The time is May 8, 1846. The place, five miles from Brownsville, Texas. The event, the Battle of Palo Alto, the first major engagement in what we know as the Mexican-American War. The observer is Ulysses Grant, West Point graduate (ranked twenty-first in a class of thirty-nine) and a second-lieutenant serving under Taylor – one future president apprenticed to another. The Mexican forces outnumbered the Americans 3,700 to 2,300. American casualties numbered nine killed, forty-four wounded, two missing; Mexican casualties, 102 killed, 129 wounded, twenty-six missing. Grant’s description of the battle in his Personal Memoirs (1885) continues:
“The Mexicans immediately opened fire upon us, first with artillery and then with infantry. At first their shots did not reach us, and the advance was continued. As we got nearer, the cannon balls commenced going through the ranks. They hurt no one, however, during this advance, because they would strike the ground long before they reached our line, and ricocheted through the tall grass so slowly that the men would see them and open ranks and let them pass.”
The reader is struck by the clarity of Grant’s narrative. His prose is strictly in the service of recreating the scene as recalled after almost forty years. There is no rhetorical flourish. Grandiose heroics are absent. Grant might be describing a baseball game. Once encountered, the image of Union troops moving aside to avoid the cannonballs sticks with you. Their gesture seems almost polite. Grant’s descriptions are precise and, on occasion, oddly personal: “The infantry under General Taylor was armed with flint-lock muskets, and paper cartridges charged with powder, buck-shot and ball. At the distance of a few hundred yards a man might fire at you all day without your finding it out.” The unexpected insertion of the second-person pronouns makes a minor battle (compared with what was to come, even in Mexico) vivid.
Grant would fight and win another war, and in Personal Memoirs would write one of the essential American books, on the same shelf as Moby-Dick, Death Comes for the Archbishop and Witness. While writing, Grant was dying of throat cancer. He finished the manuscript on July 18, 1885, and died five days later, on this date, July 23. Here are the memoir’s concluding words:
“I am not egotist enough to suppose all this significance should be given because I was the object of it. But the war between the States was a very bloody and a very costly war. One side or the other had to yield principles they deemed dearer than life before it could be brought to an end. I commanded the whole of the mighty host engaged on the victorious side. I was, no matter whether deservedly so or not, a representative of that side of the controversy. It is a significant and gratifying fact that Confederates should have joined heartily in this spontaneous move. I hope the good feeling inaugurated may continue to the end.”