Why Grant?” William S. McFeely asked rhetorically in the introduction to his 1981 biography of the Union Army general-in-chief and eighteenth President of the United States. Somewhere around 120 Grant biographies had already been published by then. Twenty years later, Jean Edward Smith stated (in the preface to his own eponymously titled Grant biography) that the number was by then up to 134. Writing in a 2012 review of yet another entry, the Columbia University historian Eric Foner noted that “no fewer than seven [Grant] biographies” had appeared since Smith’s tally in 2001. Extrapolating from these figures, it would appear that Ronald C. White, Jr.’s American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant is at least the one hundred forty-second Grant biography, raising yet again McFeely’s essential question: “Why Grant?” Do we really need another Grant biography?
Do we really need another Grant biography?
The sheer number of books written about Grant and their wildly varying assessment of the man have, in recent years, made at least a passing reference to the confusing historiography nearly obligatory in any new Grant book review. Some of the more amusing review titles from the last few decades include: “America’s Most Reconsidered General”; “Grant Rediscovered, Again”; and “Still a Mystery? Grant and the Historians.” In a nutshell, the history of Grant historiography goes like this: He defeated the armies of the Confederacy, left office after a two-term presidency as the most popular man in the United States, and re-entered private life as the most respected American in the world. His funeral procession through Manhattan stretched for seven miles and attracted 1.5 million onlookers. His mausoleum in New York City is the largest in North America; his monument at the foot of the U.S. capitol is the largest equestrian statue in the world. How can it be that modern Americans hold him in such low regard?
In the early decades of the twentieth century, the revisionist “Lost Cause” version of American Civil War historiography began to take hold; in this telling, Grant was not the Washingtonian figure who had saved the Union during crisis, not the bold and brilliant strategist who had finally defeated the indomitable Lee on the battlefield, nor, as President, the crusader against rampant corruption who stood up for the rights of former slaves, defeated the Ku Klux Klan, and put the country back on a sound economic footing with disciplined monetary policy.
In the “Lost Cause” telling of history, Grant was a bumbling, drunken, failed businessman who defeated the South’s “Marble Man” Robert E. Lee (who, in Lost Cause theory, was simply defending the Constitutional principle of “States’ Rights”) only because he had more troops at his disposal and had no compunctions about disposing of them as recklessly as possible until he finally won. Further, Grant ruined Reconstruction by foolishly trying to force integration on a proud, recalcitrant South that had allegedly been fighting to preserve Constitutional government as intended by the Founders. For “social history” context, it’s worth remembering that during this particular Lost Cause period of Grant defenestration, D. W. Griffith’s hugely popular Birth of a Nation (1915) was screened at Woodrow Wilson’s White House; James Thurber published a famously amusing parody in a 1930 edition of The New Yorker entitled “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox”; Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind won a Pulitzer Prize in 1937; and the film adaptation thereof won ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, in 1939.
With the Civil War Centennial approaching, several mid-twentieth-century historians undertook an anti-revisionist re-examination of Grant in the 1950s and 1960s, determining that perhaps he was not such a bad person after all, and that he was indeed an effective general. Among the most notable of these was Bruce Catton (winner of a 1954 Pulitzer Prize for A Stillness at Appomattox). This was the sort of “revisionism” McFeely claimed to abhor, and he was having none of it when he undertook his own Grant biography during the Jimmy Carter era. McFeely’s Grant was pretty much all the bad things the Lost Cause revisionists had described, plus Grant didn’t really care all that much about the former slaves, and Grant betrayed his own social class to boot, sending hundreds of thousands of them to their deaths so that he could claw his way to the top of a Gilded Age American aristocracy.
In considering whether we really need yet another Grant biography, it should be mentioned that the 141-or-so earlier Grant biographies, written over as many years, have varied widely: in tenor—ranging from hagiography to character assassination—and in focus—with many emphasizing a particular aspect or phase of Grant’s career without attempting a fully unified depiction of a person who operated at the apex of two extraordinarily significant decades of United States history. Ronald C. White, Jr.’s American Ulysses is the third full-scale, ancestry-to-epilogue treatment of Grant’s life published in the last four decades, so it is perhaps most useful to compare this latest Grant appraisal to the other two: William S. McFeely’s Grant: A Biography and Jean Edward Smith’s Grant.
McFeely’s Grant was a psychologically insecure grasping social climber.
McFeely’s Grant was a psychologically insecure grasping social climber: “Once he had become general, he had to go on to be president, and once his time as president was up he had, again, no idea what to do with himself. But the difference was that he had heard those cheers and he could not do without them.” To those historians who insisted that Grant “must have had some secret greatness, hidden within him . . . almost as if it were some special organ implanted in the bodies of a particular few,” McFeely boldly demurred that Grant had no such special quality: “I leave to others the problem of accounting for a Mozart or a
Marx . . . .” Mozart or Marx? Interesting choices of comparison for a biographer of Ulysses S. Grant, almost a Lloyd Bentsen debating tactic: “General Grant, I’m a historian. I know Mozart and Marx. And General . . . you’re no Mozart or Marx.”
