Civil War History 47.1 (2001) 71-73
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Ulysses S. Grant:
Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865
Brooks D. Simpson's splendid new biography of Ulysses S. Grant recounts the remarkable story of the thirty-nine-year-old clerk who rose swiftly through the ranks of the Northern army during the Civil War to command the entire Union military effort, win the war, and secure the peace. In this first volume of two, Simpson spends little time on Grant's early life. The bulk of the book offers a meticulously researched account of his military career in the Civil War. Simpson's Grant is a complex, intelligent, and ultimately masterful leader of men and of armies. Although Simpson does not shy from discussions of miscues and mistakes, in the end his evaluation of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant is positive, even glowing. Thus, his biography stands in marked contrast to William S. McFeely's negative assessment of Grant's character and his wartime record. Scholars and students of the Civil War seeking provocative psychological insights into Grant and his era will keep McFeely's superb one-volume biography on their bookshelf, while those seeking illumination on the military and political aspects of Grant's generalship will consult Simpson as their reference.
The "triumph over adversity" began early for the eldest child of Jesse and Hannah Simpson Grant. Born in 1822 and raised on the rough-hewn Ohio frontier, the young Hiram Ulysses (his first and middle names were later changed to Ulysses Simpson) struggled to live up to his ambitious father's high expectations. Hiram was sensitive, moody, and well educated for the time and place. He was temperamentally unfit for the family tanning business and Jesse's decision to send "Lyss" to West Point was a wise one. During his four years at the U.S. Military Academy (1839-43) Grant was a middling student, but a superb horseman. He clearly enjoyed and benefitted from the military regimen, belying his later statement, "A military life had no charms for me." A few years after graduation from West Point, Lieutenant Grant fought in the MexicanAmerican War, where he demonstrated great courage and tenacity, winning promotion and kudos. As Simpson points out, the man had a talent for fighting, and more than that, an instinctive knowledge of the strategy and tactics of warfare gained from experience, not textbooks.
Despite his good record in the war, and a happy marriage to the sister of his West Point classmate, Grant did not fare well in the peacetime army of the late 1840s and early 1850s. Assigned to remote outposts, Grant took to drinking, and resigned from the army under a cloud of suspicion. The civilian world proved just as difficult. Then as now, there are few character flaws more disturbing to Americans than a penchant [End Page 71] for failure, and Grant failed spectacularly: as a soldier, a provider, a farmer, and a businessman. These painful incidents are served up by Simpson to make an important point: that Grant's failures did not destroy him, but rather made him even more determined to succeed. "Grant's generalship was shaped as much by character as it was by intellect" (462). Then too, there were the successes. He was a loving husband to Julia Dent Grant, and an unusually attentive and affectionate father to their four children. Grant's precarious financial straits finally drove him into his father's business world. When the guns of Ft. Sumter fired, Grant was working in Jesse's leather goods store in Galena, Illinois. Not for long.
The chapters that cover Grant's subsequent career in the war show Simpson's mastery of both military and political sources as well as his talent for fine writing. Simpson avoids the "great battles and leaders" syndrome by linking the story of Grant and the western theater with a close and careful contextual analysis of why he emerged by 1864 as...