A Great General-And Not a Bad President Either

By Barnes, John A. | The American Spectator, June 2000 | Go to article overview
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A Great General-And Not a Bad President Either

Barnes, John A., The American Spectator

Ulysses S. Grant:

Triumph Over Adversity


Brooks D. Simpson

Houghton-Mifflin/1533 pages/$35

President Grant Reconsidered

Frank J. Scaturro

Madison Books

137 pages l$34.50; $16.95 (paper)


John A. Barnes

The rise of Ulysses S. Grant is a tale Horatio Alger would have found incredible. In April 1861, Grant was a 39-year-old failure, burdened with a reputation for drinking and supporting a wife and four children on what he could earn working under his younger brother in his father's leather goods store in the one-horse town of Galena, Illinois. Less than three years later, he would he the first man since George Washington to hold the permanent rank of lieutenant general in the U.S. Army. In seven, he would be elected president.

A compelling story, one would think. Odd then, that Grant has had such difficulty attracting a first-rate biographer. William McFeely's 1981 Grant: A Biography is the historical equivalent of a Clintonian smear job, repeating all the old canards (drunk, butcher), while adding some new ones (perjurer, racist). Needless to say, this effort won its author a Pulitzer Prize. Geoffrey Perret's 1997 Grant: Soldier and President is an improvement in that Perret endeavors to right some of McFeely's wrongs, but he delves no more deeply than the pubfished sources, and the work is littered with errors to boot.

Now come two books that might start Grant on the road to receiving his historical due. Brooks D. Simpson, a history professor at Arizona State University, is the author of a previous excellent book on Grant, Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction 1861-1868, which made the case for Grant's political acumen. Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity 1822-1865, the first of a projected two-volume treatment, is a well-written, engaging biography of a man who started out least likely to succeed and ended up saving the Union.

"Adversity" indeed seemed to be the one constant in Grant's life. Born Hiram Ulysses but known by his middle name, he had to struggle in his youth against the nickname "Useless." Early on he demonstrated he had little head for business, foolishly telling a man in a horse trade what his top price would be before the transaction was completed. Perhaps this weakness, along with his love of horses and long rides far from home, is what convinced his father Jesse, a successful leather tanner, that his eldest son was better suited for the army. It was Jesse's idea that Ulysses attend West Point, and his son offered no objection.

Grant acquired the name we know him by thanks to an error. The congressman who appointed him dropped the cadet's given first name and substituted his mother's maiden name of Simpson as a middle name. Grant quickly gave up trying to correct the error. Being known as "U.S." Grant-United States, Uncle Sam, and later, Unconditional Surrender-beat being known as "H.U.G."

Critics have always made much of Grant's supposedly mediocre record at the military academy (twenty-first in a class of 39 cadets in the class of 1843). Few note that the class started with 77 members and that academically Grant excelled in mathematics and horsemanship. His standing was lowered by poor grades in French (the grim reaper of pre-Civil War West Point) and a remarkable number of demerits for poor marching (he was tone dead and failing to observe military punctilio. Ever practical, Grant thought results more important than appearances.

His roommate senior year was Frederick Dent, son of a well-off slaveholding family from Missouri, and Grant married Dent's sister, Julia, after a tumultuous four-year courtship that spanned Grant's service in the Mexican War. Simpson's portrait of their loving relationship-- which survived and prospered despite meddling parents and in-laws, long periods of separation, differences over slavery, and Grant's business reverses after he foolishly resigned his army commission in 1854-is vivid and moving.

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A Great General-And Not a Bad President Either


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