Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Booknotes: America's Hardscrabble General

New Arrival:
America's Hardscrabble General: Ulysses S. Grant, from Farm Boy to Shiloh by Jack Hurst (SIU Press, 2022).

Among the highest-ranking Civil War commanders of either side, U.S. Grant's wildly successful climb to the top was the least predictable. From the description: "Grant grew up on a farm on the Ohio frontier and reluctantly attended West Point, where he finished in the middle of his class. In his early army career, he was often underestimated by his peers despite valiant service. After the Mexican War Grant’s “Hardscrabble” farm outside St. Louis failed, and when he decided to rejoin the U.S. army, he was given the unenviable command of a rowdy volunteer regiment, the 21st Illinois."

Evaluating past performance as an indicator of future success is a reasonable way to take the measure of fellow human beings whom we don't know. Hiring managers live by such dictums, the risk-averse nature of which cannot take into account those rare unassuming individuals who blossom under the weight of tasks and responsibilities that crush many more conventionally qualified colleagues. Diamonds in the rough like Grant are always difficult to explain, but Jack Hurst attempts to do so in his latest book America's Hardscrabble General: Ulysses S. Grant, from Farm Boy to Shiloh.

It is certain that professional military education and experience had a hand in Grant's success, but Hurst seems to more highly stress sociological and environmental factors. "How did Grant—an average student, failed farmer, and common man—turn the 21st Illinois into a showcase regiment and become a successful general? In this engaging analysis, Jack Hurst argues that Grant’s military brilliance stemmed not from his West Point education but rather from his roots in America’s lower middle class and its commonsense values. His upbringing in the antebellum rural Midwest undergirded his military skill and helped him develop an innate humility, sense of justice, and ability to focus, leading him to form close relationships with his men."

More from the description: "Through a detailed account of Grant’s early years, from boyhood through the Battle of Shiloh, Hurst explores how Grant’s modest start and experiences in the Mexican War prefigured his greatest military triumphs. Ultimately Grant abandoned the traditional military practice of his time, which relied upon maneuver, and instead focused on fighting. His strategy to always move forward, win or lose, turned even his losses into essential elements of victory and characterized the aggressive, relentless approach that would ultimately win the Civil War and save the Union."

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