Ulysses Grant and Leo Tolstoy


Let us consider the Battle of Gettysburg and the Battle of Borodino, the two greatest battles of the 19th Century.

Most Americans, even the most historically illiterate Americans, know that from July 2nd to July 4th in 1863, Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, after having scored a stunning victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville, invaded Pennsylvania.  Lee had hoped to force a decisive battle with the Army of the Potomac, score another great victory, and convince the people of the north, already war weary, would sue for peace, and allow the Confederacy to go their own way. Instead, he met a bloody repulse in a battle that produced over 50,000 casualties, and limped back to Virginia, knowing deep in his heart that however long the war raged on, the southern cause was lost.

On September 7th in 1812, Napoleon and his Grande Armee, after having driven over 1000 miles into Russia, and, like Lee, having scored a series of victories so overwhelming he had begun to think himself invincible, met his own Gettsyburg. The Imperial Russian Army under Mikhail Kutuzov turned to face the Emperor of the French a few miles west of Moscow. After it was all over, the French held the field, and by the classical definition agreed upon by most military historians could claim a victory, but Napoleon’s troops had had the life knocked out of them. Over the next few days they would limp into Moscow, holding it briefly, before starting their disastrous retreat back to western Europe, a retreat that would leave most of them dead thousands of miles from home in the bitterly cold Russian Winter.

If George Gordon Meade, the Union Commander at Gettysburg, has a Russian counterpart, then surely it’s Mikhail Kutuzov, the man who lost the Battle of Borodino and yet destroyed Napoleon. A great defensive general, Meade had little of the “killer instinct of of Lee, Grant, or Sherman. With Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia trapped up against the swollen Potomac, Abraham Lincoln wrote dispatch after dispatch. Pursue Lee and destroy his army, but Meade didn’t budge. “You fought and beat the enemy at Gettysburg,” Lincoln wrote, “and, of course, to say the least, his loss was as great as yours– He retreated; and you did not; as it seemed to me, pressingly pursue him; but a flood in the river detained him, till, by slow degrees, you were again upon him. You had at least twenty thousand veteran troops directly with you, and as many more raw ones within supporting distance, all in addition to those who fought with you at Gettysburg; while it was not possible that he had received a single recruit; and yet you stood and let the flood run down, bridges be built, and the enemy move away at his leisure, without attacking him.”

It is of course possible that if Ulysses Grant or Phillip Sheridan had been in command of the Army of the Potomac after the Battle of Gettysburg, Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia might have been destroyed in 1863. But it was unlikely. George Gordon Meade was no traitor, incompetent, or coward, and while not as well remembered as Abraham Lincoln, at least in July of 1863, he probably had a better understanding of history. Dashing, aggressive commanders like Lee or Napoleon know how to push men to their limits, but when they inevitably reach those limits, they usually fall hard. Cautious, plodding defensive generals like Kutuzov and Meade rarely score the kinds of victories that astonish the world, but in the end they usually emerge victorious. Nowhere is it better expressed than at the beginning of the Ninth Book of Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace.

A king is history’s slave. History, that is, the unconscious, general, hive life of mankind, uses every moment of the life of kings as a tool for its own purposes.Though Napoleon at that time, in 1812, was more convinced than ever that it depended on him, verser (ou ne pas verser) le sang de ses peuples *—as Alexander expressed it in the last letter he wrote him—he had never been so much in the grip of inevitable laws, which compelled him, while thinking that he was acting on his own volition, to perform for the hive life—that is to say, for history—whatever had to be performed.  “To shed (or not to shed) the blood of his peoples.”


You would not be totally out of bounds if you said that “Ulysses Grant was a great soldier and a minor writer and Leo Tolstoy was a minor soldier and a great writer” but you would be wrong. Grant is not only the man most responsible for destroying slavery in North America, he’s one of the greatest writers America’s ever produced. Written in 1885 while he was dying of throat cancer, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, should put the 18th President of the United States in the same canon as Hawthorne, Emerson, Walt Whitman, and his close personal friend Mark Twain. If Grant’s memoirs are little read today, it’s mainly because he’s had so many imitators. Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton are little more than copycats, their massive three volume works produced over decades achieving about what Grant did in 11 months during the last year of his life.

Ulysses Grant did not read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which was published in 1869, about 17 years before Grant’s memoirs. The first translation of War and Peace into English was by American Nathan Haskell Dole, in 1899. But in many ways The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant is the American War and Peace. There are, of course, other candidates, among Tolstoy’s American contemporaries to be the American War and Peace, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Huck Finn by Mark Twain, but no book quite sums up the central event in 19th Century American life like Grant’s massive two volume autobiography. Grant does not provide a sweeping panorama of American life. He dispenses with Tolstoy’s philosophical speculation. Other than a brief interlude where Grant meets his life at a boarding house just before the Mexican War, there is little or no romance. What do you get, however, is a lean, verbally spare, penetrating history of the bloodiest war of the 19th Century, a deep understanding of the process of organizing armies upwards of 100,000 men, and an eye witness account of the transformation of capitalism and its accompanying technology. Grant’s account of the final maneuver in the Fall of 1864 that doomed Lee, the rapid flanking maneuver after the horrific Union defeat at the Battle of Cold Harbor that pinned the Army of Northern Virginia up against Richmond and made the fall of the Confederacy inevitable, is a virtuoso piece of war correspondence that no historian has ever duplicated. His sense of the state of mind of the soldiers on both sides of the conflict is that of a first right psychologist. Unlike the aristocratic Tolstoy, he can see the world from the point of view of the common people, the working class recruits in his own army, the slaves who were coerced into doing the manual labor necessary to keep the south afloat.

