New Team of Researchers Helps Grant with His Memoirs

Grant Memoirs annotated-coverWhen Ulysses S. Grant wrote his memoirs, a small team of researchers helped him check facts and track down details. Now, 132 years after the release of those memoirs, a new team of fact-checkers and researchers has gone to work for Grant to help prepare a new edition.

First published in 1885, Grant’s memoirs have never been out of print. What makes this edition of particular note is that, for the first time ever, the memoirs are fully annotated—and the annotations were compiled by none other than the historians of the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State University (and published by Harvard University Press).

“There just hasn’t been anything like this done before,” says editor John F. Marszalek, executive director of the Ulysses S. Grant Association. “Every couple of years, someone comes out with a ‘new’ edition, but basically what we’ve found is that publishers are using what we used—the very first published memoirs that Grant himself wrote—[and then] maybe adding a new introduction, but they’re really not doing very much to make the memoirs available to the modern reader.

“I think that’s going to be the big contribution we’re going to make,” he adds. “What we attempted to do, I hope, is to make clear what Grant has already made clear in his writing when he’s talking to the audience he’s writing for. We’re trying to take it and make it clear to a modern audience.” 

The project dates back to the editorship of John Y. Simon, the original editor of the Ulysses S. Grant papers. Marszalek paraphrases Simon’s intent: “Once I finish the papers, then the next thing the Grant Association needs to do is come up with an annotated version of the Grant memoirs.” And so, Marszalek says, “Once we finished up the Grant papers, we decided it was time to take that on—and so we did.”

That effort wrapped up 2011. Marszalek, who succeeded Simon as managing editor of the Ulysses S. Grant Papers, then launched the annotation project, eventually recruiting assistant editors David S. Nolen and Louie P. Gallo.

Nolen, a reference librarian working at the Mitchell Memorial Library at Mississippi State, joined the team at about the same time he and his wife had a baby. “David has been working on these memoirs for as long as his four-year-daughter has been alive,” Marszalek jokes warmly.

Gallo, meanwhile, joined the team in 2014 as a one-year replacement from the McKinley National Memorial, Library, and Birthplace—and ended up staying. “It’s pretty much been part of my everyday life for the past three years,” he laughs.

Working in tandem, Nolen and Gallo tracked down items and verified facts—what Nolen calls “some of the nuts and bolts kind of digging”—and had to decide where to intervene with some kind of annotation. The result was some two thousand notes that added context, clarity, and depth to Grant’s original manuscript.

“Looking at the memoirs and how far removed we are from their original audience, there’s a sense that there are passages that are fairly inaccessible to a modern reader just because they don’t have the cultural context and the knowledge that readers of the first edition would have had,” Nolen explains, “especially with the Civil War and the major and minor players that Grant mentions kind of in passing. One of the things we wanted to do in the annotation was really comprehensively annotate all of those sections where the modern reader stops and said, ‘Wait, who is that?’ or ‘What is he describing?’”

Nolen says they “didn’t want to interrupt [Grant’s] narrative flow” if they didn’t have to, so they tried to limit themselves to instances “where Grant would be vague—either from the modern reader being distant from the context or where he’s kind of glossing over things to sum up and move on with the story.”

That required a lot of detective work, Marszalek admits: “I don’t know how many times in his memoirs Grant talks about a ‘Mr. Jones’ or a ‘Mr. Smith’ or a ‘Capt. Smith’ or a ‘Dr. Smith.’ And then, of course, how do you find out who this character is? But in most cases, we’ve been able to discover this.”

Gallo says the team tried to identify every single person Grant mentions and give the reader a “brief biographical bit.” As an example, he cites an instance during the Vicksburg Campaign where Grant talks about being stationed at Milliken’s Bend. “And he talks about how there’s this little skiff that came up the river, and there was a man in the boat who had a white flag signifying that he was coming in peace, and he just wanted to talk to Grant,” Gallo says. “We had to figure out, ‘Who was this person?’

“We did some research and figured out this guy was actually an unindicted co-conspirator in the assassination plot to kill Lincoln. And later on, after the war, Grant actually had to testify in front of the commission on the assassination about meeting with this guy. So it’s interesting enough to identify the person, but it’s even cooler to find this deeper connection that he has, not only with Grant but with a significant event in American history.”

