The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace

by H. W. Brands

Hardcover, 2012

Status

Available

Publication

Doubleday, (2012)

User reviews

LibraryThing member stevesmits
Grant has always fascinated me. My interest in the Civil War has led to reading a number of biographies of Grant as well as the accounts of his campaigns in various histories. (His Personal Memoirs, still in print today, are required reading.) Most intriguing is the contrast between Grant's life up to the war and his life after. Up to the war Grant showed no signs of success, certainly nothing he did foretold the brilliance he exhibited throughout the war. He came from modest origins; his father was a tradesman of middling success. Grant, for it seems the lack of other compelling options, attended West Point. His admission was at his father's insistence, not due to his own interest in a military career. His early army record was undistinguished; he was competent but by no means a rising military star. While posted in the far west his loneliness and boredom brought about a bout of excessive drinking which characterization, often exaggerated by others, dogged him throughout his life. He resigned from the army and returned home. Every effort to succeed in civilian life failed. He seemed unable muster the business skills needed and had bad luck as well.

When the war broke out he offered his services to the regular army, which did not respond in a timely way. He was commissioned instead to lead an Illinois militia regiment. He was not a paragon of confidence in the early days as he was aware that he had no experience in leading a large contingent of soldiers in combat. But his leadership traits were greater than he understood. What distinguished him from others was his clarity about what needed to be done and his doggedness in going forward. His aura of calmness and lack of ego inspired the loyalty and support of his subordinates and his simple notion of going after the enemy, not recklessly, but with determination, brought victory after victory. His growing success won the admiration of Lincoln and captured the imagination of press at a time when union generals in the eastern theater were failing one after the other. By war's end he was lauded in all quarters as the savior of the union cause.

This story has been told many times in the popular histories of the war and is familiar to anyone who's studied the Civil War, but what makes Brand's book more interesting is his depiction of Grant's life after the war, particularly his presidency. Grant's terms as president are often presented as a bookend to his life before the war, i.e. pretty much a failure. Grant is often cast as a kind of savant -- immensely successful as a military leader and utterly incompetent at all else. This is a distored view that Brand seeks to correct. Grant became president at a crucial time in American history. The north and west were on the brink of enormous economic growth and Grant followed the bent of the Republican party in its pro-business policies. He averted the gold market crisis and made a thoughtful and informed decision amidst great pressure about stabilizing the currency. Most notable, however, was his dealing with the south. The south was chaffing under the reconstruction policies of the Congress and many elements were beginning to resort to violence against blacks and southern Republicans in an effort to recapture power. Grant did his best to counter these trends and used military force in many instances to thwart white militancy. He clearly committed to the rights of the black citizenry and took his responsibilities to enforce the 14th and 15th amendments seriously. The reversion to while control (the so-called "redemption") that began with the accession of his successor Rutherford Hayes was in stark contrast to Grant's policies. Much has also been made of the corruption that surfaced among high officials in Grant's administration; the popular notion was the Grant was duped by clever dishonest subordinates. Brand points out to the contrary that when Grant became aware of wrongdoing he acted to expose the wrong doers. Grant's failure at business after his presidency was not related to his ineptness; rather to the overt crookedness of his son's business partner.

Brand conveys how respected,worshipped even, Grant was in his post-presidential years by all Americans, even his former enemies. These many years later we have lost awareness of how great a hero he was and how much the preservation of the union, both in war and the peace that followed, was due to this extraordinary man.
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LibraryThing member DeaconBernie
Among the best of the books I've ever read. Previously, I just went along with the common view of a drunk general and an inept president. My view of Grant has changed 180 degrees. It is astonishing to learn of a man who could do little right out of uniform but who then burst on the scene of the Civil War. Yet, he did have to grow even though he had stars on his shoulders. In some reports, he comes off as the man who won Vicksburg and then seemed to disappear until he took Lee's surrender. And he turns up as President but with a bunch of crooks working for him as he continued to drink. The recounting of his world tour was entirely new to me. I would recommend this book as an excellent history and the story of a very human person.… (more)
LibraryThing member nbmars
General Ulysses S. Grant was in many respects a great man. He was undeniably a great general. As President of the United States, however, he didn't perform nearly as well; he just wasn’t well-suited for the position. He had heart, and at least expressed much more passion for the plight of minorities (including women and people of color) and the injustices done to them than did even Lincoln, if not nearly as eloquently. But with an almost total lack of political instincts, his expressions remained ineffectual.

