess, three or
four years now.
The book is not finished.
The book will be published if all goes well
about a year from now.
So there's still work to be done.
But I haven't figured everything out and I haven't
figured out answers to some sort of basic questions.
Basic questions of motivation.
I've got the facts all lined up.
But what one makes of the facts is another matter.
So I'm going to share with you sort of-- beyond preliminary,
intermediary thoughts on Ulysses Grant and
what this all means.
And to get at that though, I'm going to tell you a little bit
about why I decided to take on this project.
Now in one sense, I took on the project because I needed
to write a biography of a mid 19th century figure.
You might well ask, why?
Because I have been working on a history of the United States
through the form, through the genre of biography.
And I've been working on this for the last 15 years.
And this because some years ago, many years ago, I
proposed a multi-volume history of the United States
to a publisher and the publisher just laughed at me.
Nobody writes multi-volume histories.
Nobody reads multi-volume histories.
And this, and I think the publisher, the editor, might
well have know what he was talking about because well, in
my experience when I talk to audiences, if I say that I'm
working on a history of this or that, as soon as the word
history comes out of my mouth there is very often this far
away look that enters the eyes as the listeners recall that
course they had in high school where they can't remember much
about the material, but they knew it had something to do
with matching events in column A with dates in column B.
And the teachers last name, they can't remember the
teachers last name, but the teachers first name was coach.

This is something that I've got to work against. So I
decided that even though I couldn't write a history of
the United States in six volumes, well, at least not
and call it that.
What I could write was a series of connected
Because people-- when I talk to people and I say I'm
working on the life of Ulysses Grant, I'm working on the life
of Andrew Jackson.
Oh, Andrew Jackson [INAUDIBLE].
Yeah, OK.
Not a history.
Get the word history out of their.
History has these negative connotations.
But lives, people like to read about people's lives.
You know this is like what's the celebrity TV station E or
something like that where you gossip about
the rich and famous.
Well that's sort of what we do in the biography trade.
And we do more than gossip, but we get
into people's lives.
We tell you all about them.
I'll tell you, my students, the lecture they like best of
all when I talk about this is the love lives of Franklin and
Eleanor Roosevelt.
And I often don't finish by the time the bell rings.
I've got to kick them out of there.
So, is she really?
So anyhow, I've been working on this series and I had
written-- volume one in the series is Benjamin Franklin,
volume two in the series is Andrew Jackson.
And they're chosen so that they're these big figures that
can carry the story forward.
My biographies are lives and times.
And there's an overlap between the characters.
So Benjamin Franklin dies in 1790.
Andrew Jackson was born in 1767.
He's becoming an adult by the time Benjamin
Franklin leaves the scene.
Andrew Jackson dies in 1845.
And that's volume two in the series.
I had written volume four in the series; this was Theodore
Roosevelt who graduates from college in 1880.
So I've got this gap to cover between 1845 and 1880.
And this gap's a big gap.
It's an important gap in American history, includes the
Civil War and Reconstruction among other things.
So who am I going to use?
Who am I going to choose?
Well, I suppose one could choose Abraham Lincoln who
would be an obvious one, but while I was thinking about
this, this was-- you may or may not be aware.
You probably remember, maybe you don't, but 2009 was the
bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth.
And every third historian and biographer in the United
States had a Lincoln book that came out.
So the market was rather crowded.
Besides, I won't say that Lincoln is over done.
I mean, a great figure, an important figure.
And a story that's worth telling is worth retelling.
But for my purposes, he doesn't
suffice because he dies.
He's killed in 1865.
So it doesn't allow me to get the coverage that I need.
So I decided to look at Ulysses Grant.
And I didn't choose him primarily because he was a
general and the president, actually my first choice for a
general was not Ulysses Grant, it was William Sherman.
And I was thinking about this, in fact, I had just written
about Andrew Jackson when I was thinking about who I might
do to cover the Civil War era.
And I was on a book tour promoting the
Andrew Jackson book.
These book tours are airport, hotel, bookstore, hotel,
airport, bookstore and so on.
And after a while you kind of lose track of where you are.
And I was talking to an audience trying to figure out,
OK, who should be my coverages of the Civil War.
Who should be the sequel to the Andrew Jackson?
And it was an audience that was-- it was a
very receptive audience.
They were with me.
They were listening.
You know, laugh at my jokes and doing all that stuff.
And so then I started thinking out loud, who's my next
subject going to be?
And I said, you know, there's a Civil War general who has
intrigued me.
In part because he's such a complicated character.
A military genius, but a very complicated character.
And there's a real dark streak to his personality.
And this is William Sherman.
And as soon as I said William Sherman the warmth in the room
just vanished and the temperature dropped 25 degrees
in just seconds.
And then I thought, wait a minute, where am I?
Oh, I'm in Atlanta.
Bad move.

Well, I realized I was going to have a hard time selling
books on William Sherman in the South.
So, I gave up Sherman and decided to focus on Grant.
And I decided to look at Grant for a couple of reasons.
And one of the reasons is related to my teaching.

As a basic premise, I consider my writing to be an extension
of my teaching.
My readers are my classroom kind of writ large.
And very often, the ideas that come out in my books are ideas
that I've been trying on my students for a while.
And the longer I teach, the more I have concluded that the
fundamental questions of history are very
few, but very basic.
And one of the most basic questions and this is a
question I ask of my students every semester.
In fact, one of the things I do at the very beginning of
the semester, I tell them this is going to be one of or the
question on the final.
So be prepared to answer it.
And the question is, why is there war?
War is probably the most common, the most-- except for
sex, maybe-- it is the most ubiquitous human activity.
There is no society that anybody has encountered that
hasn't engaged in war in one form or another.
Big societies have big wars, small societies sometimes have
small wars.
But everybody does it.
And the question is, why?
And from the perspective of American history, I pose to my
students the question in this form.
I say, why is it, how is it that a peace-loving people,
namely us, Americans, and I believe that Americans are
sincerely desirous of peace.
How is it that a peace-loving people has over the course of
the last 200 years, gone to war more often than any other
country in the world?
What's going on here?
And I pose the questions to my students, for my
undergraduates, my undergraduates are typically--
the average age is about 20 or 21.
And I look around the room.
And at first I focus on, point my finger at
young men like you.
And I look at the young men in the audience and I say,
historically, you-- you, 20, 21 year olds are the soldiers
of history.
