Category Archives: War

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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Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick

Every battle is the “bloodiest”, or most “sanguinary”. Every storm is a historic deluge that always seems to occur just as some momentous turning point is about to occur. Every secondary, or little known event, is in reality the pivot on which [fill in the blank’s] fortunes depend, and of course George Washington is the “greatest horseman of his generation.”

These and many other cliches are standard for works of popular American history. They engage the reader, build suspense, and imply new or unusual interpretations of allegedly well-understood events. In reality however, they seem cherry picked as a way to propel a chosen narrative, rather than providing evidence for a well crafted hypothesis.

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick makes excellent use of these, and other techniques to produce an admittedly well-crafted narrative review of its subject, that nevertheless, left me disappointed.

Philbrick, in my opinion, is one of only a handful of preeminent authors of popular American History. He has a gift for narrative only rivaled by David McCullough. I have enjoyed several of his previous works, including In the Heart of the Sea, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842, and Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution. With the exception of the last of these, they involved subjects with which I had little or no familiarity. I enjoyed them because of this fact, because of their narrative style, and despite their heavy use of the same type of hooks he uses in Valiant Ambition. I appreciated his book on Bunker Hill despite having more than passing familiarity with the topic, because he placed the event in its proper context, not elevating its importance beyond where it should be. In that work, he didn’t artificially elevate the importance of certain events to create tension. Unfortunately, with Valiant Ambition, he seems to have gone out of the way to do just the opposite.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a well-crafted book, which effectively weaves a dual biography of George Washington and Benedict Arnold’s Revolutionary wartime experience into a pretty seamless story. But there just isn’t much new here that has not been covered in numerous other books on these two men. His heavy use of the artificial build up of events, along with his liberal use of the cliches mentioned earlier, left me with a “been there, read that” feeling.

Philbrick uncritically uses quotes and passages attributable to Washington, Arnold, and many of the people they interacted with or who were affected by their actions, to convey the intended narrative effect. In some cases they are used to assert something without really having to research whether it was true or not. So when he notes that George Washington was generally understood to be the “greatest horseman of his generation,” he was in fact using a passage written by Thomas Jefferson as evidence. Obviously there is no way Jefferson, or anyone at the time, could prove such an assertion. Yet Philbrick makes it without any context behind it to help convey a sense of gravitas around Washington.

Prominent men and women in the 18th and 19th centuries wrote not only for an immediate need, but to make sure posterity interpreted their actions as they wished them to be. Whether it was a letter, a diary entry, or public conversation, they knew, and indeed hoped, their words would be shared. Using them without context, and without a close examination of the motivations behind them, leaves the interpretation susceptible to later contradiction. I understand why Philbrick does this, I just wish he had not done so so widely and uncritically.

I don’t want to overdraw the point however. There are place in the narrative where Philbrick does provide critical context, such as when analyzing the assertions by Benjamin Talmadge that the failure of Benedict Arnold’s plans to turn over West Point to the British was the fault of Arnold himself. Philbrick makes a persuasive case that the fault lay with John Andre, and that Talmadge’s assertions were designed to deflect blame from the failure of his spy network. In addition to this, in a few places, Philbrick hints at a deeper analysis of events than a simple narrative of them provides. I wanted more of this.

As a narrative work, Philbrick doesn’t make a real attempt at a more detailed analysis of the reasons for the Revolutionary War, or for Washington and Arnold’s participation in it. Given the number of books that essentially give the same narrative of these events as Philbrick’s (though admittedly with less skill), I wish he had instead applied his considerable talent to a deeper look. An exploration of the economic, cultural and political climate that gave rise to the Revolution or the motivation behind the participation of landed gentlemen such as George Washington, and of those who had acquired wealth through their own exertions such as Arnold, would have been fascinating. I would have liked a more thorough look at Arnold’s motivations for treason, not only based on his writings and actions, but on an analysis of what kind of hold identification as an American had for the average citizen, and how that affected Arnold’s decision and the reaction to it. He does hint at some of this, talking about the role economic class played in motivating those who supported independence. He also, briefly, dives more deeply into criticism of George Washington’s generalship. And he posited an interesting theory that Arnold’s treason actually brought together a country that was rapidly falling apart as the war dragged on. I just wish we had gotten a lot more of this kind of analysis throughout the book.

Overall I did enjoy this, if for no other reason than Philbrick is such a skilled writer. If your knowledge of Washington and Arnold doesn’t extend much beyond what you learned in school, this is a good place to start. If you are more familiar with the subjects though, this doesn’t provide much in the way of new insight, and may leave you wanting something new.


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My Rating:
3.0 rating

LincolnGrantLincoln and Grant: The Westerners Who Won the Civil War by Edward H. Bonekemper III

Purporting to look at the relationship that developed between Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War, “Lincoln and Grant: The Westerners Who Won the War” by Edward H. Bonekemper III reads more like a perfunctory dual biography. There is little here to be gained that isn’t covered in better and more comprehensive works, or previous books by Mr. Bonekemper. There are two exceptions however. First, he provides a surprisingly engaging account of the “overland campaign,” which encompassed battles that pitted the Union Army of the Potomac against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia between April and June 1864. The campaign ended with the siege of Petersburg, VA by troops under the command of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Bonekemper deftly describes the challenges faced by both Grant and Robert E. Lee, the strategy each employed, and a nice analysis of the result. He might consider writing a separate book on the topic.

A second area in which this book rose above a simple surface level biography of Lincoln and Grant is contained in his excellent summary chapter. Though meant to be both an analysis of the Lincoln-Grant relationship and a dual character study, most of the book was not devoted to that task as I noted above. However, what was provided, condensed into the summary chapter was surprisingly compelling. He identifies a number of characteristics Lincoln and Grant had in common, and noted representative situations that demonstrated how these common traits were manifested in their working relationship. A relationship Bonekemper asserts, that developed into one of complete mutual trust. These included adaptability acquired from a common western upbringing, decisiveness, clarity of communication, moral courage, and perseverance. Few would quibble with the assertion each man possessed these traits. Indeed, one only need review Lincoln’s orations and Grant’s written orders and memoirs to see that clarity of communication was a gift they shared. Bonekemper describes these with clarity as well. It highlights the point that this analysis was too diffuse in the body of the book to make a real impact on the reader. It may have been better as an academic paper.*

As with his other books Bonekemper’s honestly stated goal is to revive the reputation of Ulysses S. Grant. With a so blatant initial bias readers inclined to the opposite view may dismiss the valid points he makes out of hand. Also, he may consider whether he has gone to the well one too many times by making Ulysses S. Grant the subject of his work. Parts of this book appeared to be lifted, almost verbatim, from his previous books.

Well written overall but not much new save the exceptions I noted above.

*  I see Bonekemper has written a Kindle Single on this topic. May be the condensed version that I think would be more impactful. I am going to read it and report back.

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My Rating:
3.0 rating

BonekemperUlysses S. Grant: A Victor Not a Butcher: The Military Genius of the Man Who Won the Civil War by Edward H. Bonekemper III

Edward H. Bonekemper III is moving rapidly to fill the role of Ulysses S. Grant’s chief academic defender, attempting to reverse what he views as decades of ill-treatment at the hands of “lost cause” revisionists and the apathetic historians that have accepted their version of Grant’s military acumen a priori. There is truth in this. There is no doubt Grant’s reputation has suffered since his death in 1885. Southern historians, needing to explain away the defeat of their hero and exemplar of Southern rectitude, Robert E. Lee in a way that did not signal an acceptance of the notion he was incompetent or out-generaled, began coordinated effort to cast aspersions on his military record. Thus was born the description of Grant as “butcher” and “drunk,” and the assertion his victories were only due to the application of brute force rather than tactical skill. Conversely, the man Grant defeated has been canonized, his victories celebrated as genius, his defeats blamed on subordinates or poor circumstances. An example of this bias until recently, was the way monuments to each were cared for by the National Park Service. Lee’s home at Arlington has been lovingly cared for, including a recently completed 6 year restoration. Ditto the hundreds of statues and historic sites related to Lee throughout the South, especially Virginia. By contrast, Grant’s tomb in New York City and his massive equestrian statue on the grounds of the United States Capital had, until recently, been allowed to deteriorate, with the former becoming a magnet for graffiti artists and the homeless looking for a place to sleep. It took a threat by Grant descendants to have his body moved to Ohio to get the Park Service to undertake a restoration. Other examples abound, including his treatment in popular culture and histories focusing on other topics in which Grant is a minor player. Rather than look at recent scholarship it is easier just to accept long held conventional wisdom.

It is not hard than, to sympathize with Bonekemper’s view that Grant has been given short shrift by historians and the public. And frankly, I share it.

