Ulysses S. Grant invents American prose

If you read first-hand accounts of the Civil War, you get used to a certain blustery high-minded prose style peppered with tortured latinate constructions. In witness of their poltroonery, we set upon the knaves with much promptitude, winning the battlement with but minor effusion of blood, etc. etc. Huzzah!

When I read this stuff I think to myself: Did they talk to each other like this? Did they talk to their families like this? Yonder mongrel absconded with my Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper! After him, lad! Let the cur be seized! Huzzah!

That’s why it’s so refreshing to read the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, a man completely devoid of the boastful, windy style of so many of his peers. Grant became close friends with Mark Twain near the end of his life, and it was Twain who published Grant’s memoirs. Between the two of them, I believe they invented modern American prose. I always wonder how much Twain influenced Grant’s writing. It would have been fun to eavesdrop on their conversations.

For a quick comparison of styles, consider these descriptions of the events preceding the surrender of Fort Donelson in 1862. The first is by Lew Wallace, a Union commander and a famous author in his own right (he wrote the best-selling Ben Hur).


“The night of the 14th of February fell cold and dark, and under the pitiless sky the armies remained in position so near to each other that neither dared light fires. Overpowered with watching, fatigue, and the lassitude of spirits which always follows a strain upon the faculties of men like that which is the concomitant of battle, thousands on both sides lay down in the ditches and behind logs, and whatever else would in the least shelter them from the cutting wind, and tried to sleep.


The sun went down on the night of the 14th of February, 1862, leaving the army confronting Fort Donelson anything but comforted over the prospects. The weather had turned intensely cold; the men were without tents and could not keep up fires where most of them had to stay, and, as previously stated, many had thrown away their overcoats and blankets. Two of the strongest of our gunboats had been disabled, presumably beyond the possibility of rendering any present assistance. I retired this night not knowing but that I would have to intrench my position, and bring up tents for the men or build huts under the cover of the hills.


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