Why do we still care about McFeely? Because his anti-anti-revisionist book Grant: A Biography won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982 (beating out David McCullough’s biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Mornings on Horseback) and spawned two generations of anti-anti-anti-revisionism, mostly in support of Grant. In answering his own “Why Grant?” query, he acknowledged that he had written yet another Grant biography “neither because I had discovered some extraordinary mass of evidence that would enable me to greatly revise accounts of the events of his career nor because I had manufactured an intricate theory that would enable me to claim that I had found a ‘new Grant.’ ” Instead, writing in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, McFeely manufactured an intricate pop-psychology theory that sought to reinforce the “old” Grant through a largely negative portrayal steeped in the cynicism of 1970s America. Grant, he wrote, was “a curious choice for the subject of a biography if the writer is not an admirer of warfare and is not inordinately fascinated by political corruption. . . . No amount of revision is going to change the way men died at Cold Harbor, the fact that men in the Whiskey Ring stole money, and the broken hopes of black Americans . . . ”
Jean Edward Smith’s Grant was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 (McCullough won that year, for John Adams). Covering the same key aspects and events of Grant’s life story as McFeely at similar depth and breadth (albeit from a decidedly more positive point of view), Smith observed that all biography “reflects the attitudes and predilections of the author, and the time it was written.” In his preface, he singled out McFeely as being among a group of “academic historians who stressed the inhumanity of war during the Vietnam era [and] denigrated Grant’s role in saving the Union.” The key to understanding Grant, in Smith’s telling, is the dogged persistence he displayed throughout his life: “The common thread is strength of character—an indomitable will that never flagged in the face of adversity. . . . Sometimes he blundered badly; he often oversimplified; yet he saw his goals clearly and moved toward them relentlessly.” The Pulitzer Prize–winning historian James M. McPherson called Smith’s Grant “the best full-scale biography to have appeared.” Two-time Pulitzer-winner David Herbert Donald called it “by far the best life of Grant ever written.”
With American Ulysses, White wades into the fray, presenting a Grant biography every bit as thorough and sympathetic to its subject as Smith’s Grant. In fact, if White’s book has a problem, it is this very similarity; much of what he writes about Grant has already been covered by Smith, and covered quite well. Both authors seek to re-introduce U. S. Grant to a public that somehow has not yet gotten the message that he was not such a bad guy after all, and in fact was pretty special—the right man, at the right time, for a politically troubled nation. Both authors present a unified chronicle demonstrating that Grant’s persistence in the face of adversity early in life presaged the tenacity with which he would wage war against the Confederacy and then, as President, attempt to reconstruct a fundamentally transformed America. Proving that McFeely still rankles and motivates his fellow historians thirty-five years later, White, like Smith, singles him out for criticism in his introduction.
What White brings to the Grant discussion, and where his book truly excels, is his deeper examination of what he calls “elements of Grant overlooked or undervalued,” particularly his devotion to his wife, Julia, and their children. Even McFeely—who was almost as unkind in his portrayal of Julia as he was to her husband—lamented the dearth of information on Julia’s life, noting that “by rights this book should be a joint study of both of them. . . . I hope the importance of Julia in the Grant story is nowhere lost.” White has done a great deal to rescue Julia from obscurity.
White has done a great deal to rescue Julia from obscurity.
White makes much of the fact that he is the first Grant biographer to have had the benefit of both the fully collected Papers of Ulysses S. Grant—finally complete after nearly a half-century of work by scholars—and The Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library, which opened at Mississippi State University in 2012, and he has mined these troves to good effect. True Grant aficionados will be interested to learn the names of his childhood friends, their adventures, and what sorts of games they liked to play. They may be surprised to learn of his love of contemporary literature, and of the extent to which his avid reading of novels shaped his thinking and honed his writing skills. They will enjoy the romantic details of his courtship of Julia, their early years of marriage, and his relationship with his slaveholding, Southern-sympathizing in-laws-to-be. They will read with horror the details of nineteenth-century transportation and appreciate Grant’s compassion and ability to manage crisis situations in White’s recounting of his regiment’s transfer to California via the isthmus of Panama. Seven hundred people, including many soldiers’ wives and children, began the voyage from New York City in June of 1852; two months later, only 450 survived to arrive in San Francisco, most of the others having fallen victim to cholera and other diseases contracted during the arduous crossing of Panama. Although not officially in charge of the situation (he was the regimental quartermaster), Grant took command. A fellow officer, traveling with his own young family, wrote that Grant was “one of the coolest men in all these trying circumstances I ever saw.”
Grant had wisely determined that the move to California would prove too dangerous for his young son and for Julia, who was then pregnant, but his decision to leave them home led to what was probably the most significant formative experience of his antebellum life: his two-and-a-half-year separation from his wife and family. Anyone who has read about Grant is aware that this was a tough time for him, and ultimately led to his unwarranted reputation as a habitual drunk. In a chapter titled “Forsaken,” however, White lays bare in heart-aching detail the depths of his despondency—what we today might call clinical depression—during this period. It was while serving in isolated army garrisons in the Northwestern Territories that Grant began dabbling in side ventures, hoping to find a way to leave the army and still support his family. Some of these ended in failure due to exigencies beyond his control, particularly weather; others failed due to his misplaced trust in old army friends, portending similar errors in judgment he would make as president.
White makes clear, in this and subsequent chapters, that Grant’s overwhelming personal concern throughout his life was how to support his family, and to be with them. Amazingly, he rose from clerking in his family’s tannery business in 1859 to General-in-Chief of all Union armies in 1864. He gave up what would have been a substantial pension when elected President of the United States in 1868, because then-current law precluded federal political officials from receiving military pension; presidential pensions were not provided until after Harry Truman’s presidency. Post-presidency, Grant was financially ruined following the Panic of 1884, and yet insisted on selling off all his personal possessions, including his wartime and presidential memorabilia, to satisfy his debts. His final act on behalf of his family’s financial well-being was the writing of his memoirs while he was dying of cancer. This two-volume work was published by Mark Twain, and remains in print to this day, acclaimed as a classic piece of literature, and its royalties supported his family long after his death.
White’s American Ulysses is a fine addition to the enormous collection of Grant historiography. If you’re already a Grantophile, you will know much of what this biography offers, but you will still come away with a larger understanding of the man who is buried in Grant’s tomb.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 6, on page 73
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