Today, 150 years ago, one year into our Civil War, Union – the Union being the United States of America -troops were finished moving into position to attack Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. Five days and a 150 years ago, on February 6, 1862, the Union had won its first major victory against the secessionists – the Confederate States of America – in the battle for Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. The Union forces were led by a little known, a newly promoted Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant.
I do not know all the reasons for the pull that U. S. Grant has on me: part of it probably has to do with the resurrection of a failed man, part with his lack of pretension, a lot with his change from a non-political – non involved – man to being the greatest, white, champion of civil rights the United States has seen until LBJ a hundred years later. For that, for trying to give Negros their rights, Grant’s reputation suffered during a post Civil War remembrance that was colored by the Lost Cause of southern valor. As the Negros became happier in their chains, the man who kicked every southern general’s ass including Lee’s became an inept drunk and a butcher.
On the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, 50 years ago, we were starting to get bogged down in Vietnam and allegedly smart people were saying things like Military intelligence is an oxymoron and Grant was a drunk and a butcher and stupid. Now, one of the things about this anniversary is that Grant is being rehabilitated as scholars are re-looking at the war and his presidency. The English have thought of Grant as a great general for a long time, probably starting with British historian General John Fuller who wrote extensively about Grant and wrote one of my favorite quotes that is both about Grant and our America as it should be:
In the year 1858, in the streets of the city of St. Louis might sometimes be seen a man leading a horse and cart – a seller of faggots. The man was no longer young, about five feet eight inches in height, though he looked shorter, for he stooped slightly, and when he drew up to off-load his wood his limbs trembled, for he suffered from ague. He was a thick-set, muscular man whose dark-brown hair and beard showed no trace of grey.
To the passer-by he was one of many thousands who had failed to make good – that is, he was a poor, honest, hardworking fellow whose end seemed preordained – to do odd jobs until his days were numbered: to die, and to be forgotten. Yet in the United States of America, then as now, it would have taken a bold man to predict the end of a fellow citizen. The Thousand and One Nights is a romance founded on slender facts, on Eastern dreams which seldom come true without a knife, a bow string, or a cup of poisoned coffee. But here in this vast tumultuous continent facts find rooms wherein to wind and unwind themselves into tremendous romances. No man can tell the destiny of another; for there is magic in this land of vast possibilities, vast as its spaces, in which talent more so than birth sorts through the sieve of opportunity the human grist from the human chaff. This man, humble, work-worn, and disappointed, as he off-loaded his faggots, stood on the brink of his destiny as surely as the prince in the fairy tale when he lifted up the old peasant woman and her bundle of wood, and wading the river found on the far bank that in his arms rested a smiling princess.
The name of this humble seller of wood was Ulysses S. Grant, who within a few years, was destined to command vast armies, to win great battles, and to be twice chosen by his countrymen as their President. If this is not romance – what is?
Grant, who commanded two divisions of Army, was a young man at 39 and still untested. He was accompanied by a Union Navy force commanded by Flag officer Andrew Foote, and, at Fort Henry, the Navy had beaten the enemy before his troops were even able to attack the fort. Now, for the first time, 150 years ago, he would be tested.