American Ulysses: A book review by Bob Morris

American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant
Ronald C. White
Random House (October 2016)

A brilliant examination of a U.S. hero “from the inside out”

As I often do, I read this book in combination with another, James Lee McDonough’s William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country. Each volume is probably one of the primary sources — both to scholars and non-scholars such as I — for gaining a greater understanding and appreciation of one of history’s greatest generals.

A Wiki briefing: “Ulysses S. Grant (1822 – 1885) was the 18th President of the United States (1869–77). As Commanding General (1864–69), Grant worked closely with President Abraham Lincoln to lead the Union Army to victory over the Confederacy in the American Civil War. He implemented Congressional Reconstruction, often at odds with President Andrew Johnson. Twice elected president, Grant led the Republicans in their effort to remove the vestiges of Confederate nationalism and slavery, protect African American citizenship, and support economic prosperity. His presidency has often been criticized for tolerating corruption and for the severe economic depression in his second term.

“Throughout the 20th century, historians ranked his presidency near the bottom. In the 21st century, his military reputation is strong, while most scholars rank his presidency well below average. His accomplishments as President have been overlooked due to corruption charges of his Cabinet members and appointees during his administration. Concerning his post-presidential trip around the world, historian Edwina S. Campbell said that Grant ‘invented key aspects of the foreign-policy role of the modern American presidency, and created an image abroad of the United States that endures to this day.’ [Ronald C.] White viewed Grant as an exceptional person and leader and his presidency, although marred by corruption charges, “defended the political rights of African Americans, battled against the Ku Klux Klan and voter suppression, reimagined Indian policy, rethought the role of the federal government in a changing America, and foresaw that as the United States would now assume a larger place in world affairs, a durable peace with Great Britain would provide the nation with a major ally.”

There are key periods throughout Grant’s life and career. White devotes a chapter to each. I was especially interested in knowing more about these subjects:

o His family background
o His childhood
o The years at West Point
o What Smith characterizes as “The Trial” (1848-18621)
o Grant’s return to battle and leadership
o His relationships with Lincoln and Sherman
o Vicksburg
o Appomattox
o The assassination of Abraham Lincoln
o His high regard for Robert E. Lee
o His Presidency (1869-1877)
o His “world citizenship”
o Grant’s illness and death

Theodore Roosevelt ranked Grant’s stature comparable with that of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Here is what Frederick Douglas said of him: “To him more than any other man the Negro owes his enfranchisement and the India a humane policy…He was accessible to all men…The black soldier was welcome in his tent, and the freedman in his house.”

This is a research-driven book as indicated by 118 pages of notes. White does indeed provide a brilliant examination of Grant “from the inside out.” For me this is among the most significant difference from his approach and McDonough’s to Sherman. I concede that perhaps this opinion is influenced by my high regard for Grant’s Personal Memoirs, written while he was dying of throat cancer in order to leave his wife Julia debt-free. In fact, it generated for her total royalties of $450,000, about $12-million in today’s currency. (I never read Memoirs of W.T. Sherman.) In any event, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book as well as McDonough’s biography of Sherman. Each is a brilliant achievement.

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1 Comment

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