American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, by Ronald C. White
So many rumors were passed around about Ulysses S. Grant, even in his lifetime, it’s difficult to separate myth from reality. Today we will have an image of Grant as rather shallow, a heavy drinker, a general who carelessly sacrificed soldiers, and an easily-manipulated politician. This new biography from Ronald C. White gives a more balanced and more positive perspective on a man who, when he died, was considered the equal of Lincoln and Washington.
Grant is shown as someone who was generally introverted and thoughtful, a lover of novels (especially Edward Bulwer-Lytton) and stage dramas. He was sent to West Point against his will after a request by his father to a congressman who nominated. him. Born Hiram Ulysses Grant, his army paperwork somehow showed him as Ulysses S. He accepted the name was was known by that name for the rest of his life. Grant wasn’t an exceptional student, ranking 21st of 39 cadets, and was best remembered for his horsemanship and hiding in the library to read. He graduated and, figuring that the government deserved some kind of repayment for his education, he accepted a commission as a second lieutenant.
He was stationed in St. Louis, Missouri, where he met Julia Dent, whom he would eventually marry. They courted by mail as Grant followed the army to Texas and Mexico to fight in the Mexican-American War. It was there he had his first exposure to death on the battlefield, used his nearly picture-perfect memory for terrain, and learned from both good and bad commanders some invaluable lessons in leadership.
After marrying Julia he continued his Army career in far-flung places like Vancouver, Washington, and the newly named San Francisco. He augmented his soldier’s pay with various side-schemes, most barely recouping his investments. No great fan of Army life and missing his family he resigned his commission and returned to Ohio where he took up an unsuccessful career at farming and eventually made a living by delivering wood. It was on one of these wood delivery trips that he met old Army friends who encouraged him to join up for what would surely be a short spell of soldiering in which the southern rebels would be subdued.
Grant saw quickly that the war would last longer than anyone had suspected. He spent most of first years of the Civil War either in logistics or leading troops in terrain with which he was familiar, especially along the Mississippi River and in Tennessee. As a general he developed strategies and tactics that are still used as models in military manuals. It was also in these campaigns that Grant developed a reputation as a drinker (he rarely drank) and as a blood-thirsty leader (his losses were less than or comparable to Confederate losses). Jealous officers and one particularly distorted New York Times report were the source of both myths about him.
Lincoln’s admiration for Grant’s willingness to finish the battles he started eventually led to his being named a Lt. General, the first to hold the position since George Washington. His direction of the remaining battles of the war finally helped overcome Lee’s forces and the final surrender at Appomattox.
His acceptance of Lee’s surrender set a tone for his later presidency, overriding the demands of some radical congressmen and allowing Confederate officers and troops to return home with their own weapons and horses. No arrests. No hangings. Despite his reputation for having his initials stand for “unconditional surrender” Grant felt the best course was to let both sides move on and heal.
As president Grant was very aggressive in Reconstruction, pushing to encourage blacks to vote, hold office, and obtain education. He sent troops against the newly forming KKK and pressed for Constitutional amendments to ensure equal treatment. His work was almost entirely discarded by the presidents who followed.
His own memoir, written while stricken with throat cancer and completed just before his death, is considered the greatest presidential or military autobiography in English. It helped ensure his fame after his death and, with the help of financial negotiations and assistance from friend Mark Twain, also helped Julia live as a rich widow into the next century.
Julia Grant was able to preserve almost every letter she received from her husband, and he wrote her several times a week when they were separated. These letters weren’t published until within the last 50 years, and White makes excellent use of them to flesh out Grant’s thinking and emotions during key moments of his life. White also includes dozens of perspective from those who worked directly under Grant in military and political situations to make Grant come across as completely human.
This is a new and somewhat rehabilitated Grant, a better military leader than some negative portrayals, more intellectual than many political biographies, and a man who was able to listen without ego to conflicting advice and arrive at unique and individual decisions. He is a more admirable Grant than the drunken and thoughtless leader of modern myth.