So, there comes a time in a girl's life when she has a choice: get it done, or get it done right.I decided to be a grown up and pick the more comprehensive Ulysses S. Grant biography instead of the easier and shorter volume in the American Presidency series I went to the library to retrieve.I rarely display such prudence, and likely will not again soon, but I am so glad I ate my Wheaties that morning.It was a long book, and this is a long review.So sorry :-)
"Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President" is a paradox of a book.The author is clearly a big Grant fan, but he makes no pretense about Grant's many shortcomings.He also hypothesizes that there is little more to Grant than his two titular salutations, while also providing primary source documentation about Grant's intense and unfulfilled passions off the real and political battlefields.Are we talking about the same Grant?
Don't get me wrong - this is a great book and I’m now a huge and unexpected member of the fan club.It follows Grant from early childhood in Ohio, born in 1822 as Hiram Ulysses, by the way, to a leather tanner father and an austere mother. Following an unspectacular adolescence, Hiram won a nomination to the US Military Academy at West Point, where his name was mistakenly recorded in the admission book as Ulysses Samuel by his Congressional sponsor who couldn't really remember the pertinent details. Ulysses liked the U.S. initials and didn't correct the error.
At West Point, Grant wasn't a stellar student and was often disciplined for uniform infractions, dress perfection being what he considered a pointless exercise.What was quickly apparent however was that Grant was something of a horse whisperer. Upon graduation, he was considered the most talented cavalry man to ever leave the academy (and indeed was considered the best horseman in the Army for the entirety of his career), though because of an unfortunate incident in which he lost his temper with a horse, he was assigned to an infantry division as quartermaster upon graduation.The loss of a cavalry future was devastating to Grant and he considered quitting his commission.
But before his pride could win though, the Mexican American War broke out and Grant raced to the front lines with the supplies he commanded.Even though in a support position, Grant managed to inch close enough to the front lines on many occasions to learn from General Scott and Taylor firsthand.Grant participated in several battles and received multiple honors for bravery, but more importantly fell in love with the art of war.
The years betwixt and between are good for no one, and Grant was no exception.Without war, Grant struggled to find success in farming and various trades.He managed to marry a nice girl from a self-important family, but couldn't support her in a style that satisfied her obstinate, slave-owning father (from whom she would not be separated).In response, Grant remained in the Army, which provided the only steady income he could find.He was frequently separated from his wife and growing family (four children in ten years), but found some adventure living the frontier Army life.While his contemporaries were farming or speculating or answering the call of gold, Grant was such a failure at every business venture he tried that he rose steadily in the Army ranks for lack of anything more profitable to do.Such that when Civil War broke out in 1861, Grant was immediately assigned his own regiment of volunteers.
We don't need to follow Grant's trail for the next four years, but if you want to, please read this book.I've read Buchanan, Lincoln, and Johnson prior to now, but no other President participated in the war in the manner Grant did.Because of his continually advancing rank, a biography of Grant is a thorough study of the war's major battles (with some notable exceptions, but we're not talking Forrest Gump here), and I'll never again go wine tasting in Virginia without looking a little more reverently at the storied fields.
But I digress.Let's be honest - the Northern Army wasn't a force to be reckoned with for a very long time (like the whole of the war).Generals were weak, sloppy, scared, arrogant, and bad decision makers. Grant was brave.That's really all he was:so battle happy that he marched his troops in headfirst and made advances when other generals hesitated.He was really green in the beginning and made a lot of judgment errors, but eventually he caught the attention of President Lincoln who needed a general who would win or die trying. Which is what Grant did best.
Fast forward through the bunting-laden parades and we find Grant stumping for the unpopular President Johnson, who essentially blackmailed Grant into remaining in a Reconstruction leadership position in Johnson's post-war Administration.Johnson, hiding behind Grant's lustre, pursued policies Grant found unconscionable, but because of Grant's position was seen to endorse them de facto.Grant supported Johnson’s impeachment, which amounted to nothing, but was finally able to leave the Administration when Grant was nominated by the Republicans for President in 1868.
He easily won, despite never having held previous office and being the youngest man elected to date.The country Grant took command of was at an interesting crossroads.Having forged a national identity, solidified the borders, embraced Manifest Destiny, abolished slavery, and abandoned Reconstruction, America was ready to enter the era of capitalist individualism.Gone was the concern for the collective good.Grant governed a nation rife with scandal, drama, and self-promotion.For two terms, Grant battled violence against the Freedmen (and obliterated the original KKK), tried unsuccessfully to annex the Dominican Republic (which he planned to set aside for voluntary relocation of the Freedmen), put an end to violence-as-policy with respect to Native Americans, slumped through a truly devastating global depression in the early 1870s, and dealt with a few embarrassing scandals.Like all of Grant's great opportunities, he somehow manages to perform with a mediocrity and low affectation that underscores his unsuitability to his life-defining roles.
But the fact remains that he did somehow succeed with spectacular greatness - whether as the victorious Civil War General, as a contemporarily lauded two-term President, or as the world traveler in retirement.In 1877, Grant ran as far away from Washington as he could.For 2 and a half years, Grant and his wife traveled throughout Europe, the Middle East, Egypt, China, and Japan.At every stop he was greeted with a celebrity he didn't expect or want.He eventually returned home to a potential nomination to a third Presidential term, which he lost to his great satisfaction. Instead he invested in and was swindled by a Ponzi scheme, and at the same time, learned he was dying of throat cancer.
To save his family from financial ruin, he spent his last days literally feverishly writing his memoirs, which have since been considered "the best of their kind", whatever that means.Within days of completion, he was dead at 63.He lies in the nation's largest mausoleum in New York City and is honored with a statue at the base of the Capitol in Washington, DC, as the savior of the country at its hour of greatest peril.He’s also memorialized on the $50 bill.During his presidency Grant was quoted as saying, "I would not be willing to live my life over again, were it a matter of volition."Having read this very complete work, I can see Grant’s warped view that from infamy and shame, somehow came great responsibility and public idolatry.This book contradicts itself repeatedly, but perhaps because U.S. Grant does so himself – a most successful failure. Likewise, I don't usually like my Presidents so flawed, but Grant is a new favorite for sure.