Few American presidents have seen their reputations ebb and flow as dramatically as Ulysses S. Grant. At the time of his death in 1885, he was revered as the man whose military prowess had saved the Union and who as president had guided it through the turbulent years of Reconstruction. Later, as national reconciliation (among whites) took hold, Grant’s military and political careers came under severe criticism. On the battlefield he was a “butcher” who, in contrast to the tactically superior Robert E. Lee, triumphed only because of a willingness to sacrifice his men in an endless war of attrition. Grant’s presidency came to be seen as a failure, marred by corruption and a Southern policy that unwisely sought to elevate blacks to political equality.
(Doubleday) - ’The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace’ by H. W. Brands
More recently, Grant’s standing has risen sharply. Military historians have made clear that Grant understood far better than Lee the strategic interconnection of the western and eastern war theaters. And as scholars have revised their view of Reconstruction, seeing it as a noble if flawed attempt to establish interracial democracy in the postwar South, Grant’s efforts to protect the basic rights of former slaves seem praiseworthy, not misguided.
Paradoxes abound in Grant’s career, posing formidable challenges to the biographer. His prewar life offered no inkling of his later accomplishments. Unlike Lincoln, Grant seemed to lack ambition. He did not want to go to West Point, and while there, he scrutinized congressional debates over the future of the military academy, hoping it would be abolished and he could return home. Forced to resign from the Army in the 1850s to avoid having charges brought against him for drunkenness, he ended up working in his brother’s Illinois leather store. His family deemed him a failure. He disdained politics and politicians but was reelected in 1872 with the largest popular majority of the 19th century. Finally, although uncommunicative in person, Grant somehow managed to write one of the finest autobiographies in American letters.
These contradictions have long intrigued historians. Since 2000, no fewer than seven biographies have appeared. The latest to tackle Grant’s life is H.W. Brands, who teaches history at the University of Texas. A remarkably productive scholar, Brands is the author of more than 20 books. Some prolific writers publish essentially the same work over and over again. Not Brands. His books range across centuries and genres — they include biographies (Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson), studies of particular time periods (the 1890s, the years since 1945) and detailed accounts of Cold War foreign policy.
Brands is essentially a storyteller, and a good one. His prose is lucid and colorful. He evokes the atmosphere of Grant’s era by filling the book with lengthy excerpts from primary sources — letters, first-person observations and recollections. What Brands does not do, however, is present new interpretive insights on questions that have engaged generations of historians: the “modernity” of the Civil War, the centrality of emancipation to the war’s outcome, the reasons for the failure of Reconstruction.