During the Civil War, if the enemy proved intractable, Grant would [as Lincoln needlessly advised him in August 1864], “hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew and choke…!” When in office as President, however, Grant seemed to lack the stomach (or spine) for extended political wrangling, and would give in after the slightest effort, no matter how egregious the results of the capitulation. Moreover, while Lincoln could take the measure of a man and work with it to his benefit, Grant appears to have been totally naïve about those around him, and about the ethos of greed that overtook the country after the Civil War. Finally, he let his emotions rule his utterances far too often. He was easily offended, defensive, thin-skinned, and could not refrain from showing it.

In this comprehensive biography, Brands reveals many details about Grant’s life from letters, Grant’s autobiography, and the testimony of others. What I never got a sense of, however, was just what Grant was thinking most of time (or not thinking, as the case may have been), nor much analysis of why events occurred as they did. Brands is at his best during Grant’s time in the Civil War. But even here, Brands just doesn’t go deep enough. For example, he quotes a number of sources about whether Grant actually was, or was not, drunk on several occasions, but never goes into why the rumors persisted, and doesn’t really even hazard an opinion as to how much truth there was to them.

Once the Civil War is over, so is the excitement in the book. Brands goes into [perhaps too much] detail about some of the greed-inspired scandals of the go-go years after the War, especially since many of them involved members of Grant’s cabinet, family, and friends. Grant was ostensibly oblivious to what was going on around him, never believing that his associates could commit such perfidy. At least, that’s what we are to take away from what Brands reports. What was Grant doing this whole time while all of his friends and family were robbing him right and left? What was he thinking? Brands never really tells us much.

When Grant finally left office, his relief was almost palpable. One definitely gets a strong sense of how odious the political process was to him, and how he tried to escape from participating in it not only after he was no longer President, but even while he was in office! However, while he did avoid political in-fighting whenever possible, he did not desist from speaking up on behalf of minorities.

Discussion: Having read a great deal about Grant already, I was able to see that Brands elided over some negative aspects of Grant’s career. During the Civil War, for instance, while Brands includes many details about battles that were won, he gives very cursory – and even misleading – coverage to those that didn’t go well (such as Petersburg with its disastrous Battle of the Crater). Similarly, Brands cherry-picks aspects of Grant’s Indian Policy to place Grant in a more positive light than he might have appeared had a more representative sample of his policies been revealed.

However, the phenomenon of biographers producing hagiographic works is fairly common, and I don’t blame Brands for admiring a man like Grant. For all his shortcomings in terms of political and social savvy, he was a brilliant military strategist; moral and upright; committed (at least personally) to justice for freed blacks; and compassionate about the plight of Native Americans (even if his policies wouldn’t be considered “enlightened” by current standards).

It is interesting that whereas Brands clearly loves Grant, one doesn’t get the same impression about Brands’ attitude toward Grant’s wife, Julia; her portrait in this biography is far from flattering. William Tecumseh Sherman, however, comes off very positively in this (as in other) portrayals.

As far as the narration of this audiobook goes, I wasn't particularly taken with it. Stephen Hoye delivers all of Grant’s pronouncements in the voice of someone who might be described as saintly but put-upon. It was a bit of a turn-off.

Moreover, there were some rather bad mispronunciations by the narrator. According to the CD box, Mr. Hoye “has worked as a professional actor in London and Los Angeles for over 30 years.” So don’t you think he could find out the proper pronunciation of what he is reading? It may take some work to find out how to say Salmon Chase’s name, but the pronunciation for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger Taney is everywhere. And I almost choked when he talked about the Grants visiting the city of Agra in India: the city’s name isn't even pronounced in Hindi the way the narrator said it, much less English! As for the way he said “debouche”: Oh dear!

With respect to the question of whether this book is better in print or audio, aside from my quibbles with the narrator, I had no problem with taking in the details of the book despite not having access to pictures or maps. (On the other hand, I familiar enough with the subject that I was able to picture it all in my head in any event!)

Evaluation: It’s hard not to like stories about Grant, Sherman, Lincoln, and the Civil War Era. On the other hand, it's hard to listen to how little the North cared what was happening to blacks in the South once the War was over. But this too is important, and must be appreciated to understand the history of our country and the legacy of the post-War backlash.

This isn’t the absolute best book on Grant I’ve read, but I still enjoyed it.

