How Many Wolves?

How Many Wolves?

Eric Anderson

Here’s an embarrassing admission. Though I am a scholar of nineteenth-century America, with a special interest in the era of the Civil War, I have never read one of the war’s classic books, Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs.

Oh, I owned the book and cited it knowingly in my lectures and read a few famous passages, but until a few weeks ago, I had never sat down and read it straight through.

It was a stimulating experience. The general wrote with vigor and clarity, his words direct, clear, and always, shall we say, following his orders. He was a good observer and possessed a wry sense of humor.

One minor story, completely unrelated to the Civil War or Grant’s later greatness, sticks in my mind.

As a young lieutenant, Grant was once riding with another officer from Goliad to Corpus Christi—wild and lonely country in 1845. “On the evening of the first day out from Goliad,” Grant wrote, “we heard the most unearthly howling of wolves, directly in our front. The prairie grass was tall and we could not see the beasts, but the sound indicated that they were near.” To Grant, who was born in comparatively tame and wolf-free Ohio, the howling sounded like a huge pack, “enough to devour our party, horses and all, at a single meal.”

When his fellow officers, who hailed from an area “where the wolf yet roamed,” asked how many wolves did he imagine were in the pack, Grant was determined not to overestimate the number. “Oh about twenty,” he said casually as he could. His friend only smiled and rode on.

“In a minute we were close upon them, and before they saw us. There were just two of them. Seated upon their haunches, with their mouths close together, they had made all the noise we had been hearing for the past ten minutes.”

I had to laugh. All of us have heard howlers in the night. These “wolves” could be anonymous critics or our own fears about God’s “impossible” demands. They could be John Bunyan’s old friends Timorous or Mr. Malice. The best response is to ride on.

As Grant concluded, with both wolves and disgruntled politicians, “There are always more of them before they are counted.”

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