On the other hand, by so specifically aligning himself with a specific version of history, Bonekemper runs the risk of criticism for lack of objectivity, and that those inclined to an opposite view of Grant will use it to dismiss his valid points. It’s why the word “hagiography” is often used disparagingly by historians. This book is hagiography. He also runs the risk of applying his bias to an interpretation of evidence that is not warranted. This is always a danger for historians, but for those more committed to arriving at a fair interpretation of the facts it is something that is more scrupulously guarded against. Having said all of that however, and having studied Grant’s career rather extensively, I didn’t see any glaringly obvious bias in the information presented.

The goal of this book is very simple, to refute the charge, first given voice by “lost cause” apologists and later incorporated into mainstream histories, that Ulysses S. Grant was a “butcher of men,” that his disregard for human life was such that he was willing to sacrifice his men in a series of incompetent attacks knowing he had an almost unlimited ability to replace them. This also implied that Grant’s abilities as a military tactician were limited at best, particularly when compared with those of Robert E. Lee. Here Bonekemper does a good job of marshaling statistics to refute that contention.

He argues, pretty convincingly, that Grant was far from being the butcher portrayed by detractors. Rather, he was actually a skilled tactician and strategist who deployed his troops wisely and judiciously. Grant always had in mind the dual goal of minimizing casualties while maximizing damage to the enemy. He recognized, as his predecessors did not, that winning the war was the fastest way to end the carnage, and that this would require relentless and nearly non-stop attacks against an often entrenched enemy. Previous opponents of Lee viewed defeat in battle as an opportunity to retreat and regroup. Grant viewed them as temporary setbacks and an opportunity to learn from hard experience.

Here the author highlights two data points to make his case. First, throughout the war Grant lost 37,000 fewer men than did Robert E. Lee. During the period when Grant and Lee were in direct competition Grant lost more men, but a smaller percentage of those engaged. He accomplished this while being on the offensive nearly the entire time. Second, during the period encompassing Grant’s appointment as General-in-Chief through to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox about a year later, the Union Army of the Potomac , fighting on the offensive for nearly that entire period, suffered fewer casualties than under all of its previous commanders combined, a statistic that, in Bonekemper’s view, not only vindicates Grant’s tactical and strategic skill, but also absolves him of the “butcher” sobriquet. I tend to agree with this. In fact, he argues by the standard applied to Grant by his detractors Lee deserves the butcher label  far more than Grant does. He does not apply that standard however, believing the well-being of the troops was a priority of both Lee and Grant. He just argues that Grant was the superior General. Another view I am persuaded best fits the evidence.

This in a nutshell is Bonekemper’s argument. The rest of the book is a largely perfunctory  and admiring biography of Grant.

This work is well written, and at times engrossing. The author’s admiration for Grant is clear, which in many ways is refreshing after so many decades of revisionist Grant bashing. His research and citation appears impeccable, although the reliability of casualty figures, particularly of Confederate forces, is often sketchy. Despite this however, he appears to be using up to date analysis on which he bases a very plausible interpretation. Where I had some trouble, as I mentioned earlier, was with the blatant hagiographic impulse he admitted to at the beginning of the book. Refreshing as this interpretation of Grant’s career is, for those whose bias is the opposite it gives a ready made reason to discount the solid analysis contained in it. He also takes great pains to assert the most charitable interpretation of some of Grants’s less admirable actions. This too provides an opening to discount the entire work.

For its direct refutation of misinformation regarding Grant’s military career this is well worth reading. As a biography of Grant it is perfunctory at best. There are numerous better options available.


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My Rating:
4.0 rating


Virtually every issue we deal with as a country is, at its base, influenced by our view of national identity, and the nature of citizenship. Many authors have looked at this topic from a number of different perspectives. Gary Gilroy in Black Atlantic gave us a transnational view of black identity which transcended the borders of the nation-state.  Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism talks about imagined communities bound together by limited borders and a belief in shared experience.  Prasenjit Duara in Historicizing National Identity challenges us to look at nationalism using alternate views of time and space. Lizbeth Cohen in A Consumers’ Republic looks at the evolution of American national identity with consumerism as the central focus.  Aiwha Ong in Flexible Citizenship takes a critical look at the view Americans have of what constitutes good citizenship and how that manifests itself in the way instruments of governmentality interacts with new immigrants, and Gary Gerstle, in the book I will be reviewing here, American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century, views civic and racial nationalism as the defining paradigm with which to look at the evolution of American citizenship.

Policies aimed at Immigration and social policy, drug and law enforcement, affirmative action, welfare policy, foreign policy and many other issues all can be traced to the ways we view citizenship and the struggle to maintain a uniquely American identity. Gary Gerstle has given us a uniquely valuable tool for looking at American nationalism and the meaning of citizenship, encompassing many of the theories proposed by the above authors, but looking at it through the dual lens of racial and civic nationalism. Gerstle structures his book using well known historical figures to illustrate his point, particularly in the person former president Theodore Roosevelt. In Gerstle’s narrative it is from this point that subsequent events can be referenced.

For Gerstle civic nationalism is ably represented by the views of historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. who, endorsing Israel Zangwill’s view of America as “God’s Crucible, where all races of Europe are melting and reforming!” (Gerstle, 3), relocated this transformative power not in God, “but in the nations core political ideals, in the American belief in the fundamental equality of all human beings, in every individual’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and a democratic government that derives its legitimacy from the people’s consent.” (Gerstle, 4) Since these principles were enshrined in the founding documents Gerstle notes that Schlesinger and others have “argued that they have marked something distinctive about the American people and their polity.” (Gerstle, 4) Mitigating the benefits of civic nationalism in Gerstle’s view is a racial nationalism that “conceives of America in ethno-racial terms, as people held together, as people held together by common blood and skin color and by an inherited fitness for self-government.” (Gerstle, 4) Gerstle notes that like civic nationalism, racial nationalism was also inscribed in our founding documents, particularly in the Constitution, which acknowledged the enslavement of Africans through its extension of the transatlantic slave trade, and definition of slaves as less than fully human via the 3/5 clause.

The mixture of these two types of nationalism has driven American governmental policy from 1890 through to the present. By looking at the inherent tensions between these two views in the lives of significant American leaders, from Theodore Roosevelt through to Bill Clinton, Gerstle is able to personalize and focus his analysis of how the intermixture of the two resulted in a surprisingly strong and uniquely American national identity. This identity, in his view, lasted until the 1960s when the civil rights movement and Vietnam War began the disintegration of this “imagined community,” into more granular identities of ethnicity, gender and class. Overlapping this is the effect of immigration policy and war on this mix mixture of racial and civic nationalism.

Gerstle identifies Theodore Roosevelt as the embodiment of this tension between civic and racial nationalism, the mixture of which allowed him to pursue progressive social and economic policies that benefited a significant portion of the population. Throughout the book Gerstle uses TR as the point of reference in his analysis of later developments. This is an effective device that gives the reader an easily understandable base to return to in order to put later events into context. At times he is a little over enthusiastic, as when he offers an opinion as to what Roosevelt would have thought of later developments. I’m not a fan of this kind of hypothetical speculation. While understand the purpose is to personalize the comparison in order to make it more easily accessible to the reader, I think a think a simple comparison to Roosevelt’s views and actions would have been more effective.

Theodore Roosevelt’s views as to what would make the American archetype had two components. First was his idealization of the rugged individualist; he idolized the Indian fighter, the frontiersman, and the cowboy. “The harsh wilderness,” he believed, “stripped people of their Old World ranks and privileges.” (Gerstle, 24) The harsh environment of the frontier produced conditions of rough equality and mutual dependence, and from this “a democratic ethos emerged.” (Gerstle, 24) Echoing Aiwha Ong’s views on the American view of an ideal citizen, Roosevelt believed that “self-reliance was perhaps the most important ingredient of success.” (Gerstle, 24)

The second component of Roosevelt’s idealized American archetype involved his view on racial hybridity. Theodore Roosevelt believed a controlled mixing of races would produce this ideal. “For Roosevelt the explanation for the rise of democracy…rested ultimately on the racial superiority of the English-speaking peoples.” (Gerstle, 24) He excluded non-Europeans from this mixture, believing that certain racial groups – eastern and southern European, Asian, and African – did not have the ability to function in a democratic society. Later on however, he began to soften his objection to the inclusion of eastern and southern Europeans, deciding they were a worthy addition to the mixture Roosevelt also came to respect the Japanese people and believed they too could be included.