The average age of soldiers in history is probably about your
age, maybe even a little bit younger.
It's young men who go off to fight.
And every generation this happens and it goes back as
far as we can tell in history.
Why is this so?
Why does this happen?
And briefly, the young women in my classes, they get to
feel they're off the hook.
But not for long.
Because then I look at them and I say, why do you
encourage them to go off to war?
Because you know, if you didn't get that bright look in
your eye when they put on the uniform, if they didn't think
that being a hero in war would allow them to come home and
impress you.
If you told them I don't like soldiers they
wouldn't go off to war.
So you're as complicit in this as they are.
So my question again is, why?
And I put it to them, why do you do it?
Why historically, do you, people of your age and
generation, do what people of my age and
generation tell you to do?
It's people of my age who say-- we make the decision our
country's going to go to war.
But we don't go of and fight ourselves.
We tell you to go off and fight.
So what's going on here?
Is it that people of my age are really good at pulling the
wool over your eyes and getting you to
do our dirty work?
Is that it?
Is it that we hold out the prospect that
you can be a hero?
You can be famous.
You can be really cool.
And that you find that attractive.
Is it somehow a test of your manhood?
What's going on here?
Now I tell the students that there's no one
answer to this question.
There are probably-- there are certainly at least as many
answers as there are individuals.
In fact, there are probably multiple times as many answers
because people do things, important things like this not
for single reasons, they do them for multiple reasons.
And so, my students work on this.
In one of my classes I have them actually pick a war.
Pick a war, explain how the war came about.
Explain why the decision was made by the
government to go to war.
Explain why people enlisted in the army after the
decision was made.
This is the question that I've been thinking about.
And the answers fall in a variety of categories, but I
sort of use dichotomies to get at this.
And one pair of dichotomies, one dichotomy is-- and I ask
them this, is war when things go wrong?
Is war what happens when diplomacy breaks down?
Where there is a misunderstanding or you know,
just some rogue, bad leader comes along.
Is that it?
Is war a malfunction of society?
Is war when things go wrong?
Or is war when things go right?
Is there something that draws us to war?
Is there something that is rewarding about war?
Now in American, what should we say?
Political philosophy, political mythology to say we
like to think that we are a peace-loving people.
And I think at a fundamental level we are.
I don't claim that Americans are insincere in saying they
like peace, they prefer peace to war.
But consider-- well in fact, I found myself speaking to a
group in Fredericksburg, Texas.
If you've ever been to Fredericksburg, Texas you
might know that is has the best museum in the country on
the war in the Pacific in World War II.
In fact, it's called Museum of the Pacific War.
It used to be called the Chester Nimitz museum because
Chester Nimitz was from Fredericksburg, Texas.
But is has expanded and now it's this wonderful Museum of
the Pacific War.
And every year in September, for the last 20 years, they've
been having a symposium on World War II or more
repeatedly, on wars generally.
And they have really good attendants.
All sorts of people come.
Now the core of the audience attending consists of World
War II veterans.
And when they come it's like a reunion of the
groups they got to know.
I was asking this group, this very same question,
why is there war?
And I said, you all have your reasons, but I'm going to
suggest something.
And you know, you feel free to agree with this or disagree,
but I'm just going to put it out there.
And that is I look at you.
Now if I might ask, are there any World War
II vets in the audience?
So and you will have your own opinion about this.
But I said the fact that you come to Fredericksburg, Texas
and they come from all over the country every September
tells me that there was something very meaningful
about this experience to you.
And I've talked to veterans of various wars.
And I've read about veterans of various wars.
And I won't say without exception, but in very many
cases they describe this, they think of this as the most
important experience of their lives.
It was in some ways the most thrilling, it might have been
their most terrifying, the most
meaningful, whatever it was.
They still get together 60 years after the fact to
commemorate it.
What else do people do that has that kind of influence on
their lives?
So there is certainly for war veterans, there's that appeal,
there's that draw.
So anyway, I decided that for this biography I wanted to
write about a soldier.
I wanted to write about someone whose claim to fame
was primarily that he was successful at war.
I hadn't written about anybody like this.
I did write about Andrew Jackson and Andrew Jackson's
military career was relatively brief.
He didn't identify himself as a soldier.
He was a planter, and then he became a president, but he
wasn't-- that's not the reason that we remember Jackson.
Yeah, he had this big victory at New Orleans in January of
1815, but that was a one-day battle.
You know, he didn't conduct a long campaign and win in a
really big war.
I wrote about Theodore Roosevelt.
Theodore Roosevelt's a fascinating case on this
subject because Theodore Roosevelt is the only American
president who, as far as I know, ever celebrated war.
Most American presidents have I would say the good taste or
the good sense to say war might be necessary at times,
but it's a necessary evil.
But Theodore Roosevelt, at least before he became
president and before he went to war said that the greatest
victories of war-- or he said the greatest victories of
peace pale beside the accomplishments of war is war
that tests the nation's courage and all this stuff.
And Theodore Roosevelt was somebody who really had to
test himself.
And Theodore Roosevelt, after he became president of the
United States still preferred to be called-- and of course,
as you probably know, once you're president of the United
State you, in most cases, are generally addressed as
President Carter, President Clinton, as long as you live.
But Roosevelt much preferred to be
called Colonel Roosevelt.
And he spoke about and some of you may know, I don't know
what this literary allusion is, I should know.
But he always referred to his crowded hour.
And any of you know what that allusion comes from?
Some work of literature.
Is it Shake-- Do you know which one it is?
Henry V.
Very good.
Thank you.
Thank you, Gleaves.
See, Gleaves Whitney and the Hauenstein Center are the
source of knowledge on all things presidential.
I will refer you to Gleaves.

The curious thing is Theodore Roosevelt's crowded hour
lasted about an hour.
The center of his military career was the charge up
Kettle Hill in San Juan Heights in the Spanish
American War.
And the battle lasted about an hour.
He did perform gallantly.
No question about that.
The casualty rate in his unit was quite high.
He survived and he knew that he had the coverage to do it.
And that was enough.
OK, done that.
Now let's go back and get elected governor of New York.
OK, but I wanted to focus on somebody who had been involved
in a serious way with a really big war.
A war that brought out-- well, the best and the worst I
guess, in American history.
And I also needed a character who could carry the story
forward through reconstruction.
So I came upon Ulysses Grant.
And I decided to write about Ulysses Grant.
