So one of my Christmas presents was the Grant biography by Ron Chernow. This one is right in my wheelhouse…I’m a long-time Chernow fan. Read the Hamilton biography back when it was new. Etc. Love that he has gotten fame and hopefully some cash from Lin-Manuel Miranda adapting his bio. He’s just a brilliant writer and historian.
I’m also a long-time fan of Grant. This goes back to the Ken Burns film so many years ago. I have always admired Grant’s story because of the contrast it provided to the other generals….particularly George McClellan, WHO I LOATHE.
McClellan was the Union general early in the war and nothing had ever gone wrong for him. He was a prodigy of sorts and had never failed at anything. Consequently, he was terrified of something he had never known…failure. He failed to attack the Confederates early in the war, when they were very weak. He insisted on more and more reinforcements so he could attack in a zero-risk situation. The paradox is that had he attacked the war could have been ended early and untold suffering avoided.
Grant had failed plenty and he did not fear it. And therefore, when Lincoln was pressured to remove him, he said “I cannot spare that man. He fights.”
The other thing that is so interesting about this story is what it reveals about history as, ultimately, another form of myth. It’s not fiction per se, but by necessity, it is a story, subject to all kinds of influences. This is not a criticism. It literally cannot be another way. Five people who see the same traffic accident don’t describe it the same way five minutes later.
As they say in the musical, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” And that’s a big issue for Grant, as pointed out early in the bio. Much of Grant’s reputation comes from yellow-press smears from his military opponents–smears that turned into history in the minds of most people today.
For me, I’m a believer in the power of resiliency. You don’t want to head into battle (even in a business sense) with people who haven’t failed. You’re just not a complete person. And if you’re afraid to fail, you’ll never be able to get your mind around solving the problem. If you’re not afraid to fail, you can focus.
Also, most times when you succeed it comes after a setback, on the second day. After Shiloh, Sherman said “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day.”
“Lick ’em tomorrow though,” was the reply.
And for these reasons, I have always felt a kinship with Grant, who ended the Civil War. Don’t forget that without complete victory, the South could have negotiated to continue slavery. Victory was necessary to history, even with the cost that was paid.
So one other thing, tangential at best. The Trump inaugural was about a year ago. When it happened, I was on a train to Toronto. Some asshole in our cabin was playing the speech on his speakers so everyone could hear. I had no interest in listening and was, in fact, sick about the whole thing. So, I put my earphones in and listened to Hamilton (the Musical), drowning out the dreck with a reminder of the revolutionary ideas that founded the Republic and the struggle that brought them to life.
The power of history? The power of myth? The power of art.