The Best Man the War Has Yet Produced (November 24, 1864)

Ulysses S. Grant and his horse, Cincinnati. Click to enlarge  (Library of Congress).

Ulysses S. Grant and his horse, Cincinnati. Click to enlarge
(Library of Congress).

Anyone interested in the relationship between George Meade and Ulysses S. Grant should find this letter fascinating. In it, Meade writes to his brother-in-law, Henry A. Cram of New York, and analyzes his standing with the general in chief. Although irritated by the promotions of Sherman and (especially) Sheridan, Meade does not hold a grudge against Grant, believing he just doesn’t worry about such things. He also notes the fault in Grant that will later plague him as president: that he has a “a simple and guileless disposition, which is apt to put him, unknown to himself, under the influence of those who should not influence him, and desire to do so only for their own purposes.” All in all, this is a remarkably fair minded letter.

Following Meade’s letter, Theodore Lyman describes Thanksgiving with the Army of the Potomac.

I thank you most gratefully for your opinion that Time and History will do me justice, but I very much fear your kind feeling has caused the wish to be father to the thought. No man in this country will be appreciated who does not dazzle his fellow-citizens with continued brilliant success. Fortunately I knew so much of the fickleness and unreasonableness of public opinion, that when I was elevated to my present position I was prepared for the reaction and my fall; indeed, considering all things, I consider myself very fortunate in having retained my position so long as I have. However, I don’t want to inflict a letter of complaints on you. I have done and shall continue to do my duty to the best of my ability, and try to be contented under whatever it may please God to have happen to me. Adopting the philosophy of the Irishman who, when going into battle, said he would consider himself “kilt”; if he was, it would be no more than he expected; if he got through safe, it would be clear gain. So, expecting nothing, all acts of justice and kindness that fall to my lot I shall consider so much gain.

I am sorry to hear what you say of Grant, but it is in accordance with my theory and experience. Public expectation in his case, as in Sherman’s, having been wrought up to a false and unreasonable pitch, expecting impossibilities and miracles, visits on them the failure to do what only public imagination renders practicable. Both these men at one time were down. Sherman was pronounced crazy, and Grant was at one time deprived of command; and now, should success by any accident attend the efforts of either, their stars will be more in the ascendant than ever.

Grant is not a mighty genius, but he is a good soldier, of great force of character, honest and upright, of pure purposes, I think, without political aspirations, certainly not influenced by them. His prominent quality is unflinching tenacity of purpose, which blinds him to opposition and obstacles—certainly a great quality in a commander, when controlled by judgment, but a dangerous one otherwise. Grant is not without his faults and weaknesses. Among these is a want of sensibility, an almost too confident and sanguine disposition, and particularly a simple and guileless disposition, which is apt to put him, unknown to himself, under the influence of those who should not influence him, and desire to do so only for their own purposes. Take him all in all, he is, in my judgment, the best man the war has yet produced. When I say this, I refer more particularly to those I have come in contact with, and do not include Sherman, about whom I know nothing but what I see in the papers. I like Grant, and our relations have been very friendly. He has always in words expressed himself most kindly towards me, and I believe does feel so; but his acts, from causes alluded to above, have not been so; but I acquit him of any actual intention of injustice. His coming here has resulted virtually in setting me aside, almost as effectually as if I had been relieved. To be sure, I saw this plainly before he came. He did not see it then, and he don’t see it now; there is the difference between us. I over-sensitive, and he deficient in sensibility. There are many things in Grant that call for my warmest admiration, and but few that I feel called on to condemn. He has been greatly over-rated; but I should be really sorry to see him, through a reaction, under-estimated. Let all this be confidential between us. Grant will make use of me or any one else to carry out his views, but he will always do justice to others, though he may often be slow in doing so, and let slip opportunities presenting themselves, because he does not see they are opportunities. Early in the campaign he recommended me strongly for appointment as major general in the regular army, recommending Sherman at the same time. Yet he has not only had Sherman made, but has now permitted them to make Sheridan, who was not dreamed of at the time I was recommended. Still he did not appreciate that this was injustice to me; but when I called his attention to it, and explained how I thought it was unjust, he readily and frankly acknowledged I was right.

I am very glad to hear you propose to visit camp this winter. Unless we are much stronger than we are now, I see no prospect of taking Richmond. It is a pure question of numbers, requiring on our part great superiority, and even then it is not going to be a very easy task. If the good people will only turn out and fight with the unanimity they have voted to do so, we will soon bring the war to a close. There is no doubt the last dependence of the South is a divided North. The election has not dissipated this hope; but swelling our armies, promptly and cheerfully, with the bone and sinew of the country (not miserable foreigners and substitutes), who come to fight, and not for money, this, when it happens, will, in conjunction with hard fighting, open the eyes of the South and bring it to terms, if anything will.

In 1864, Thanksgiving meant turkey. Theodore Lyman writes home about the holiday.

This was Thanksgiving, which is sloppy and snowy and haily with us, as a general thing, but here was sunny and pleasant. All day the waggons were distributing turkeys to the patriots, of whom I believe all got some, sooner or later. Flint, having seen that his squadron had their poultry, called a sergeant and asked him how much it made to each man. “Well,” said the sergeant, “it makes about a quarter of a turkey, a piece of pie, and four apples.” “Oh!” said Flint, “quite a meal.” “Yes,” said the sergeant dubiously, “yes, a small meal; I could eat half a turkey myself!” The turkeys were ready cooked and were a great treat to our ragamuffins. I took a ride in some woody spots within the lines, and it was pleasant, in the warm hollows, to hear the wee birds twittering and warbling, visitors from a northern climate, that have left you some weeks ago. Then there was a pileated woodpecker (not known with us), a great fowl, as big as a crow; black, with white feathers in his wings, an ivory beak and a gay scarlet cockade. He thought himself of great account, and pompously hopped up and round the trunks of trees, making a loud, chattering noise, which quite drowned the wee birds, like a roaring man in a choir. The pompous old thing was very much scared when I approached, and flew away, but soon began his noise on a distant tree.

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 245-7. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 278-9. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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