By Jean Edward Smith New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. 706 pages. $35.00.
The latest biography of Ulysses S. Grant is an ambitious project by Jean Edward Smith. The author, a longtime political science professor at the University of Toronto now at Marshall University, is best known for his biographies of Chief Justice John Marshall and General Lucius D. Clay. His biography of Grant arrives on the heels of Brooks Simpson's military biography of the general (see review in Parameters, Spring 2001). Smith takes a different approach from Simpson in terms of format. Grant is a one-volume (albeit necessarily a large one-volume) biography of Grant's personal life, military career, and presidential administration, while Simpson's work is the first of two planned volumes. In another sense, however, the two biographies are remarkably similar. Smith joins Simpson and others in the recent positive reevaluation of Ulysses Grant's career--both military and political. The military reevaluation has been going on for some time. Smith is a leader in interpreting Grant, whose administration habitually lands near the bottom of ranked lists of presidencies, as a successful politician.
The book's strengths are legion. Smith is a skillful storyteller who delivers an engrossing tale about a fascinating individual. The research behind the story is exhaustive-the 39-page bibliography alone is worth the price of the book. Smith somehow persuaded his publisher to include both endnotes and footnotes. The endnotes are primarily scholarly citations of sources, while the footnotes amplify, explain, or illuminate details or side stories. They often are as interesting as the text. Smith handles Grant's military campaigns competently and in as much detail as one can expect. He is equally deft with the political career and manages to adroitly sort out the morass of 19th-century politics. The picture of Ulysses Grant that emerges from Smith's work is one of a very competent, perhaps even brilliant, general and a principled politician who stood up to tough issues. In both aspects of his career Grant faced tremendous challenges.
Smith portrays Grant as "reading from different pages in the military hymnal" than other officers of his day--those pages were hymns of battle rather than occupation of places. Thus, while Henry Halleck and others of his ilk maneuvered cautiously to capture cities and other geographic points, Grant fixed his gaze firmly on the destruction of enemy armies. Only over time did both the validity of Grant's combative approach and his true value as a leader become apparent. That, of course, is a matter of emphasis and interpretation, since three of Grant's most famous victories (Henry-Donelson, Vicksburg, and Appomattox-the result of the siege of Richmond and Petersburg) were the product of location-oriented operations. Nevertheless, Smith is correct about the general's willingness to fight and his belief that victory would result from battles, not the occupation of places. …