Ulysses S. Grant doesn’t get enough credit in the eyes of the general public, either as leader of the Union Army during the Civil War or as Commander in Chief during two terms in office (1869-1877). H.W. Brands aims to correct this in his new exhaustive biography, THE MAN WHO SAVED THE UNION.
After a relatively brief section on Grant’s early life and struggles as a West Point cadet, in campaigns in the U.S.-Mexican War, and as a businessman, Brands dives into the meat of his opus. It is a fascinating look not just at strategy and implementation, but also of the competition among the military leaders, as well as the reticence of those such as George McClellan who would rather debate, delay, and accentuate the negative than fight, much to the consternation of Abraham Lincoln. There is also the political component with which the military has to contend, with its consequent impact on funds to pay for the war. Providing food, horses, munitions and transportation is a major undertaking, the planning for which seldom receives proper credit and attention. As a soldier, Grant was relatively diplomatic and respectful of his superiors, but he had little patience for the behind-the-scenes machinations that determined how much support and/or pressure befell upon him as he made his way up the ranks (despite his reputation as an alcoholic, which never seems to get in the way of his leadership).
"The author describes numerous battles and campaigns in chilling and heartbreaking detail. His management of source material is impeccable as he mixes letters from soldiers with orders, memoranda and official communiqués from Washington."
The author describes numerous battles and campaigns in chilling and heartbreaking detail. His management of source material is impeccable as he mixes letters from soldiers with orders, memoranda and official communiqués from Washington.
If Brands --- whose previous work includes biographies on Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, as well as other books about high- and low-water marks in American history --- had ended his opus with the main focus of his book, “the man who saved the union,” the bio still would have weighed in at over 400 pages. And as the Jews, whom he persecuted in Tennessee in one of his uglier incidents, say at Passover time, “dayenu,” it would have been enough. A final overview considers Grant’s post-war career as a statesman.
Following Andrew Johnson as president was no easy feat; Lincoln’s successor left the country in quite a mess, although I imagine anyone would have similar difficulties. Despite his disinclination towards politics --- he was uncomfortable as a public speaker --- the popular Grant did not decline the nomination when it was proffered. Each administration comes with its unique problems. Among the crises Grant had to deal with during his double term (on top of the standard nepotistic accusations and scandals) were fighting the burgeoning Ku Klux Klan in an era when many whites were not ready to accept blacks as human beings, let alone their equals; the increasing problems of dealing with the Native Americans as the U.S. continued to expand westward; bank panics; and diplomatic tensions with some European and South American nations. Brands paints Grant as an honorable man, anxious to do the right thing, but buried in a system that hindered his wishes in many areas.
Throughout his life, however, one concern remained the same: Grant’s financial difficulties. For most of his life, his father was unwilling to help him, and he failed and struggled in several opportunities. He worried how he would make a living after his second term, which he left deeply in debt due to bad investments and loans. His salvation, if one can call it that, came as editors clamored for his life story, a task he felt came surprisingly easy.
Unfortunately, Grant developed throat cancer and was compelled to hurriedly complete his memoirs, with the editing and marketing help of Samuel Clemens, with whom he had developed a friendship. They managed to complete the project (which Brands notes was “widely considered the finest autobiographical work by any president”) weeks before Grant’s demise.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on November 30, 2012