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‘American Ulysses’ review: Ronald C. White gives Ulysses S. Grant his due in new biography

Military commander (and future U.S. president) Ulysses S.

Military commander (and future U.S. president) Ulysses S. Grant. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Stock Montage

AMERICAN ULYSSES: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, by Ronald C. White. Random House, 826 pp., $35.

A mix-up on his first day at West Point in 1839 bestowed the name Ulysses S. Grant on the young cadet born Hiram Ulysses Grant. The “U.S.” would prove fitting. During the Civil War, troops dubbed him “United States” or “Unconditional Surrender,” apt monikers for the general who, in partnership with Abraham Lincoln, saved the Union.

The war propelled Grant to consecutive terms as president (1868-1876), but historians have not looked kindly on his years in office, which were marred by corrupt dealmaking by members of his cabinet. Grant’s vaunted military record has generated its own controversies. Throw in evidence of excessive boozing, and Grant’s heroic status becomes problematic indeed.

Recent years have seen an uptick in Grant’s reputation, and Ronald C. White’s “American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant” is a major contribution to the effort. In this sympathetic, rigorously sourced biography, White — a noted Lincoln scholar — conveys the essence of Grant the man and Grant the warrior. The author’s sharp reassessment of Grant’s political career doesn’t quite pack the oomph of the sections on the war years, but he reveals Grant’s profound commitment to the rights of African-Americans.

White also covers Grant’s early life in Ohio as the son of a tanner; his experiences in the Mexican-American War, where he learned valuable lessons about provisioning troops; and his humbling years in the 1850s, when he failed at farming and dabbled in rent collecting. But it is the account of Grant’s war that really soars. (Grant wrote vividly about the war in his acclaimed memoirs, composed as he was dying of cancer.)

Among the constellation of Union generals, Grant stands out for his diffidence and unassuming manner. Often simply dressed in a battered uniform, cigar in hand, Grant was an expert manager: He made disparate personalities and temperaments work together. He listened to his commanders and delegated authority beautifully. Not all Union generals worked well with Grant — Illinois’ John McClernand in particular — but Grant endeavored to work with them. Above all, he remained calm, even amid dire setbacks on the battlefield.

These qualities allowed Grant to mold the Army of the Tennessee into the Union’s most successful fighting force. Where George B. McClellan and his successors floundered in the Virginia theater, beaten and battered by Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, Grant racked up victories in the West. Still, Grant had his critics. After Shiloh in 1862, where Confederates surprised Union forces, Grant was pilloried in the Northern press. Rumors circulated that he was drunk. Not true: Grant’s resolve did much to salvage a nominal victory in one of the conflict’s bloodiest battles.

This resolve caught Lincoln’s attention. The president brought Grant east in 1864, to take on Lee and to take Richmond. Virginia was a graveyard for countless Union soldiers — and the careers of Union generals — and it would test Grant as never before. In what amounts to an implicit defense, White doesn’t address head-on the charges that Grant was a soulless butcher who wasted lives in the battles of the Wilderness and Cold Harbor. Lee was dug in and Grant could not draw his opponent out into open-field battle, where the Union would have a 2-1 advantage in men. But Lincoln stuck with him: “It is the dogged pertinacity of Grant that wins,” the president told his secretary.

Grant was magnanimous to his defeated foes. But he was also committed to advancing the cause of freed slaves. (“Treat the negro as a citizen and a voter, as he is and must remain,” he told Congress in 1874.) Still, he was a reluctant politician. After the Republicans nominated him, he wrote his friend William Tecumseh Sherman, “I have been forced into it in spite of myself.” He resolved to stay above the fray, but the shenanigans of his cabinet tainted his presidency.

White’s account of this time certainly redeems Grant from the ranks of presidential mediocrity. His civil rights record stood unmatched until Lyndon B. Johnson. He lobbied Congress to pass an anti-Ku Klux Klan bill, and signed several laws designed to advance enfranchisement. As for the corruption that lurked around him, White observes that “personal loyalty, which Grant prized so highly in the military, became his blind spot in the more public world of the presidency.” Attacked for being a drunk — Grant may have had a drinking problem, but the charges were wildly exaggerated — he tended to dig in his heals when the integrity of his inner circle was questioned. What emerges from these pages is Grant’s essential decency. He deserved better from posterity, and from White he gets it.

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