(I listened to the Random House Audio edition on 23 compact discs (unabridged), 2012)
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LibraryThing member herbcat
Before I say how great this book is, let me say that I never read Civil War things, in fact no books about war. Then I read some quotes from Grant's memoirs in another book and was struck by his lean wording and deep meaning. He was as wise and discerning regarding the Constitution as any Supreme Court Justice I've ever read. He was much more quoatable than most presidents. He was a paragon at military discernment and prediction as to what the enemy would do next. Reading his worda alone would be pleasurable, but having Brands standing in the background, shaping and explaining really makes this book a masterpiece. I have never read history in a clearer, better documented, more readable form. Except for some small battlefield diagrams, the book was very understandable, even for a woman, even one who doesn't read about battlefields. There were human touches in every scene, often descriptions of in individual habits or mannerisms, that made it real. A man with no strong political opinions, Grant decided that he should offer his services in the war to the entity that had educated him at West Point, i.e. the Union. He was comfortable in war, although he deplored the bloodspill. He took every precaution possible beforehand and simply let events go as they would. He was able to see the bigger picture of the war and see the enemy's weak points and strengths and determine what he needed to do to penetrate the weak points. He could see the smaller diagram of an encounter and determine what the enemy would do before he did it. He had early on established respect and trust with his troops, so that he could guide them to best effect in their efforts. Yet after the surrender of the Confederate States, Grant was gracious and great, never suffering glorification or jubilation over the subjugated enemy. Hating and dreading to make public speeches, he talked little in private life either, except perhaps as he played with his children with whom he was very close. He was elected and re-elected President without campaigning because he was so respected. He tried to make reconstruction of the south as painless yet just as possible; he treated Indians with a sympathy and respect they had never experienced before, and he was instrumental in passing civil rights legislation intended to protect the rights of all citizens, even blacks and Republicans in the south. Grant's was a genius hardly ever acknowledged or given due recognition either in his own lifetime or later, entil now. That humble little man was one of the great ones. Burns has well captured the character of Grant and those about him, making this book, altogether, a fine and very readable history of the entire era.… (more)
LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
In this audiobook, the reader is superb; the presentation has perfect cadence and expression, and a lengthy book, that could have become tedious, because of the excessive detail, is instead, incredibly interesting and engaging. The author’s use of language, with his ideal choice of words and his understanding of the information, is completely engrossing. This book is a remarkable feat of detailed research and organization. Grant becomes totally real and human.
Born Hiram Ulysses Grant, he was later called U. S. Grant because of a clerical error that was made when he attended West Point. After attempting unsuccessfully to revert to his real name, he acquiesced and accepted it, but insisted on using his middle name, Hiram, as well. He was good at soldiering until he was brought up on charges of excessive drinking, forcing him to resign rather than have the charges on his record. He then tried his hand at farming and at managing his father-in-law’s assets, but the forces of nature, the confluence of political events beyond his control, and his own inability to make sound decisions, sometimes being too naïve, or too soft a touch, caused him to fail at everything else but working in the service of his country.
As a soldier, he was influential in many battles. He was sent far and wide, corresponding with his sweetheart Julia, for several years before they could marry. Often stationed in places he could not bring his wife and children, he was lonely and missed them desperately. His wife was stoic, bearing children without his presence and raising them without his help, while often expressing support for his efforts. Because he was not able to accumulate a fortune, large enough to allow him to leave the service, he remained.
Grant was so devoted to the preservation of the Union, that he rarely returned home and only saw his second child for the first time after more than two years. At that time, his fortunes deteriorated, and after the birth of two more children and an inability to earn a living and make a success out of his life, he finally asked his disappointed father for help. He was allowed to enter into the business of two of his brothers. He was, actually, finally, good at something, other than soldiering. When asked to go back into the militia, he initially refused. At the time, Lincoln was President, and war was imminent because of the secession of the South. Eventually he entered the regular army, rather than the militia. A soft-spoken, humble man with no remarkable accomplishments until he was a soldier, he had a hand in all of the major events of the century in which he lived and worked. His achievements during the Civil War showed a remarkable grasp of military skill and judgment. Eventually, he was made head of all the armies and finally of the War Department, as part of President Johnson's cabinet after Lincoln’s assassination.
