Review of “American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant” by Ronald C. White

This detailed biography of Grant has excellent coverage of Grant’s role in the Civil War, but also a great deal of exposition about Grant’s character. The author presents Grant as someone who consistently surprised both friends and opponents by his humility, modesty, and magnanimity.

The author is trying to rectify the reputation of a man now known primarily for military genius (or at the least, military perseverance). For many years before recent times, however, Grant was regarded as one of the “Trinity of Great American Leaders” along with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1900, “Mightiest among the mighty dead loom the three great figures of Washington, Lincoln, and Grant.” In the second rank Roosevelt placed Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

Moreover, Frederick Douglass himself, who knew both Lincoln and Grant, thought more of Grant in some ways, saying of Grant after his presidential term:

“To him more than any other man the Negro owes his enfranchisement and the Indian a humane policy. In the matter of the protection of the freedman from violence his moral courage surpassed that of his party; hence his place as its head was given to timid men, and the country was allowed to drift, instead of stemming the current with stalwart arms.”

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at headquarters in Cold Harbor, Va., June 1864, Library of Congress

And in fact, White spends a great deal of time recounting the problems after the Civil War, with the South trying to suppress blacks in every way they could, and about the measures Grant tried to take (ultimately without success) to prevent that from happening. Both Congress and those in power in the South (many of whom had been Confederates during the Civil War) resisted efforts by Grant to ensure civil equality and to rein in the violence of a new organization, The Ku Klux Klan.

Grant was elected to the presidency in 1868 with a total popular vote of 3,013,421, just slightly over 300,000 more than that received by incumbent President Andrew Johnson. In the run-up to the election, the Democrats boasted of their intent to suppress rights of blacks, highlighting the difference between their stance and that of Grant’s, who was known for his determination to enforce the now constitutionally-protected rights of blacks. Grant was branded a “black Republican” and a “nigger lover.” One of the slogans of the opposition was “Let All Good Men Vote No Nigger.” As the author observes, “it was not lost on the opposition that without the support of approximately 400,000 black freedman, [Grant] would have lost the popular vote.” Whites intended to see that didn’t happen again through a campaign of violence and voter intimidation.

“Of course he wants to vote the Democratic ticket.” Thomas Nast Cartoon, Oct. 21, 1876,

During Grant’s presidency, he was equally ineffective not only in protecting blacks but in helping Native Americans, though not for lack of trying. But the greed for their land by whites, and racism against them, were strong forces Grant was unable to counter. Even William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan, his close friends both during and after the war, disagreed with Grant on the disposition of the Indians. (Grant, to his discredit, did not try to rein in the extermination policies of Sherman and Sheridan.)

And then there was Grant’s cabinet. For most positions he selected old friends and family members rather than people who were necessarily qualified. Many of them came from relatively poor backgrounds, and were enticed by the opportunities that political power offered them for graft. Grant was slow to recognize the corrupt behavior of men he thought were his loyal friends, and had difficulty accepting that they would betray him in that way. Eventually, the chair of his Indian Commission, his personal secretary, his secretary of war, and his secretary of the interior were all forced to resign in financial corruption scandals. In addition there were others around him who participated in a variety of schemes to enrich themselves by the exploitation of others, but managed to escape punishment. Although Grant was guilty of nothing but poor character judgment, the wrongdoings of those in his cabinet contributed to the diminution of his reputation.

President Grant

Indeed, ultimately, as White shows, while Grant was in some senses adored for his fundamental decency, it was also the trait that led to most of his failures. Too often he gave the benefit of the doubt, and too often expected that others would act as he would. Alas, he had quite a few more better angels riding on his shoulders than other people. He also was loathe to engage in the unsavory and extremely contentious political wrangling that Lincoln had relished, and at which Lincoln so excelled. The political process was odious to Grant, an aversion that unfortunately affected his efficacy in the role as president.

Grant never understood, or even wanted to understand, politics the way he did the military. He certainly would never have appointed friends and/or relatives to lead battles; he knew better. And yet it did not register to him that bad leadership in political offices as well as on the field of battle could also inflict severe damage to people’s lives.