In addition to his views on racial mixing and the importance of rugged individualism, Roosevelt was passionately devoted to civic nationalism. Quoting Michael Ignatieff, Gerstle describes Roosevelt as “someone who imagined the nation as a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values.”  (Gerstle, 45) This at times produced contradictions between his actions and statements. Most notable was the way he treated the reputation of black cavalryman who had fought in the Spanish-American War. Immediately after the war he was effusive in his praise for their valor, but as time went by he began to denigrate and downplay their contribution. Thus, for all practical purposes “Roosevelt’s national community was open to anyone would could claim European origins or ancestry.” (Gerstle, 45) It certainly excluded African-Americans. In this and other examples, Roosevelt’s notions of the superiority of European racial stock conflicted with his views on civic nationalism. It was this type of conflict that Gerstle argues, has characterized American national identity since then.

Gerstle’s admiration for Theodore Roosevelt is clear. He concludes his analysis by noting that Roosevelt’s “civic nationalism was capacious and democratic.” (Gerstle, 79) He notes that Roosevelt wanted to open the country to all European immigrants, “even those who had come from the ‘inferior’ peoples of southern and eastern Europe.” (Gerstle, 79) He also notes that Roosevelt’s views on the role of government in the economy changed; abandoning the notion that individuals could, through simple hard work and dedication raise themselves out of poverty, he embraced the need for an activist government that protected the rights of disadvantaged peoples. The only price for this was that immigrants had to “jettison their Old World cultures and assimilate fully into American life.” (Gerstle, 79) Though these views would not carry him to the White House in 1912, Gerstle notes, his “program became the template upon which the twentieth-century liberalism took shape.” (Gerstle, 79)

Chapters four through six in many ways are the most interesting in this book. In them, Gerstle explores how the tensions between racial and civic nationalism manifest themselves in governmental policy. In particular, Gerstle focuses on immigration policy and war as the areas where this tension is seen most clearly. In this view war offers a way for the country to test itself, and to fight for its most important values. It also, as Theodore Roosevelt believed, reinvigorated the racial mixing he believed was necessary to keeping the nation vital. Immigration policy on the other hand, made visible who should and should not be eligible for citizenship. Thus, while Woodrow Wilson’s “peace without victory” policy flowed from civic nationalism, the military was still segregated. After the “war to end all wars,” America went through a period of severe immigration restriction, effectively barring southern and eastern Europeans and Asians, based on the belief that people from those regions were not fit to become American citizens. In the case of the Japanese the fear was the opposite, with many believing they were equal and possibly superior to Americans of strictly European descent. Since they could “be neither assimilated nor made subservient, they had to be excluded altogether from America.” (Gerstle, 112) Gerstle argues these restrictive immigration policies had the effect of stabilizing racial tensions in the country to the point that when Franklin Roosevelt assumed office there was very little attention paid to this aspect of nationalism. It was assumed most immigrants had achieved the desired “American-ness.” It also goes without saying, while racial tensions subsided as a public issue, it did not mean that racism and inequality were no longer a problem. In many ways this calm interim made later conflict more inevitable, and more violent.

More important however, was FDR’s reaction to the economic downturn of the Great Depression. Instead of merely restoring the morale of the nation after assuming office, he undertook an “experiment in state building without precedent.” (Gerstle, 128) Gerstle speculates that FDR was able to enact much of what Theodore Roosevelt had attempted because of the lessening of the tensions between civic and racial nationalistic impulses. Most important was the massive government intervention in the economy, which TR believed was necessary to secure the “social rights” of all citizens. Gerstle argues that FDR was successful in this. FDR also shared TR’s views on racial hybridity, though without the animus for supposedly inferior racial groups. And, like TR, Franklin Roosevelt was a “fervent nationalist who conceived of the nation as an entity nobler than any particular class, region, or interest.” (Gerstle, 132) With American entry into World War II civic nationalism reached an acme that has not been repeated since, even during the cold war. In a reaction to racial purity as practiced by the Nazi’s, America reveled in their diversity. But, as with the aftermath of World War I, racial nationalism rose from its pre-war slumber. Restrictions were again placed on immigration allegedly due to the number of refugees entering America, and with the segregation again of African American troops, the conflict between racial and civic nationalism was again on display.

Gerstle sees the cold war years that followed World War II as the last period in which the tension between racial and civic nationalism as maintaining the American “imagined community.” The threat of communism and fear of home-grown radicals served as the pretext for an increase of civic nationalism, even though in this case it served to deny some civil liberties. The U.S. again severely restricted immigration as Italian and Jewish immigrants were particularly discriminated against.

Finally he documents the deconstruction of “Rooseveltian Nationalism” with the start of the civil rights movement, and with America’s humiliation in Vietnam. Gerstle argues that racial groups who had once strived to achieve “whiteness,” were now abandoning an American nationalism in favor of ethnic or class identification. “The nationalist crisis occurred primarily in the realm of ideology, culture, and institutions. Many people who resided in America no longer imagined that they belonged to the same national community of that they shared a common set of ideals. The bonds of nationhood had weakened, and the Rooseveltian program of nation building that had created those bonds in the first place had been repudiated. A nationalist era that had begun in the early decades of the twentieth century had come to a stunning end.” (Gerstle, 345) He ends with speculation on how civic nationalism could be revived without the baggage that racial nationalism brought with it. In this he is skeptical, believing America will either opt for the “resurgence of a strong, solidaristic, and exclusionary national identity of the sort that has existed in the past; or, in the interests of tolerance and diversity, we will continue to opt for a weaker identity.” (Gerstle, 373)

In the end, Gerstle is fearful we will never recapture our civic nationalism without the baggage of racial nationalism, or we will become so tolerant and diverse that our national unity will be permanently weakened. In this I disagree. In my opinion it is not racial nationalism we need fear, but rather a religious one. In my experience racial identity, spawned by discrimination and racism, does not entirely divorce those adopting it from a desire for civic nationalism. The tolerance Gerstle fears, will not permanently result in a country of separate tribal identities, rather, it will reduce the need for division based on them. Tolerance and diversity implies an acceptance of differences that is the opposite of racism. Since it is that racism that spawned this racial tribalism in the first place, as the racism ebbs, so will the perceived need to identify more strongly by race than by nationality. My real fear is we are moving toward a religious nationalism, one that induces people to identify more strongly with a religious identification than a national one. Can anyone see what has been going on in Kentucky the last several weeks and not wonder if this is the case?

Increasingly, we see public policy, and the worth of public officials, being judged based upon their adherence to a religious credo. Over the last twenty years we have seen attempts to modify the constitution to discriminate against gays, to codify a religious view of how women control their bodies, to guarantee prayer in the schools, to codify expressions of religious belief in our national oaths, and to submit scientific curriculums to religious interpretations. All of this testifies to this fear. Our political campaigns have become dominated by this as well. As a presidential candidate John F. Kennedy was pressured to reassure the American public that his religious beliefs would not influence public policy. Forty-four years later, in 2004, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was pressured to reassure the American public that his religious beliefs would influence public policy, particularly in relation to reproductive rights. Things have only accelerated since then with candidates increasingly asserting religious law comes before civil law.

While I disagree with his fear of racial identity, in terms of format and style I have rarely had such a pleasant read. Gerstle’s narrative is lively and flows easily from topic to topic. His use of well-known historical figures (TR, FDR, Wilson etc.) as touchpoints is very effective. He made very good use of his sources, though at times neglected to cite statements made that clearly required it. Also, as I mentioned earlier, projecting what dead people would think about specific modern events was unnecessary.







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Ulysses S. Grant is perhaps one of the most misunderstood, caricatured, and in my opinion, underestimated figures in American History. Mostly recalled in popular memory as an alcoholic who bumbled his way to victory through luck and superior numbers, he is barely recalled as a two-term President of the United States. Were it not for his portrait on the fifty-dollar bill I am not sure even that recollection would be preserved. Grant has also fared poorly with historical biographers over the years. While his defeated foe, Robert E. Lee, has been nearly canonized since his surrender at Appomattox, Grant’s accomplishments have often been belittled and marginalized, most recently, and most effectively, by William McFeely in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Grant: A Biography. Recently however, there has been a turnaround in Grant’s fortunes among historians. Recent works by Geoffrey Perret, Jean Edward Smith, and Brooks Simpson, along with the efforts of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant editor John Y. Simon, have forced a reevaluation of Grant’s career. While not fawning these books have in my opinion restored Grant to his properly viewed role in American history; as a flawed man, a military genius and, along with Lincoln, the savior of the Union.[1] Even his Presidency, generally viewed as a failure, has received a second, more critical look by some authors, and while no revision could credibly term his two terms in the White House as a success, it is now being viewed more soberly and carefully in context with the overall political climate of the time.

