The Man Who Saved The Union: Ulysses Grant At War And Peace, by H.W. Brands
This book represents part of a recent trend in historiography that views the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant as less than a total disaster, being the first biography of Grant’s full life (it takes up at reasonably sizable 640 pages of text that is nonetheless not particularly difficult to read for those who are students of his life and knowledgeable about the Civil War and Reconstruction, which make up the target audience for this particular book anyway) in about a decade or so. This particular book is divided up into three sections: the first 100 pages or so discuss the prewar life and career of Ulysses S. Grant, the next two hundred and fifty or so discuss Grant’s Civil War career, and almost three hundred pages discuss Reconstruction and afterward as it relates to Grant’s life and career.
The end result is a book that, although long, feels very balanced for those who want a fuller picture of Grant as a president in the context of his generally apolitical life and high-toned moral principles. Of particular interest to me is Grant’s problematic relationship with his father, the lengthy and malign influence of evil reports on his life and career (and even posthumous life) as well as surprisingly blunt and straightforward gift of prose that allowed him to at least tell his side of the story as a general at least through his memoirs, written as they were in a race with death. Ironically enough, Grant finished his memoirs on my birthday, something I found to be very striking and noteworthy, and perhaps worthy of a future blog entry.
It should be noted candidly that this book is generally favorable to Grant and his behavior and career. It takes a charitable view of his inability to hold his liquor, as well as his decisions as a general and president, although it does not entirely excuse some of Grant’s mistakes, be it his infamous order seeking to remove all Jews from Memphis (quickly and predictably countermanded by Lincoln) or his too-high level of trust for the people in his cabinet, many of whom ended up being corrupt crooks. Grant himself appears as the last president who made a stand against the abuse of native Americans and blacks for nearly a century. The book, ironically enough, is mostly critical of Grant’s expansionist desires for Santo Domingo (which the United States ended up ruling anyway for part of the 20th century) as well as his hard-currency economic views, those aspects of his career that would end up being the most praiseworthy to those who do not share the author’s political views.
For those who want to read a generally honest account of Grant’s life and presidency that largely gives him the benefit of the doubt where it can be given (a luxury anyone should have from a skilled biographer), this book is one that should be greatly appreciated by a wide audience. One of the more intriguing (and unknown to me previously) elements of Grant’s life was how his life tended to intersect with that of Samuel Clemens, first as a Union officer seeking Clemens’ employment as a child during his anti-guerrilla campaign in late 1861, then as a fan of Clemens’ comic writing, and finally as a writer in dire financial straits in need of sound publishing advice. These sorts of stories help frame the story and reveal to the reader just how small the elite world of the mid-1800’s was. As a whole, despite its length, this work is not padded, but provides enough context to understand Grant’s life and behavior in the larger context of his times to show just how rare it was for someone in high office to be as principled and moral as Grant was. Sadly, the same appears to be true of our times also.