Review of “The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace” by H.W. Brands

General Ulysses S. Grant was in many respects a great man. He was undeniably a great general. As President of the United States, however, he didn’t perform nearly as well; he just wasn’t well-suited for the position. He had heart, and at least expressed much more passion for the plight of minorities (including women, Native Americans, and people of color) and the injustices done to them than did even Lincoln, if not nearly as eloquently. But with an almost total lack of political instincts (as well as the lack of legislation at the time enabling federal action protecting minorities), his positions on these issues remained largely ineffectual.


During the Civil War, if the enemy proved intractable, Grant would [as Lincoln needlessly advised him in August 1864], “hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew and choke…!” When in office as President, however, Grant seemed to lack the stomach (or spine) for extended political wrangling, and would give in after the slightest resistance, no matter how egregious the results of the capitulation. Moreover, while Lincoln could take the measure of a man and work with it to his benefit, Grant appears to have been totally naïve about those around him, and about the ethos of greed that overtook the country after the Civil War. Finally, he let his emotions rule his utterances far too often. He was easily offended, defensive, thin-skinned, and could not refrain from showing it.

President U.S. Grant, 1870

President U.S. Grant, 1870

In this comprehensive biography, Brands reveals many details about Grant’s life from letters, Grant’s autobiography, and the testimony of others. What I never got a sense of, however, was just what Grant was thinking most of time (or not thinking, as the case may have been), nor much analysis of why events occurred as they did. Brands is at his best during Grant’s time in the Civil War. But even here, Brands just doesn’t go deep enough. For example, he quotes a number of sources about whether Grant actually was, or was not, drunk on several occasions, but never goes into why the rumors persisted, and doesn’t really even hazard an opinion as to how much truth there was to them.

Once the Civil War is over, so is the excitement in the book. Brands goes into [perhaps too much] detail about some of the greed-inspired scandals of the go-go years after the war, especially since many of them involved members of Grant’s cabinet, family, and friends. Grant was ostensibly oblivious to what was going on around him, never believing that his associates could commit such perfidy. At least, that’s what we are to take away from what Brands reports. What was Grant doing this whole time while all of his friends and family were robbing him right and left? What was he thinking? Brands never really tells us much.

Political cartoon lampooning the corruption around Grant

Political cartoon lampooning the corruption around Grant

When Grant finally left office, his relief was almost palpable. One definitely gets a strong sense of how odious the political process was to him, and how he tried to escape from participating in it not only after he was no longer President, but even while he was in office! However, while he did avoid political in-fighting whenever possible, he did not desist from speaking up on behalf of minorities.

Discussion: Having read a great deal about Grant already, I was able to see that Brands elided over some negative aspects of Grant’s career. During the Civil War, for instance, while Brands includes many details about battles that were won, he gives very cursory – and even misleading – coverage to those that didn’t go well (such as Petersburg with its disastrous Battle of the Crater). Similarly, Brands cherry-picks aspects of Grant’s Indian Policy to place Grant in a more positive light than he might have appeared had a more representative sample of his policies been revealed.

However, the phenomenon of biographers producing hagiographic works is fairly common, and I don’t blame Brands for admiring a man like Grant. For all his shortcomings in terms of political and social savvy, he was a brilliant military strategist; moral and upright; committed (at least personally) to justice for freed blacks; and compassionate about the plight of Native Americans (even if his policies wouldn’t be considered “enlightened” by current standards).

It is interesting that whereas Brands clearly loves Grant, one doesn’t get the same impression about Brands’ attitude toward Grant’s wife, Julia; her portrait in this biography is far from flattering. William Tecumseh Sherman, however, comes off very positively in this (as in other) portrayals.

General Sherman, Grant's BFF

General Sherman, Grant’s BFF

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

As far as the narration of this audiobook goes, I wasn’t particularly taken with it. Stephen Hoye delivers all of Grant’s pronouncements in the voice of someone who might be described as saintly but put-upon. It was a bit of a turn-off.

Moreover, there were some rather bad mispronunciations by the narrator. According to the CD box, Mr. Hoye “has worked as a professional actor in London and Los Angeles for over 30 years.” So don’t you think he could find out the proper pronunciation of what he is reading? It may take some work to find out how to say Salmon Chase’s name, but the pronunciation for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger Taney is everywhere. And I almost choked when he talked about the Grants visiting the city of Agra in India: the city’s name isn’t even pronounced in Hindi the way the narrator said it, much less English! As for the way he said “debouche”: Oh dear!

With respect to the question of whether this book is better in print or audio, aside from my quibbles with the narrator, I had no problem with taking in the details of the book despite not having access to pictures or maps. (On the other hand, I familiar enough with the subject that I was able to picture it all in my head in any event!)

Evaluation: It’s hard not to like stories about Grant, Sherman, Lincoln, and the Civil War Era. On the other hand, it’s hard to listen to how little the North cared what was happening to blacks in the South once the War was over. But this too is important, and must be appreciated to understand the history of our country and the legacy of the post-War backlash.

This isn’t the absolute best book on Grant I’ve read, but I still enjoyed it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Random House Audio on 23 compact discs (unabridged), 2012


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9 Responses to Review of “The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace” by H.W. Brands

  1. Beth F says:

    Writing this one down. Both Mr. BFR and I read a lot of nonfiction about the people and events of the Civil War. I might pass on the audio though — or at least brace myself for the mispronunciations.

  2. Now I’m curious! How DO you pronounce Salmon Chase? I always pronounced it like the fish in my head as I was reading… off to google around. 🙂

  3. I have a feeling my mind would wander if I listened to a book like this. It bugs me to no end when narrators pronounce words wrong.

  4. I think I would like to read Grant’s books that he wrote himself. I have considered him a very interesting figure in American History.

  5. I recently listened to this book too. I didn’t really know a lot about Grant before but your comment about Brands glossing over some of the more negative aspects of his career makes me want to read something else about Grant. Any suggestions?

    • There are, as you probably know, a million books about the Civil War! But I think two of my recent favorites that show a lot about Grant are “Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War” by Charles Bracelen Flood, and “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year” by David Von Drehle. While the latter book is about Lincoln, much of it is also necessarily about Grant vs. McClellan, and why Grant made such a better general. As for information on battles, there are many books but my favorite source is actually the National Parks Service! Each battlefield has great materials on the specifics of the battles there. See for example the links on the Fredericksburg site, here.

  6. Barbara says:

    Poor old U.S. Grant. He failed at everything except being a general. As long as there was a war to fight, he was important, but in peace not so much. You would think a good general would also excel at delegating authority and run a good government (like Ike?), but Grant found politics so distasteful that he just wanted to serve his sentence and get out. The second best thing he did in his lifetime was work harder than anyone would have thought possible to finish his memoirs before he died, so the income would support his widow. When he put his nose to the grindstone, he could accomplish wonders.

  7. bookingmama says:

    I’m fascinated by the Civil War but I’m sure I’d need the maps and such if I listened to this one.

  8. Lisa says:

    Sounds like a book well worth reading, even with its flaws. Just good to know to be advised “reader beware” in so far as a full picture is concerned.

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