American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, by Ronald C. White Jr.

Another thought-provoking book during this forty days of biography reading takes me into the life and times of Ulysses S. Grant. Deemed one of the three greatest presidents at the turn of the 20th century, Ronald C. White takes the reader behind the scenes and offers a detailed account of the man and his journey through to the White House. Much might be known of his battles during the Civil War, though the reader is sure to find many other nuggets that help shape the man who defeated Robert E. Lee or led the country through tumultuous times during Reconstruction. By no means brief, White makes detailed arguments and offers a strong narrative, both of which take time and scores of examples. The attention and patient reader will come away with a stronger understanding of this general-cum-politician, who might have paved the way for other greats like Eisenhower.Born in rural Ohio, Ulysses S. Grant earned his name from a fateful coin toss, which left him yoked with a moniker that stood out amongst many. Of particular interest, his name at birth was Hiram Ulysses Grant, the ‘S’ an eventual creation without a full name to substantiate it. Grant’s quiet nature and love of all things mathematical led him to excel academically and prove to be a sharp witted son of parents who despised the idea of slavery. While curious about teaching, Grant was encouraged to allow his name to stand for nomination to West Point, the military college that had shaped many men before him. Attending, Grant’s passion remained with numbers and maps, though he did have an aptitude for some degree of the more aggressive aspects of the program. By the time he left, a soldier without a battle, Grant sought to explore his personal interests, one of which happened to be Julia Dent, daughter of a slaveholder and man who surely thought young Ulysses was not good enough to marry, let alone court, his daughter. With the outbreak of war with Mexico, Grant was promised a chance to marry the Dent girl upon his return. While away fighting, Grant fought alongside some of the great names of an upcoming military skirmish within the US borders. For now, the battle was to defend portions of the southern and western territories previously under the control of Mexico. As White explorers these battles, it becomes apparent that Grant pined daily for Julia and could not be bothered too much with the plight of his country. Grant fought hard and did all he could to defend America, eventually expanding it into what is now Texas and California, though the narrative is peppered with letters and commentary by the soldier home to his sweetheart. As promised, upon his return, Julia accepted his proposal and they were soon married, only to commence a series of military secondments. The Grants began their family, though Julia was left to tend to the children while Ulysses headed off, wishing he could take them along. These early struggles, which White argues might have torn some couples apart (and was the hope of Mr. Dent), only strengthened the resolve of Ulysses and Julia. Their connection foreshadowed future separations that caused heartache between them, though never brought them to the point of amorous deterioration. White exemplifies a strong-willed Ulysses, whose love for wife and family trumped all else. That Grant left the military in a cloud of scandal, his discharge an interesting tale all its own, makes the future military glory all the more sensational.

With the whispers of unrest within the United States, the election of Abraham Lincoln brought about much disquiet. White’s past work on Lincoln helps pave the way with a strong narrative about the build-up of aggression within the South towards the sentiment of abolishing slavery. As mentioned before, Grant stood at a crossroads when it came to the issue, with parents strongly against the idea and in-laws who held slaves themselves. As the country was torn apart and war commenced, Grant remained a civilian, with no formal need to engage in war, at least at its beginning in 1861. As the battle-lines were drawn and the country turned to an ‘us versus them’ mentality, Grant held firm and watched as Lincoln led the North against Jefferson Davis and those secessionist states. White effectively narrates some of the major offensives of the early part of the Civil War, culminating in the Emancipation Proclamation, where Lincoln lays the groundwork for the entire rationale behind the North’s fighting. After eventually rejoining the military hierarchy, Grant found himself befriending one William Tecumseh Sherman, a military man who would prove to be a life-long friend and shape much of the post-War military outlook. Grant eventually found himself summoned to the White House to meet with Lincoln, given the title of Lieutenant-General, a high honour in the US Military, only previously bestowed on General George Washington. Grant was sent to command a large portion of the fighting forces, plotting out victory at Shiloh and pushing the men forward into the South. White mentions the strain that the war took on Grant and his time away from Julia, so much so that General Grant saw fit to bring his family closer, lifting his morale and asserting to his men that he had confidence in their victory. Numerous chapters outline Grant’s investment in the war and his continued support of Lincoln’s cause, becoming the Commanding General of the United States Army by the time the bloodshed reached its zenith. With Lincoln’s reelection secured and the South hoisting their white flags, Grant met General Robert E. Lee (former comrade in the Mexican War) at Appomattox to formally sign a peace and end to the Civil War. Grant, the budding politician, sought to ensure Lee received some say in how Southern troops might be handled and what surrender might mean for those men who turned in their uniforms to return to the land. Ever the negotiator, Grant did all he could and would transmit these requests, sensible in his opinion, to Lincoln during the period of reunification. Foreboding and foreshadowing alike, this could be argued as another turning point in the life of Ulysses S. Grant.

