Discover more from A User's Guide to History
6th law, part 3 of 4
Most soldiers don’t become heroes on the scale of Grant, Sherman and Lee. But war elevates them, too. War is the most exciting experience nearly all of those who fight will ever have. George Washington was a twenty-two-year-old captain of Virginia militia when he experienced his baptism by fire. The skirmish, against French troops near what would become Pittsburgh, was brief but intense. “I fortunately escaped without a wound, though the right wing where I stood was exposed to and received all the enemy’s fire,” he wrote to his brother. “I can with truth assure you I heard bullets whistle, and believe me there was something charming in the sound.”
Grant’s initiation came at the start of America’s war with Mexico in 1846. He heard the sound of firing ahead as his unit marched forward. “A young second-lieutenant who had never heard a hostile gun before, I felt sorry that I had enlisted,” he recalled. “A great many men, when they smell battle afar off, chafe to get into the fray. When they say so themselves they generally fail to convince their hearers that they are as anxious as they would like to make believe, and as they approach danger they become more subdued. This rule is not universal, for I have known a few men who were always aching for a fight when there was no enemy near, who were as good as their word when the battle did come. But the number of such men is small.”
As it turned out, Grant was one of that small number. The fright faded as he entered the thick of the battle. “Although the balls were whizzing thick and fast about me, I did not feel a sensation of fear until nearly the close of firing,” Grant wrote to his wife, Julia. “A ball struck close by me, killing one man instantly. It knocked Capt. Page’s under jaw entirely off and broke in the roof of his mouth, and knocked Lt. Wallen and one sergeant down besides.” Yet Grant survived, and he learned something important about himself. “There is no great sport in having bullets flying about one in every direction,” he told Julia. “But I find they have less horror when among them than when in anticipation.”
He had another fright in his first command position, early in the Civil War. Secessionists under a man named Tom Harris were rampaging about Missouri, and Grant, now a colonel, received orders to suppress them. He learned that Harris was camped on a creek between two ridges. “The hills on either side of the creek extend to a considerable height, possibly more than a hundred feet,” Grant recalled. “As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we could see Harris’ camp, and possibly find his men ready formed to meet us, my heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything then to have been back in Illinois, but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on.” At the head of his regiment he topped the hill and gazed down to where he expected Harris to be. He saw an empty camp. “My heart resumed its place,” he wrote. He realized something he hadn’t thought of. “It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterwards. From that event to the close of the war, I never experienced trepidation upon confronting an enemy, though I always felt more or less anxiety. I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his.”
The experience described by Washington and Grant—of confronting danger and surviving it—is one of the universal themes of war, and one of the most intoxicating. Winston Churchill, writing of his experience in the Boer War of the 1890s, put it succinctly: “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”
Endocrinologists and neurologists would later describe the chemistry of the sensation of danger survived, but those who felt the rush didn’t need the details to know its attraction. War isn’t the only activity that brings it on; climbing mountains, hunting large predators, jumping from airplanes and riding tall roller-coasters can have similar effects.
But war has the advantage of building a reputation at the same time. “I am more ambitious for a reputation for personal courage than anything else in the world,” Churchill wrote to his mother. In Churchill’s case war gave a chance of starting over. “Being in many ways a coward—particularly at school—there is no ambition I cherish so keenly as to gain a reputation for physical courage,” he told his brother.
Theodore Roosevelt felt the same way. Born in New York City just before the Civil War, Roosevelt watched the soldiers heading off to battle. He could hardly imagine joining them, for not only was he too young but he was constantly sick. A life of action, let alone of glory, seemed beyond all hope. But his father—a strong, hearty man who was everything his son aspired to be—challenged the boy to “make his body.” Roosevelt accepted the challenge. With the help of personal trainers and coaches, he lifted weights, learned to box and wrestle, tramped about forests, scaled mountains, and otherwise tested himself physically in every manner possible. As is often the case in such instances, Roosevelt’s challenge acquired moral overtones. To become a man required displaying strength of body and character. The ultimate test for Roosevelt, as for many young men throughout history, was war.
Among his friends Roosevelt acquired a reputation as a warmonger, wanting a war regardless of the enemy. “I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one,” he declared in the mid-1890s. His sister thought he was the one who needed it. Their father, though a stout Unionist, had declined to put on the blue uniform during the Civil War, out of deference to his wife, a Georgian, who couldn’t bear the thought of her husband trying to kill her kin on the Confederate side. Roosevelt’s sister believed her brother wanted to erase that blot on the family escutcheon. He finally got his war when William McKinley bowed to the pressure Roosevelt and others war hawks had been applying over Spanish mistreatment of Cubans and asked Congress for a declaration of war against Spain.
Roosevelt immediately resigned his civilian position as assistant secretary of the navy, to put on the uniform his father had never worn, and to prove to himself that he was a man. “It was my one chance to do something for my country and for my family and my one chance to cut my little notch on the stick that stands as a measuring rod in every family,” he said later.
He organized a cavalry regiment, nicknamed the Rough Riders, and on their behalf bullied his way to the front in Cuba. In the battle for San Juan Hill, he performed as bravely as he had ever dreamed of doing. His comrades fell on his left and his right; good fortune, as much as anything else, kept him from falling with them. But when he survived, he was as proud as could be. Decades later, after accomplishments that mattered far more in the scheme of national and world history, he still cherished his chance to prove himself. “San Juan was the great day of my life,” he said.