And now I will share with you a moment that was-- at the
time it wasn't particularly amusing.
In retrospect, it sounds a little bit amusing.
Lots of people have written about Ulysses Grant.
So an obvious question for a book review editor for
example, or a publisher is, so Brands you got anything new on
Ulysses Grant?
Well, it so happened that I was having dinner about three
months ago with Sam Tanenhaus.
Sam Tanenhaus is the editor of the New
York Times Book Review.
And although it's not as fat as it used to be, it still
remains probably the most important book
review in the country.
And if you can get-- boy, if you can get a favorable front
page review on the New York Times Book Review then this is
a real good deal.
So I was sitting down next to Sam Tanenhaus at dinner.
And he had come to Austin to talk about something or other,
so we had dinner.
And a friend of mine, a mutual friend, got us dinner.
And so part of the idea was I was going to be able to talk
up my Ulysses Grant book.
As it so happened though, about three days earlier I had
come down with a cold.
And I had a heavy teaching schedule
during those three days.
So I had to lecture through this cold that was coming on;
my throat was getting tighter.
But I was going OK.
And I had given my lecture that ended 15 minutes before
we got together for dinner on another part of the UT campus.
I got to dinner and my voice utterly gave out.
I couldn't even croak a syllable.
So here I am with a chance to promote my book to the most
influential book review editor in' the country and Tanenhaus
turns to me and he says, so, hear you're
working on Ulysses Grant.

The book coming along pretty well?

You got something new to say?

So what do you have to say?
What's new to say?
At that point I had realized it wasn't a yes or no
question, I couldn't answer him.
So I let him hanging.
But I'm not going to leave you hanging because well in fact,
I was talking to my editor a couple of days ago.
And I will tell you-- well, I'll tell you the--
what shall I say?
That the politic description of what's new, what the book
review editor needs to hear and then I'll tell you the
real answer to the question, what's new?
The strategic answer is well, in the first place, I believe
that Grant's reputation as president has been cast in
obscurity and criticism for far too long.
Grant is generally perceived by the public at large and
even by historians of the presidency to be one of the
least effective presidents in American history.
And to have had an administration that was
peculiarly afflicted by graft and corruption.
Now one of the things I'm going to do is to explain how
the last hundred years of scholarship and writing on
Ulysses Grant is quite wrong.
That Grant was a far better president than he has been
given credit for being.
And this will be in part based on re-interpretation of
existing evidence.
But also, access to new information.
It is my good fortune to be the first biographer to come
along since the completion of a wonderful series of
published volumes of Grant's
correspondence and other writings.

This collection had been in the works for 25 or 30 years.
And the later volumes deal with his presidency.
The earlier volumes focused on the war years.
And the later volumes include a great deal of correspondence
that other biographers have not used.
In particular, correspondence from African Americans and
republicans in the South during Reconstruction
explaining what conditions on the ground are like.
Now I'm going to get into this in greater detail, but
essentially what happens during Reconstruction is that
the Union victory in the Civil War, a military victory has to
be converted into well, into something political.
Because at some point-- in this case, in April 1865 at
Appomattox, the war ends and politics resumes.
And it is my contention, and I have been studying and writing
about American history for a long time that there has been
no-- there's never a more difficult period to be
president of the United States than during Reconstruction.
It was a personal tragedy and a familial tragedy for Abraham
Lincoln to die, to be killed in April of 1865 right at the
end of the Civil War.
But from the standpoint of his historical reputation, it was
a great career move.
Because the war was easy compared to what
came after the war.
And the reason for this is during war you get to use
instruments of coercion.
If people don't agree with you, if South Carolina wants
to be independent and you don't think South Caroline
should be independent, if South Carolina refuses to
enforce federal laws, you send in the Army.
And it's painful, it's bloody, but it's simple.
It's straightforward.
And the conclusion on the battlefield can
be quite clear cut.
We win, you lose.
But when the war ends, then these questions shift from the
arena of the military to the arena of politics.
And politics is a lot more complicated.
It's a lot harder than war.
If Lincoln had lived into the period of Reconstruction, I
firmly believe that his reputation would have declined
Because once the South is readmitted to the Union, and
it would be eventually.
Of course, Lincoln had taken the position the south had
never left the Union.
But something weird had happened and so the south had
to be reconstructed.
But everybody knew that the end result would be that South
Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, all the states of
the Confederacy would eventually regain control over
their own affairs.
The North, the Union army would not
occupy the South forever.
In fact, turns out it wouldn't occupy the South for more than
about half a decade.
The American North would simply-- you know, we're not
going to occupy the South.
They wouldn't stand for it and the South wouldn't
stand for it either.
And in a democracy, whether you like what the people
choose or not, in a democracy if they make a decision, if a
majority of people votes this way, that's what
they're going to get.
Now it's made more complicated by the fact that there is this
Constitution and our Constitution is based on the
principle of the majority rule, but minority rights.
That's why we have a Bill of Rights.
That's why there are various amendments that say what the
government can and cannot do.
So for example, the 13th amendment says there will be
no slavery despite the fact that slavery was a popular
institution in the South.
And in every southern state, it was voted by a majority of
the people.
It happened to be a white majority, but nonetheless.
If you would gone simply on majority rule, slavery would
have continued.
That's why it had to be ended with a
constitutional amendment.
The 14th amendment said that rights cannot be-- I mean
basically says, who can be a citizen.
But it also says that your rights cannot be abridged
without due process of the law.
It basically says what you can't do.
And the 15th amendment says that the right to vote cannot
be abridged on account of race, color, or conditioner of
previous servitude.
And there again it's what the states cannot do.
But it's one thing to pass a law, even an amendment to the
It's another matter to try to enforce that.
And what do you do?
What do you do in a democracy when you have
an unpopular law?
Well I can tell you that the 14th and 15th amendments were
quite unpopular in the south.
And Grant found himself on the receiving end of these pleas
from not just blacks in South Carolina
and the rest of south.
But in many cases, white republicans as well.
The republicans were branded-- I mean they're often called
black republicans even if they weren't black.
But they were the ones, they were considered to be the
party that had imposed northern rule on the south.
And so in the period after the Civil War, sometimes in the
most egregious form of the Ku Klux Klan where there was
overt violence, threats, intimidation, murder and all
this stuff against freed men and republicans.
