Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865. By Brooks D. Simpson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Pp. xix, 576. Illustrations, maps, index. ISBN: 0-395-65994-9. $35.00.
From the day that his capture of Fort Donelson in February 1862 unexpectedly catapulted him overnight from obscurity to fame, Ulysses S. Grant has retained his grip upon the imagination of the American people. Only a few American generals have been more written about. The on-line book distributor Amazon.com recently listed some 153 matches for Grant's name. A bargain-books circular from Edward R. Hamilton included, among other items, two fictional works about the Civil War-era soldier-president. Under the editorship of John Y. Simon, a massive multi-volume letterpress edition of Grant's papers has been underway for many years. Grant's own Personal Memoirs remain readily available 115 years after they were finished. And just since 1949 the general has been the subject of significant biographical assessments by Lloyd Lewis and Bruce Catton (1949-69), William S. McFeely (1981), Geoffrey Perret (1997), and, now, by Brooks D. Simpson, one of the ablest members of a talented corps of Civil War historians who have emerged since the unlamented passing of the overblown centennial of the 1950s and sixties. This first half of Simpson's projected two-volume biography leaves little doubt that his completed study will long remain in the forefront of the secondary literature on Grant.
Grant's importance in the Civil War is undeniable. At Donelson he won the first major Union victory of the conflict. At Shiloh he narrowly prevailed in the bloodiest battle ever fought in America to that time. At Vicksburg, following months of repeated frustration, he divided the Confederacy in two. At Chattanooga he fortuitously reversed the Federal debacle at Chickamauga. And in Virginia, after eleven bitter months of battle and siege, he effectively concluded the war by forcing the capitulation of Robert E. Lee.
But success alone does not explain Grant's appeal to readers. Simply dressed, plain-spoken, and with an all-too-human combination of personal strengths and frailties, he was a practical, business-like, characteristically American workaday warrior. Determination, perseverance, quiet self-confidence, the ability to learn from experience, and trial-and-error experimentation enabled the outwardly diffident Grant to overcome obstacles that usually stymied his contemporaries.
Simpson's subtitle, Triumph Over Adversity, aptly sums up the first forty-three years of Grant's life. A reluctant West Pointer who had resigned from the Army at thirty-two, then an apparent failure at farming and business and something of a problem drinker in the 1850s, Grant in 1861 had to scramble merely to get command of the Illinois volunteer regiment that was to propel him toward his destiny. Despite his background as a professionally trained soldier who had rendered sterling service in the Mexican-American War, Grant failed to impress Governor Richard Yates, whose prerogative it was to choose the Illinois volunteer colonels. …