After Grant’s two-terms in office, also highlighted by some positive achievements, such as an important peace treaty with Great Britain resolving issues left over from the Civil War, the Grants took off for an overseas tour of many countries. Upon returning, Grant once again was the victim of financial graft by someone he thought he could trust, this time by a Ponzi scheme, that left him and Julia impoverished. Moreover, Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer and knew he needed to find a way to provide support for Julia and their family after he died. Thus he embarked on writing his memoirs, which are still considered to be a literary classic.

Ulysses S. Grant, at a cottage in Mt. McGregor, New York, 1885, working on his memoirs

Grant died on July 23, 1885 only a few days after finishing his manuscript. His funeral procession in New York was attended by some million and a half admirers.

One development of which I was unaware was the unexpected friendship, after the deaths of both Grant and Jefferson Davis, of their widows. Julia Grant and Varina Davis met in 1893 in New York, where both had come to live. The two not only became close friends, but their two daughters also became close friends. After Julia died in 1902, Varina publicly defended both Grants for the rest of her life (she herself died in 1906). Julia’s son General Frederick Grant sent an artillery company to escort Varina’s cortege as it made its way out of New York City.

Julia Grant, left, and Varina Davis, right. Library of Congress

Evaluation: White does an excellent job of providing a deeply researched, balanced portrayal of a man whom he clearly admires, while not withholding aspects of Grant’s story that show him in less-than-perfect light. So many books are devoted to Grant’s prowess in military strategy. This book also introduces us to Grant as a boy, a man, and a devoted husband and father. White’s strong emphasis on Grant’s commitment to equal rights, to justice for freed blacks, and compassion about the plight of Native Americans, so unusual for a man of his times, does a great service to his memory. This book will help set the record straight for readers.

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardcover in 864 pages by Penguin Random House, 2016

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

Jim and I went to hear the author do a reading for this book, and his obvious passionate dedication to the restoration of Grant’s reputation in the top pantheon of American heroes had most of the crowd rushing to buy the book afterwards. The narrator, Arthur Morey, sounds a great deal like the author. I also liked that when he read something in the voice of Grant, I found myself thinking, “that sounds just like him!” Ironic, of course, since we don’t know what Grant sounded like, but the narrator totally sold me on the idea that Grant would have sounded just like he rendered him! My only complaint is my usual one of narrators: the mispronunciation of “forte”: “For-tay” is a musical term; the word meaning “strong point” is correctly said as “fort”. On the other hand, one must give him kudos for knowing the correct pronunciation of Cairo, Illinois – that is, not like the city in Egypt, but like the syrup.

With respect to the question of whether this book is better in print or audio, aside from my very small quibbles on pronunciation, I had no problem with taking in the details of the book despite not having access to pictures or maps, of which the hardcover book has a great deal. On the other hand, I am familiar enough with the subject that I was able to picture it all in my head in any event.

Published unabridged on 22 CDs (approximately 27 and 1/2 listening hours) by Brilliance Audio, 2016

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8 Responses to Review of “American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant” by Ronald C. White

  1. This sounds really interesting, especially since it focuses more on Grant’s trials and tribulations after earning his reputation as a military commander. Great review!

  2. Beth F says:

    I adore listening to biography. I’ll add this to my list. Mr. BFR would also be interested in this.

  3. BermudaOnion says:

    I would never have considered this book but you sure have made a strong case for it.

    In a side note, I recently listened to a book that had a character who was supposed to be taking French lessons and the narrator mispronounced Alliance Francaise.

  4. I’m surprised that somebody would write a book about Grant in this day and age. I would expect that the old guys are old news. But I agree with Kathy. It sounds like a good read.

  5. Rita K says:

    Definitely one I need to get to listen to on a road trip!

  6. Michelle says:

    I actually bought this book for my father for the holidays. He is a huge history buff and loves biographies. It was earning enough rave reviews that I knew he would enjoy it. Your review makes me think I need to add it to my own listening queue, if only to get another glimpse into the life of this fascinating man.

  7. Interesting review, thank you. I do wonder about “restoring” Grant’s reputation. Your claim, or the author’s claim, that he should be considered one of the great presidents is a bit undermined by the rest of your review. My guess is the jury is still out on Grant. He’s certainly interesting in any case, much more interesting than most people think.

  8. Rachel says:

    27 hours – whoa! It does sound like a really interesting book though. I don’t really know anything about Grant – just your review was very informative and makes me want to read this book and learn more.

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