Sometimes it was slightly more subtle than that, but there
was this full-- there was this full scale agenda to drive
those folks out of politics so that the old elites, the slave
owners, former slave owners and their allies could regain
control of politics.
And the term that was used, certainly by southerners and
it was adopted eventually even by historians in the north.
The term for the recapture of control of southern state
politics by the white locals from the northern
reconstructionists, the term was redemption.
And the individuals who did it were called the redeemers.
Well if you start labeling things that way, you can tell
which side you're on here.
Anyhow, Grant-- this is one of the fundamental points I make
in the book-- Ulysses Grant was the only president between
Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson-- the only president
in that hundred year period who took civil
rights, at all, seriously.
And otherwise, presidents simply ignored civil rights.
Or in the case of Woodrow Wilson, were kind of
retrograde on civil rights and imposed segregation.
Wilson imposed segregation on the federal work force.
So the thing that's going to make my Grant book different
is, at least, in the answer to Sam Tanenhaus-- I've been able
to give the answer-- was new information and this
reassessment of Grant and his role as an American president.
But that's not the real answer to the question.
Is an answer that is going to sound highly immodest.
But I'll tell you what it is.
The real answer is that I'm going to write a better
biography of Grant than anybody else has written.
And you laugh, but I mean it seriously.
I don't mean it quite as pretentiously as it sounds.
But think about it for a minute.
If I didn't think I could do it, why should I bother?
Because if people want to read something about Grant, go read
about Grant.
I've read the biographies of Grant and I think I can do a
better job.
So now, if you should choose to-- I hope you do-- buy the
book, then you will get to decide whether I
was right or not.
And book reviewers will get to weigh in on this as well.
But there is, you call it a healthy or an unhealthy
egotism on the part of writers.
But you sort of have to have this because there's almost
nothing interesting that hasn't been
written about already.
And so, why do it again?
Actually, this question of writing about it already comes
up with my graduate students.
Most of them are writing dissertations.
And the model of a dissertation, those of you who
have been in graduate school, you know the model of the
dissertation is to write thoroughly, comprehensively,
exhaustively on some aspect of whatever your subject is that
hasn't been so thoroughly covered before.
And one of the ways of finding a legitimate topic is to find
a topic that no one has written on.
And so my graduates were looking around for something
that nobody has written on.
But I caution them against this.
I say, no, you really don't want to do that.
You don't want to write on something that nobody has
written on because there's probably a reason nobody has
written on that subject.
And I refer them to a conversation that a friend of
mine had, a historian, a military historian, who had
written first couple of books on oh, rather esoteric
subjects having to do with the Pacific War
during World War II.
And he wanted to write a biography of-- a biography of
an important figure in the Pacific War.
And he proposed various American naval and army
officers who were engaged in the Pacific field.
And he would put out one name and the editor would say, I
don't think there's much interest in that person.
Then put put another name.
Who knows about this person?
And this went on for three or four more suggestions.
And finally, my friend said in exasperated, well, I suppose I
could write another biography of Douglas MacArthur, but
there are dozens of
biographies of Douglas MacArthur.
And the editor said, yeah.
That's because people are
interested in Douglas MacArthur.
So one of the things I tell my students is
that not a bad thing.
It's not a bad thing.
It's not the end of the world.
If they're working on a dissertation and they
discover, oh my gosh.
Somebody else it writing on the same thing.
History is a different kind of endeavor than
mathematics or physics.
If you were looking for-- I can't remember what subatomic
particle is the one that everybody's looking for right
now, but the first one to be able to identify, the first
one to prove its existence, the first one to demonstrate
this wins the prize, the Nobel Prize probably.
And the second person to identify it gets nothing.
In mathematics, until a few years ago, the grand prize in
mathematics was to prove Fermat's last theorem.
And it was this statement given by Pierre
Fermat 400 years ago.
And mathematicians have been trying forever and
ever to prove it.
And the deal was that if you prove Fermat's last theorem,
then you would be the greatest mathematician of your
generation if you were the first. If you were the second,
eh, nothing.
But history isn't like that.
So if somebody is writing how about-- well, Ulysses Grant.
If somebody's writing about any other subject.
If somebody's writing about whatever my students are
writing their dissertations on and they discover that
somebody else is writing on the same subject, well that's
all to the good because it shows that they're not the
only one to think it's interesting.
OK, so the real answer to the question of why I'm taking
Ulysses Grant and what I'm going to say is new is it's
this great story and I want to tell it.
OK, now I'm going to tell you a little bit about
Grant and his story.
And one of the things that intrigues me about Grant and
this gets back to the question of why is there war?
At least I think there's a partial
answer to the question.
Grant is a classic case of an individual who was
really good at war.
But at almost nothing else.
And if you look in history, you see this again and again.
If you simply look at the Civil War, Grant was good
friends with William Sherman.
The two of them were at West Point for a while together and
then they went off and fought in the war with
Mexico in the 1840s.
One of their comrades in the war with Mexico was Robert E.
He was older than they were, so we wasn't at West Point at
the same time.
But they discovered that they had this knack for war.
Now one of the knacks for war-- and this, Grant
discovered it in his first battle.
George Washington by the way, discovered it in his first
battle that he found himself under fire and he wasn't
afraid, he was thrilled.
And Washington writes home a letter that I don't have it
word for word, but it's-- this is pretty close.
He said, I heard the bullets whizzing around me and I can
tell you there is magic in the sound.
Now if that's your response to being under fire, you would
know you've got a future in war.
It's interesting that Grant writes almost the same thing
after his first engagement.
Now I have no reason to think that he had read the
Washington letter.
Interestingly enough, Winston Churchill came under fire in
the Boer War and had exactly the same response.
So if you are person who find yourself under fire and you
don't run away in fear, but instead you respond with an
adrenaline rush and wow, this is life as it's supposed to be
lived, then you have the makings of a soldier.
Now of course, one of the things that has to happen is
those bullets that are whizzing
around you have to miss.
In fact, Churchill put it with a certain elegant and humorous
turn of phrase where he says something to the effect about
the bullets whizzing around you without affect.
But Grant discovers this in the war with Mexico.
And he goes off and this despite the fact-- this is
striking with Grant.
And one of the things that is so charming and Grant is that
he is quite candid about his evaluation of whether the wars
are just or necessary, or not.
Grant thought that the war with Mexico was unjust. That
the United States had no business invading Mexico and
seizing territory from Mexico.
