American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant
A gift! A biography done with the carefulness and gentleness that characterized its subject, Mr. White’s work glows with polished maturity.
In this treatment, Grant’s formative years are given the same loving attention as his later, post-presidential period. The book chronicles events from his boyhood to his early army time and civilian struggle through to the Civil War and his heroic presidency. White provides an awesome scope and a view I thoroughly enjoyed, despite it not letting go of me for three long days. What could have been a tedious recounting proved an engaging immersion.
Notes comprise almost a hundred pages, done, as seems common, in a minuscule font. But those notes detail sources, source authorship, and abbreviations employed and add immense resources for any who might want to explore this superlative achiever’s life and times in greater depth. Maps with just sufficient detail that they allow following the text with complete understanding are very welcome. Photographic plates and portraiture bring characters to visual life while we read of their actions and relationships.
In detailing his schooling, early distaste for public speaking, and outstanding talent for horsemanship, the book cultivates the reader’s attachment to the lad who would play such a gigantic role.
Following an upper education at West Point, an institution that had yet to achieve the reputation he and his fellow cadets later earned for it, young Ulysses found himself serving in the Mexican War, becoming enamored of the beauty of that country and its people. That attraction later motivated his presidential support for freedom for Mexico’s people. Though he saw enough direct combat to season him, the young lieutenant found himself performing as a quartermaster for massive movements of troops. Though he disliked such tasking at the time, he excelled at it . . .which helps to explain his masterly ability to sustain great movements of men and material years later.
Several post-war assignments were stressful, often because he was separated from his wife and love, and abuse of the bottle joined his profile. That would give him difficulties later, though his biographer has been careful to demonstrate later restraint in that direction. The underpaid young officer failed in a couple of business ventures involving flooded potatoes and trying to sail tons of ice against prevailing winds.
There were family conflicts: Grant had fallen for the daughter of a slaveholder, which caused an estrangement with his own abolitionist father. Despite that, having left the army, he found himself working for the family shoe factory. Yes, Ulysses S. Grant was a shoe clerk when the Civil War broke out.
The story of Grant’s rise in rank, interactions with subordinates and commanders, maneuvering in two theaters, and eventual triumph is a large part of his life tale. The military history of those campaigns and glimpses of personalities–everyone from Lincoln to Seward to Sherman to McClellan to Longstreet–are a complete course on that conflict.
Then Grant’s almost forced accession to the presidency found him fighting for civil rights for freed slaves and for Amerindians, some of whom were still fighting federal troops. His first term was the epitome of reconstruction, battling the KKK and other reactionaries in the South.
In his second term, there were scandals, largely because the man gave trust unreservedly. And of course his successor allowed Jim Crow to emerge, sorrowing the former president. He and his loving wife toured the world, meeting adulation at every stop. U.S. Grant had become a respected citizen of the world.
Ronald C. White
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