How odd it is that Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S Grant, the general who led the Union forces in the US Civil War, would appear in bookstores just as the repercussions of the election of Donald Trump as US president have begun to force Americans to contend with crucial questions concerning immigration and interracial and interfaith relations.
It must have been a coincidence since any serious scholar would have had to have begun preparing a work of the size and scope of Grant quite a while ago, especially given that Grant is one of the most exhaustively studied and written about US generals, rivalled in this respect only by George Washington, who led the US War of Independence, and Dwight Eisenhower, Allied forces commander in World War II.
In all events, the coincidence was fortuitous and I was eager to read the book for two reasons.
Firstly, to me the figure of General Grant is extremely significant at this time of widespread and looming civil warfare in the Middle East.
In view of how instrumental he was to the victory of the northern forces, an examination of his generalship is important in terms of the arts of strategy and tactics that are studied in military academies as well as in terms of the types of political decisions that are critical, if not determinant, to shaping the outcomes of wars.
It is surprising that, in spite of the many wars this region has experienced, whether in the framework of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iraq-Iran conflict, or the civil wars in Sudan, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, the generals involved in these wars have attracted little attention among Arab scholars and researchers.
Only politicians are credited with victories and defeats, or states of war and peace.
My second reason is that Grant was not just a general who won a war. He was also an outstanding politician who served as US president for two terms (1869 to 1877) in the aftermath of the civil war.
It was a time of national reconstruction during which the war continued by other means: military at times, but political most of the time.
Militarily, the top generals who command national armies come in two sorts. One type tends to have an exaggerated perception of the enemy’s strength and keeps pressing political authorities to give him more troops and more equipment.
Once these are depleted, he asks for more, as he concocts one excuse after the other in order to account for his failures. The other type knows how best to utilise his available resources and capacities.
He understands that the battle involves two sides, each of which has its particular strengths and weaknesses, and that victory falls to the side that optimises its strengths and minimises the enemy’s ability to exploit its weaknesses under extremely violent and gruelling conditions that affect both sides.
Grant was certainly of the second type. He was the one who revived Abraham Lincoln’s confidence that his generals could win the war because not only did they have the technical military skills, but also they were armed with the necessary resolve and faith in the justice and moral superiority of their cause.
Grant had the military expertise he had acquired from his education at West Point and from his participation in the Mexican-American war.
But it was not expertise, alone, that enabled him to prevail. It was his military “genius” and his deeply held conviction, which perhaps only Lincoln held more strongly, in the need to preserve the union and the need to end slavery.
Military “genius” is a quality that generals probably display only in the heat of battle in the form of a psychological fortitude that comes into play at a moment that proves a magnificent turning point that ultimately determines the fates of peoples and nations.
In Ron Chernow’s book, we learn that Grant was inept at almost everything but war. But in this field, he was so remarkable as to rank among the greatest military leaders of all time.
Although the northern states were more populous than the southern ones and could, therefore, recruit in larger numbers, and although Union forces also enjoyed superiority in arms thanks to the technological and financial resources made available by the north’s larger industrial and agricultural base, it took a long time before northern forces were able to turn the military balances in their favour.
Also, in the early period of the war, rumours began to circulate about the heroic deeds of Confederate soldiers, and their commander, General Robert E Lee, quickly became a popular legend in the south and the north alike.
It took a general like Grant to turn the situation around. Because of his superiority on the western front, and due to his skill and determination, president Lincoln chose him as the commander of the Union forces. At the head of these forces, he would eventually surround General Lee and force him to surrender.
The story goes that when some people came to Lincoln to complain of Grant’s “addiction” to alcohol, Lincoln asked them what brand of booze, so that this brand could be distributed to all his other generals who would then have what it takes to achieve victory.
Grant was not successful in his personal life, but he was successful in war and politics, the latter of which, as they say, is a continuation of war by other means.
He was a brilliant pupil of Lincoln who had the confidence in him to delegate him to negotiate peace with General Lee at Appomattox where he took pains to enable the south to conclude an “honourable” surrender so as to encourage it to re-join the union.
President Lincoln’s assassination, some months after his re-election for a second term and some days after the Union’s victory over the Confederate forces, led to Grant’s return to the political fore as the person who steered the re-assimilation of the southern states into the union and the abolition of slavery.
It was not an easy time for Grant under the Andrew Johnson administration (1865-1869), when Grant continued to serve as commander of the US army, or afterwards when he served as president for two terms.
The war continued to rage in one way or another in the South where White supremacist terrorist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, continued to prowl and obstruct the implementation of the 13th, 14th and 15th constitutional amendments which abolished slavery and granted African Americans rights as equal citizens, including the right to vote.
Grant was the military man who fought the fanatic holdouts and beat them. He was also the politician who had to fight the laxness of the northern white people and their nostalgia for the system of slavery.
The US Civil War did not end with Grant and the problem of segregation did not end with his last term as president. It took the US another century to pass the Civil Rights Act under president Johnson.
Even so, the story of US racism still continues, in spite of the election of an African American — Barack Obama — as president.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Ulysses S Grant