'American Ulysses' is a game-changing biography of Ulysses S. Grant

We should be grateful to historian Ronald C. White for a thorough and nuanced biography of one of the most consequential figures in American history.

American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant By Ronald C. White, Jr. Random House 864 pp.

The greatest general in American history remains a mystery to most of us.  His commander-in-chief, Lincoln, we know as our saintly Father Abraham, the homespun statesman whose life’s work culminated in martyrdom at Ford’s Theater. His nemesis, Robert E. Lee, is a character out of Plutarch, an exemplar of classical virtues whose archaic loyalties led him to take up a wrong and doomed cause.

By contrast, Grant is remembered as “a drunk,” or at best “the general who won.”  His presidential administrations are remembered for their corruption scandals.  The man who saved the Union and who championed civil rights for African-Americans a century before Selma deserves better. Which is why we should be grateful to historian Ronald C. White for American Ulysses, a thorough and nuanced biography of one of the most consequential figures in American history.

Of necessity most of "American Ulysses" is a book about war, and White is a military historian of the first rank: from the difficulties of maintaining supply lines and getting troops across miles of rocky terrain in Mexico to blow-by-blow accounts of crucial battles of the Civil War, White makes detailed and difficult realities of warfare fully accessible.

But better than White’s discussions of 19th-century warfare is the portrait of Grant that emerges from these histories of battles and sieges. In an age of intense national chauvinism and insularity, Grant left the war in Mexico with a sensitive appreciation of its people and culture.  During the Civil War, when many Union generals were busy angling for promotion or political office, Grant devoted himself to the slow, unglamorous work of turning farm boys into soldiers, ensuring his troops were supplied, and leading a slow hammering at the enemy that ultimately achieved results.  And in dispatches to Washington reporting a victory, he frequently insisted the credit was due to his troops, not to him.

In the chapter dealing with the aftermath of the Mexican War, White addresses the question of Grant’s alcoholism.  White believes a prolonged period of heavy drinking precipitated his resignation from the Army in 1854. There were exacerbating factors. He was at a remote military posting in northern California. With little to do, many personnel passed the time by drinking and gambling.  Grant also missed his wife and children to the point of misery.   What is certain is that if he was ever incapacitated by drink at any point in his Civil War career, it never interfered with his duties. During his presidency, most political insiders in Washington considered the rumors of his alcoholism baseless.

White’s account of Grant’s two terms in office is compelling and heartbreaking.   His most admirable policies were doomed to failure: Grant was determined that African-Americans would enjoy all the rights guaranteed them by the Constitution. His administration also negotiated the annexation of Santo Domingo to provide Southern African-Americans a refuge from White violence. (The Senate refused to approve the treaty). He was also determined to change government policy toward native Americans. White public opinion in the North, South, and West was uniformly opposed to both those efforts.

In other respects, his administration was more successful: Grant’s State Department participated in a Joint High Commission of US, Canadian, and British officials that resolved several conflicts between the two countries, ranging from US claims for damages in compensation for construction of Confederate warships in English shipyards to Canadian boundary disputes. The Commission’s work de-escalated tensions with the world’s sole superpower and was a major development in the practice of international diplomacy.

White’s account of the corruption scandals that plagued Grant’s administrations do ample justice to their complexities, both legal and personal. The bottom line is Grant was too trusting a man to grasp that his own appointees to office could be involved in, for example, helping whiskey distillers defraud the government of tax revenue. The other great scandal of the period, the Credit Mobilier fraud, in which railroad companies were found to have overcharged the government for millions in government contracts, actually predated Grant’s time in office, but it was made public on his watch.

The most painful chapters in this book deal with Grant’s life post-presidency.  After his return from a two-year world tour during which he was hailed as a symbol of American democracy, the Wall Street firm that handled all his investments collapsed.  It was a Ponzi scheme.  The man who could outfox Robert E. Lee could never spot a crook. Grant spent the final months of his life writing his memoirs as he died of throat cancer.  He hoped the royalties would provide for his family.

Grant’s "Personal Memoirs" was an immediate bestseller.

My only misgiving regarding "American Ulysses" is that its length (864 pages) will scare off all but the most enthusiastic Civil War enthusiasts.  I hope as many people as possible read this book.

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