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Friday, October 02, 2015

A great American gets his due.

The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace is an excellent biography of one of America's most consistently-underrated historical figures. 

University of Texas history Professor H.W. Brands does a fine job of illuminating Grant's early life and struggles, not only with the bottle but with his failings as a provider--both despite his best efforts. As he does so, Brands presents the determined character that enabled Grant to overcome these failures and rise to become the most beloved general since Washington, and the most popular President of the 19th Century (at least in terms of electoral success).

The description of Grant's military tenure during the Civil War is very solid, demonstrating that he was the best strategic thinker on either side, and no slouch as a tactician. Brands points out--correctly--that Grant's casualty rates were lower as a proportion of men in combat than Lee's despite being on the offensive much more often. That said, I still think Lee was slightly better as a tactician, especially considering that the quality of leadership in the Army of Northern Virginia declined drastically over time, and that of the Army of the Potomac increased with the rise of men like Sheridan and Ord.

None of that was a particular surprise to me, given my other reading. The real eye-opener for me was Brands' revisionist (and I use that term advisedly) assessment of Grant's two terms as President. Far from the failure "everyone knows" it to be, Grant's Presidency had a remarkable number of achievements: the Fifteenth Amendment, the squelching of the attempt to corner the gold market, the settling of claims against England stemming from the giving of commerce raiders to the Confederacy and, most crucially, Grant's dedication to civil rights for freedmen. In enforcing the Ku Klux Klan Act and related civil rights legislation and appointing determined attorneys general like Amos Akerman (who had been a Colonel for the Confederacy!), Grant was the President most devoted to civil rights and racial equality until the arrival of Lyndon Johnson. Furthermore, Grant presented the most humane policy toward the Indian tribes by an American president up to his time.

Where this reassessment (slightly) fails is in providing a thorough explanation of *why* Grant's reputation as President went to and remains mostly in the dustbin at this late date. To be sure, Brands' treatment of 1872-1880 is not all praise--Grant is rapped for his too-restrictive handling of the Panic of 1873, America's first industrial depression, which cast a shadow over much of his tenure. Though, in Grant's defense, his restrictive approach to increasing the money supply was well-within the mainstream of 1870s economic thought.

Interestingly enough, the economic doldrums did not damage his personal popularity much (as opposed to damaging the GOP)--he came close to winning a nomination for a third term in 1880, and almost certainly would have won that election, too. 

All in all, the coverage of Grant's presidency is an eye-opener which should act as a welcome rebuttal to the Good General/Bad President canard that unjustly haunts him.

Finally, Brands deftly handles Grant's last battle--a race against time to finish his memoirs as he was dying of throat cancer. As he did through his military career, Grant won this battle through dogged determination, dying a few days after he finished them, ensuring that his wife and family would be well-provided for. The Mutt-and-Jeff friendship that arose between Grant and Mark Twain is also well-drawn. Brands also includes a hilarious anecdote of Twain's one "battle" on behalf of the Confederacy in 1861 that left me--and my wife--laughing out loud. I am morally certain Twain would approved.

Brands concludes his book with the dedication of Grant's Tomb in 1897, a dozen years after his death. During the dedication, Grant's veterans naturally showed up in large numbers--but so did a significant number of former Confederates, including the last of Lee's capable corps commanders, John B. Gordon. Gordon was mobbed by Union veterans who wanted to shake his hand, and also tell him that, while they were glad to see him, they would just as gladly have shot him during the War. Gordon just as good-naturedly shook their hands and said he'd have done the same. 

One of the Confederate veterans arrived in his patched butternut, declared to all and sundry that while he was a proud rebel, he was honored to take part in a ceremony honoring a great man. This was met with loud cheers and the band striking up "Dixie."

All in all, an exceptional read, even if you aren't interested in the era--but absolutely essential if you are. Four stars.


  1. Well I've been all over the place on Grant. When you read that after the Wilderness his men cheered up because they weren't going back north with their tails between their legs like all the other commanders before him, you have to admire him for his gutsy determination.
    Then you get to Cold Harbor and men pinning their names on their uniforms so their bodies could be identified after the battle: If nothing else, the Civil War taught that infantry do not successfully charge dug-in positions, a point well driven home in WWI.
    Lately I've been rethinking the North's strategy in general and find that I'm more inclined to support McClellan's approach (although not his reasoning or military intelligence, which were both faulty).
    Here's the deal: The Yanks were constantly getting clobbered by Lee in the east and mopping up the Rebs out west.
    I think the North could have ended the war sooner by putting a lot more resources out west and making the drive to Atlanta and on up through Carolina sooner. To keep Lee in check in Virginia, I would not have fought him so much as kept a defensive force in being -- kinda like McClellan did (again for the wrong reasons) -- and waited for the Atlanta army to come up to Richmond from the south. Then Lee would have been smashed between two armies and the whole shebang would have ended sooner.
    Grant, as much as I would like to admire him, was too determined to simply throw his men's lives away in a war of attrition that cost more than it needed to.
    But I always enjoy reading and thinking about this stuff.

  2. "Grant, as much as I would like to admire him, was too determined to simply throw his men's lives away in a war of attrition that cost more than it needed to."

    This certainly does not bear out at Vicksburg or any of his pre AotP command.

    As noted, this is in fact not the case. If Grant had a fault it was allowing for the dysfunctional command structure to exist between him and Meade (as well as that odd ball Burnside Corp command). You can lay poor coordination at Meade and several of his corp commanders like Burnside and Warren, Smith. Those led to lots of unnecessary casualties 'cuz Meade wanted to show Grant how "aggressive" his easterners could be.

    This country owes Grant and Lincoln the fact that they gave the CSA a soft and generous peace. How many civil wars end up without the hangman or axman chopping the heads of the loosers and creating generations of bitter enders.

    1. Good point about the trouble with coordination, which if I remember right was the problem at Cold Harbor.

  3. Grant had his faults (see Cold Harbor and his almost treatment of George Thomas). But if you get a chance, big man, read his memoirs. The greatest Midwestern book ever written, any of Twain's included.


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