Sunday, February 16, 2020

'The Fort Stood on High Ground'

If your job is to write a description of a complicated event – say, a church wedding or the manufacture of biofuel from rapeseed oil – you might learn some useful lessons by reading Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (1885). The general was a master of clean, uncluttered, plain-style American prose and he had a gift for writing straightforward, compelling narrative. You’ll find no self-indulgent Victorian flourishes in Grant. He has a story to tell and can’t be bothered to dawdle on filigree. It’s no wonder writers as different as Mark Twain and Gertrude Stein admired his style, though we wish the latter had learned a few lessons from him. Take Chap. XXII, in which Grant describes the events leading up to the capture of Fort Donelson on this date, Feb. 16, in 1862:

“The fort stood on high ground, some of it as much as a hundred feet above the Cumberland [River]. Strong protection to the heavy guns in the water batteries had been obtained by cutting away places for them in the bluff. To the west there was a line of rifle pits some two miles back from the river at the farthest point. . . .. The ground inside and outside of this intrenched line was very broken and generally wooded. The trees outside of the rifle-pits had been cut down for a considerable way out, and had been felled so that their tops lay outwards from the intrenchments. The limbs had been trimmed and pointed, and thus formed an abatis in front of the greater part of the line.”

Not an exotic or overreachingly poetic word in the passage. “Abatis” had been in use since the eighteenth century in a military context: “a defensive barricade or entanglement constructed using sharpened stakes or felled trees positioned with their branches pointing towards the enemy to delay or repel attackers [OED].” Grant’s description is almost photographic without being tedious or pedantic. He keeps his readers in mind.

The commanding officer at Fort Donelson is Confederate Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner. Grant knew him for three years at West Point and during the war in Mexico. He meets with Buckner, whose men are badly outnumbered, to discuss terms of surrender. Read Grant’s account of his meeting with Buckner. It reminds us that Americans were fighting Americans, that the combatants were often classmates, neighbors or brothers:

“In the course of our conversation, which was very friendly, he said to me that if he had been in command I would not have got up to Donelson as easily as I did. I told him that if he had been in command I should not have tried in the way I did: I had invested their lines with a smaller force than they had to defend them, and at the same time had sent a brigade full 5,000 strong, around by water; I had relied very much upon their commander to allow me to come safely up to the outside of their works. I asked General Buckner about what force he had to surrender. He replied that he could not tell with any degree of accuracy; that all the sick and weak had been sent to Nashville . . .”

1 comment:

Richard Zuelch said...

It's been said that Grant's "Personal Memoirs" is the greatest military memoir since Julius Caesar's "Commentaries." Like you, I love his simple, vigorous prose.