With the guns and cannons silent, Grant remained overseer of the US Military and close advisor to Lincoln on how to rebuild. White recounts the night that the Lincolns and Grants were to attend Ford’s Theatre, though Julia had the latter couple bow out at the last minute. Lincoln assassinated and his vice-president, Andrew Johnson, assuming the office, it became a time of much struggle for Grant. Holding firm to his promise to Lee at Appomattox, Grant argued for pardons across the board, though Johnson wanted to punish his southern brethren for their secession. Congress, on the other hand, took it upon themselves to rebuild the UNITED States (emphasis added) through two constitutional amendments (end of slavery and black suffrage) and moved onto Reconstruction. Interestingly enough, as White recounts the history of this time, President Johnson did all in his power not to allow Reconstruction, vetoing both major bills, only to have Congress override them. Grant was called upon to help set up military control of the Southern states for a time, with Johnson remarkably not intervening in selection of military leadership. All the while, Grant’s ambitions were less based on his hunger for power, but a sense of fairness and desire to balance power with a proverbial carrot rather than the stick. Johnson’s actions became troublesome enough to Congress that Articles of Impeachment were brought forth, though they failed to be upheld in the Senate by a single vote. Grant remained on the sidelines during the process, but would not stand in support for his Commander-in-Chief, which spoke volumes. Republicans scrambled for a candidate to run in the upcoming presidential election, turning to Grant, who stood unopposed at the convention. He remained willing to run in the 1868 election, though refused to campaign whatsoever (quite a difference from nowadays). Winning the election, Grant used his time in office to rectify some of the issues he found in the United States. White elucidates some of the key issues related to the price of gold, treatment of the Indian (aboriginal) population, and reestablishing the relationship with Britain. This last issue related to Britain’s outward neutrality during the Civil War, though they were seen to offer much support to the Confederates in the form of ammunition. Grant left it to his Cabinet secretaries to handle these issues, which steering America along the track of continued Reconstruction. However, Grant took particular interest in wrestling with legislation surrounding a group that emerged from the embittered Confederate sentiment; the Ku Klux Klan. Strongly supportive of a federal response to the Klan, Grant encouraged lawmakers to pass legislation to ban Klan activities and strengthen the rights of black Americans. A battle that would last for decades (and some feel is still yet to be resolved), Grant wanted nothing more than to balance the playing field yet again.

While some called upon Grant to allow his name to stand for a third consecutive term, scandal amongst Cabinet secretaries left the president less than eager to forge onwards, even though many felt he would have easily raced to victory. Grant and Julia chose, instead, to see the world as private citizens. Boarding a ship, they began travelling around the world, endearing themselves to many crowds. Some went so far as to chant “King of America”, though Grant seems never to have let this go to his head. Tired and ready to see the world through another lens, Grant did all he could to enjoy his post-presidential years. However, with the Republican Party in disarray, Grant did allow his name to be put forward for the 1880 GOP Convention, leading well into the voting, but eventually unsuccessful. As White concludes, this was less a disappointment for Grant than his simply wanting to ensure the Party had a strong candidate going into the election. Formally entering his waning years, Grant bandied around the idea of memoirs with friend Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), though he felt too much had been written about him already. Grant eventually acquiesced, writing about his time in the Civil War and its numerous battles from his own perspective,. Little did he know that the world sought much more, hoping to discover the intricacies of this tanner’s son who rose through the military ranks and sought to direct America through some of its most difficult years as it reestablished itself, internally and on the world scene. Stricken with cancer, Grant’s final months were painful and his eventual demise saw thousands fill the streets to pay homage one final time. As stated earlier, Grant was one of the three great presidents of the time. One might argue that White helps support that this moniker should remain in place today.

While White admits early on that Grant has been a well-documented president, referring to some of the past biographies that have surfaced, there is something about this piece that captivates the reader from the beginning. The flowing narrative that is full of information and poignant vignettes keeps the story moving along and shows White’s attention to detail. While there could have been much more written, or expanded, White’s choice of topics to pursue keeps the reader’s focus on Grant from waning, while also not offering too many gaps. White effectively argues that Grant was an important man whose passion for people shone through at every turn. Forced to see the worst of men as well as the best, Grant wanting nothing more than to continue the Lincoln legacy of equality, while also forging his own way, once he reached the White House. I have read numerous presidential biographies over the years, many by illustrious writers of our time. White’s piece ranks up there with its comprehension, detail, and ease of reading. The curious reader need not feel shy about delving into this, as there is much to sate one’s appetite, without feeling the need to be an academic to understand much of the discussion.

Kudos, Mr. White for such a comprehensive and entertaining piece on Ulysses S. Grant. Truly a man for the ages, Grant comes to life under your guidance and I am sure many will enjoy this piece for years to come.