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.


What does the Civil War mean to you?

I’ve been away on vacation to New Orleans for the past week. While doing the museum circuit, I went to the excellent D-Day museum and then took a stroll around the corner to the Memorial Hall Confederate Museum. The Confederate Museum is mostly a context-free collection of miscellaneous gear: uniforms of famous men like Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, swords, guns, battle flags and so on. This is interesting stuff to the enthusiast, but not so great for the idle visitor. Happily, there was no hint of white supremacy or “the South will rise again” sentiment to the place.

While I was there, I heard a boy ask his mom who won the battle of Gettysburg. She paused, evidently not knowing the answer, but since she wanted to answer the boy she hesitantly said “I think the South won that battle.” Being nearby, I piped up and gently corrected her. After another minute the woman came up beside me and said, waving her hand in a nonspecific way, “You sound like you’re from the South. Does all this mean anything to you?” I said “Sure it means something to me. I imagine it means something to a lot of northerners too.” She said, “I’m from Michigan, and to me it’s always been confusing. We don’t ever think about it.” I didn’t ask why she came to the museum, but I did point out that a lot of Michiganders fought and died in the war, including those from the famous Iron Brigade. She was quiet and unconvinced, but asked another question. “Was the Civil War about slavery?” I said, “Yes. It was about slavery.” She said inconclusively “Because you hear people saying it was about other things…”

Two things puzzle me. One is the complete indifference (most often by northerners) to this cataclysmic nation-shaping War Between the States, and the other is the insistence (most often by southerners) that the war was not about slavery.

So what does the Civil War mean to you?

The Long Arm of Google

This is Jay Whittington Lewis, my great great grandfather (my mother’s mother’s mother’s dad). This image reaches me because a very nice gentleman named Mike Kelly purchased it and wanted to know more about it. As he said: “Back on 2 Feb 1995 I purchased a
framed 8×10 photograph of man in a UCV uniform wearing a Southern Cross of Honor from Mishoe’s Auction House in Columbia, SC. …I did a cursory investigation on this man back then and concluded that he was likely the J. W. Lewis who served in Co. B, 1 Bat’n NC Jr. Reserves. I got this person’s compiled service records but never really followed up too much farther. Sort of out of the blue I put his name into Google last night and up came your web page.”
Here is the entry he came across, although I have mentioned J.W. elsewhere on the site as well. Why am I obsessed with him? Partly because I share his middle name, and partly because he represents the most vivid link I have with a particularly colorful period of history. In fact, I dug through some family records, and found this account of his memories of his time in the Civil War. Read his story and hear about the first time he saw a railroad train, or how his grandpa spirited him out of the army hospital.

I owe this picture to a friend I made using Google. Now he knows more about his picture, I know more about my great great grandpa, and we have forged a small bond with each other. Do you have a web connections story like that? Soon everyone will.

Greetings from North Carolina

Greetings from scenic North Carolina, a-blogging from my father-in-law’s computer. Yesterday we took the opportunity to visit Fort Fisher just south of Wilmington, where one of the last meaningful battles of the Civil War was fought. In fact, my great great grandfather, Jay Whittington Lewis, fought there (in a gray uniform) and was later injured at the battle of Bentonville, which truly was one of the very last battles of the war. It would’ve been a crummy battle to die in. Fortunately, he lived and so I exist. North Carolina suffered a curious fate during the Civil War. Fort Fisher and Bentonville were the only two significant battles in North Carolina, and they came at the very end, meaning that the state was spared the destruction that was visited on, for example, Virginia or Tennessee. On the other hand, for the very same reason, troops were recruited from North Carolina right up until the end (my aforementioned great great grandfather entered the conflict late in 1864 as a 17 year old recruit), so the state provided more troops (and therefore casualties) than any other state.

Confederates in the Attic

I’m reading a book called Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz.

Its subtitle is “Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War,” and in it the author travels through the modern South talking to people about the Civil War, what they know of it and what it means to them. Horwitz, who spent years as a war correspondent in places like Bosnia and Iraq, is surprised to find so many people (eccentric and otherwise) who are intensely passionate about that ancient conflict. They aren’t interested in seceding anymore so much as they are interested in remembering and romanticizing the Lost Cause of the Old South. I admit I’m a sucker for Civil War books, but this is a great read.

I am a Southerner, and I’m glad the South lost that war. It fought for the wrong reason and lost for the right reason.

But what a story!

It’s damn near impossible to read about the run-up to Gettysburg or Grant’s campaign against Vicksburg and not be swept up by the drama of it. And I’ll tell you one thing the South has that the North does not: we know what it means to have lost a war. And I’m not talking about any Vietnam did-we-lose-or-didn’t-we ambiguity. We were whupped fair and square, invaded, defeated, and occupied. Strangely, there is a perverse comfort in that. The South stood up for what it believed and was pinned to the floor. The burden’s off. All Southerners, eccentric and otherwise, are welcome to relax in the warm and weathered lap of humility. It makes it a little bit easier to kick back and live a life.

You want some bourbon? Drink some bourbon. You want a smoke? Light up a goddamned cigarette. A little blustery Uncle Sam is all well and good, but it helps to be able to chuckle.

The Cause is Lost, but the memory endures. I’m glad the cause lost, but I’m glad the memory endures.

This week, we are grateful to St. Frank for sharing a word with us about cigarettes and enduring memories.