Thursday, April 27, 2017

Book Review: "American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant" by Ronald C. White

Americans remember Ulysses Simpson Grant, the great hero of the Union in the Civil War, as little more than that, dismissing his time as the eighteenth President of the United States as eight years of corruption and governmental disarray and finding him to be of flawed character for his alleged drinking.  "American Ulysses," Ronald C. White's 2016 biography of Grant, reclaims him as a noble man who was learned and well-traveled (hence the book's title, referring to the original Ulysses) and was one of the more compassionate and dedicated Presidents, as well as a brilliant military tactician.
Grant comes to life in this book as much as he does in the immaculately colorized photograph on the book cover.  We see him come from a small-town background in the emerging early-nineteenth-century Midwest  and becoming a bright and eager young man who would graduate from West Point and enter the Army.  Grant's great promise is brought to life here with White's depictions of him on the battlefield in the U.S.-Mexican War, where he served as a quartermaster and in battle and became enamored with Mexico - and later as President was one of its biggest supporters.  Grant's ability to take command in moments of adversity and stay sharply focused is evident in the White's documentation of the battles of Fort Donelson and Shiloh and of the Vicksburg and Richmond-Petersburg campaigns in the Civil War, but what's astonishing is what came before.  After being caught drunk in a remote post in the Pacific Northwest in the 1850s, Grant, then a captain, was forced to resign his commission despite actually being a responsible, temperate drinker, and he failed at every civilian occupation he tried except bookkeeping.  Ironically, those bookkeeping skills had served Grant well as a quartermaster in the U.S.-Mexican War and would help him organize armies in the Civil War.  Reinstated as a captain and as a volunteer when the Civil War broke out, Grant would use his talents to rise through the ranks and become general-in-chief of the Union armies - and achieve the rank of lieutenant general, which was last held by George Washington.  To say Grant's rise was meteoric is an understatement, but White writes about it as if it were a forgone conclusion from the start.  Grant's determination throughout is the key to what made him so great, and White knows it. 
White's treatment of Grant's Presidency is not only sympathetic, it sets the historical record straight. Grant complied a worthy list of achievements as President, from establishing a basis for a friendship with the United Kingdom that endures to this day to skillfully selling gold from the federal gold reserve to prevent mischievous speculators from cornering the gold market, as well as fighting the Ku Klux Klan in the South to ensure the civil rights of blacks and attempting to annex the Dominican Republic for a homeland for freed slaves.  Frederick Douglass, who had done an amazing job in civil rights himself (so says the 45th President, I am told), called Grant the most devoted man to civil rights to occupy the White House.
Grant the man comes through in White's loving descriptions of his marriage to his wife Julia and his depiction of him as a devoted father and a man of honesty.  His personal honesty, ironically, was his Achilles heel in regard to whom he appointed in his administration, with many of his most trusted appointees caught in scandals, but his more outstanding appointments - Hamilton Fish as Secretary of State, for example - show that he was just as capable finding the best people to help him as Lincoln had been.  Grant's final battle with terminal cancer as he successfully endeavored to write his memoirs is depicted by White as the most heroic act of his life, as he sought to leave a lasting record to history and help make money for his family from the memoirs' profits after he died.  "American Ulysses" is a fascinating journey from the cradle to the grave, lionizing and humanizing Grant at the same time while providing a great read that you can't put down, as if it were a well-plotted novel.  It could very well be the definitive Grant biography.  
(Today is the 195th anniversary of Ulysses S. Grant's birth.) 

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