But as a soldier that wasn't his decision to make.
And as a soldier he took orders.
And as a soldier he behaved quite gallantly and he found
to be very fulfilling.
It helped matters and this gets back to when I was
talking about my students and the girls in the class and the
guys in the class.
He was engaged to be married before he went off to war.
The father of his-- well, excuse me.
He was secretly engaged to be married.
He and his wife to be, Julia Dent, they had agreed that
they would get married, but she wasn't going to tell her
father because her father didn't think much of somebody
who was a soldier.
Her father wanted someone who would be able to support her
in the style to which she was accustomed.
Now I might add something here, which is kind of ironic.
Julie Dent's family was from the outskirts
of St. Louis, Missouri.
Missouri was a slave state.
Julia grew up having servants, slaves, personal servants.
She kept those servants, those slaves, after she married
Ulysses Grant.
She kept those servants after-- even after
the Civil War began.
Ulysses Grant was heading the Union Army that by this time
was fighting to free the slaves and his wife still
owned slaves.
Now this strikes us as curious, contradictory.
But one of the joys of doing history is discovering how
messy the world really was.
This business of you could be fighting to free the slaves
and your family still owned slaves-- people didn't think
much of that at all.
You have this idea that the north was free territory after
about the beginning of the 19th century.
The slavery presented in the south.
Did you ever think what happened though when
southerners went on vacations into the north?
And they traveled to the north.
And if you were of a certain class you would take your
servants with you.
Wealthy Northerners took their servants with them.
Wealthy Southerners took their servants.
And any given time in New York City as late as the 1850s.
there were lots of slaves around.
And you might have thought well, maybe the slaves could
take advantage of being on free soil and tear off and
claim their freedom.
But they couldn't.
You know why not?
Because there was a law against it written into the
Each state is required to assist in the return of
runaway slaves.
And the law was bolstered in 1850 with something called the
Fugitive Slave Act.
So there wasn't this clean distinction between North and
South, free territory and slave territory.
You know about the underground railroad?
The underground railroad, where'd it go from?
From the South.
And where did it go to?
Went to Canada.
Why did it have to go all the way to Canada?
Because an escaped slave wasn't safe in Ohio, wasn't
safe in New York, wasn't safe in Massachusetts.
They had to get clear out of the country, beyond
extradition laws.
That's the only place it could be saved.
So anyway, so Grant discovers that he has
this knack for war.
And Julia, his beloved, appreciates this.
He comes home after the war and he looks so handsome in
that uniform that they decide to break
the news to her father.
And even the father is kind of impressed.
He's heard about how Ulysses Grant has done i the war.
And OK, I guess you can marry him.
So they get married.
He's sent off.
Now this is a problem for American soldiers historically
up until the post World War II period.
The United States did pride itself on not having a
standing army.
That is, no peace time army.
The United States operated on the Cincinnatus principle
where the country goes to war, we gather our ordinary
citizens and they go fight.
We win the war, the war ends, we send them home.
The Army disappears.
Americans liked this idea.
Well in the first place it was cheaper.
You don't have to support an army when you don't need it.
And secondly, it eliminates or it largely mitigates the risk
of a military take over of the government.
If there's no military, how are you going to take over the
And Americans who knew their history, knew about-- well,
they knew about Rome and Caesar marching on Rome and
doing all this stuff to take over the civil government.
This is the principle reason why the separation of the
civil government from the military government and the
subordination of military leaders to the elected
officials has become-- even until now, it is part of the
American political gospel.
This is something that we stick to.
By the way-- not today, in a couple of days we're going to
hit the 50th anniversary.
No wait, 50?
60th anniversary of the moment in American history when this
was most sorely tested.
About who's going to be in charge?
The generals or the elected officials. you know what I'm
referring to?
Truman's firing of MacArthur.
And a great aspect of this story.
Anyway, Grant comes home, the war's over.
He's married, he and his wife Julia start having children.
And then the Army has to figure out
what to do with Grant.
The Army is reluctant to release officers who were
trained at West Point.
The country has put in a lot of resources, a lot of effort
to train these folks.
So what are they going to do with them?
They're going to send them off to the parts of the country
that need defending.
But defending from whom?
That's an open question.
Grant gets sent out to America's newly acquired
territories in the west. He goes off to the Oregon
territory, which is acquired by purchase.
Well, purchase?
It was acquired by agreement with Britain.
There had been a big dispute over who would control the
Oregon country and Grant goes off to Oregon for a while.
And then he's sent to Northern California.
California was added by conquest in
the war with Mexico.
And he goes to an Army post in Northern California.
I grew up in Western Oregon, in Portland.
I know the West Coast, the rainy West Coast. I know what
it's like to be on the Oregon coast between about October
and May or so.
And I know that it's very gloomy; it's often raining so
hard you can't get out of your cabin.
In those days, cabins often didn't have windows.
It was dark, it was discouraging.
Grant was a long way from home.
His wife was halfway across the country.
He couldn't bring her out.
She had no place to stay.
It was not fit for a wife.
It wasn't fit for little children.
On his pay he could hardly support himself.
The gold discovery in California had sent prices
skyrocketing in California.
And on his captain's pay, he could hardly
keep himself in food.
He is beginning to have second thoughts about
this military career.
Yeah, as long as there's a war on that's fine.
But there's a long time between wars.
What are you going to do then?
What did Grant do?
Well he did what other soldiers did in
these far away posts.
He did what soldiers have done forever and ever.
He drank.
And it turned out that Grant couldn't hold his liquor.
Now you probably know that in the British Empire for
example, the ability to hold one's liquor was an aspect of
a gentleman.
And maybe it just enabled you to continue to carry on when
you're in these hardship posts and the only
thing to do is drink.
So Grant demonstrated that he had a problem with booze on
the rainy, lonely California coast in the early 1850s.
We don't know exactly what this lead to in the near term.
We do know that Grant suddenly resigned his
commission in the Army.
Now this was a decision he had come to for
a variety of reasons.
As I say, he was trying to figure out if he could support
his family on his Army pay.
He was trying to decide if he could stand being away from
Julia and the children that long.
He had at this point.
At least one child who was almost two years old whom he
had never seen.
And so he was having serious second thoughts about the
military as a career anyway.
And then he seems to have run afoul of his post commander.
And the details are a little bit fuzzy, but Grant all of a
sudden decides to resign his commission.
And he doesn't give a reason, he just resigns.
