CW & Pop Culture: Breaking Down the “Truths” of The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant

ECW welcomes Nick Sacco. He’s authored an essay about Grant’s memoirs for the newest book and is here to share some additional perspective and thoughts…

When it comes to biographies of Ulysses S. Grant, few arouse as much debate among scholars as William McFeely’s Pulitzer Prize-winning study from 1981. McFeely’s thoroughly-researched book brought new insights into Grant’s life and influenced a generation of historians, but it also dabbled in excessive psychoanalysis and offered some questionable interpretations that have been scrutinized by more recent biographers. When McFeely died at the age of 89 this past December, it aroused a new round of debates not just about Grant himself, but also the scholars who write about him today.

For me, the most symbolic moment of this discussion occurred when I saw some comments on a friend’s Facebook post about McFeely’s death. One particular commenter who spoke highly of McFeely styled himself “a Grant critic” while noting that so-called “Grant defenders” were still up in arms about the book almost forty years later. These comments wonderfully exposed a long-standing false dichotomy within the world of Grant studies. When you write about Grant, apparently you must either be a “critic” or a “defender.” Does any room exist for scholars who simply want to portray Grant’s life fairly and accurately? Like many other historical figures from the American Civil War, isn’t Grant’s legacy deserving of both criticism and defense? Can scholars dismiss some of the crude, inaccurate stereotypes about Grant’s legacy while also providing critical analysis of his military and presidential record? It sometimes appears the answer to all of these questions is a resounding “no.”

It has been well-documented on this blog that Grant has received increased scholarly attention over the past thirty years. Brooks Simpson’s pioneering work in the 1990’s and 2000’s is particularly noteworthy because it simultaneously criticized the excesses of McFeely’s work while still offering a critical portrayal of Grant. His scholarship also spawned a new slate of popular biographies by Jean Edward Smith, Joan Waugh, Ron White, and Ron Chernow, among others, that continue to generate a wide reading audience today. A vocal subset of scholars—led by Frank Varney—has nevertheless disparaged the new Grant biographers. In particular, they criticize the ways these biographers have interpreted Grant’s Personal Memoirs, which were written in 1885 as Grant fought inoperable throat cancer.

In General Grant and the Rewriting of History, Varney argues that Grant had an agenda and axes to grind in his Memoirs. Historians take Grant at his word too often, “allowing one man’s personal agenda to dictate how history is written.” As a result, the legacies of other important figures such as General William Rosecrans were buried and an inaccurate portrait of the American Civil War was created by excessively relying on Grant’s word.[1] While scholars have since debated Varney’s claims, I believe most of them are valid. I agree that the Personal Memoirs are sometimes uncritically taken at face value. To cite one example, I was unconvinced by Joan Waugh’s argument that Grant should be considered a “historian” of the Civil War through the act of writing his memoirs.[2] In both cases, however, I believe Grant is being held to a standard he could never reach. Yes, Grant had an agenda (who writes a book without one?). Yes, he had strong viewpoints about the war and the people who fought it. Yes, he made mistakes along the way. And yes, Grant was concerned with how his legacy would be remembered. But before we can begin examining what Grant got right or wrong in the Personal Memoirs, we need to examine the nature of autobiography and how it fits within the study of history.

Can a personal memoir be considered a work of history? I believe memoirs can add valuable research material for historians, but are themselves not works of history. Memoirs are fundamentally expressions of “personal truth,” which can be quite different from the factual or “forensic truth” that actually exists. Regardless of the Civil War’s factual basis, Grant’s recollections are his personal truths—the who, what, where, when, how, and why of his own life experiences. They reflect how Grant perceived the meaning of the American Civil War at the time he wrote his memoirs in 1885. While he employed fact-checkers like Adam Badeau and his son Fred during the writing of the Personal Memoirs, the ultimate goal was, as Grant described it, to “show how I saw the matters treated.” By contrast, the historian’s goal is much broader. Historians must analyze personal truths alongside forensic truths to provide a realistic interpretation of historic people and events. Sometimes historians also analyze how people and events are remembered over time (memory studies), or how history might influence a country’s political structure. Historians should nevertheless proceed with caution when handling individual stories and personal truths from a memoir, which cannot be granted the status of historical fact automatically.

Seen in this light, The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant should not be seen as the work of a trained historian producing peer-reviewed scholarship. I believe most readers of Grant’s Personal Memoirs understand this dynamic and don’t read them as such. It’s also important to remember the surrounding context of Grant’s writing, which was conducted under extreme circumstances. In the face of limited time and grueling physical pain, Grant readily acknowledged in the book’s preface that “I have entered upon the task [of writing] with the sincere desire to avoid doing injustice to any one, whether on the National or Confederate side . . . There must be many errors of omission in this work, because the subject is too large to be treated of in two volumes.” Why should we expect anything different?

It therefore seems rather obvious to me that a fair-minded scholar can simultaneously acknowledge this mistakes of Grant’s Personal Memoirs, recognize the strengths and weaknesses of the book’s arguments, and understand the importance of fitting Grant’s words and experiences within the larger context of Civil War history. It does not have to be one thing or the other. I believe that recent Grant biographies on the market vary widely in terms of quality and accuracy. But contrary to an assertion that “Grant fans . . . are rabid gatekeepers,” I would contend that the best biographies have successfully avoided these pitfalls and are not looking to be uncritical defenders of Grant.