Most works dealing with the career of Ulysses S. Grant look at his military and political careers as separate and distinct from one another with “Appomattox as the dividing line.”[2] While Grant’s military career often gets mixed reviews, even his harshest critics view Appomattox as his finest hour. After this however, the preponderance of the literature has taken an overwhelmingly negative view of Grant’s political career. There are a number of reasons for this, many having to do with the later effort by southern historians to obfuscate slavery’s role as a catalyst for the war. This is not the subject of this review however; suffice it to say the historical view of Grant’s career in my opinion, does not reflect reality. Brooks Simpson in his book Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War & Reconstruction, 1861 – 1868, takes on this prevailing view in two ways: first by removing what he views as an artificial distinction between Grant’s military and political careers, and second by taking a more positive view of Grant’s political efforts both during the Civil War and in the early years of Reconstruction.

Simpson argues that Grant’s overwhelming success as a General and a statesman was directly attributable to his political acumen during and after the war. For Simpson, Grant was “both a warrior and a statesman from 1861 to 1868.”[3] Grant viewed the war and Reconstruction as part of the “same long struggle to preserve the union, destroy slavery, and establish a durable peace.”[4] Embodying Clausewitz’s maxim that “war is merely the continuation of policy by other means,” Grant, Simpson argues, broadened its meaning by understanding the end of hostilities did not mean the end of the struggle.[5] “If the Civil War was politics by other means, “ Simpson notes, “then Reconstruction was in some sense a continuation of the struggle to achieve through political means the aims for which the war was fought.”[6]

While not a military biography, Simpson devotes about one-third of his book to describing Grant’s efforts during the war. He attributes Grant’s success not only to exceptional military and leadership skills, but also to his political acumen in dealing with government policy makers; accommodating and adopting the war aims set by them. He does this most effectively by following Grant’s evolving notion of the purposes for the war and how those notions roughly paralleled those of his superiors, particularly President Lincoln. Much like Lincoln, Grant started with one overriding concern in mind, that of saving the union. Whatever their personal inclinations, the question of whether slavery survived was secondary to that goal. Soon after the fall of Fort Sumter, Grant made clear his views in a letter to his father-in-law in which he stated his belief that given the clear aggression of the South he could see no outcome but “the doom of slavery.”[7] He went on to say however that the “North do not want, nor will they want, to interfere with the institution.”[8]

Grant also reflected the dominant northern view that the war would be a short affair; as he stated in a letter to his wife after the victory at Fort Donelson, he did not see “how the rebellion is to be sustained.”[9] With this in mind Grant believed it was important not to do anything that would hinder a quick reconciliation with the South, and his orders to subordinates reflected that mindset. He strictly controlled the behavior of Union troops towards civilians, prohibiting foraging as he made his way through Missouri in 1861, because it was “apt to make open enemies where they would not otherwise exist.”[10] His views on the question of fugitive slaves reflected the confusion in policy represented by the refusal of Congress to renew the Johnson-Crittenden resolutions limiting war aims to reconciliation only. He scrupulously tried to adhere to federal policy no matter how confusing by using some slaves as laborers and returning others to their owners based the interpretation of federal policy applied in each case. After the blood bath at Shiloh and the subsequent increase in Confederate guerrilla activity Grant, like his superiors in Washington, discarded the notion there would be a quick end to the war. Abandoning the limited warfare they had been waging in hopes of enticing the South into reconciliation, the Union army, including Grant started a no holds barred campaign to force southern capitulation. Grant’s success here is well known and is not detailed by Simpson. Suffice it to say Grant went on to force the surrender of three Confederate Armies, was elevated to the command of all Federal troops, and eventually accepted the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, effectively ending the military phase of the struggle.

As views in Washington towards slavery evolved, so did Grant’s. In 1862 President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves in states then in rebellion. Grant wholeheartedly endorsed this policy as the quickest and surest way to weaken the Confederacy. Later, Grant supported Lincoln’s decision to allow enlistment of black troops into the Union Army. During the Vicksburg campaign Grant received reports that black troops under his command had seen their first action at Miliken’s Bend. Grant in a note appended to his battle report commented they “had been most gallant and doubted not but with good officers they will be good troops.”[11]

During the debate over whether to promote him to Lieutenant General, a rank not held in he U.S. Army since George Washington, Simpson observes Grant again displayed a sophisticated political sense. There were concerns among some that Grant was beginning to think of himself a rival to Lincoln in the election of 1864. In a bit legerdemain worthy of any experienced politician, Grant let it be known through back channels that he was in no way interested in running for President, “particularly so long as there is a possibility of having Mr. Lincoln re-elected.”[12] Thus assured, Grant was awarded his third star and command of all Union forces.

Finally, as Simpson and many other historians (including those generally critical of Grant) have pointed out, Grant displayed the touch of a statesman and a finely tuned political ear for what was needed to heal the country in offering generous terms to Robert E. Lee and the surrendering Army of Northern Virginia. In keeping with Lincoln’s wish to “let ’em up easy,” Grant offered effective immunity for all confederate soldiers, up to and including Lee himself, and allowed Confederate troops to keep their personal baggage, horses and weapons. Simpson calls this “politics with a vengeance.”[13] Grant, he notes, was “executing a fait accompli, [making] sure that there were would be no future reprisals of treason trials.”[14] It is a credit to his political sense according to Simpson, that Grant knew exactly what President Lincoln would wish for in a surrender agreement.

As unique a treatment of Grant’s military career as SImpson has given us, the real strength of his book lies in his description of Grant’s attempt to navigate the political terrain in which he found himself between Appomattox and his ascendancy to the White House. It became obvious to Grant soon after Lee’s surrender that as commander of all U.S. forces he would be forced to play a significant role in the nation’s subsequent reconstruction. To that end Grant believed it was his duty to try and support President Johnson as much as possible, little realizing at the time what that would entail.

Simpson skillfully describes Grant’s role during the administration of Andrew Johnson. Grant initially tried to restrain what he viewed as Johnson’s excessive enthusiasm for punishing Confederate leaders. He genuinely tried to work with the President in order to help facilitate a peaceful Reconstruction, only breaking with the President when he tried to appropriate Grant’s popularity in his ongoing conflict with Edwin M. Stanton. Finally, Grant made a complete intellectual and political break with Johnson, adopting a more radical position regarding Reconstruction and the treatment of freedmen. In this description, which does not break any new factual ground, Simpson has revealed to us a Grant who skillfully maneuvered his way through this dangerously political period, and came out the other side as President of the United States.

Following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865, there was good reason to worry about the ascendancy of Andreas Johnson to the Presidency. A wartime Democrat with a well-known vindictive streak, there were genuine fears that he would seek retribution against those in the South responsible for initiating the war. This was confirmed in Grant’s eyes by the vehement reaction of Johnson to the surrender terms granted to Joseph Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Tennessee by General Sherman. Grant also thought them too generous, but was appalled at the treatment of Sherman by Johnson and other leaders. Not long afterward Grant found himself threatening resignation if Johnson moved forward with his plan to punish Confederate leaders, including those protected, in Grant’s view, by the Appomattox accords. So, as Simpson points out within two months of Appomattox Grant found himself mediating between the excessive leniency of Sherman and Johnson’s “desire for vengeance.” All grant desired was “peace and cooperation in rebuilding a nation that would realize Lincoln’s desire ‘to see all the people of the United States enter again upon the full privileges of citizenship with equality among all'”[15]

As the restoration process progressed and in his attempts to support the President, Simpson reveals a Grant who much like in his initial views of the war’s likely duration, displayed a naivete about what would be required to reconcile the country. He believed, as did many others, that a quick conciliation was best so the best course of action would be to do nothing that would not excessively insult the sensibilities of southerners. To that end he urged the quick pardon of Confederate military leaders, a rapid demobilization of the Army, and attempted to remove black soldiers from any situation in which they might come into contact with Southern civilians. In Grant’s view according to Simpson, the “best way to reduce friction, no matter the cause, was to control black behavior, for to place additional restraints on whites would antagonize them, prolonging sectional division.”[16] Later, in another effort to work with Johnson, Grant agreed to tour the South and report on his findings. Realizing Johnson was using him to counteract damaging reports submitted by Carl Schurz, Grant nevertheless attempted to produce a fair and evenhanded report. Producing a much more moderate report than Schurz’s, it was at this time according to Simpson, that Grant began to revise his thinking regarding Southern attitudes towards the freedmen and the need to move from reconciliation to protection. As time passed, and Grant received reports of recalcitrance in the part of Southern whites to accept the civil rights of freedmen. Grant was moving inexorably to a far more radical view of Reconstruction.

