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

Another in a series of books attempting to restore the life and career of Ulysses S. Grant into proper historical perspective. Undoubtedly the most popular man in America at the time of his death in 1885, his reputation has taken a beating in the years since the end of Reconstruction. Due to a combination of Northern exhaustion after 15 years of Civil War and Reconstruction, and a purposeful campaign by Southern historians and heritage groups looking to recast the war as anything other than a fight to retain the institution of slavery, many myths about Grant have taken hold in popular imagination.

Ronald C. White, in American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, has given us a very accessible, and personal, biography of Grant that puts to rest many of the myths about him that have gained a foothold in popular memory since his death. He also provides what I consider to be one of the best reviews of Grant’s Presidency that has so far been published; one that puts it into proper historical context given the many challenges he faced after the disastrous Johnson years.

At the moment of his death on July 23, 1885, Ulysses S. Grant was arguably the most revered man in America. He had shepherded the Union war effort to ultimate victory, had completed two terms as President, which, if not spectacularly successful in hindsight, had done little to diminish his popularity, and he had riveted the nation with his heroic struggle against time, as he raced to complete his memoirs before the ravages of throat cancer took his life. Those memoirs, completed only five days before his death, are the widely acknowledged gold standard among military autobiographies, and their popularity restored the Grant family fortune. The country went into deep and prolonged mourning after his death, with 1.5 million people attending his New York funeral. Despite this though, By the end of the 19th century, Grant’s reputation had undergone a large, and largely negative, change.

Ask the average person today what they know about Ulysses S. Grant and you are as likely to hear that he was a “butcher” and a “drunk,” as you are to hear he was the preeminent military figure of the Civil war whose skill and strategic genius saved the union. As with most myths however, the truth is far more complicated. And in the case of Grant, they are almost universally incorrect. White does a very good job of separating fact from fiction with regards to these myths.

One of the most pernicious of these myths surrounds Grant’s alleged drinking problem. It is supposedly the cause of his forced resignation from the Army, and was at the root of any setback he experienced throughout the war. Grant didn’t discipline his troops after the initial victory at Belmont, so he must have been drinking. Grant wasn’t prepared for Albert Sidney Johnston’s attach at Shiloh, so he must have been drinking. Grant unwisely ordered a last assault at Cold Harbor, so he must have been drinking. And on and on and on…

Politics too played a part. Rumors that Grant had resigned from the Army in 1854 because of his drinking allowed rival Generals, usually those annoyed that Grant’s success was getting in the way of their glory, to raise the specter that he had fallen off the wagon and should be replaced, with the usual recommendation being that the replacement should be the one making the charge.

White deals with these rumors in a very effective way. Rather than devoting a whole chapter on the topic, which to me has the effect of elevating their credibility, he simply deals with them within the timeline of the narrative. He does not assert Grant did not drink – he clearly did – he simply notes there is no convincing evidence that Grant routinely drank to excess, or that his drinking had any effect on his military performance. Contemporary evidence, other than repeated rumors, are almost non-existent. Every person sent to Grant’s command to investigate these rumors, reported back they had no basis in fact. So the reality then, as White shows, is that while Grant was not a teetotaler, he did not have a serious drinking problem. And there is not a scrap of evidence drinking ever had an effect on his performance during the war.

Another persistent myth about Grant relates to his military skill. Southerners, eager to elevate their participation in the war as a heroic struggle against a marauding north intent on trampling rights guaranteed them in the Constitution, had to come up with ways to explain their defeat that didn’t involve admitting any fault with their (lost) cause. From this sprang first, the assertion that Southern soldiers were superior to the northern counterparts. Whereas they portrayed themselves as selfless warriors merely looking to defend hearth and home, Northern troops were depicted as the lackeys of money grubbers looking to strip the South of its wealth, or, as so eloquently put by Shelby Foote, Confederates believed “one Southern soldier was worth ten Yankee hirelings.” Ironically, an argument could persuasively be made that the reality was exactly the opposite. Confederate soldiers were fighting so the landed gentry could maintain their way of life, one that depended on slavery. It was the North that was fighting for a concept – “Union.”

The second, and possibly the most important part of this effort to recast the war, was the importance of demonstrating the superiority of Confederate Generals. The post war south wanted heroes to latch on to. They had to be portrayed as honorable men, fighting for a righteous cause. They also had to find an explanation for their defeat other than the superiority of their northern counterparts. This was particularly true with their most idolized figure – Robert E. Lee.
Southerners dealt with these needs in two ways. First, they asserted the only way the North could have defeated the South was through brute force and overwhelming numbers. At no point, they asserted, were southern generals outmatched, or southern troops outfought. They simply lacked the resources needed to win. Secondly, in order to elevate the character of their hero Lee, they had to deflate that of the man who defeated him – Ulysses S. Grant.

White doesn’t deal extensively in what ifs related to the manpower argument. The South certainly had the resources it needed to win the war had it employed an effective strategy. It didn’t. He does debunk the notion that Grant was victorious solely through the application of overwhelming force. After all, the North had that same advantage from the beginning of the war, and were not able to defeat Lee. Only when an able General, one who understood the strategies needed to overwhelm Lee, took command, were they able to win. The fact is, as White shows, northern troops were equally as brave and skilled as their southern counterparts; and Grant was superior to Lee, particularly as a strategic thinker. Lee was myopically focused on the eastern theater, while Grant viewed the conflict as a nationwide one. Where Lee cared little for what happened in the west, Grant realized that success there made victory in the east more attainable.