I would also gently push back against my friend Chris Mackowski, who argued in his review of Varney’s book that “history does, after all, get written by the victors.” In reality, history is written by everyone, something General Grant even acknowledged. As Waugh correctly points out, Grant recognized that the burning of Richmond in April 1865 could lead to documents pertaining to the Confederate war effort being destroyed. He wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton stating that it was “desirable to have all rebel documents captured in Richmond and elsewhere in the South examined and notes made of their contents for convenient reference.” When the federal government undertook the work of publishing 128 volumes of official records related to the Civil War, a deliberate effort was made to hire Confederate officers to collaborate alongside Union officers in editing the volumes. Most notably, former Confederate Brigadier General Marcus J. Wright led an effort to track and locate all documents related to the Confederacy after the war. Equally important, the popular Century’s Battle and Leaders series (1884) included stories from both sides of the conflict.[3]

Finally, many prominent Confederate officials wrote their own memoirs detailing their experiences and interpretations of what the Civil War was all about. Anyone today reading about the Civil War can learn about the conflict from the eyes of Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, James Longstreet, and many other “losers” of history who fought for the Confederacy. Rather than portraying Grant’s Personal Memoirs as the primary narrative in a literature dominated by Union voices, Grant’s narrative is only one voice—albeit a significant one—within a very crowded literature featuring a wide range of perspectives from both Union and Confederate veterans. The history of the American Civil War has most certainly not been written exclusively by the victors. Look no further than the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War, which still holds power with many Americans today.

Students of the Civil War often view Ulysses S. Grant the same way they view politics. They have their views on the man and no matter what anyone else says, they aren’t changing their mind. Grant is of course not above criticism, nor should he be exempt from the same critical treatment that other Civil War figures receive from historians. Scholars should nevertheless take Grant’s Personal Memoirs seriously, remembering that they received critical acclaim at the time and remain in print today. There should be no need to split biographers into “critical” and “defender” camps or view history as a zero-sum game. The best historical studies bring complexity and nuance to their human subjects, providing a window into the challenges those people faced throughout their lives. Wouldn’t you want your own life story to be treated the same way?

Nick Sacco works at U.S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. His essay about Grant’s memoirs appears in the Engaging the Civil War Series book, Entertaining History.


[1] Frank Varney, General Grant and the Rewriting of History (El Dorado Hills: Savas Beatie, 2013), xi-xii, 1-9.

[2] Joan Waugh, U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 168.

[3] Waugh, U.S. Grant, 168-171.

7 Responses to CW & Pop Culture: Breaking Down the “Truths” of The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant

  1. Wow! Nick, you have clearly devoted a lot of time and effort to understanding Ulysses S. Grant. Clearly you have taken your posting at U.S Grant National Historic Site seriously and as a tax payer I am proud to have you serving us there. You’re passion and devotion to duty is clearly evident in this article and I applaud you for that.
    I agree with you, memoirs should never be taken as fact, they are sources, especially in Grant’s case where we have so many other points of view available to us to the events he writes on.
    How about however when there is only one point of view for a historical event though, say for instance stories in the Bible or Julius Caesar’s accounts of certain battles? Are these hearsay, sources, or fact?
    Not trying to tear apart your article, I think it’s great and well written and researched, I’m simply providing some food for thought, a little philosophy on history so to speak.
    Well done Nick!

    1. Hi Matthew,

      Thanks for the kind words!

      My answer to your question is fairly straightforward. There are many events in history that are known only through anecdotal stories. In some cases all we have is the recollections of one or two people who may have said or written something down about that event. Sometimes those recollections don’t come until many years after the event in question, which only further increases the chances that important details are misremembered or left out. Can those personal truths be trusted? Caesar’s account of certain battles can be used as a source for historical research, but its reliability is a matter of interpretation. I would say Caesar words are largely dependent upon their relationship with other primary source documentation that can help verify the validity of those words. If no other sources exist, I would argue that making definitive conclusions in the absence of any other documentation would be overly speculative. Far better, in my view, to use qualifying language and to preface conclusions with phrases like “according to Caesar…”

      As a 19th century historian, I am grateful for the abundance of documentation—particularly during and after the Civil War—that exists for historians to analyze. It’s not as easy for other time periods in history. Historians should always be humble about the extent to which their methods and practices allow for a full understanding of past events, actions, and ways of thinking. In some cases we have enough documentation to draw strong conclusions about the past, but a lot times we don’t.

  2. Very nice essay. My take on the recent criticisms of the Memoirs is that folks are, fundamentally, upset that Grant wrote and published *his* memoirs, as opposed to, say, Rosecrans’s memoirs, or Meade’s memoirs. The value of any sort of personal account comes, in large part, from the light it sheds on how that person saw things, with all the potential flaws of hindsight and score-settling.

  3. Good essay. Sadly, the pro and anti camps are fairly well set and there is a lot of suspicion all around. Either crowd may not be true “gate-keepers” but they sure love a good pile on.

    For my money, I like Simpson ad McFeely best among the Grant biographies. Some of the more recent works are quite biased though.

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