Meanwhile, reflecting his innate racism, President Johnson was moving further away from his ostensible Republican allies in Congress in an attempt to assure the South remained under white control. To that end he eased the way for former Confederate leaders to obtain pardons, he vetoed the freedman’s bureau and civil rights bills, and he opposed passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Grant opposed Johnson on these issues, but remained silent either out of a sense or propriety or as a way to position himself for the 1868 Republican nomination for President. Likely it was a bit of both. Finally, Johnson tried to co-opt Grant by involving him in the attempt to depose Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Johnson suspended Stanton and appointed Grant as caretaker in accordance with the Tenure of Office Act which required Congressional approval before any Senate confirmed cabinet officer could be terminated. Later, when he tried to remove Stanton permanently in violation of that act, Grant resigned and handed the office back to Stanton in accordance with the Tenure of Office Act. This was the final break with Johnson and induced Grant to take a more public role in opposition to his Reconstruction policies. Grant certainly viewed it as a matter of honor; to preserve the principals for which the army had fought which meant not only reconciliation but now included protection of the rights of former slaves. No doubt politics was also on his mind as well, as it was obvious the political wind was blowing in favor of the Radical Republicans. After the unsuccessful attempt to remove Johnson from office and as the appeal of Radical Republicanism began to wane in the North, Grant became the only viable option for Republicans in the 1868 election. And so, contrary to his wishes, but believing it was the only way to preserve the fruits of Union victory, Grant was elected President of the United States. Simpson’s view of Grant’s reticence is not universally shared. William Gillette in Retreat From Reconstruction takes the contrary view, that Grant was more ambitious for political power than is typically thought. I do believe Grant was bitten, at least a bit, by the Presidential bug. In my view no one can be willing to put themselves through the rigors demanded by the office, and not have some confidence they are best for the job. However, I have no doubt Grant was sincere in his belief that it was necessary for him to accept the nomination in order to preserve the gains won during the war. Certainly no one, other than former slaves, had a bigger stake in making sure that happened.

Overall I enjoyed this book very much. Though not breaking any new ground factually as evidenced by his heavy reliance on previously published sources, Simpson has successfully re-oriented the way we look at Grant’s military and political careers. By removing the artificial dividing line between the military and political portions of his career, Simpson has elevated in my eyes the political skills of Grant. By realizing his success on the battlefield was directly attributable to his ability to effectively relate with his superiors in Washington, Grant is revealed to us as a sophisticated and successful political player. Simpson also shows us that Grant, despite his inability to counteract Johnson’s lawyerly arguments regarding issues on which they conflicted, was able to effectively maneuver his way through the minefields of postwar Reconstruction politics, and ultimately end up as President of the United States.

This book did have its weaknesses. Believing as I do, that Simpson is attempting to give us a more positive view of Grant’s skills, I believe it was a mistake not to include his Presidency as part of his treatment. It is this period for which Grant is most criticized by historians. Second, I believe more attention should have been given to Grant’s military success, That is the period for which Grant is most often praised by historians so perhaps should have been viewed in a little more detail. Finally, although I did enjoy the book, I am one of those that has always had an interest in Grant so I am not overly concerned by the stylistic nature of the work. However, most readers with either no previous interest or only a passing interest in Grant would I believe, find this a dry read.


[1]Smith Jean Edward, Grant (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2001), Simpson, Brooks D., Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1863 (New York, Houghton Miflin Company, 2000), Perret, Geoffrey, Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President (New York, Random House, 1997). Of the three authors the work by Smith comes closest to hagiography. It takes an almost uncritical look at Grant through all phases of his life, often glossing over areas where Grant could legitimately be criticized. Perret’s book makes no secret of its attempt to counteract McFeely’s analysis of Grant. Unfortunately it is plagued with errors, misstating the date of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, the date of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and the Battle of Chickamauga to name a few, which tend to undermine its credibility. Of the three I found Simpson’s work the most balanced while still giving a largely positive view of grant’s life and career.

[2] Brooks D. Simpson, Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861-1868 (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1991), page xiii

[3] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. xiv

[4] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. xiv

[5] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. xv

[6] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. xv

[7] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. 11

[8] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. 11. This of course parallels Lincoln’s famous statement on the question of emancipation made more than a year earlier when he said “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

[9] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. 23

[10] Brig. Gen U.S. Grant to Col. R.J. Oglesby, November 3, 1861, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

[11]Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p.20

[12] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p.54

[13] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. 84

[14] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p.55

[15] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. 108

[16] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. 118

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In Washington’ Crossing, David Hackett Fischer has given us a fresh view of the events, motivations and consequences surrounding the New Jersey Campaign of 1776, pitting the British and Hessian army under General William Howe against the Continental Army and attached militia under General George Washington. Extremely well written and extensively documented, using numerous primary and secondary sources as well as many very helpful maps, Fischer has produced a book that, in my opinion, will be definitive on this subject for many, many years. Not only has he given us an extremely detailed and lucid account of the military maneuvers encompassed by this campaign, but he has also elucidated a cogent framework for understanding the motivations of the two armies, the leadership styles of the commanders on each side, particularly Howe and Washington, and the effect of this campaign on the future success of the American army. In addition, and most importantly for the accurate representation of historical events, Fischer has challenged many of the long held beliefs we have about certain aspects of this campaign and its participants.

The driving narrative of this work is the detailed description of the New Jersey Campaign of 1776. Contained in it are numerous corrections of long held beliefs about the campaign and its participants. Fischer begins with a description of the participating armies and their motivations, devoting one chapter each to the Americans, British regulars, and Hessians. Over the years stereotypical notions about the motivations of the British and Hessians have taken root. Our need for a villain in every story has led us to demonize not only the British and Hessian armies , which are thought of alternatively as a tool of a tyrannical dictator, and a brutish mercenary army, but also men such as Charles Cornwallis, William and Richard Howe, and Johann Rall. As Fischer makes clear, though flawed in many ways, these men were honorable and were trying to do their best to serve their countries. In many cases, particularly with the Howes and Cornwallis, British leaders sympathized with the Americans and were working not to defeat them utterly, but to bring them back to their loyalty to the crown.

It has become fashionable to denigrate the motivation of those fighting for American independence. For many, it is a trite cliché to say they were fighting for freedom and liberty, yet as Fischer shows, along with other factors, these notions were the primary motivator for most Americans. Fischer does an excellent job of not only describing the structure of each army, but also in taking an objective look at each of the participants, highlighting the positive and negative attributes of each.

As Fischer describes it, the British Army was not only “one of the finest ever seen,” but was also an army full of paradoxes.(Fischer, 33) As an institution and as its “regimental badges and colors proclaimed, it served the King. (Fischer, 33) Yet, it was actually a creation of Parliament, subject to re-authorization every twelve months. As occurred later in the United States, the British people were very proud of the accomplishments of their military, yet were distrustful of a standing army and “kept it on a short leash.” (Fischer, 33) In organizational terms, it was both bureaucratized and decentralized, more like an army of separate tribes, with their own rules and customs. Most importantly however according to Fischer, is the mistaken notion that the British army was simply the bludgeon by which King George III intended to defeat America. In reality, for the British army, like their American counterparts, the war “was a clash of principles in which they deeply believed.” (Fischer, 50) Primary among those beliefs was loyalty to the British monarchy. As Fischer points out British soldiers swore a personal oath “to be true to our Sovereign Lord King George.” (Fischer, 50) For these soldiers, this loyalty and the rituals that celebrated it represented Ideals of loyalty, fidelity, honor, duty, discipline, and service…” (Fischer, 50)

The motivation for the Hessian armies in America, though different from those of the British and Americans, was nevertheless quite different than the simpleminded pursuit if money that is ascribed to them by most people. While the army was paid handsomely for their services in America, this was not their prime motivation for agreeing to serve. In reality, the Hessian army was created as part of an enlightened culture that prized “reason and order, fidelity and loyalty, discipline and regularity.” (Fischer, 54) Friedrich Wilhelm II viewed his Hessian army as a school of discipline, and encouraged all able-bodied men to join, even those of aristocratic families. The result was the largest army in proportion to population in the world. And, while the average Hessian underwent far stricter discipline than their British and American counterparts, their motivation, according to Fischer were the values of “order and discipline…service and honor.” (Fischer, 61)

As noted above, it has become almost cliché to say that those fighting for American independence were doing so for freedom and liberty. It has become fashionable to ascribe motivations of greed and selfishness as the primary motivation for these soldiers. As Fischer makes very clear, this is simply not the case. He has marshaled an impressive array of primary evidence that clearly indicates that Americans were primarily fighting for their notions of freedom and liberty, first to regain their rights as Englishman, and later to gain their independence from Britain altogether. Fischer does not discount other inducements. For the soldiers from Marblehead, Massachusetts, for example, profit was most definitely on their mind in their desire to return home and join the privateers plundering British shipping. And, clearly, the depredations committed  by many British and Hessian soldiers during the New Jersey campaign motivated thousands of men to join the militia. In addition to making a persuasive case that these notions of freedom and liberty were the driving motivations for most American soldiers, Fischer does an excellent job of describing how men  from different parts of the country viewed those notions, and then tying that to a description of how George Washington was able to adapt to this and create an American way of fighting.