Such discoveries are exciting, Marszalek says, because the modern reader “will be able to look at this and learn things that are not available at this particular point, even though the Civil War has been around for a long time.”

At times, the team also intervened with annotations that corrected factual errors, although Marszalek says those instances were few. “One of the stories about Grant is that the memoirs aren’t accurate, that there are a lot of mistakes, that he was building himself up and his friends and others like that,” Marszalek says. “We didn’t find that. One of the things we did find was that he was remarkably accurate.” Grant might round off numbers to 22,000 from something like 21,232, but the editor says, “That’s not important.”

“There are some things where we don’t agree with his interpretation of things,” Marszalek admits, “but that’s his interpretation, and so we don’t try to change that or try to make some kind of point.”

Gallo agrees. “Our goal with this edition was really to just give the readers the facts,” he reiterates. “We tried to stay away from interpretation; we didn’t want to come across as biased.”

The point, says Nolen, was to let Grant speak for himself. “We really wanted to emphasize letting Grant tell his own story because the memoirs are such a good read,” he says. “As you read through it, you really get a good sense of ‘Grant the Storyteller.’”

That storytelling ability was one of Grant’s underappreciated talents, Marszalek says. “People who knew him would say he’s a really quiet guy, but he was such an engaging storyteller,” he says. “He’s interesting. When you got him in a situation where he felt free and able to speak—he was a fascinating, fascinating figure—he was able to do that.”

That sense of engagement came through in Grant’s writing, too. “The thing that really strikes me more than anything else is Grant writes in a very forceful way,” says Marszalek, who has probably spent more time with Grant’s writing than anyone alive. “You read the thing, and he draws you in. He said one time, ‘I am a verb’—in other words, I am an action. And he writes that way. So you read what he’s saying, and you know exactly what he’s saying. He doesn’t beat around the bush. He hits the nail right on the head.”

All the more remarkable is the fact that Grant was in the final throes of terminal throat cancer as he wrote. “The guy is dying,” Marszalek says. “They’re giving him cocaine, basically, to keep the pain down, yet he’s able to come through and write in such a marvelous, marvelous way.”

As Grant worked during those final, painful weeks, his small team of assistants helped assemble what he needed to finish. Of particular help on the manuscript were his sons, Fred, Buck, and Jesse, and his stenographer, Noble Dawson. They pulled maps, verified facts, and looked up information—an effort Marszalek, Gallo, and Nolen replicated for the annotations. “Other than that,” says Nolen, “we really wanted to let [Grant] speak for himself and tell his own story.”

“We tried to annotate it in a way that allows Grant to stand out,” Marszalek says, with Grant’s ideas front and center. “We don’t try to argue with him or convince the audience of any particular point. We present you with the facts as we really did our best to present them, and you go from there.”


For more information, you can read Mississippi State University’s press release.

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20 Responses to New Team of Researchers Helps Grant with His Memoirs

  1. tuffncuddly says:

    Now this is actually something new and definitly sounds like a great read. Do we know if there footnotes or endnotes? (I always prefer footnotes as it allows you to read with minute interference, in contrast with endnotes which require constant flipping back and forth and really disrupts the flow). It really strikes me as odd and surprising that the Ulysses S. Grant library would be located in one of if not the last states to integrate. GREAT heads-up Mr. Chris I genuinely NEED that book for mine.

    • The notes are included as footnotes. It’s a fantastic book, and I highly recommend it.

      • tuffncuddly says:

        I’m so grateful for the heads up Mr. Chris, I’m just enjoying reading Rhea’s 5th and final book on the Overland Campaign but I’ve been purchasing the specific O.R. books and B&L books and many other sources I’ll be needing for my book and this is a MUST HAVE for me, can’t thank you enough for the recommendation as I had no idea it even existed.6

  2. tuffncuddly says:

    In case anyone’s interested I checked the book is out on Amazon. The book is $34 and it says that they do use footnotes as opposed to endnotes which is great. So thank you for the heads up mr. Chris this is definitely an important read for anyone interested in the Civil War and especially for anybody attempting to write and have for publish book involving Ulysses S Grant.