Grant's father gets wind of this.
I haven't told you anything about Grant's relationship
with his father.
But his father was something of a task master.
His father was a successful business man, a successful
Somebody who knew how to get things done.
Who had a kind of practical intelligence that seemed to
elude his son.
And Jesse Grant, the father, was very disappointed in
Ulysses Grant.
He had had to bend, twist arms and call in political favors
to get Grant the assignment to West Point.
The appointment to West Point, even then, it was
considered a big deal.
And Grant went off.
And he wasn't that crazy about going himself in the first
place, but his dad got him, so he did.
Well, Jesse Grant was very disappointed to hear that
Ulysses Grant had resigned from the Army.
He didn't know about the drinking.
But when he heard that his son had resigned he just thought
he was depressed and so he wrote to the Secretary of War
trying to get the Secretary of War to intervene and to stop
the resignation, to refuse the resignation.
Interestingly enough, the Secretary of War was a man
named Jefferson Davis.
And Jefferson Davis got this letter from the father of this
officer he had never heard of and said, the deal is done.
He's resigned.
He didn't offer any explanation, but it's not
required of me to hear any explanation.
His resignation has been accepted.
That's that.
One imagines what would have happened if he had know what
was going to happen.
Anyway, so Grant leaves the Army under a cloud and the
cloud is one of the things about the Army officers in the
faraway posts was they were great gossips.
And so the word went around the war department that the
reason Grant left was that he was going to be kicked out for
drinking on duty, which that parts a little bit unclear.
Maybe it's true, maybe it's not.
It's very clear that the drinking strongly influenced
Grant's decision to leave. But there were other reasons for
leaving anyway.
But the result was Grant leaves the Army and he thinks,
good, I'm out.
He has no idea that he will ever go back into the Army.
He's thinking, OK, I did my stint and now I'm going to go
off and do something else.
And he doesn't really care at that point that his fellow
officers, the ones who stay in and the folks who are in
positions of authority in Washington have heard about
this guy Grant and he's a drinker.
He goes off and he tries his hand first at farming.
Turns out he's a lousy farmer.
He tries his hand at business.
He has no head for business.
He can't make people pay when they owe him money; he's to
much of a soft heart.
He tries selling insurance; he's not
a persuasive salesman.
He runs into William Sherman.
Sherman has had the same kind of experience during the
1850s, during the period between the wars.
And Sherman runs into Grant and the two of them
commiserate saying, boy, that West Point didn't prepare us
to be peace time soldiers.
Sherman has left the army and he has had john as dismal an
experience as Grant has had.
And the two are thinking, what's to
become of us soldiers?
Grant is was forced to what for him is the humiliating
position of going to his father who has been getting
more and more critical of Grant.
Can't you do anything right?
He had to ask to borrow some money from his father.
Father reluctantly loaned him the money and he was planting
some crops and the frost came and took away all the crops.
And he couldn't pay his father back.
Now, at the age-- he's almost 40 years old.
40 years old, he's supposed to be a mature guy.
He's got a family and he has to go plead with his
father for a job.
The father says, OK.
You can work in the family leather business.
Now he has two younger brothers.
Now this whole dynamic of younger older brothers.
And the fact that the younger brothers is succeeding, the
older brother is a failure.
This makes it even more humiliating.
But Grant decides OK, I'll work in the
leather store for a while.
Maybe something will come of this.
But it's very clear that this guy is on a path to nowhere.
The world will never hear of Ulysses Grant.
And he is resigned to a life in obscurity.
And I say if you read his letters, he seems reasonably
resigned to it.
It's not as though there is this burning
ambition inside him.
Or at least if there was, it's well hidden, probably from
himself too.
I read the letters and at this point in his letters, he never
expects to be famous.
He never expects that anyone besides the direct addressee
will read these letters.
They're letters to his wife.
He writes on occasion a letter when he has to to his father.
So it's not like he's creating a historical trail.
He thinks that he's going to live the rest of his life and
die in obscurity.
And, by all appearances, he's OK with that.
Oh, and I should add that he had just the mildest interest
in politics.
He's in Missouri and politics-- well, Missouri
until he goes to Galena, Illinois.
He gets to Galena, Illinois and this is where the family
has just opened up a new leather store.
And he knows that there is this controversy around
slavery, but he's not involved.
He's not a political figure.
If anything, he leans democratic rather than
The republican party is new during the 1850s and Grant
thinks that the republicans are a force of disruption
because the republicans insist on containing slavery, or at
the extreme version, abolishing slavery.
And Grant knows that the abolitionists have injected
this volatile element into politics.
And he doesn't think that this is going to be good.
He looks at events in Kansas where there is this small
scale, guerrilla style civil war going on.
And he shakes his head and is thinking if that's what the
republicans bring us, we don't want any more of it.
OK, so he gets to Galena, Illinois and he's settling
into a life as this obscure clerk, maybe someday his
father will make him a partner in the store.
But all of this is really at his father's behest. And 40
year old son hasn't made anything of himself.
And then the political world spins a little bit faster.
Abraham Lincoln gets elected, the South decides to secede.
And for the first time in a decade, the
US Army needs officers.
And Grant remembers, you, know, I was
kind of good at this.
And he does this point, get drawn into the politics
surrounding the war for the Union.
Illinois of course, is Lincoln's home state.
And there are rallies in the various
towns including Galena.
We will defend the Union because Lincoln has now called
for volunteers, Appomattox is [INAUDIBLE].
Fort Sumter has been fired on.
And Lincoln calls for volunteers.
And Grant is trying to decide, OK, well what shall I do?
I'm trained as an officer.
Most of the people who are signing up to fight on behalf
of the Union have no training at all.
The Army will be happy to have me back.
So he writes a letter to the war department saying, I would
like to reenlist. And I think that I deserve a commission
as-- I can't remember what he asked for.
I'm getting a lieutenant or a colonel.
And because he looked around him, he saw the people who had
a lot less training than he did and a lot skimpier record
in the military were getting higher offices than that.
Well, the Army quite clearly by its foot dragging was not
enthusiastic at all about having this drunk-- I mean,
this is the word on Ulysses Grant back in the military.
And so they reject his initial suggestion that he be
brought back in.
And then he writes again.
And this time his letter gets lost. Well, so it seems.
Whether it really got lost and just got shelved, he doesn't
hear anything.
So he begins to organize the volunteers in Illinois.