Notions of freedom and liberty in 1776, for which most Americans fought, was understood differently based largely on where one resided. From “the collective rights of New England, [to] the reciprocal rights of Philadelphia Associators, the individual rights of back country riflemen, and the hegemonic rights of the Fairfax men,” all viewed freedom as their primary motivator. (Fischer, 364)  As Fischer ably demonstrates, George Washington, largely as a result of his experiences in the French and Indian War, was able to accommodate these different views and in so doing create an American way of “war-fighting,” characterized by the notion that all the American army had to do was to survive, by a willingness to take chances with success, with a prudence in risking the lives of the soldiers, a reliance on religion as a motivating factor, and most unique of all, a concern for popular opinion. It is this last, Fischer argues, which characterizes an army subservient to civilian authority.

At the center of this new way of fighting was George Washington. It was his ability to accommodate himself to its realities that made this new way successful in the end. This is evidenced by the way in which he took advantage of the New Jersey militia following the victory at Princeton; by submerging his moral distaste for the lack of discipline among the militia and allowing them to engage in the type of guerrilla war that brought success.This Forage War caused almost as many enemy casualties as did the New York and New Jersey campaigns combined. It was also evidenced, according to Fischer, by the style in which Washington conducted his councils of war. In contrast to Cornwallis’ which were characterized by extreme deference and a pre-ordained outcome dictated by Cornwallis himself, Washington’s reflected a “diversity of cultures…the pluralism of elites…a more open polity…a less stratified society, and especially by expanding ideas of liberty and freedom.” (Fischer, 315) In his councils, Washington encouraged a free exchange of ideas, listened more than he talked, and took freely from the ideas of others. The result was an enthusiastic consensus for the course of action, of which the decision to attack Princeton in an excellent example, and more importantly, a growing respect and admiration among the officers for George Washington as their leader.


Emmanuel Leutze’s iconic painting depicting Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River.

The heart of Fischer’s book of course is the detailed narrative of the New Jersey campaign itself. It is often very easy to get lost in the description of battles and maneuvers, especially if one does not have a military background. However, Fischer was able to describe the campaign in a very detailed way that did not leave me totally confused. Important here were some very well placed battle maps which aided in the comprehension of the detailed narrative. In addition, Fischer was able to dispel some well established misconceptions about this campaign, and to illuminate some aspects of it that were overlooked. Most importantly as I described above, are the myths surrounding the motivations of the different participants. However, events such as the Second Battle of Trenton and the Forage War, almost universally ignored in other works, are described in detail here. The myth persists that the Hessians were nursing hangovers when Washington attacked. Fischer clearly demonstrates that this is not true, and in so doing elevates what the Americans accomplished, as well as dispelling the notion that the Hessians were incompetent. He also shows that the Americans did not lack ammunition, and in fact, were better armed in many ways than the Hessians. He also takes issue with those who mock the notion that Washington would be standing in the Durham boat as they crossed the Delaware River as depicted in Emmanuel Leutze’s painting, noting that had he been seated, it would have been in a puddle of frozen water. Finally, is the notion that Washington was more lucky than gifted. As Fischer makes clear, Washington learned from his mistakes in the New York campaign, and clearly out generaled his opposition.

He concludes his book with an excellent summary, along with a description of the importance of this campaign. Disputing the notion that these were symbolic victories, Fischer notes that the New Jersey campaign inflicted severe damage on the British and Hessian armies. It was also of course a shot in the arm for the American cause. As the result of these victories, Washington was able to force the British from New Jersey, cause British leaders to look to the defensive, and most importantly, it allowed Washington to recruit enough men to carry on the fight, It also instilled in the American public a new confidence in heir army and its leaders, particularly Washington, and it gave the army new confidence in themselves.

Fischer also includes an excellent section describing the humanity in which American leaders fought. It was not enough to win, but it was necessary to win “in a way that was consistent with the values of their society.” (Fischer, 375) In contrast to the attitudes of many British and Hessian leaders, this meant quarter would be granted to all who surrendered, and that prisoners would be treated humanely. While there were those who did not agree, Washington set the standard.

There is little to fault in this book. It is extremely well sourced, clearly written, and makes very persuasive, almost unassailable arguments. Fischer includes an exhaustive appendix that includes many details not found in the main narrative, and the index is one of the best I have seen.

Very highly recommended.

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Mantle of Command

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the subject of innumerable biographies, in fact I would venture to guess no President save Abraham Lincoln has been the subject of more. Yet with so many available there seem to be precious few that take a truly in depth look at his role as Commander in Chief. Happily, renowned historian and biographer Nigel Hamilton has rectified that situation with the publication in 2014 of The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941 – 1942. A practically flawless work, I was disappointed  it only covered part of FDR’s time as Commander in Chief. I truly wish he would take on the rest of FDR’s tenure, but fear that task will have to be left for another.

The Mantle of Command takes us from FDR’s initial meetings with Winston Churchill in 1941 that resulted in the Atlantic Charter, through to the landings of American and British troops in French northwest Africa (Morocco and Tunisia) as part of operation Torch in November of 1942. Hamilton quotes copiously from letters, diaries and other primary sources to give us a very thorough, chronological look at this period of FDR’s tenure as Commander in Chief. Though detailed, the prose is never boring.

A number of things struck me as I read this; far to many to go through in a short review, though four stood out. First, the overall take away is that this period represented the ascendancy of the United States as the dominant world power, while at the same time it heralded the end of  Great Britain as an empire. Both FDR and Winston Churchill recognized this (though Churchill took a bit longer), and played their roles accordingly. Second, Hamilton is clearly impressed with FDR’s abilities as Commander in Chief. Time after time, whether he was dealing with prima donnas such as George Patton and Douglas MacArthur over command responsibilities, or with opposition from his military chiefs and Secretary of War over Operation Torch, FDR, in Hamilton’s view, knew exactly how much pressure to apply and when to apply it. Third, in contrast to his positive view of FDR’s military leadership, Hamilton (a British subject himself), is surprisingly hard on Churchill’s judgement, faulting him for serious British setbacks early in the war, and for his hard headed attitude towards Indian Independence.  And lastly, I was particularly pleased with the extensive use of German and Japanese primary sources, including diaries and letters. It really provided a great juxtaposition to accounts of Allied opinion during this period.

Prior to its entry into WWII the United States was essentially isolationist. After World War I it had drawn down its armed forces to the point where it’s army was approximately the size of Portugal’s. The United States Congress was in many ways  dominated by an isolationist sentiment, and men as prominent as Charles Lindbergh were promoting a xenophobic isolationism even as it became obvious United States entry into the growing conflict was going to be required. FDR, who understood earlier than most that the United States would be drawn into war, recognized and adapted to this reality. As Hamilton portrays it Roosevelt’s political instincts were so spot on he knew exactly how far the country would be willing to go and when. He also knew how to present increased U.S. involvement in a way the public could understand and support. One example of this of course, was the Lend Lease program the U.S. initiated in March 1941 (prior to the events recounted in this book). Roosevelt, recognizing Britain, Free France, and China could not hope to hold out against Germany and Japan without aid, but cognizant of the country’s isolationist mood, devised a way to deliver that aid without it appearing as though it was entering the war. He was able to present it as a defensive measure; by loaning military equipment to those who were fighting our enemies the U.S. could stay out of the fighting. Once the crisis passed, intact equipment would be returned, and the U.S. would be reimbursed for equipment that had been destroyed. He sold this plan in a way every person could understand, by relating it to their own lives. In a December 1940 press conference Roosevelt used the following illustration to demonstrate why the country and Congress should support Lend Lease:

Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire. Now, what do I do? I don’t say to him before that operation, “Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it.” What is the transaction that goes on? I don’t want $15–I want my garden hose back after the fire is over. All right. If it goes through the fire all right, intact, without any damage to it, he gives it back to me and thanks me very much for the use of it. But suppose it gets smashed up–holes in it–during the fire; we don’t have to have too much formality about it, but I say to him, “I was glad to lend you that hose; I see I can’t use it any more, it’s all smashed up.” He says, “How many feet of it were there?” I tell him, “There were 150 feet of it.” He says, “All right, I will replace it.” Now, if I get a nice garden hose back, I am in pretty good shape.

A February 1941  Gallup poll showed Roosevelt’s campaign for passage had worked, with a Lend Lease proposal receiving the support of 54% of Americans, and it was passed by Congress a month later. Ten months later Lend Lease would would take its place as part of a larger American effort when the empire of Japan declared war on the United States.


