- American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald C. White
For the last three decades, Ulysses S. Grant has been the beneficiary of a revisionist wave of scholarship that includes more than a few full-scale biographies. Scholars have burnished the favorable portrayals of Grant's generalship offered by J. F. C. Fuller and Bruce Catton while delivering telling blows at criticisms of his shortcomings as a president. One almost rolls one's eyes to hear of a publisher proclaiming the appearance of yet another effort to rescue Grant's reputation and rehabilitate his standing in the American pantheon of heroes as revolutionary, given what we have already seen appear in the wake of William S. McFeely's 1981 study. Those readers hoping for a revelation or even a substantial revisionist perspective may be disappointed. If anything, Grant has become a rather safe subject for biographers, who are increasingly recycling and synthesizing existing scholarship while finding it ever more difficult to break new ground and offer original insights.
What Ronald C. White offers in American Ulysses is no mean feat: a book that brings together all this work in a solid, readable, single volume that easily displaces previous efforts by Geoffrey Perret and H. W. Brands and proves far more digestible than Jean Edward Smith's encyclopedic effort. He presents the story of Grant's pre–Civil War career in an engaging narrative, although at times the foreshadowing might strike the reader as a bit forced. He retells the story of Grant's rise during the Civil War without becoming distracted by details, moving the narrative along at a brisk pace. Although White judges Grant a "superb tactician" (287), it is fairer to say that Grant was a master of the operational art: his ability to move men into combat on the battlefield was often less than elegant. Then again, Civil War battles in themselves were often indecisive. It is what generals did with them in the context of larger operations that often defined [End Page 339] their significance. Like other biographers, White sees Grant's alliance with Lincoln as essential to Union victory, as the two men forged an unbeatable team.
White handles Grant's postwar emergence as a political figure in Reconstruction and as an eventual Republican presidential candidate concisely; he concurs with the present tendency to think far better of Grant's presidential performance than was once the case. White credits Grant with good intentions that he failed to translate into successful policies, especially when it came to matters of race. While Grant's Reconstruction policy failed to frame an approach that successfully addressed both sectional reconciliation and the quest to achieve equality, justice, and opportunity for African Americans, his "Peace Policy" toward Native Americans advocated removal to reservations so that assimilation could take place, an approach that in the eyes of less favorably inclined observers might be termed cultural genocide. Eventually his policies floundered: the nation's centennial celebration was bracketed by the disaster at Little Big Horn and the Hamburg massacre. White also covers Grant's tour around the world, his failed bid to regain the presidency in 1880, his financial setbacks, and his gallant fight to beat death and provide for his family by composing his masterful memoirs.
White's most visible effort at offering new insights concerns Grant's Methodist faith, most notably his association with John Heyl Vincent, a minister with whom he often crossed paths. Unfortunately, White is less successful at showing how Grant's Methodism influenced his life. Elsewhere White concludes that Grant was an introvert, although that should not come as much of a surprise to most people. Readers looking for an exploration of the role alcohol played in Grant's life will come away disappointed: White deemphasizes this familiar theme and gives short shift to several well-known tales of intoxication. Finally, he notes that while Grant was no fan of music, he enjoyed reading novels and attending plays, suggesting that he was not quite...