As I have said, the whole South was a military camp. The colored people, four million in number, were submissive, and worked in the field and took care of the families while the able-bodied white men were at the front fighting for a cause destined to defeat. The cause was popular, and was enthusiastically supported by the young men. The conscription took all of them. Before the war was over, further conscriptions took those between fourteen and eighteen years of age as junior reserves, and those between forty-five and sixty as senior reserves. It would have been an offence, directly after the war, and perhaps it would be now, to ask any able-bodied man in the South, who was between the ages of fourteen and sixty at any time during the war, whether he had been in the Confederate army. He would assert that he had, or account for his absence from the ranks. Under such circumstances it is hard to conceive how the North showed such a superiority of force in every battle fought. I know they did not.


Yet Grant, like Napoleon, was history’s slave, caught in the grip of a process he did not entirely understand. “The colored people,” he says, “four million in number, were submissive.” Yet they were not. Grant seems unaware that if it had not been for the hundreds of thousands of slaves who made their way behind Union lines over the course of the entire war, the South would not have surrendered. If Robert E. Lee lay down his sword at Appomattox Court House, and Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his army to Sherman in North Carolina a few weeks later, it was almost certainly because both were more afraid of a revolutionary social transformation of the entire social order of North America than they were afraid of Grant’s or Sherman’s armies. Lee understood that the longer the war went on, the more certain it would be that the southern planter class would be destroyed forever, that there would be no “Lost Cause” or restoration of white supremacy in the south in 1876. Ulysses Grant’s matter of fact, anti-intellectual American mind — Frederick Engels once remarked that since Americans are incapable of abstract, theoretical thought we are incapable of socialism — doesn’t quite allow him to fully grasp the radical moment of history he himself helped precipitate. Yet, late in the Personal Memoirs, he comes so close, it’s agonizing to think about how much better American history might have been if he had had a genuinely revolutionary thinker like Tolstoy, Karl Marx, or Frederick Engels somewhere in his Presidential cabinet. Deep down inside, Grant knows that he’s being carried along by history, that like Tolstoy’s kings, he’s “history’s slave.”

I do not believe that the majority of the Northern people at that time were in favor of negro suffrage. They supposed that it would naturally follow the freedom of the negro, but that there would be a time of probation, in which the ex-slaves could prepare themselves for the privileges of citizenship before the full right would be conferred; but Mr. Johnson, after a complete revolution of sentiment, seemed to regard the South not only as an oppressed people, but as the people best entitled to consideration of any of our citizens. This was more than the people who had secured to us the perpetuation of the Union were prepared for, and they became more radical in their views. The Southerners had the most power in the executive branch, Mr. Johnson having gone to their side; and with a compact South, and such sympathy and support as they could get from the North, they felt that they would be able to control the nation at once, and already many of them acted as if they thought they were entitled to do so.

Thus Mr. Johnson, fighting Congress on the one hand, and receiving the support of the South on the other, drove Congress, which was overwhelmingly republican, to the passing of first one measure and then another to restrict his power. There being a solid South on one side that was in accord with the political party in the North which had sympathized with the rebellion, it finally, in the judgment of Congress and of the majority of the legislatures of the States, became necessary to enfranchise the negro, in all his ignorance. In this work, I shall not discuss the question of how far the policy of Congress in this particular proved a wise one. It became an absolute necessity, however, because of the foolhardiness of the President and the blindness of the Southern people to their own interest. As to myself, while strongly favoring the course that would be the least humiliating to the people who had been in rebellion, I gradually worked up to the point where, with the majority of the people, I favored immediate enfranchisement.


Indeed, Grant notes to himself that like the entire white population of the North, he was against blacks getting the vote one week, and then, just like that, almost the very next day, he was for universal suffrage (at least for men). If George Gordon Meade understood, in the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, what men couldn’t do, then Ulysses Grant didn’t seem to understand what they could do. Had he understood in 1865 the revolutionary fervor, the yearning for freedom, the patriotism of black southerners, his Presidency might have not been the abysmal failure that it was. In the end, if Grant had obeyed history passively, had truly allowed himself to be its slave, he might not only have gone down as one of its great men, the United States of America would be a much more progressive, much more successful country. We might have actually achieved our revolutionary potential instead of ending up what we are today, a destructive, reactionary, imperialist power that most of the world considers the most dangerous force on earth.

1 thought on “Ulysses Grant and Leo Tolstoy

  1. ringtonesdump.com

    The experience of General Grant teaches us something that adds to the William James, Joni Mitchell, and Leo Tolstoy point of view; that is, even a person viewed as one of our most successful generals can experience anguish, sadness, and tears.


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