Ronald White has written a stunning biography of Ulysses S Grant that is a joy to read. Grant was a great man; General, President, father and husband. He was honest, thoughtful, and rose to his acclaimed potential. He had a rough go at his life in the early part of his career. He was not a success at making a living and supporting his family but he grew into the man he was meant to be during the Civil War. He was a man for the time and this book makes one wish there were more men like him today and biographers as talented in telling the story as Ronald White.
Okay, so now I am reading the Chernow book on Grant and I went back to see what I said about American Ulysses when I read it last summer and found no review! I was remiss. I loved American Ulysses and in the process of reading it, I feel in love with Grant. What a man he was. He was much more than a military strategist. He was a gentle, quiet man who knew what it was like to be bullied both by a domineering father and by town people who disliked his father's arrogance. But he was always himself, both as a son and as a West Point cadet. When he could not speak his mind, he was silent rather than sycophantic. He was a genius with horses; what some people would call a horse whisperer. And, he was able to get enlisted men to follow him when others could not. He somehow remained naïve despite his experiences and this led to many betrayals. But his sheer authenticity drew the right people to him even in the last days. It leaves you with the question: How did he remain such a good, ethical man through so many difficulties?
Since 1865, Ulysses Grant has always been appreciated for his military prowess in the Civil War. His personal memoirs have been acclaimed for since they were issued. But his presidency? The scandals were, for decades, foremost in the thoughts of many. But Grant is now in the process of being rehabilitated. In a 2017 historians' poll he's now ranked 22nd, up from 33rd in 2000, by far the biggest leap of any of the then 44. Ronald White's engaging biography may help explain why. Although born to abolitionist parents, Grant was indifferent to this issue when the war started, possibly because the parents of his beloved wife, Julia, were slaveholders. By the end of the war, he had developed a passion to ensure that the rights of black Americans to vote and leave in peace were upheld. During his presidency, he sought to uphold those rights, sending federal troops into the South despite strong criticism that he had no right to do so. He supported the 15th Amendment, which protects the right to vote regardless of race. He created the Justice Department, in part to enable the federal govt to enforce federal laws in the South. Foreshadowing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he said, "'A ticket on a railroad or other conveyance should entitle you to all that it does other men.' In that spirit he told them, 'I wish that every voter of the United States should stand in all respects alike. It must come.'” He was also a friend to Native Americans in an era when that was hardly popular. Frederick Douglass said, "“To him more than any other man the Negro owes his enfranchisement and the Indian a humane policy….He was accessible to all men….The black soldier was welcome in his tent, and the freedman in his house.” The scandals that rocked his administration, especially in his second term, did not implicate him personally, but, according to White, were largely the result of his inability to believe that his friends could be corrupted by access to power, a personal failing that would post-presidency nearly ruin him financially. Grant loved to travel and after his presidency, he embarked on a 2+ yrs trip around the world. He had already developed a love of and respect for Mexico in his earlier service in the Mexican War. Now he developed a love of and respect for China and Japan. Far ahead of his time, he knew that those countries would become economic powerhouses. When he returned from his trip, thousands of Americans gathered at the dock to meet him. Swindled by a family friend in later years, he spent his dying days (cancer of the throat, undoubtedly brought on by his love of cigars) writing his memoirs so that his family would be supported after his death (the memoirs would eventually earn the equivalent of $12 million in today's dollars for his family). During that time, friends and former foes came to pay their last respects. His pallbearers included not only his best friend from the war, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Union General Phil Sheridan, but also Confederate Generals Johnston and Buckner. The Confederate Veterans Association lauded him for his compassion at Appomattox. Fifteen years after his death, Theodore Roosevelt said, "Mightiest among the mighty dead loom the three great figures of Washington, Lincoln, and Grant.” I highly recommend this book.
I totally concur with Len Rudner's comments. I could not have said it better. While reading this book, I found myself thinking how much I would have liked to have known Grant and one of his best friends, Sherman. What a stark contrast is this great man to the Generals we are dealing with today. I also found myself wanting to learn more, so much so that I am planning a trip to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to see for myself what Grant dealt with there. You won't be disappointed in this book!
Great writer. I couldn't put his book down.
A sign of a good book is that you are sorry to see it end. A second sign is that it whets your appetite to learn more about the subject. A third sign, peculiar to biographies, is that you wish you would have had an opportunity to meet the subject and maybe enjoy a long conversation over lunch. American Ulysses, Ronald White’s biography of the famed Civil War general and the 18th President of the United States passes all of these tests with flying colours. Before reading the book, all I knew of Grant was his reputation as an uninspiring commander who used superior manpower with little regard to casualties, and the rumours of his heavy drinking (a well-known anecdote has someone complain to Lincoln about Grant’s drinking, with the President replying, “find out what he drinks and send a case to each of my other generals.”) As it turns out, I didn’t even know that. Through these pages, Grant is revealed as a careful thinker, a decisive general, a thoughtful strategist and a generous victor. Beginning as more or less neutral on the matter of slavery – as a soldier his role was to support the policies of the Union – his conviction that slavery was wrong grew stronger over time and made him an uncompromising foe of the institution. As President, he used the powers of his office to promote post-war reconciliation and to oppose the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (effectively crushing it until its return in the 20th century), even when doing so but him at odds with colleagues who urged a softer approach to maintain the Republican hold on the White House. Possessed of an open and inquisitive mind, Grant saw the entrenchment of civil rights for all citizens – and humane treatment of aboriginal people – as being necessary for the health of the United States. No less a figure than Frederick Douglass said of Grant “that he was the first of our generals to see that slavery must perish that the Union might live …. The black soldier was welcome on his tent, and the freedman in his house.” Until the beginning of the 20th Century, Grant was seen as being one of the greatest of American presidents, sharing the triumvirate with Washington and Lincoln. Today he is ranked poorly. White’s book makes a strong case for his rehabilitation.
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