Grant often disagreed with Johnson, and for the sake of the Union, although a reluctant candidate, he ran against him and won. His run for the Presidency was an act of duty rather than desire. He was unique in that he was propelled mainly by his interest in the preservation of the Union and not by personal, political ambition. He did not want the losses and accomplishments of the Civil War to be rescinded by a President who sought to remove the power of the Congress and reverse the gains achieved for the country, which were accomplished through great hardship, the loss of thousands and thousands of lives, coupled with thousands and thousands of casualties. He was motivated by the desire to make sure that those sacrifices should not have been in vain.
Equal opportunity for all was the foundation of his Presidency. In many parts of the South, the Confederacy, although vanquished, was not willing to give up its lifestyle. The Ku Klux Klan was allowed to run rampant, committing completely unjust acts of brutality and murder without penalty. Were it not for Grant’s intervention, sending in the army, they would have continued without check. He worked untiringly for people of color and Native American Indians. I was surprised to learn that Grant, a Republican, was so preoccupied with abolishing slavery. He spearheaded the effort to give equal rights to freed slaves and fair treatment to the American Indian. It was the Democrats who were largely against these practices. Without the Republicans, that equality and freedom might never have been granted, and the fight against slavery might not have succeeded.
I was also surprised to learn that during his career, despite his interest in equal rights for all, he singled out the Jews for punishment because of their control of cotton sales. These sales greatly enhanced the South’s ability to fight on and engage the North in battle. Grant made some pretty controversial anti-Semitic statements and issued some pretty anti-Semitic directives, some of which were reversed by Lincoln because they condemned a whole class of people. These people were even fighting for the cause of the Union. They were rulings that were not just against the peddlers, that he found irritating, because they controlled the cotton sales which funded the South. Although his purpose was motivated by the need to cut the South's capability to supply itself, so he could defeat them at Vicksburg, he later, when running for the presidency, disavowed the statements and apologized for making them. His behavior ever after was always to increase the rights of others and to support fair treatment for all, so I have to assume the stress of the war affected his sound judgment and was not representative of who he was or what he believed, as he so claimed.
All of the battles that General Grant was engaged in throughout his career are described and Grant’s enormous successes and failures are detailed. The man who could not please his father or gain success in private life, was incredibly capable as a soldier, plain-speaking, open-minded, evenhanded and honest, he goes on to become the highest ranking officer in the service of his country and a two-term President of the United States. When he dies, prematurely from Cancer, he is revered and viewed in state for days. His final resting place is Grant's tomb, a place of honor, in New York.
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LibraryThing member Doondeck
A good survey of Grant's life. You get a real appreciation of how good he was as a general. He brought high values to the presidency but not enough energy to accomplish his goals. Throughout it all he was a good, decent man who led an honorable life.
LibraryThing member queencersei
A solid biography of General and President, Ulysses Grant. While fairly familiar with his role in the Civil War, I admit that I knew less about his Presidency, other than it was marked by scandel. As President Grant was fairly well beyond reproach. It would be another one hundred years before believers in civil rights would have such an advocate in the oval office. The scandles that did occure in his Presidency really do not reflect on Grant at all and it seems a shame that his place in history has been so malined. The Man Who Saved the Union is a good start at a much needed rehabilitation for this American hero.… (more)
LibraryThing member charlie68
Good biography on what is, for a Canadian, an obscure American President Very much an eye opener, never knew that he was such a hero and an advocate for equality for the races. Given what is still happening very much prescient for today.
LibraryThing member buffalogr
Brands is very positive view of Grant during the Civil War--believing Grant to be the greatest military figure of the war. Once the Civil War is over, so is the excitement. He is also balanced in his view of Grant's Presidency-- a reasonable attempt to continue Reconstruction as proposed by Lincoln. Author insists that Grant’s presidency was not a scandal-filled failure, but does illuminate some. The book is modular; each chapter describes a specific portion of Grant's life: Mexican War, Vicksburg Campaign, Slavery, relationship with Sherman, Indian Wars, Custer & the Black Hills are but a few. It's a book that's easily readable and shorter by a lot than Grant's autobiography.… (more)
LibraryThing member mybucketlistofbooks
Very good one-volume biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Not quite up to the standards of those produced by Brooks Simpson and Jean Edward Smith...but not far behind. Vastly superior to the error riddled work by Geoffrey Perret or the technically competent, but interpretively flawed biography of Grant by William McFeely.