  3. Charlie Downs says:

    We need more efforts like this. I believe that Bud Robertson was one of the first to use this approach with “A Rebel War Clerk’s Diary”. You often see where authors use things from people like Henry Kyd Douglas but then say that what he said wax not true. Chris, with the resources that ECW has, it would be interesting to pick a book like this and crowd source it, asking for comments on either expanding or correcting what a person like Douglas is saying. It would really cut down on the time required to fully annotate a book. I’ve often thought about doing this with Douglas but just don’t have the time. It would be s perfect fit for the ECW community. Hope you’ll consider it.
    Charlie

    • An intriguing idea, for sure!

      • Charlie Downs says:

        I think annotated personal recollections would be well received. I’m trying to build a library of primary references and just don’t know when to believe things and when not to believe them. Joe Harsh says that much of John Walker’s reminiscences are not true in “Taken At The Flood” and offers good evidence why they were not factual. We need more of that. Hope you’ll seriously consider it.

  4. I’m in the middle of a transaction, selling some collectables. Once the money clears (today or tomorrow, I hope), I’m going to place an Amazon order that will be a “Grant overdose”—this new edition of the Memoirs, the Chernow biography, and Gordon Rhea’s last book on the crossing of the James. So many books, so little time …

  5. josepharose says:

    Dr. Mackowski, I’m sorry to always be a wet blanket, but this annotated edition of Grant’s Memoirs leaves much to be desired. Editor Louis Gallo previously stated that the Ulysses S. Grant Association’s edition “will address any superficial errors Grant might have made,” but my first quick perusal indicates that he apparently told an untruth.

    The editors estimated that Grant’s April 6th arrival at Pittsburg Landing was “around 8:15 A.M. or 8:30 A.M. and no later than 9:00 A,M.,” citing Tim Smith. The USS Tyler’s logbook, however, has the Tigress reaching the landing at 9:30. Far worse, when Grant tried to argue that there was no surprise at Shiloh, the annotated edition appears to lack a footnote contradicting him. As I remember, Grant’s description butchered the plan for Chattanooga, and the later footnote that implies Grant’s claim that all went according to plan was not exactly true is the only indication that Grant had egregiously lied earlier in the work. On Page 495, there seems to be no annotation that Sheridan didn’t pass around the Confederate army.

    On Page 231, Footnote 12, the editors committed their own error in writing that Buell was in command of the 4th Division, Army of the Ohio at the time of Shiloh. They meant Nelson. On Page 416, the date is incorrect as to when Thomas ordered Hooker to concentrate his forces in preparation for the Cracker Line operations. On Page 526, Footnote 41, regarding Grant’s statement that “Burnside had three divisions” one of them colored. the footnote merely mentions how Ferrero’s guarded the trains, but not how Grant’s number is wrong. Even the Memoirs’ OOB several pages earlier gets it right.

    There are far more omissions concerning Grant’s errors in the Memoirs, but these should give you an idea.

  6. josepharose says:

    I forgot to mention that I really do like the idea described above of crowd-sourcing annotations for popular or influential works on the Civil War. Many of the untruths in them (whether unintentional or knowingly false) make their ways into later secondary histories and then get passed down to the present. Examples are too numerous to be needed.

  7. dan says:

    I received this new edition and am very impressed so far. There are many references to the specific volumes and pages in the Papers of US Grant, so that you can easily navigate to the source. I think this is going to be a major go-to resource.

  8. tuffncuddly says:

    Mr. Josepharose, I do not have the education or published books that Dr. Chris or Dan among others have but there word or suggestion’s have never lead me astray where as no disrespect I have no Idea who you are despite the amount of time I spend on this blog. When doing footnotes for someone else’s writing it’s impossible to be 100% accurate because you don’t know what they’re thinking. With that said there are many people who have spent their careers trying to trash Grant at every opportunity, I am only educated as far as a bachelor’s from Michigan but I’m smart enough to know Grant was no fool. People who try to make their living just saying he was a butcher and knew nothing about tactics know nothing about the history of warfare. Before the invention of the rifle in its form as pertaining to the Civil War it was understood that an invading Army would always have to outnumber a d u g defensive Army fire ratio of 3 to 1. That is the ratio Grant had despite it was the accepted ratio before the modern repeating rifle and the other forms that existed in during the Civil War. So literally he should have outnumbered Lee 4 to 1. People who try to make their money convincing everyone else how much smarter The South was are just catering to a racist Ridiculousness audience.

    • (When were you in AA? I graduated from the College of Engineering in 1975.)