Oh, and I might point out for those of you who-- I'll remind
you of your Civil War history.
There was a strong belief on both Northern and Southern
sides that this is going to be a quick war.
The South believed that the North wouldn't fight, the
North believed that the South couldn't fight well.
And all it would take would be one battle
and it would be over.
When Lincoln asked for the 75,000 volunteers right after
firing on Fort Sumter, he asked for them to volunteer
for 90 days.
The assumption being the war would be over in 90 days.
That's all it's going to take.
Well, the first big battle of the war
occurs in July of 1861.
This is the first battle of Bull Run or Manassas.
And it begins with-- in the morning it looks like it's a
Union victory.
And reporters and various observers of the battle, they
flee to the near and they run to the nearest telegraph
office and then wire back saying big Union victory.
But then the Confederates counterattack.
And it turns out that it's a Confederate victory.
Now, I had known that there was this confusion about who
was going to win the battle.
And I thought well, OK.
I understand why if you're a newspaper reporter you want to
get the scoop and you want to be the first to report that it
was a a Union victory.
And how if you report on first impression you
might get it wrong.
I didn't appreciate, I didn't really understand what the
real motive behind trying to be the first one there was.
Do you know what it was?
Well, the Civil War marked the serious birth of speculation
on Wall Street.
Especially speculation in war related stocks and even more
especially, speculation in the American currency.

Early in the war, the Union government was forced to for
the first time, issue paper dollars
unbacked by gold or silver.
You know what the term for these notes was?
That's why greenback is still a nickname for the dollar.
And there was great speculation in the greenback
because the greenback essentially floated with
respect to gold.
And if you were a speculator and you learned that the Union
was winning in a battle, well, the dollar would appreciate
and you would make your bets accordingly.
And so the first reports from the battlefield were not of
reporters from newspapers, they were of-- you could call
them spies or reporters-- were the speculators.
And it you got the news even half an hour before somebody
else, you could make a speculative killing.
Anyway, after the battle of Bull Run it became apparent to
both sides that this war was not going
to be a 90 day affair.
That the war was going to go on for a while and the Army
decides, you know what?
We need all the help we can get.
And so they decided that they would bring Ulysses Grant back
into the US Army.
And Grant discovered that he had a gift for
this military stuff.
When he was in the Civil War, excuse me, when he's in the
war with Mexico he [INAUDIBLE]
senior officer, he simply took orders.
He did discover that he wasn't afraid.
He could get fired at and he liked it.
This was important.
But he also discovered now, at the beginning of the Civil War
that he had-- well I'm going to go so far to say eventually
he discovered he had a genius for war.
And genius here I don't mean necessarily an IQ that's off
the chart, a particular gift for the
tasks that war requires.

I'm running out of time.
And I do want to get some questions from you.
But I will just tell you my assessment of Grant as a
general and why he was able to accomplish what he
And some of you might disagree and then we can talk about it.
But anyway, Grant had a knack for,
first of all, for logistics.
Of of the secrets of any military success is getting
your resources, including your troops where they need to be
when they need to be there.
And Grant was very good at this, partly because during
the war with Mexico he was assigned to the
quartermasters division.
He actually should have been in the cavalry, he was a
brilliant horseman.
But his grades wee really low at West Point and so he didn't
get his first choice.
They put them in the infantry.
And when he got in the infantry they needed a
quartermaster, so they made him a quartermaster.
So he was used to the idea of how you supply the troops and
he knew perfectly well that-- you know, it was Napolean who
said, the army marches on its stomach.
When troops are well fed, they're happy and they're
prepared to fight.
If they're hungry, they are not.
So he first of all, knew how to do that.
And he knew it was essential.
It was not beneath any commander to spend lots of the
time dealing with those issues.
The second thing was that Grant had and I don't know how
to quantify this, but he had a kind of visual talent,
mentally visual talent for visualizing the battlefield.
The biggest challenge for commanders during the Civil
War was trying to figure out where the enemy was at any
given time.
Not only where the enemy was, where his own forces were.
Remember, this is in the day before any kind of aerial
Well, there were in fact, the beginnings of efforts to send
up observation balloons where if you can get even-- you
remember the first time you ever went up in an airplane.
How you looked down and all of a sudden things become clearer
and you look at the city you've been living in all this
time and oh, there it is.
Well, commanders did not have that third dimensional
And so you had to be able to figure out.
You could look at maps, you could look at the lay of the
land and you could try to see where everything was.
Grant had an ability to visualize the way the land
lay, where his own forces were, and where the enemy
forces were, or where the enemy forces must be if they
were going to oppose them.
And if they weren't where they were supposed to be, where
they needed to be to oppose him, then he get them where he
wanted unopposed.
So Grant had a knack for this.
There was something else.
And this came up.
William Sherman as I said was one of Grant's friends.
William Sherman knew that he was smarter than Grant.
He knew that he was better versed than Grant in military
history and tactics and all this stuff you could study.
But he also acknowledged that Grant was a better general
than he was.
And he said, there's one thing about Grant that he does
better than I do or anybody else does.
And that is he knows what he wants to do and he's able to
stick to that.
He's able to focus on that and not be distracted by the other
stuff that happens during a battle.
Now it's a truism of war that the best laid plans blow up as
soon as the battle starts.
Well they did for other generals, but for Grant he
knew what he wanted to do and he would not be deterred.
He often almost ignored what the enemy was doing because he
knew if he did this, then he would
accomplish what he wanted.
And he was able to do it better than anybody else on
the Union side.
And I would argue, better than anybody on the Confederate
side either.
But there was a last element to Grant's genius.
And this gets back to the question of why is there war?
And I'll stop with this, then I'll take some questions.
And it's a trait of Grant that I don't know whether to admire
or to be appalled by.
And it comes down to this, Grant figured out before
anybody else on the Union side did-- for that matter,
probably anybody else on the Confederate side did-- how the
Union would win the war.
He realized that the Union had more resources than the
Confederacy did.
And the Union would win by wearing down the South.
And what this required was the willingness in a Union
commander to fight and fight and fight.
And lose men and lose men and lose men.
Grant had the ability-- and again, I don't know if this is
something to admire or to be appalled by.
He had the ability, the willingness, to make a
military decision knowing that he was-- that this decision
would lead to the deaths of thousands of his men.
Nobody in American military history until then had been
able or willing to do this.