President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill aboard the U.S.S. Augusta, August 9, 1941

On August 7, 1941, four months before American entry into WWII,  a U.S. naval ship, the Northampton class heavy cruiser U.S.S. Augusta slipped into Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. Aboard was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt there to meet in secret with the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill. Though they had met earlier during WWI, this was the first face to face meeting of the two. On August 9th, the H.M.S. Prince of Wales arrived with Churchill aboard. Each had different goals for this first meeting. Great Britain, having been the target of an intense and destructive air campaign  by the German Luftwaffe, was eager for the United States to enter the war as soon as possible. Roosevelt, recognizing the U.S. was not yet ready for this, nevertheless wanted to signal to the country that the United States sympathized with Britain’s plight and opposed Nazi Germany. Given these parameters, Roosevelt suggested development of a set of principles that would guide allied nations after the war. The “Atlantic Charter” agreed to by FDR and Churchill included pledges not to seek territorial gains, to seek lowering of international trade barriers, to work for establishment of global economic cooperation and advancement of social welfare, for freedom of the seas, for the right of all nations to self determination, and to work toward a world free from want and fear. This agreement  became the basis for many subsequent agreements including establishment of the United Nations. Like Lend Lease, it was FDR’s way of moving the United States ever closer to a formal wartime alliance with Great Britain without actually crossing that line and incurring the wrath of politically powerful isolationists. For Great Britain it represented a step toward bringing the United States into the war as a full combatant, and for the Axis powers it signaled an escalation of the war; one they would regret encouraging.

On December 7th, 1941 airplanes of the empire of Japan attacked the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Killing or wounding 5,381 Americans, this attack, and the declaration of war four days later by Germany on the United States, signaled the end of America’s role as a mere bit player on the world stage. From this time forward the U.S. would assume it’s position as the dominant economic and military power in the world, a position it has yet to relinquish. Britain on the other hand, would take its place as the junior partner in this alliance.

Due to poor leadership at all levels British forces were defeated in Malaya and Singapore, the latter surrendering without showing much resistance. Japanese Naval sorties into the Indian Ocean panicked the British, forcing them to move their fleet from Ceylon to Kenya, and although they had shown courage and grit during the Battle of Britain, they had not been able to mount any kind of effective counter to German expansion. Meanwhile after the devastation of Pearl Harbor and the loss of the Philippines, the United States achieved a strategic victory over the Japanese Navy at Coral Sea, and completed a decisive one at Midway Island, sinking four Japanese aircraft carriers. Domestically, it’s full productive capacity brought to bear, the U.S. was producing war materiel at an astounding rate, and the military services were rapidly adding manpower. Since it was providing the bulk of the men and materiel for the allied war effort (with the exception of the U.S.S.R.), it was understood the U.S. would be the dominant partner in this relationship. And to his credit, Winston Churchill understood and adapted to this reality, eventually. However, as Nigel Hamilton shows, Churchill’s leadership abilities were rightly called into question during this period.

Winston Churchill was an enigmatic man; courageous, stalwart and indefatigable. At the same time he could be stubborn, myopic, and a control freak. As Hamilton describes it, his admirable qualities kept Britain strong and defiant during the Battle of Britain. He was the rock around which the Allied effort eventually grew. But it was his less admirable qualities that were largely responsible for early British setbacks. His stubbornness in not recognizing the futility of trying to restore the British empire, and his poor choice of subordinates resulting in unnecessary tensions between British and American staff officers being two of the most important examples. As British defeats mounted in southeast Asia and North Africa and as the Japanese fleet moved into the Indian ocean fostering fears of an attack on India,  Churchill appeared stubbornly determined to preserve the prewar structure of the British Empire. As Japan moved into the Indian Ocean FDR encouraged Churchill to begin independence negotiations with Indian leaders. Aside from his belief that India deserved independence as a matter of right consistent with the Atlantic Charter, it would also secure a  Indian commitment to fighting off the Japanese. A delegation headed by Sir Stafford Cripps was dispatched to India to negotiate a devolution of power to Indian authorities in exchange for Indian Army support in the war. Churchill subordinates, probably acting with his tacit approval, purposely undermined the negotiations. Fortunately Japanese defeats at Coral Sea and Midway diverted their attention away from the Indian peninsula. Later, after the decision was made to mount the first joint offensive in North Africa rather than attempt a cross channel invasion of France, Churchill, acting on the advice of subordinates, including Lord Louis Mountbatten, mounted an ill conceived raid at Dieppe on the French coast. It was a disaster, with nearly half of  British troops engaged being killed, wounded or captured. With these setbacks, lapses in judgement, stubbornness, and reliance on poorly chosen subordinates, it was only Churchill’s willingness to accede to U.S. leadership, and his position as the face of resistance to Nazi Germany that allowed him to stave off attempts to bring down his government.

Hamilton devotes a significant portion of the book to the decision by Britain and America to make northwest Africa the site of its first offensive. As he presents it, the success of Operation Torch is most attributable to FDR’s political and strategic genius. Pressure on the United States and Britain to mount a cross channel offensive as soon as possible grew as 1941 ended. The U.S. Joint Chiefs including Chief of Staff  George Marshall along with Secretary of War Henry Stimson, were pressing for just such an attack. Winston Churchill realized early on this would be a monumental mistake. U.S. troops had yet to experience combat and would be unlikely to stand up to seasoned German troops, the allies had yet to mobilize the men and materiel they would need for such an attack, and the Germans had heavily fortified the most obvious points of attack at Caen and Cherbourg. FDR, after initially appearing to favor such an invasion, came around to Churchill’s view and advocated for French northwest Africa as the site of the first offensive.  Convincing his own staff to go along despite their convictions it would only divert needed materiel from an eventual cross channel attack, and would probably fail on its own merits, was a stellar example of FDR’s ability to know where and when to press an advantage. Allowing his subordinates to make their case freely, he held firm. Eventually, in frustration they advocated moving the primary theater of operations from Europe to the Pacific. Calling their bluff, FDR asked them to provide him the detailed plans they must have been relying on to make such a bold suggestion. Unable to do so since they had impetuously made the suggestion out of frustration, they eventually fell in line with the President. The invasion proceeded and Operation Torch was a success.

Finally, I was very impressed by Hamilton’s use of primary sources from Axis leaders. Most significant of these was the diary of Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. While many of his entries can be termed whistling past the graveyard, some were very incisive as to the mindset of Allied leaders, the potential success of an Allied invasion of the French coast, and as regards Operation Torch. It provided a very interesting counterpoint to the views of Allied leaders.

Overall I think this is one of the best FDR biographies I have every read. The detail was incredible, the arguments he makes regarding FDR’s skill as a political leader are detailed and very persuasive. The prose is well formed and extremely easy to follow despite the enormous amount of information being thrown at you, Other than my disappointment that it ends with 1942 and that it does not appear Hamilton will be producing another volume, I have nothing but praise for this book.



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A very slight biography of former General of the Army and President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant. Although its purpose is not to provide an in depth look at Grant’s life, this work barely succeeds in its mission of providing a basic overview of its subject. While some sections are more readable than others the overall impression is one of a barely competent college thesis. Among the many flaws in this work the two most notable for me are his use of  lazy shortcuts to describe various people, and blindingly obvious inaccuracies about Grant’s political career. He also displays a casual acceptance of gender and racial stereotypes that are inappropriate.

Falsely derided as a butcher and a drunk after the failure of reconstruction, Grant’s reputation has undergone a long overdue rehabilitation in recent years, and to its credit, this book does make an attempt at continuing that trend, at least as it relates to Grant’s military career. Other than that however, with so many better Grant biographies to choose from, I don’t really see any purpose for this book. It really provides little more than you would get from Grant’s Wikipedia entry, with some significant flaws.

There are a number of well worn and tiresome ways in which some historians will try and illuminate their subjects. Sadly, this book seems to make use of most of them, although I was happy to see the author didn’t, despite Grant’s well known attachment to horses, describe him as the “best horseman of his age.” I really hate that one! However he did include pointless and often insulting descriptions of several of the women he includes in his narrative, as well as unwarranted assumptions about the character and mood of people based on a single still life photograph or portrait.

The trend of including long-winded opinions on the relative attractiveness of historical figures (usually female), is one I particularly disdain. Unless it has a tangible and verifiable bearing on that person’s place in history or in how others related to them, I do not see the point. In this case the author goes to great pains to describe Grant’s wife, Julia Dent Grant, in insulting and sexist terms. Curiously I cannot recall a single instance where the author included such extensive descriptions of Grant or other males included in the narrative. Oh, and as if that wasn’t enough, he also includes a little dollop of racial stereotyping as well! Consider the following:

“Julia was, to put it kindly, “plain,” as even her nearest and dearest in the Dent family were obliged to admit. Indeed, “plain” seems like a generous description of Julia Dent. A photograph of her taken as a young woman…reveals a bumpy nose, a strong chin, and what appears to be a pronounced squint in one eye, or perhaps, as [William] McFeely suggests, strabismus, a weakening of the eye muscles combined with a squint (some people unkindly described her as walleyed), hair pulled back unflatteringly tight, and a compact, dumpy figure. The fashions of the times apparently do nothing to help her, and her expression in the photograph is severe, impatient, and unwelcoming. Although she was to come to think of herself as a Southern belle, as kind of a border state Scarlett O’Hara, Julia was by far the plainest member of the Dent family, and even the colored servants (slaves, of course) seem to have told her so.”

