Ulysses S. Grant: Hero and Savior?

By Kingseed, Cole C. | Army, December 2012 | Go to article overview
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Ulysses S. Grant: Hero and Savior?

Kingseed, Cole C., Army

Ulysses S. Grant: Hero and Savior? The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace. H. W. Brands. Doubleday. 727 pages; black-and-white photographs; maps; notes; bibliography; index; $35. Publisher's website: doubleday '.knopfdoubleday.com.

Few presidents have been more maligned than Ulysses S. Grant. The "Hero of Appomattox" emerged from the presidency in 1877 as a highly popular figure, but his administration was characterized by total mediocrity, widespread corruption and political naivete, or so the story goes. In the first full-length biography of Grant in nearly a decade, H. W. Brands presents an alternative interpretation that casts Ulysses S. Grant as the man who saved the United States twice and who ensured that "democracy survived for all its flaws and frustrations."

In recent years Brands has emerged as one of America's premier biographers. The Dickson Allen Anderson Centennial Professor of History and Government at the University of Texas at Austin, Brands was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography for The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin and for Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He also has written biographies of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt (T.R.: The Last Romantic) and Andrew Jackson (Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times).

Brands' analysis of Grant's military story plows familiar ground. Much of his research is based on Grant's personal memoirs and his official orders, letters and memoranda. Another indispensable source is War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. What Brands contributes to our understanding of Grant is a better comprehension of Grant's formative years and a more detailed explanation of Grant's education as a general from his first campaign in 1861 through the capture of Vicksburg in July 1863. Of particular interest is Brands' portrayal of the emerging friendship between Grant and William ? Sherman, which later bore fruit on a dozen battlefields.

Brands' obvious admiration for Grant is evident on every page. He opines that it was Grant, not his adversaries, who had the more difficult task during the Civil War. In the Overland Campaign waged in the Virginia countryside during the spring of 1864, for example, "Grant had to win while Lee had merely to avoid losing." Lee's task was far more complicated than Brands attests, and his spirited defense against overwhelming numerical superiority convinced Grant that Lee was of a different caliber than the mediocre generals Grant had faced in the West.

In contrast to most presidential historians, Brands also assigns high marks to Grant for his two terms as the nation's 18th chief executive. Few presidents entered the White House less prepared for high office than did Grant in 1869. Brands views Grant as a reluctant politician thrown into the political arena and "striving to uphold the vision of the Great Emancipator." Despite scandals that were not his doing, Grant emerges from these pages as a capable president whose chief accomplishment was "preserving the gains of democracy and equality against the resistance of all those unconvinced Southerners" whose chief aim was to return the South to the antebellum era.

Grant ensured that federal laws would be upheld amid the growing influence of the Ku Klux Klan throughout the South. Brands asserts that Grant used every tool in his arsenal to ensure that federal laws were strictly enforced and that suffrage for all former slaves was exercised freely in federal and state elections.

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