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Hefty Historical Bio Gives General Grant Newfound Respect...and Truth

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

Popular conception of Ulysses S. Grant – the Union General whose victory in the Civil War paved the way for his two terms as the 18th U.S. President — goes something like this: He’s a bearded, cigar-chomping, tough-talking, not-so-smart career military man who liked to booze it up a lot.

But as White’s massive new biography vociferously argues – and backs up with many years of research and access to documents unseen by any previous biographer – only the parts about his facial hair and choice of smoke are actually accurate. In the early days of the Civil War, when Grant was photographed with a stogie clamped tightly between his teeth, admirers from around the country sent him 11,000 of the things for his future use.

White – best known as an Abraham Lincoln scholar – attempts and succeeds at recasting the life and career of Ulysses Grant. A man who was not a bloodthirsty conqueror, but saw war as an unfortunate means to a necessary end and took no pleasure in gloating over a fallen enemy. Even the most hard-bitten Confederate generals had to give him respectful accolades for his humane and forward-thinking terms in the “Lost Cause’s” surrender.

He was also a man who loved novels and the theater, was a decent painter, and championed the rights in words and deeds of African and Native Americans even when it was unpopular to do so

Ulysses Grant – so appropriately named for the wandering hero of Greek myth - was not an eloquent speaker, nor a fiery personality. But he had a quiet reserve, dignity and nose-to-the-grindstone attitude that he practiced all his life.

He didn’t even want to go to West Point military academy, but attended to please his father, nonetheless graduating in the lower half of his class. He was then sent to Texas in 1845 during the Mexican War that set the southern border of Texas as the Rio Grande River (which he was shocked to find was only 100 yards wide and four feet deep!).

It’s in this conflict that he made his first real-life military impact, serving under Zachary Taylor. He visited Austin, San Antonio and Corpus Christi before driving into Mexico, where he had his first victory as a regiment leader, in the Battle of Resaca de la Palma at the age of 23. Though White notes he had incredible sympathy for the Mexican civilians caught in the conflict, even learning some Spanish to better communicate.

Grant actually quit the U.S. Army, returning only when he felt he could make a contribution to the brewing Civil War. As his armies racked up victories at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Chattanooga and Vicksburg (which White calls “the most impressive military operation on American soil”), his stature grew, as did his fond relationship with Abraham Lincoln.

The controversies with fellow generals and political maneuvering served him well in trading an Army encampment for the White House, and he was elected at the then-youngest age of any president, at 46.

His two terms were pockmarked by scandal, and his goals for Reconstruction and healing a badly scarred nation did not always meet acclaim from and cooperation with others in the government. His occasional suppression of journalists and newspapers critical of his job performance also tarnished his use of power.

When he finally left the top seat of government, he commented, “I was never so happy in my life as the day I left the White House. I felt like a boy getting out of school.”

Also making him feel like a love-struck boy was his strong and dedicated marriage with wife Julia and their brood of children and grandchildren.

When Grant and his wife made a two-and-a-half-year journey around the world after leaving office, it was more to quench their curiosity about faraway lands and their people than to receive the accolades afforded him at every stop. While visiting China, he even found himself an unplanned emissary between the ruler of that country and its rival Japan over some territorial rights.

Since he quit the Army to run for President, Ulysses Grant never received a pension, so he had to keenly use investments to support his family. When a business partner took off with a large amount of money that Grant had borrowed with his name and reputation as collateral, the family was faced with a financial crisis.

Rescue came in the form of author Mark Twain, who urged Grant to write his memoirs. Reluctantly, but then with zeal, Grant worked feverishly on it, completing the manuscript only shortly before throat cancer (those damn cigars again) took his life in 1885 at the age of 63. But the book ensured his family’s financial well-being for many years to come, and has over time been praised by historians as one of the best ever written.

With American Ulysses, White has made a bold new case for immediate reconsideration of its subject on many levels. White’s writing can be dry at times, and he does spend far more pages on the minutiae of specific Civil War battles and not nearly enough on Grant’s eight years as President. But his effort more than pays off with a fresh, detailed look at a man who, in his lifetime, saw a medal cast with the images of Washington, Lincoln and himself. And that's pretty damn good company. 

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