Something to Look Forward To


Fate has a way of picking unlikely material,
Greasy-haired second lieutenants of French artillery,
And bald-headed, dubious, Roman rake-politicians.
Her stiff hands were busy now with an odd piece of wood,
Sometime Westpointer, by accident more than choice,
Sometime brevet-captain in the old Fourth Infantry,
Mentioned in Mexican orders for gallant service
And, six years later, forced to resign from the Army
Without enough money to pay for a stateroom home.
Turned farmer on Hardscrabble Farm, turned bill-collector,
Turned clerk in the country-store that his brothers ran,
The eldest-born of the lot, but the family-failure,
Unloading frozen hides from a farmer’s sleigh
With stoop-shouldered strength, whittling beside the stove,
And now and then turning to whiskey to take the sting
From winter and certain memories.
It didn’t take much.
A glass or two would thicken the dogged tongue
And flush the fair skin beneath the ragged brown beard.
Poor and shabby–old “Cap” Grant of Galena,
Who should have amounted to something but hadn’t so far
Though he worked hard and was honest.
A middle-aged clerk,
A stumpy, mute man in a faded army overcoat,
Who wrote the War Department after Fort Sumter,
Offering them such service as he could give
And saying he thought that he was fit to command
As much as a regiment, but getting no answer.

So many letters come to a War Department,
One can hardly bother the clerks to answer them all–
Then a Volunteer colonel, drilling recruits with a stick,
A red bandanna instead of an officer’s sash;
A brigadier-general, one of thirty-seven,
Snubbed by Halleck and slighted by fussy Frémont;
And then the frozen February gale
Over Fort Henry and Fort Donelson,
The gunboats on the cold river–the brief siege–
“Unconditional surrender”–and the newspapers.

Major-General Grant, with his new twin-stars,
Who, oddly, cared so little for reading newspapers,
Though Jesse Grant wrote dozens of letters to them
Pointing out all the wonders his son had done
And wringing one dogged letter from that same son
That should have squelched anybody but Jesse Grant.
It did not squelch him.  He was a business man,
And now Ulysses had astonished Galena
By turning out to be somebody after all;
Ulysses’ old father was going to see him respected
And, incidentally, try to wangle a contract
For army-harness and boom the family tannery.
It was a great surprise when Ulysses refused,
The boy was so stubborn about it.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body



The History Channel’s miniseries on Grant premiers on Memorial Day, May 25, 2020, and will run for three consecutive nights.  Grant is still a strangely opaque figure in spite of the central role that he plays in our history, and after over a century and a half of study of him.  His right hand man in the War, General William Tecumseh Sherman, once opined that no one really knew Grant.  Perhaps it is all the contradictions:  a man who so disliked the idea of a military career that as a cadet he hoped that Congress would abolish it, he rose to be commander of the Army and the second Lieutenant General since Washington;  a man who knew great failure his entire life, he won the great war of our history;  a sensitive man who could not stand to see any blood in the meat he was eating, he pursued an attrition strategy against Lee that led to 50,000 Union casualties in a month;  often awkward in speech, he penned one of the finest memoirs in military history;  a slave owning Democrat who voted for Stephen A. Douglas in 1860, he helped cement Republican supremacy post Civil War and fought for the civil rights of blacks; and the contradictions could go on at very great length.  Anything that can shed some light on this still mysterious figure, the shabby, awkward, silent man who, most improbably, won the greatest war in our history, is welcome.


I knew him as a cadet at West Point, as a lieutenant of the Fourth Infantry, as a citizen of St. Louis, and as a growing general all through a bloody civil war. Yet to me he is a mystery, and I believe he is a mystery to himself.

General William Tecumseh Sherman, 1879


Published in: on May 4, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Something to Look Forward To  
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