- A Memory Properly Restored
Scholarship of Ulysses S. Grant advances itself significantly with this marvelously written, meticulously researched biography of a man whose public memory not so long ago was in such decline that even "dogs did not like him."1 With 667 pages of text, over 100 pages of notes and an extensive bibliography which appears to include everything with "Grant" written on it other than a fifty-dollar bill, this book holds great appeal for both the scholar and casual reader alike. As he acknowledges, Ronald White is the first Grant biographer to gain access to the complete thirty-two volume set of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, and, as such, has a produced a work worthy of that extraordinarily fine compendium of primary source material. White's work also bears the mark of long hours spent researching the copious resources available at the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library, housed on the campus of Mississippi State University in Starkville.
White's intent is to "understand Grant from the inside out" (p. xxv). "Formation, 1630–1848," opens a richly detailed and well-developed account of Grant's American ancestry and subsequent introduction to our subject, Hiram Ulysses, born April 27, 1822, in Ohio. To become known as "Ulysses," "Lys," or "Useless," Grant was the product of a loud, overbearing father and a soft spoken, reticent mother from whom Grant would seem to inherit most of his traits, most notably his shyness, his modesty, and stoic nature. His unremarkable childhood seemed quite typical of the age and the region. Generous, sensible, and a remarkable horseman at a very tender age, Grant was well regarded by his friends. "Girls were fond of Ulysses," he didn't use "'bad words'," distinguishing himself as one of the few young lads of the day who had an aversion to hunting (pp. 14–16, 18).
Despite a marked reluctance, Grant acquiesced to the wishes of his father and entered the United States Military Academy in 1839. Graduating in the middle of his class four years later, Grant nonetheless distinguished himself as the finest horseman at the institution and was elected president of the Academy's [End Page 595] dialectic club in recognition of his voracious reading habits, albeit of popular novels, considered "frivolous" by academy instructors (p. 34). Grant also displayed a penchant for problem solving as he did quite well in math, an aptitude he hoped might parlay into a teaching position at West Point in days hence.
White suggests Grant's formative years end with his service in the Mexican War, a "defining experience" for the young lieutenant (p. 63). A keen observer and quick study of those in leadership roles, Grant learned a number of life and military lessons that would later so well serve him in America's greatest conflict. As quartermaster he came to understand the necessity of properly sustaining an army fighting in a foreign land; he learned that an army improperly supplied would become "an army unable to fight" (p. 96). Greatly impressed with his commander, General Zachary Taylor, Grant learned the importance of maintaining a calm "demeanor in the face of danger" (p. 85). Taylor's lack of pretense in dress and disposition appealed to Grant and similar in nature to "Old Rough and Ready," Grant would later adapt many of Taylor's simple affectations.
White reprises familiar landscape in describing the second epoch of Grant's life, "Trial, 1848–1861," detailing the desperate years of the 1850s. From his first encounter with and subsequent marriage to Julia, a buoyant woman who rounded out and "expanded his emotional universe," to the solitude of an isolated military post, Grant found the need to reconcile his desire to join his growing family with the reality of the vagaries of a military career (p. 61). Choosing the former, Grant resigned from the army in 1854 to raise a family and to "discover his independence in Missouri," as nice a turned double entendre as can be found in any...