“The Man Who Saved the Union” is most successful where events themselves offer a clear story line. Brands presents vivid and compelling accounts of the complex battles of the Civil War. He explains clearly Grant’s strengths as a general: his ability to visualize the entire battlefield in the midst of conflict when others could perceive only chaos, his willingness to take risks and his courage in the face of setbacks. When it comes to the presidency, however, the narrative seems to lose focus. Events succeed one another — Grant’s effort to annex the Dominican Republic, his “peace policy” toward Native Americans, the economic depression that began in 1873, the scandals that marked his second term — but with little cumulative impact.
The closest Brands comes to offering an interpretive schema to unite Grant’s military and political careers concerns slavery and the freed people. “Nearly a century would pass,” he writes in his brief conclusion, “before the country had another president who took civil rights as seriously as Grant did.” Unfortunately, the book’s account of Grant’s growing commitment to the rights of blacks is scattered and sporadic; it cries out for further elaboration. Brands does not really explain Grant’s conversion to emancipation during the war. He ignores Grant’s decision to create what he called a “Negro paradise” at Davis Bend, the Mississippi plantations of Jefferson Davis and his brother Joseph, where land was divided among groups of emancipated slaves. He does not make it clear why Grant came to side with Congress in its battle with Andrew Johnson over Reconstruction.