Magazine article The Washington Monthly

The Enigma of Ulysses S. Grant: A Magisterial New Biography Fails to Crack the Mystery of America's Greatest General

Magazine article The Washington Monthly

The Enigma of Ulysses S. Grant: A Magisterial New Biography Fails to Crack the Mystery of America's Greatest General

Article excerpt

American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant

by Ronald C. White

Random House, 864 pp.


He is a strange character," remarked William Tecumseh Sherman in 1879, trying to explain Ulysses Simpson Grant, his old chief during the Civil War and (by that time) president of the United States. "I knew him as a cadet at West Point, as a lieutenant of the Fourth Infantry, as a citizen of St. Louis, and as a growing general all through a bloody civil war. Yet to me he is a mystery, and I believe he is a mystery to himself."

Grant has not proven any less a mystery since then, and it has been hard to connect the dots of the man's qualities in a pattern that will explain how he became the greatest commanding general of the U.S. military forces in the nineteenth century and the conqueror of the fabled Confederate Robert E. Lee. Charles Dana, who was sent as a War Department observer to evaluate Grant's aptitude for high command midway through the war, described him as "the most modest, the most disinterested, and the most honest man I ever knew, with a temper that nothing could disturb, and a judgment that was judicial in its comprehensiveness and wisdom"--just the sort of thing that could be said about almost anyone in shoulder straps in 1863 who was not a complete idiot. On the centennial of Grant's death, in 1985, John Leo wrote a partly humorous tribute to Grant that seemed to spear the man exactly, saying that Grant was the sort whose first words upon being introduced would be "Meet the wife."

It did not take long, even during the Civil War, for puzzled critics to assume that there was no pattern to the dots at all. They concluded that Grant succeeded as a general only because he tapped the enormous manpower resources of the North and just threw them at the Confederates, regardless of the cost in blood. They railed at Grant the two-term president (from 1869 to 1877) as an incompetent for protecting corruption and allowing the Reconstruction of the South to fizzle. Moreover, Grant set two unhappy precedents in American history: that of second-term presidents whose administrations collapse in scandal, and that of great generals who make for bland politicians. Grant's presidency, complained Henry Adams, "avowed from the start a policy of drift." Grant himself was "inarticulate, uncertain, distrustful of himself, still more distrustful of others." He "should have lived in a cave and worn skins."

Ronald C. White's American Ulysses is the seventh doorstop-sized biography of Grant to be published in the last thirty-five years, following William McFeely (1981), two volumes from Brooks Simpson (1991 and 2000), Geoffrey Perret (1997), Jean Edward Smith (2002), and H. W. Brands (2013). This puts quite a burden on White, a former seminary professor and historian of the Social Gospel who rocketed to prominence in 2002 with the first of three well-received books on Abraham Lincoln. But White's fundamental take on Grant is to stress the basic decency of the man. White's Grant disliked war, politics, and slavery (more or less in that order). "lam called a man of war," Grant complained in 1878, "but I was never a man of war." He was no student of military science, either, like his great contemporary Helmuth von Moltke, and once reduced the essence of strategy to a sound bite: "Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on." He protested to Otto von Bismarck that "I am more of a farmer than a soldier. I take no interest in military affairs.... I never went into the army without regret and never retired without pleasure." He was devoted to his wife, his family, and his horses. (The rare moments when Grant emerged from his customary stolidity into raging fury were the ones in which he witnessed mistreatment of animals.) He never used profanity and was a lifelong Methodist. Not surprisingly, it is on that last point that White wants to dwell, since in all the other Grant biographies, "Grant's religious odyssey has been overlooked or misunderstood. …

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