Brands demonstrates again that U.S. Grant is perhaps the most underrated figure in American history. His reputation trashed through the efforts of "lost cause" historians and their enablers in academia and the media - an attempt to whitewash their culpability in perpetuating slavery by elevating their rebellion as a noble "lost cause" - Grant's reputation is finally being restored to its proper place.

This book continues the trend.

With the exception of only Lincoln himself, Grant is the man most responsible for saving the Union, and probably the man most responsible for keeping the country together after the Civil War.

Brands takes a positive view of his performance during the Civil War, leaving little doubt he believes Grant to be among the greatest military figures of the war, and perhaps the greatest in our history.

He also takes a sympathetic view of Grant's time as President, putting his two terms into the context of the times and the challenges he faced as he tried to shepherd the restoration of the Union. Grant's efforts on behalf of former African slaves is the high point of his Presidency. It would not be an exaggeration to characterize Grant as the first "civil rights" President. His efforts on behalf of Native Americans and his work preventing unscrupulous men from cornering the gold market are also highlights.

On the other hand, Brands does not shy away from criticizing Grant where it is warranted including his issuance of General Order #11, his naivete in remaining loyal to subordinates that were clearly corrupt, and his lack of imagination during the the depression that marked the final years of his Presidency.

This book is not perfect. It ends very abruptly, with little exploration of the reasons for the decline in Grant's reputation after his death (admittedly there are other books that explore this topic quite well). At the time of his death Grant was far and away the most popular figure in the United States, so some discussion of how he got from there to the caricature of him that gained prevalence later would have provided a more fitting coda. Also, I was disappointed at how little exploration there was of how a man who was selling firewood on the corner of his home town to make ends meet in 1861, rose so quickly to the pinnacle of power. What was it about Grant's personality that made that rise possible? So much of his inter war career is characterized by disappointment and sadness which is described well here. But as soon as Grant's fortunes turn, that aspect of his story is dropped. Sources may be hard to come by, and I usually disdain psycho-history, but in this case an attempt would have been worth it.

Overall...highly recommended!
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LibraryThing member Dale.Price
An excellent biography of one of America's most consistently-underrated historical figures. Brands does an excellent job of illuminating Grant's early life and struggles, not only with the bottle but with his failings as a provider--despite his best efforts. As he does so, Brands shows the character that enabled Grant to overcome these failures and rise to become the most beloved general since Washington, and the most popular President of the 19th Century (at least in terms of electoral success).

The outlining of Grant's military tenure during the Civil War is very solid, demonstrating that he was the best strategic thinker on either side, and no slouch as a tactician (Brands notes that Grant's casualty rates were lower as a proportion of men in combat than Lee's despite being on the offensive much more often).

But the eye-opener for me was Brands' revisionist (and I use that term advisedly) assessment of Grant's two terms as President. Far from the failure "everyone knows" it to be, Grant's Presidency had a remarkable number of achievements: the Fifteenth Amendment, the squelching of the attempt to corner the gold market, the settling of claims against England stemming from the giving of commerce raiders to the Confederacy and, most crucially, Grant's dedication to civil rights for freedmen. In enforcing the Ku Klux Klan Act and related civil rights legislation and appointing determined attorneys general like Amos Akerman, Grant was the President most devoted to civil rights and racial equality until the arrival of Lyndon Johnson.

Where this reassessment (slightly) fails is in providing a thorough explanation of *why* Grant's reputation as President went to and remains mostly in the dustbin at this late date. To be sure, Brands' treatment of 1872-1880 is not all praise--Grant is rapped for his too-restrictive handling of the Panic of 1873, America's first industrial depression, which cast a shadow over much of his tenure. Though, interestingly, it didn't damage his personal popularity much (as opposed to damaging the GOP)--he came close to winning a nomination for a third term in 1880, and almost certainly would have won that election, too.

Still, it's an eye-opener that should prove a welcome tonic to the Good General/Bad President canard that unjustly haunts him.

Finally, Brands deftly handles Grant's last battle--a race against time to finish his memoirs as he was dying of throat cancer. As he did through his military career, Grant won this battle through dogged determination, dying a few days after he finished them, ensuring that his wife and family would be well-provided for.

All in all, an exceptional read even if you aren't interested in the era--but absolutely essential if you are. Four stars.
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LibraryThing member msaucier818
A solid read about one of our great historical figures who somehow gets lost in the shuffle. This book takes us through the life of U.S. Grant, with the two major sections covering the Civil War and his Presidency.

I enjoyed the book because I learned a lot. None of the Civil War stuff was very new, but the information about his early life, his Presidency, and especially the short section on his post-presidential life were fascinating.

I would have given this five stars but something about the style of the book left me wanting more. Grant came across as emotionally detached throughout the book, and the book was written in more of a survey style textbook that included Grant in the events of the time. If that makes sense. But overall I would recomment it and am excited to read more about Grant in the future.
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LibraryThing member barlow304
Professor Brands’s thrilling biography of US Grant covers his life from the hard-scrabble beginnings to the cancer-choking end. In between, he weaves a powerful narrative about a plain-spoken and humble man who was one of our nation’s greatest military geniuses as well as a thoughtful and fairly effective president.

Indeed, the author insists that Grant’s presidency was not a scandal-filled failure, but a reasonable attempt to continue Reconstruction along the lines that Lincoln had suggested. The material on Grant’s suppression of the KKK in South Carolina and on his insistence on equal rights for the freedmen is placed in historical context. Clearly, Grant had opponents both in the South and in the Senate that hindered his ability to guarantee civil rights. The author nonetheless believes that Grant was the first president to care about the rights of blacks and the last until LBJ.

I would definitely recommend this book for anyone who is interested in America in the mid-19th century.
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