The Great Generals

In our house we dislike war. My husband Fran spent seventeen months in federal prison during the Vietnam War for refusing to accept even alternate service. A thorough-going pacifist, he virtually insisted that his Iowa draft board send him to prison. Curiously, his older brother hadn’t been touched in North Dakota. There, in the state’s sparse population, the family was known: the Galts, the minister’s family who lived on a reservation where Reverend Galt led a tiny church for the combined Hidatsa, Arrikara, Mandan. The Reverend himself had been imprisoned during World War II as a pacifist. Now when I ( the outsider) look back at this history, I wonder if Fran didn’t follow suit simply because the family required it–one of those silent imperatives that may be harder to resist that the heavily voiced ones.

Prison introduced him to thieves, murderers, and scoundrels; he played chess with one. He worked in the prison office, administering “tree, house, person” tests to incoming prisoners. He got the job because he could type. He read voluminous 19th-century novels available in the prison library, and every now and then, he had a visitor: his mother, once; his newly married wife, perhaps every six months. Is it any surprise that a few years after he was released, the marriage began to unravel? Now, decades later, as a complete outsider to this period of his life, I recognize that had we met when Fran was well known at the University of Minnesota as an orator against the war, picketing, leafleting, protesting with other students and faculty–as I say, had we met then, when I was pursuing the “safe” existence of middle-class marriage with all the china, silver and assurance that went with it, I’d have run from what he represented. Not that I supported the war. I simply was capable of responding only to its horrendous sensations delivered into our homes for the first time, by TV. (Later, compelled to make his story public, I wrote it in the book: Stop This War! Americans Protest the Vietnam Conflict, available from Amazon.)

Yet, growing up in South Carolina, with a father who put on a military uniform to teach at The Citadel, having Civil War history served up with the peas and carrots and baked chicken every Sunday dinner, I couldn’t avoid learning that wars changed lives. Drastically. The South was “beaten” to a pulp; Sherman’s northern army burned its way through Georgia and only spared Charleston, so I dimly remember hearing, because somebody in Sherman’s army had a sweetheart in the city. There on the battery, the cannons which had started the contest pointed across the harbor to Fort Sumter. And a huge marble figure with flowing robes dominated the headland, in honor of the valiant defenders.

But war from a strategic, tactical point of view was absolutely foreign to me. Whatever my father, the history professor, might have said about such things, passed right over me. That’s why, listening recently to a recorded reading of “Grant” by John Mosier, has been a revelation. I’ve known for years that Grant was a U.S. president whose term of office was rife with corruption. I vaguely knew that Grant was an important Northern general during the Civil War. But that military historians now deem Grant one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of the old-fashioned generals in Western history, up there with Wellington, Napoleon, Frederick the Great, Montgomery and Dwight Eisenhower, took me completely by surprise.

Grant had none of the commanding presence of the great Southern general Robert E. Lee, nor the “dash” of Lee’s compatriots, Longstreet, Sheridan, Bragg. Mosier emphasizes that when the Confederacy split from the Union, many of the finest US generals went with it. In fact, the North was plagued by totally incompetent military leadership, losing the first dozen major encounters, starting with first Bull Run, until Grant began to win in the west, Tennessee, Shiloh, Vicksburg–making a reality his strategy of securing the Mississippi Valley and as many railroad heads as possible for the Union.

Maybe I’m riveted by this history because directing an army bears some resemblance to teaching a class. “All plans are worthless after the first shot”–Grant’s maxim–is also true of teaching. Improvisation, determination, and forward motion shape what will happen. “Strike hard and fast”–another maxim which Grant proved true time and again on the battlefield, also holds with students: a petulant or truculent attitude, left to fester, only gets worse. Tell it like it is, immediately and straight. “Write clearly and concisely”–Grant’s written orders told his subordinate generals exactly where and what to do, and left the details up to intelligence and circumstance.

Grant also had two other signal characteristics which made him an outstanding general: with a painter’s eye (he had studied painting at West Point), he could envision terrain and act accordingly, an extremely important skill in the period before aerial reconnaissance. The other was his imperturbable personality–the man could carry on a leisurely conversation on the night of a major battle. He rarely showed disappointment or anger; he did not lose heart. He held fast to the certainty that, despite the carnage and set-backs, the Union would prevail. I’ll be mulling these lessons for a long time.

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