White does a very effective job debunking most of the negative assertions about Grants military ability. He does not do this by ignoring Grant’s failures (e.g. Cold Harbor), or by denigrating the ability of Robert E. Lee. He presents an effective, though not ground breaking review of Grant’s efforts up to his elevation as General in Chief, and provides a very fair analysis of events after that point.

The only conclusion that can plausibly be drawn from available evidence is that Grant, far from being a butcher of men, was in fact a skilled tactician and strategist, who made effective use of his resources. He put in place an effective strategy for winning the war, and executed it with considerable skill. Robert E. Lee did present the toughest resistance Grant had come up against during the war, but Grant was more than equal to the task. His casualty rates during the Overland Campaign were appalling of course, but that was the expected result of the type of fighting needed to bludgeon the South into submission. Always on the attack Grant was guaranteed to suffer more casualties. But as a percentage of his Army they were no worse than Lee’s. And if one looks at the entire war, Grant lost considerably fewer men while in command than Lee did.

Following Lee’s surrender, Grant’s role changed. He entered the political realm, first as General in Chief under the volatile Andrew Johnson, then as interim Secretary of War, and finally as President. White provides an excellent review of this time, far better than most biographies of Grant which tend to rush through this period.

For many years, Grant has ranked near the bottom of the list of effective Presidents. But in recent years, as historians have begun to take a more dispassionate look at his two terms, that ranking has improved. White does what many biographers have not, examined his Presidency in the context of the challenges he faced.

As President, after two year of conflict under Andrew Johnson who aided the South as it tried to reassert white dominance, Grant faced a daunting task. Not only was he trying to repair the country, he was trying to protect the rights of newly freed slaves. Ambivalent about slavery before the war, Grant became a staunch supporter of full citizenship for former slaves after it.

He made significant progress pushing back the Ku Klux Klan, and successfully navigated the rough political waters that went along with military reconstruction in the South. Many assert, including I think the author, that Grant should be considered the first Civil Rights President. Strong evidence for this includes the views of Frederick Douglass, who had a tepid opinion of Lincoln’s efforts on behalf of blacks, but strongly support Grant’s. The support of Jewish leaders as well, who were insulted by Grant’s infamous General Order #11 in 1862 that singled out Jewish traders for condemnation, but who came around to view him as an ally, is another piece of evidence in favor of that view. And not only was he a proponent of full rights for African Americans, but he tried to install a liberal policy regarding Native Americans, believing the government had trampled on their rights.

As events eventually overtook the country, and weariness after 15 years of war and the conflict of Reconstruction set in, much of what Grant did and tried to do, was rolled back by subsequent administrations. It would be nearly a century before blacks were able to get restored to them anything close to their full rights again. But, Grant’s efforts here were noble, and were for a time successful. He deserves credit for that.

Grant also had to deal with several economic issues during his administration. Early in his first term, wealthy speculators Jay Gould and James Fisk tried to corner the gold market. Grant intervened to stop them just in time, the result of which was Black Friday, a panic that led to months of financial devastation. White argues Grant’s quick action should be credited. While that is true, I think he goes too far in absolving Grant here. He either didn’t realize or didn’t want to realize, that he was being used by Gould and Fisk. Had he been more diligent, he might have been able to terminate their machinations without the subsequent panic.

White also gives Grant too much credit for the way he dealt with the depression of 1873. The crisis, which was the result of over speculation in railroad stock, led Grant to further contract the money supply in order to prevent over inflation. White implies this was the correct move in that it kept inflation from getting out of hand. However, at the same time it caused interest rates to rise, which hurt those in debt (as Grant acknowledged and agonized over), and severely limited the amount of money available to companies with growth plans. Those actions probably prolonged the downturn.

White compares Grant’s steady, no nonsense reaction to the crisis to Franklin Roosevelt’s reaction to the Great Depression of the 1930s, as he tried to cheer lead the economy into action, which White implies was a less effective strategy. This is not a good comparison. Grant’s reaction was to the immediate crisis as it occurred, while FDR’s was to an economy that had been in depression for three years, and which had sapped the countries will. A more apt comparison would have been to Hoover, whose reaction was much the same as Grant’s, a refusal to apply stimulus, thus prolonging the crisis.

White also deals effectively with the numerous scandals that occurred during Grant’s two terms. Seemingly unable to believe anyone he had known and trusted could act duplicitously, he was slow to remove corrupt officials, and remained loyal to those taking advantage of their relationship with him for far too long. Grant was personally incorruptible, but was seemingly blind to corruption around him until it instigated a crisis. This is the reason Grant is ranked as a middling President rather than an above average one.

Overall I think anyone with an interest in Ulysses S. Grant would enjoy this book immensely. It is generally fair (with the exceptions I noted), and effectively deals with the many myths surrounding Grant and his career. He does a nice job of tying Grant’s life as a boy and student at West Point to his later action as General and President. He does a nice job of recounting Grant’s career, and his service in both Mexico and in the Civil War. He provides a very lucid account of Grant’s Presidency that puts it into the context of the challenges he faced. He also gives a great account of Grant’s world tour after his White House years, and a very moving one of his final death struggle.

Most importantly, it is very well written

There are flaws, some of which I noted. He was at times quick to give Grant the benefit of the doubt in cases where there was an equally plausible counter argument. He also seemed to take great pains to portray Grant as a devout Christian. He was a believer of course, but I don’t think religion played a particularly important role in his life. And finally I think he gave Grant too much credit for his reactions to the gold crisis in 1869 and the depression of 1873.

Still, highly recommended!

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