Once the most esteemed American alive, Ulysses S. Grant has gone through the ups and downs of popularity since his death in 1885. His reputation among historians in various schools of thought has likewise waxed and waned, depending upon the period from which he has been viewed. In the main, he has been well regarded as a general, although a subschool of this line of thought for decades declared him a butcher for wasting men in a human meat grinder late in the Civil War. His time as president of the United States during Reconstruction has been seen less positively; yet, even this standard view has been challenged recently and is changing.
This historiographical change over time has produced a consistently heavy investigation of Grant’s life, from the late nineteenth century to the monumental works of the centennial era by Bruce Catton and other major historians. William S. McFeely won a Pulitzer Prize for a Grant biography in 1981. Yet, no time has produced more serious biographies of the man than today. Major Grant biographers from Brooks Simpson to Ron White have recently published, or are now in the process of authoring numerous studies of the general. Now, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands has added his own volume to that list.
Brands is certainly no stranger to the reading public or to biographies of major American figures. Having tackled the lives of such statesmen as Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, he has turned his attention to Grant in an effort to write a history of the United States through the lives of six of its most prominent statesmen. He could not have chosen a better subject to cover the tumultuous middle portion of the American nineteenth century than Ulysses S. Grant.
Perhaps best reviewed in terms of what it is and what it is not, the book is a straightforward popular rather than academic narrative of Grant’s life. As such, the author spends a lot of time, particularly in the first half, explaining the events surrounding Grant on both the local and national levels. At times, the reader loses Grant, as when Brands discusses slavery and secession politics and Grant’s contemporaries, such as William T. Sherman. There are chapters in the book in which Grant is, in fact, hardly mentioned. Still, this is a well-written biography. The narrative flows easily, and the reader sweeps through the book quickly and almost without any mental effort. [End Page 208]
Yet, there will no doubt be questions about several curious omissions from a narrative of Grant’s life. For instance, there is no mention of Grant being away from the army when the Confederates attacked at Fort Donelson, a factor that loomed fairly large in the continual growth of Grant as a general. Perhaps more curiously, there is no mention of Grant’s May 19, 1863, assault on Vicksburg; only the larger May 22 assault is mentioned. Generally, however, the book is straightforward and accurate, at least to this reviewer, who is admittedly less knowledgeable about Grant’s postwar political years than about the war years.
Readers should also be alerted to what the book is not. Although the title leads one to believe that Brands views Grant as the one man who was able to keep the nation together both in war and in Reconstruction, that is about as far as his analysis goes. There is little discussion of previous historians or analysis of Grant’s actions. Rather, the narrative is just that—a straightforward telling primarily of the events as gleaned from Grant’s own words through his memoirs or contemporary letters. To be fair, however, Brands does subtly make a case for greater or lesser emphasis on certain aspects of Grant’s career in his levels of treatment of major events. An example of this is the almost glossing over of the famous scandals in Grant’s administration: Brands is obviously saying that these should not be...