A "biography of one of America's greatest generals-- and most misunderstood presidents"-- "In his time, Ulysses S. Grant was routinely grouped with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in the "Trinity of Great American Leaders." But the battlefield commander-turned-commander-in-chief fell out of favor in the twentieth century. In American Ulysses, Ronald C. White argues that we need to once more revise our estimates of him in the twenty-first. Based on seven years of research with primary documents--some of them never examined by previous Grant scholars--this is destined to become the Grant biography of our time. White, a biographer exceptionally skilled at writing momentous history from the inside out, shows Grant to be a generous, curious, introspective man and leader--a willing delegator with a natural gift for managing the rampaging egos of his fellow officers. His wife, Julia Dent Grant, long marginalized in the historic record, emerges in her own right as a spirited and influential partner. Grant was not only a brilliant general but also a passionate defender of equal rights in post-Civil War America. After winning election to the White House in 1868, he used the power of the federal government to battle the Ku Klux Klan. He was the first president to state that the government's policy toward American Indians was immoral, and the first ex-president to embark on a world tour, and he cemented his reputation for courage by racing against death to complete his Personal Memoirs. Published by Mark Twain, it is widely considered to be the greatest autobiography by an American leader, but its place in Grant's life story has never been fully explored--until now."--Publisher's description.
Most are very aware and well versed in Gran't military success but this book looks at him as a complete person. In his day most ranked him right up there with Washington and Lincoln. After reading this work I feel he certainly deserves to be placed in the upper echelon of American leaders - both military and civil.
Well, either I was badly mistaken on many of my assumptions, or the author of this biography veered wildly into hagiography. This book certainly provided me with copious amounts of information with which I was unfamiliar.
Apparently, Grant was a very well read, intelligent, modest man who loved his wife dearly. His memoirs are considered some of the very best of their genre. While he was certainly a man of action, never hesitating to engage in aggressive offensives, resulting in sometimes heavy casualties, he did not do so without regard. While he possibly engaged in excessive alcohol consumption during a brief period in his early military years, there is no evidence that he did so either during the era of the Civil War or in subsequent years. And while his presidential administrations were marked by corruption, this was largely the result of the era in which he served, the Gilded Age, and there is little evidence to suggest that he participated in anything more scandalous than accepting gifts during a period prior to presidential pensions or adequate compensation.
Many historians have painted far bleaker pictures of Grant and his activities than the author of this work, bringing into question the accuracy of one or the other. It does bear noting, however, that in the early years of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt named three Americans who stood head and shoulders above all others in their contributions to the United States: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant, placing those three a rung ahead of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.
I suspect history may be starting to reassess Grant, who I vaguely recall from my high school history class as a less than impressive president surrounded by corruption and unable to influence the course of Reconstruction politics. The Grant presented in this biography is very different - he is a quiet, introverted but very capable leader who effectively led troops into battle and later managed the political maneuvers of the nation's capital. I may not come to regard Grant as highly as Washington or Lincoln, but he certainly has risen in my opinion.
What I didn't particularly like was what really bordered on hagiography. Yet in his defense White did state in preface that the work was geared toward balancing and righting the number of bios that tended to the opposite number.
The strength of U.S. Grant was how he observed and listened calmly and without prejudice then took decisive action without second thought. This really is what won the war, following the many generals who did the opposite. Yes it cost many Union live, but the mission was accomplished, the Union saved, and justice prevailed. I have often wondered though how different the war would have played out had Lee accepted Lincoln's offer at the beginning.
His presidency was of course mired in scandal and understandably though not through his doing certainly aided by his loyalty to those who did not deserve it. Yet over the ages and the many scandals we have seen in government it hardly seemed beyond the pall.
Finally his family relationship which meant so much to him through so many years surely is one thing about Grant that is to be admired. How rare it is and how wonderful it made his life and for those he dearly loved.
A good and thorough biography of one of our best for the ages.
The author is trying to rectify the reputation of a man now known primarily for military genius (or at the least, military perseverance). For many years before recent times, however, Grant was regarded as one of the “Trinity of Great American Leaders” along with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1900, "Mightiest among the mighty dead loom the three great figures of Washington, Lincoln, and Grant." In the second rank Roosevelt placed Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
Moreover, Frederick Douglass himself, who knew both Lincoln and Grant, thought more of Grant in some ways, saying of Grant after his presidential term:
“To him more than any other man the Negro owes his enfranchisement and the Indian a humane policy. In the matter of the protection of the freedman from violence his moral courage surpassed that of his party; hence his place as its head was given to timid men, and the country was allowed to drift, instead of stemming the current with stalwart arms.”