Yes, Mr. Korda, we get it, you think she is ugly…so ugly in fact even “the coloreds” think so. I have to say of the literally hundreds of biographies I have read this has got to be the most insulting passage I have ever seen. I really am at a loss as to why the author thought it was important to include it.

In addition to the above, in several places, the author makes unsupported assumptions about the demeanor, mood and even the character of people based on a single black and white photograph. This is another trend I really despise. I see no evidence that such concrete assertions about a person can be gleaned from a single image in this way. Consider again:

“He [Grant] looks careworn and miserably unhappy, as he surely was, and perhaps [was] in need of a stiff drink”

Ulysses S. Grant at City Point, VA - Summer, 1864

Ulysses S. Grant at City Point, VA – Summer, 1864

Now this description was applied to possibly the most famous photograph of Grant. He is at his City Point, Virginia headquarters, leaning rather jauntily against a tree in front of one of his headquarters tents. At this point in the war Grant is at the peak of his power, in complete charge of a war machine unprecedented up to that time in American history. Most observers, if they ascribe any demeanor to him at all, note the confidence in Grant’s face and the pose he chose to be photographed in. There is no evidence that I know of that backs up the author’s description of Grant’s demeanor in this photograph. It’s just a lazy way of psychoanalyzing a person without having to do any corroborating research.

Finally, the author makes some assertions about Grant’s career that are just not correct. In particular he completely misrepresents Grant’s Presidential record on civil rights. He dismisses Grants efforts, asserting that “Grant was unwilling…to use federal force to defend the rights of blacks or to challenge the South’s status quo – Grant had won the Civil War but had no interest in re-fighting it. He preferred to get the army out of there and leave the Southern states to their own devices…” This is simply untrue and betrays a lack of research inexcusable for a biographer. In fact, I wasn’t sure whether Korda was confusing Grant with Andrew Johnson, about whom this passage would be more accurate.

Grant’s efforts on behalf of the freedmen was nearly the opposite of what Korda asserts here. As H.W. Brands, a far more credible Grant biographer has noted, “he [Grant] strove mightily to ensure that African Americans received the civil rights and equal treatment they were supposedly accorded by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. He didn’t accomplish all he fought for: the overwhelming weight of public opinion was against him…[but the] Ku Klux Klan was shattered in the South by Grant’s bold and timely action.

There is no doubt, as Brands asserts, that Grant could not forever buck northern public opinion which, by the end of Grant’s presidency had grown tired of Reconstruction. In 1875 for example, Grant refused to send in additional federal troops to Mississippi to protect blacks against an increase in violent intimidation. As renowned Reconstruction expert Eric Foner has noted however, this action “reflected the broader Northern retreat from Reconstruction and its ideal of racial equality.” Though he doesn’t reference this incident specifically, Korda misleadingly implies actions such as this represent the entirety of Grant’s racial policy. That is simply, and spectacularly, wrong.

Korda’s views of Grant are perhaps shaped by the sources he has chosen to use. He highlights two works as being most helpful: Meet General Grant by W.E. Woodward published in 1928, and the Pulitzer Prize winning Grant, A Biography by William McFeely. It’s interesting, with so much great scholarship on Grant available, that the author chose these works. Meet General Grant, while well written, reflects views on reconstruction and race that are no longer accepted by historians. The author asserts for example, that slavery was actually more harmful to whites than blacks, and that blacks had been civilized by the institution “in a shorter time than any savage race was ever civilized before.”  McFeely’s work is of course, better researched, but is conspicuous for the consistently negative view it takes of Grant’s Presidency. That Korda chose these two works as his primary sources goes a long way to explaining his distorted view of Grant’s civil rights record.

The motto emblazoned on Grant’s tomb in New York City says simply “Let Us Have Peace.” In his far superior biography of Grant, author H.W. Brands correctly notes that this reflected not only Grant’s desire for a reunification of the country, but also his desire for the complete application of the war’s main aims, a restoration of the union and the full emancipation of the slaves.

Korda’s work reflects none of this. Given this and the other serious flaws noted above, I cannot recommend this book. There are many better Grant biographies to choose from.

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As I was reading this book a theory of quantum physics I once heard about sprang to mind (well at least one that I saw on an episode of Star Trek). This theory asserts  that everything that can occur, does occur. The thousands of decisions we make, and the events that occur outside of our control each initiates a new stream of events independent of and parallel to every other. So, for example, in some parallel timeline, the Lusitania didn’t sink, the United States didn’t enter WWI, a negotiated peace between Britain and Germany was completed, and a little known corporal named Adolph Hitler didn’t experience the humiliation of defeat that would impel him to seek revenge. Thus, tens of millions of innocent people were not slaughtered  in a subsequent World War. All of this changed because of some small, inconsequential difference in the timeline of events that eventually resulted in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. Those events, are the subject of this fine book.

In Dead Wake: The Last Voyage of the Lusitania, Erik Larson (author of the wonderful Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America), has done a masterful job of elucidating the many small, sometimes inconsequential occurrences that  ultimately resulted in the sinking, by a German U-Boat, of the cruise liner RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915. A change in any one of those events might have resulted in it’s timely and uneventful arrival at its destination of Liverpool, England. Instead, the ship was torpedoed and sunk in only 18 minutes, resulting in the deaths of 1,198 of its 1,959 passengers and crew. The Lusitania was one of the largest and fastest cruise liners of its time. It could carry over 2,000 passengers from New York to Liverpool in only four days at its top speed of 25 knots. It was believed that traveling at such speeds made the ship virtually immune to the type of attack that eventually sunk her. As it turned out however the timing of events, not speed, would doom the Lusitania.

The overriding event of course was the World War that had started 9 months earlier. Britain was at war with Germany. In order to more rapidly negate British supremacy on the sea, Germany began a course of brutal and often indiscriminate submarine warfare. At first confined to British shipping, including both warships and merchant vessels destined for England, Germany eventually expanded its campaign to include all merchant shipping and to ships of neutral nations that were sailing to and from the British Isles. German submarine commanders, out of communications range with their superiors, were  forced to act independently while on patrol, and had wide discretion as to what targets they attacked. They were also given immunity from punishment for mistakenly sinking ships German leaders had ostensibly exempted from attack; one of the many independent decisions that resulted in the sinking of the Lusitania…and ultimately in the entry of the United States into WWI.

Larson’s style of narrative writing almost requires the reader not to have detailed knowledge of the subject he is writing about. Were I to describe, in detail,  the individual occurrences that ultimately resulted in the sinking of the Lusitania it would completely ruin the book for anyone who had yet to read it…so, I won’t.

Anyone who has read Erik Larson knows however, that while his books are non-fiction he uses a fictional style, with a narrative that makes it feel  like you are traveling along an intellectual spiral coil. You start at the outermost part of the coil with bits of disparate and seemingly unrelated pieces of information given, and as you travel inward  more and more information is given, until you reach the center when everything comes together in one exciting, climactic event. By the end you’ve forgotten you already knew how it would turn out. And you especially realize how a change in even one event or decision made along the way might have resulted in a completely different, and far more benign ending to the journey. Masterful!


Painting depicting the 1915 sinking of the RMS Lusitania

Larson also does a superb job with the back stories of the many people who found themselves caught up in the Lusitania sinking, from the many passengers who left a record of their story, to the officials of the Cunard line that owned the ship, to the government of the United States whose reaction to the sinking eventually resulted in its entry into WWI, to President Wilson who was distracted by the death of his first wife and marriage to his second, and to the offices of the British Naval and Intelligence services who evidence suggests may have left Lusitania unprotected in order to provoke American entry into the war. He also provides riveting details of the U-Boat that sank the Lusitania and its commander Walther Schwieger. All of this comes together in an almost seamless narrative.

I had very few problems with this book. If I was forced to complain about anything it would be that he occasionally provided a bit too much detail which sometimes had the effect of interrupting the narrative. Also, his extended discussion of Woodrow Wilson’s courtship of Edith Galt felt disconnected to the rest of the story. These are minor criticisms however. One has to admire the skill it takes to make the story of a historical event with such a well known outcome, so suspenseful.

Highly Recommended!

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