Greetings, my fellow port swillers!
For all of Ol’ Robbo’s interest in historickal matters, I readily admit that I have been woefully remiss about tracking the last year and a half or so of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. My apologies. However, I certainly am not going to allow the 150th anniversary of the surrender of Lee to Grant at Appomattox Court House to go by without some mention here.
Chiefly, I like to think that the surrender showed the best of both men. Grant’s relentless pursuit finally won him the complete victory he deserved, and yet with his enemy completely at his mercy he was more than generous and humane in his conquest. Lee, recognizing check-mate, conceded like a true gentleman. One wonders what would have happened had Lee been able to make it to Danville or Lynchburg, resupply and slip away down the rail line to join up with Joe Johnson somewhere in North Carolina. Of course, Grant and Sherman eventually would have caught and crushed their combined force, but it would have meant more time and more blood and one wonders how much patience the North would have had with such an additional price.
Oh, speaking of which, I saw a number of posters on Facebook and elsewhere calling this day the “end of the war”. Not true. Lee only surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia. Joe Johnson didn’t surrender to Sherman in North Carolina until a couple weeks later. The last official battle of the war, at Palmito Ranch near Brownsville, Texas, wasn’t fought until May 12. Various units of the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi didn’t surrender until late June, at which time the northern naval blockade of southern ports was finally lifted. President Johnson didn’t declare the complete official end of the “insurrection” until August, 1866.
So I reckon I’ve actually got another year and a half or so of being able to use the word “sesquicentennial” about the Civil War.
Anyhoo, what I really wanted to talk about was this: Ol’ Robbo began taking daily lunchtime walks last fall because his doc kept yelling at him about his lack of exercise. Generally, I have been doing a loop on the National Mall from about the height of the Air & Space Museum west to 14th Street (just short of the Washington Monument). Coupled with the distance from my office to the Mall, it’s two miles and change – a nice little circuit if walked briskly enough.
Well, that section of the Mall is now being dug up as part of a general refurbishing of pipes and drainage and things and is really not that pleasant a jaunt anymore. So last week, I turned the other way and started a loop from 7th Street east down to the Grant Memorial.
Almost twenty-five years of lurking around Your Nation’s Capital and I’d never even seen said memorial before. Perhaps this was just as well, because having spent the last ten or fifteen years reading and rereading Grant’s Memoirs and Bruce Catton’s definitive studies of the man’s campaigns, I was all the more delighted with Henry Shrady’s statue of the man. (All images from here on down stolen from Wiki.)
You can get it somewhat from this pic, that sense of Grant’s solid, stolid, unflappable calm, coupled with his near self-depricating modesty and reserve. The slouched hat, the lowered chin and the raised collar and cape make him look almost like a turtle snugging down in its shell. Even from a long way up the Mall, if you know anything about the man, you look at that statue and say, “Yup, that’s Sam Grant all right.”
This is a wintery depiction, what with the bundling up and the wind at his back, so it makes me think of both the Battle of Fort Donelson and the relief of Chattanooga. The former was Grant’s first really serious taste of big time battle. The latter was a brilliant (but largely unsung) piece of tactical and logistical generalship which, I would argue, rivaled anything done by Bobby Lee. In these fights, as in all his others, Grant’s key to success was the same as that popular expression flying about the innertoobs these days: He kept calm and he carried on.
By the way, some people like to dismiss Grant by arguing that he had the North’s huge advantage in manpower and material at his back, so of course he was going to win. Yeah, ask George McClellan how that worked out for him.
As you can tell, I am an enormous admirer of Grant, not just for his prowess in battle, but also for his character as a whole. In addition to the books I mention above, another good one is H.W. Brands’ The Man Who Saved The Union: Ulysses Grant In War And Peace. If you read Grant himself and Catton, you probably can skip the first part of this book because it’s just a condensed version of them. The second part, though, is an informative study of Grant’s presidency and his efforts to impose Reconstruction on the South. Grant is maligned for the corruption that characterized his administration but this is really unfair. He did his best to fight it, but he simply wasn’t a politician. As for Reconstruction, considering the bad blood and teh forces (cough, Southern Democrats, cough) fighting against it, he really did about as good a job as one could hope for.
Oh, back to the Memorial. As I say, I love the statue of Grant. I also love the contrasting, highly dramatic statues of the cavalry charge and the artillery team that flank it. However, I think I don’t especially care for the overall effect. The flanking groups are done on a smaller scale. Also, I think they’re spaced too far apart from Grant’s statue. The overall effect is to make the thing too wide and, in my opinion, disjointed, the whole idea of Grant’s calm above the chaos being lost a bit through distillation.
Of course, what the heck do I know about sculpture. Also, most days when I walk by, I’m busy trying to navigate shoals of high school tourons, so perhaps this causes me to become a tad jaundiced.