Lincoln went through four or five generals
before hitting on Grant.
And some of those generals-- George McClellan, Meade,
Booker, McDowell, they could prepare for a battle.
McClellan was great at preparing for a battle.
And his soldiers loved him.
But at the critical moment he couldn't pull the trigger.
He couldn't make that decision.
He couldn't bring himself to the morally freighted decision
of saying, you will die for this cause.
Now it's not you, you, and you will die.
But of this group, a quarter of you are going to be dead by
tomorrow morning.
It's something that had never been asked of an American
commander before and Grant knew that that was the way the
North would win the war.
Grant is often compared unfavorably with Robert E.
Robert E.
Lee is seen as the general who was more brilliant, who was
more daring, who did this sort of thing and that sort of
thing where Grant was plotting along.
Well, in this respect, Lee benefits from the fact that
first of all, he wasn't expected to win.
He had to do this kind of thing.
He had the luxury of taking chances.
Grant didn't have that luxury.
Grant knew if you stick to what you're doing, you're
going to win.
Now Grant as I said, even though he was lukewarm about
politics before the war, even though he didn't really care
much about the slavery issue, by the middle of the war, by
the time he became the union commander, he was fully
convinced that the Union must be preserved.
And it was almost enough for him to put it in those terms.
He had an interesting view on secession.
He thought that the founding fathers quite likely, would
have been on the side of the secessionists in the 1860s.
That OK, he couldn't say for sure.
But he didn't think that they believed that this union was
forever and there was only a one-way door in.
But he also said it's beside the point what
the founders thought.
And in fact he said that even if secession were not
admissible, what was going on in the South with not
secession so much as revolution.
And I might add that we've kind of lost half of the
interpretation of what the South did.
There were those in the South who contended that secession
was perfectly legal and that's all that was going on.
But there were others in the South who said, you know, I
don't think secession is legal.
What we're engage in here is not secession, but revolution.
And even as staunch a unionist as Andrew Jackson,
acknowledged the right of revolution.
What's the right of revolution?
The right of revolution is to well, take the position that
Thomas Jefferson did in the Declaration of Independence.
That if a government no longer suits your needs and purposes,
you have the right to overthrow it.
But here's the thing.
If you had the idea that secession was legal and OK,
then you had to resent the fact that the North resisted
secession by force because they weren't
supposed to do that.
But if you planted your flag on the right of revolution,
well, the right of revolution includes the fact that the
revolution has to be fought.
And your right of revolution will be upheld if you win.
If you lose, you lose.
And so Grant took that position, this is a revolution
and we will fight to hold the union together.
He also came around to the belief that
emancipation was necessary.
Now, this is one of those cases where I as the author or
anybody who's reading this or anybody who thinks about what
you know about human and motivation.
Is this a matter of Grant carefully thinking this
through and saying, oh yeah, after long thought, I've
decided that the Union must be preserved at all cost and the
slaves must be freed.
Is that part of it?
That's probably part of it.
But a lot of it I'm sure is as well, I have made these
horrible decisions, or at least I have made these
decisions that have horrible results for people.
How can I live with myself?
How can I justify these?
Well I can only do this by asserting, by believing in a
higher good that's going to come out of this.
In my book, I spend a lot of time with Abraham Lincoln and
his relation with Grant.
And there's a wonderful relationship that develops
between the two.
And there's a close parallelism in their evolving
moral views.
So Lincoln is Grant's commander.
Lincoln is the one who puts Grant in charge, and who
basically signs off on all the stuff that Grant is doing.
And Lincoln likewise, comes around to this view that all
the costs of the war, as horrible as they might be,
were necessary.
We had to do this.
We had to save the Union because this is the last best
hope of mankind.
This is the test of whether government of the people, by
the people, and for the people shall or shall not
perish from the earth.
And that the slaves must be freed.
This is a higher morality that we are coming to.
Interestingly enough, Lincoln didn't take that view before
the Civil War.
Didn't take that view really until the summer of 1862 when
he writes the Emancipation Proclamation.
So there's something going on here.
And I think it's this kind of, you do certain things and they
change the way you think.
And then you change the way you think and you do certain
other things and it feeds on itself.

Shall I conclude this, shall I leave you with-- well, I will
just tell you that this view of the Civil War-- now I'm
speaking in a firmly Union state, Northern state, I'm not
going to be so bold as to say you all agree with me.
If we were in Georgia I would guess that a lot of you
wouldn't agree with me.
But what I'm about to say is that this became kind of the
fundamental interpretation of the Civil War.
The Civil War cost over 600,000 American lives.
And if you, in fact, I was just reading The Smithsonian
magazine on the plane coming up here today.
And there's an article by a historian, a respected
historian on the Civil War who contents that the Civil War
was necessary.
It was inevitable.
It had to happen.
Well, if you have been on the side, well either side for
that matter, if you have been engaged in an activity that
kills more than half a million people you have this huge
incentive to say we had to do it.
Because if you say somehow we goofed, sorry, that's not
going to wash.
And so, you know, you can if you're a historian-- and
historians have taken this view for the longest time that
the Civil War was necessary.
I don't know if it was or not.
We can't roll back the tape on that one and play it again.
But there's no question if you look at somebody like Grant,
he becomes convinced that it's necessary.
And it's almost necessary that he become convinced of that to
justify the, shall I say, joy he gets out of war?
Joy would be putting it a little bit too strongly.
There's no question though that the war years were the
best years of his life.
And he fell freer, he felt more fulfilled, he felt this
is what I was created to do.
Now if I had more time I'd tell you more about Grant's
In certain respects it was a let down.
He wasn't gifted as a politician, he
was gifted as a soldier.
I'll just leave one last observation, appropriate I
hope to the Hauenstein Center.
We Americans have this weakness
for victorious generals.
We make them president.
And there is no observable connection between one's skill
as a general and one's skill as a president.
Sometimes we get lucky.
Dwight Eisenhower was a very successful general and a
pretty good president.
And Andrew Jackson was a successful general and his
presidency was OK.
Well, we'll never know about Zachary Taylor or William
Henry Harrison, they died too soon.
Ulysses Grant was a very well meaning president and he did,
I think, as well as anyone could have done.
But even after my rehabilitation of Grant, he's
not going to be in the top five.
So don't hold your breath on that.
OK, I will stop there.
And I'd be happy to take questions.
I hope there are some questions.
But thank you very much for listening.