And in fact, White spends a great deal of time recounting the problems after the Civil War, with the South trying to suppress blacks in every way they could, and about the measures Grant tried to take (ultimately without success) to prevent that from happening. Both Congress and those in power in the South (many of whom had been Confederates during the Civil War) resisted efforts by Grant to ensure civil equality and to rein in the violence of a new organization, The Ku Klux Klan.
Grant was elected to the presidency in 1868 with a total popular vote of 3,013,421, just slightly over 300,000 more than that received by incumbent President Andrew Johnson. In the run-up to the election, the Democrats boasted of their intent to suppress rights of blacks, highlighting the difference between their stance and that of Grant's, who was known for his determination to enforce the now constitutionally-protected rights of blacks. Grant was branded a “black Republican” and a “nigger lover.” One of the slogans of the opposition was “Let All Good Men Vote No Nigger.” As the author observes, “it was not lost on the opposition that without the support of approximately 400,000 black freedman, [Grant] would have lost the popular vote.” Whites intended to see that didn’t happen again through a campaign of violence and voter intimidation.
During Grant's presidency, he was equally ineffective not only in protecting blacks but in helping Native Americans, though not for lack of trying. But the greed for their land by whites, and racism against them, were strong forces Grant was unable to counter. Even William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan, his close friends both during and after the war, disagreed with Grant on the disposition of the Indians. (Grant, to his discredit, did not try to rein in the extermination policies of Sherman and Sheridan.)
And then there was Grant’s cabinet. For most positions he selected old friends and family members rather than people who were necessarily qualified. Many of them came from relatively poor backgrounds, and were enticed by the opportunities that political power offered them for graft. Grant was slow to recognize the corrupt behavior of men he thought were his loyal friends, and had difficulty accepting that they would betray him in that way. Eventually, the chair of his Indian Commission, his personal secretary, his secretary of war, and his secretary of the interior were all forced to resign in financial corruption scandals. In addition there were others around him who participated in a variety of schemes to enrich themselves by the exploitation of others, but managed to escape punishment. Although Grant was guilty of nothing but poor character judgment, the wrongdoings of those in his cabinet contributed to the diminution of his reputation.
Indeed, ultimately, as White shows, while Grant was in some senses adored for his fundamental decency, it was also the trait that led to most of his failures. Too often he gave the benefit of the doubt, and too often expected that others would act as he would. Alas, he had quite a few more better angels riding on his shoulders than other people. He also was loathe to engage in the unsavory and extremely contentious political wrangling that Lincoln had relished, and at which Lincoln so excelled. The political process was odious to Grant, an aversion that unfortunately affected his efficacy in the role as president.
Grant never understood, or even wanted to understand, politics the way he did the military. He certainly would never have appointed friends and/or relatives to lead battles; he knew better. And yet it did not register to him that bad leadership in political offices as well as on the field of battle could also inflict severe damage to people’s lives.
After Grant’s two-terms in office, also highlighted by some positive achievements, such as an important peace treaty with Great Britain resolving issues left over from the Civil War, the Grants took off for an overseas tour of many countries. Upon returning, Grant once again was the victim of financial graft by someone he thought he could trust, this time by a Ponzi scheme, that left him and Julia impoverished. Moreover, Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer and knew he needed to find a way to provide support for Julia and their family after he died. Thus he embarked on writing his memoirs, which are still considered to be a literary classic.
Grant died on July 23, 1885 only a few days after finishing his manuscript. His funeral procession in New York was attended by some million and a half admirers.
One development of which I was unaware was the unexpected friendship, after the deaths of both Grant and Jefferson Davis, of their widows. Julia Grant and Varina Davis met in 1893 in New York, where both had come to live. The two not only became close friends, but their two daughters also became close friends. After Julia died in 1902, Varina publicly defended both Grants for the rest of her life (she herself died in 1906). Julia’s son General Frederick Grant sent an artillery company to escort Varina’s cortege as it made its way out of New York City.
Evaluation: White does an excellent job of providing a deeply researched, balanced portrayal of a man whom he clearly admires, while not withholding aspects of Grant’s story that show him in less-than-perfect light. So many books are devoted to Grant’s prowess in military strategy. This book also introduces us to Grant as a boy, a man, and a devoted husband and father. White’s strong emphasis on Grant’s commitment to equal rights, to justice for freed blacks, and compassion about the plight of Native Americans, so unusual for a man of his times, does a great service to his memory. This book will help set the record straight for readers.