09 February 2005

When Vicksburg was the Frontier, and Grant a Frontiersman

This post is for Geitner Simmons, of Regions of Mind, who's writing a book about the South and the West.
"Gettysburg changed the war less than Vicksburg did," explained Chris Gabel, a military historian [at the School of Advanced Military Studies] at Fort Leavenworth, who led one of the four seminars into which the large group of captains and majors was divided. Gettysburg was an accidental, set-piece battle. After Gettysburg, the Union field commander, [General George G.] Meade, kept doing what he had always been doing. The Confederate commander, [Robert E.] Lee, kept doing what he had always been doing. Little of strategic importance happened. But Vicksburg cut the South in two, and it brought Grant east, to take control of the Union Army."

Though situated in the Deep South, in 1863 Vicksburg was considered "the West," just as Leavenworth was during the later Indian Wars, and just as the Rockies and the Cascades are today. Grant, the Union commander at Vicksburg, was in every respect a westerner. He grew up in Ohio and lived in Illinois, both part of the original "Northwest," the first territorial possession of the young United States and in the early nineteenth century--the time of Grant's youth and early adulthood--a frontier, with its own Indian wars. Grant had also served in California and Oregon. This experience of the Pacific may have steeled his commitment to a united union, which he shared with Lincoln.

As a general, Grant was blunt and practical, lumbering ever forward, risking what he had achieved in the knowledge that standing still means failure. And because he considered himself no better than his men, he was the ideal democratic leader. For Grant, war was never heroic: like everything else in America, it was business. Grant exemplified the serviceable engineering education at which West Point excelled: so American, so unlike the more theoretical "chessboard" curriculum of European war colleges. Grant's Personal Memoirs, written at the end of his life, is the archetypal American narrative, perhaps more so than Thoreau's Walden or Whitman's Leaves of Grass, to which Edmund Wilson favorably compares it. With rough austerity, it tells of its author's struggles, setbacks, and ultimate rise, through sheer practical application in the course of extraordinary events. If I could boil America down to a single, exemplary personality, it would be Grant. For me, Grant, in his rough-hewn, unsophisticated ambition, was America. I was taking this bus journey on a hunch that learning more about Grant and what he had accomplished at Vicksburg might allow me a final insight into this country.

At Vicksburg, Grant truly came into his own, pulling the Union and the coming Industrial Age nation along with him. Vicksburg is about process: the little-by-littleness of change. Though Grant's victory there gave Union forces strategic control of the settled part of the continent, the exact moment of that victory is obscure; for Vicksburg was not so much a battle as a complex campaign of several battles and skirmishes. The turning point in the dense malarial marshes of the lower Mississippi Valley occurred in the midst of bloody weeks of drudgery, between Grant's seventh, failed attempt in late March 1863 to cross to the east bank of the Mississippi (where the Confederate fortress was) and the Confederates' final surrender on Independence Day, the same July Fourth when the guns stilled at Gettysburg.
SOURCE: An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America's Future, by Robert D. Kaplan (Vintage, 1998), pp. 341-343

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