      I think the basic problem here is the distinction between “annotate” and “fact-check.” According to Dr. Mackowski’s post, the goal of this new edition was to annotate. Based on Mr. Rose’s comments, it seems he wanted them to fact-check every detail of the Memoirs. Given the number of careless editorial errors that I see in the literature these days, I am not surprised that a few mistakes slipped through—it shouldn’t happen, and many (all?) publishers should do more to catch them, but no one wants to invest in the extra layer of review that might weed out most of them. Sad, but that is the way it is.

      • dan says:

        I think the editors did a fine job of fact-checking, without getting too petty, and allowing the author to have his own opinion and his own memories.

        The Buell footnote could have been worded better, but it is obvious that the editors meant that the 4th division fell under Buell’s command. The criticisms listed above fall more under subjective disagreement than fact-checking.

      • tuffncuddly says:

        Mr. Epperson well I would love every my new detail fact-checked and Grant’s memoirs I realize that’s not realistic. We don’t know especially considering he was on his Deathbed where General Grant was getting his information as pertaining to specific things oh, if he was strictly going by memory or if people helping them we don’t know what parts they helped him with and what parts they don’t. So of course I would love as I imagine everyone would something like that I do realize it’s unrealistic

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  10. josepharose says:

    Louie Gallo (one of the editors) wrote, before publication: “It is also important to realize that the Ulysses S. Grant Association is currently working on a modern edition of Grant’s memoirs with explanatory notes that will address any superficial errors Grant might have made.”

    Having promised to “address any superficial errors Grant might have made,” the USGA is responsible for identifying his mistakes. The edition, however, apparently ignores Grant’s untruths about the Shiloh surprise, his opinion on Halleck’s advance on Corinth, his claims on Grant’s bayou schemes and grand strategy at Vicksburg, the plan of attack at Chattanooga, etc.

    As the most influential single work of American Civil War history, Grant’s Memoirs should be held to a very high standard. I don’t know why anyone would desire that mistakes about the conflict’s history continue to be passed down from one generation to the next.

    • I think, then, that the resolution of the issue lies in a careful reading of what Mr. Gallo wrote: The new edition is intended to “address any superficial errors Grant might have made.” The issue of surprise at Shiloh is, most definitely, NOT a “superficial” error—it is a major controversy in the study of the Western campaigns, one that has commanded a lot of ink and pages to discuss. To thoroughly address this question would require the insertion of a dissertation-length footnote. Clearly the editors of the new edition decided not to go down that road, and I frankly don’t fault them for it.

      • josepharose says:

        Although you can be excused for not knowing what Louie Gallo also wrote in his acidic little review, the paragraph quoted earlier started: “The cornerstone of Rose’s argument resides in The Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant. Rose claims that Grant’s memoirs are riddled with errors and have erroneously influenced the way people understand the Civil War. There are indeed some superficial errors in Grant’s memoirs, but Grant was on his deathbed battling throat and mouth cancer when he wrote the memoirs.” The only errors that this supposedly unbiased and thorough editor could identify were “superficial.” Thus, the biggest surprise of the Civil War, at Shiloh, would fall under the heading: “superficial.”

        As I don’t have the text in front of me, maybe someone can prove me wrong, but if I remember correctly, the editors of the annotated edition passed silently over Grant’s detailed, but fallacious, version of his plans for the battle of Chattanooga. But then the editors offered a slight criticism when Grant wrote: “My recollection is that my first orders for the battle of Chattanooga were as fought.” Although this was also a ridiculous assertion by Grant, the footnote, IIRC, merely stated that Sherman’s was to be the main attack, OWTTE. As the editors did make a small comment on this major error in the Memoirs, then there is no excuse why they didn’t comment on Grant’s lying about the Shiloh surprise.

        If someone is going to annotate these famously “accurate” memoirs, why couldn’t they have inserted one sentence stating that Grant intentionally misled his readers about the surprise at Shiloh (with other sentences to correct the other untruths)?

  11. dan says:

    When it comes to mistakes or errors in Grant’s memoirs, the important question is who is to be the arbiter of what is an error?

    Definitely not the writers who are the harshest critics of Grant. Anyone who reads the period criticism or the more modern criticism of Grant can see that objectivity is not a priority. And neither is truthfulness.

    So far, the annotations seem very good, and helpful, and objective, to me.

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