American presidential memoirs have tended to be self-serving tomes, designed to massage reputations and secure their authors a fat windfall on retirement. This was not the case with the first, written by Ulysses S. Grant, who served two terms in the White House (1869–77). Grant does not write about his presidency but about his experiences as the victorious general of the Civil War.
An American friend of mine reads Grant’s Memoirs every year to remind him of an idealized expression of the American character personified by the old soldier: honest, straightforward, dogged, decent, loyal, self-effacing, courteous and tolerant. Non-Americans are also inspired by the story of a man who in early life failed at everything but who became one of history’s great generals.
As a lonely child Grant took refuge in horses, with which he had a natural empathy, and by the time he was 10 he had earned the reputation of someone who could perform equine miracles and ride horses considered impossible. But when, at 16, he was sent to West Point Military Academy, he showed so little aptitude for military tactics that he earned the nickname ‘Useless Grant’. Oddly enough, and in spite of a seemingly uncharacteristic penchant for reading romantic novels, it was at West Point that he laid the foundations of his literary style: clean, uncluttered prose that was clear and direct, if poorly spelt.
Not surprisingly, this retiring, taciturn youth had little success with women until he met the homely Julia who was to become his wife and soulmate. There was never a hint of scandal throughout their long, devoted marriage, although from the beginning Grant’s drinking was a problem. It took the form of solitary bingeing in a room with a bottle, followed by punishing hangovers that developed into migraines.
The Mexican-American War of 1846–8 was Grant’s first exposure to combat. He demonstrated his personal bravery and superb horsemanship when he volunteered to
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