American Ulysses

This one-volume biography of Ulysses S. Grant was fun to read. In his Prologue, White tells us how his volume is different from previous biographies. “Early on I became convinced I could not understand Ulysses’s story without understanding Julia’s story. Too often discounted or marginalized, she occupies a larger place in this biography. Others might describe her as plain, but to Ulysses she was beautiful in ways that counted–in her gentleness, warmth, and joy. Their young love, more than they initially understood, would be tested by families who vigorously defended opposite sides of the slavery question. All Ulysses’s friends observed his ‘devotion’ to the woman he called ‘my dear Julia.’ She became his anchor in the furor of many storms. Grant was renowned for his ability to ride and gentle horses. But what do horse stories mean to a modern reader? In an earlier era when horses were central to everyday life, people understood that the man whom horses trust is the kind of man who can be trusted. Another unexplored story is Grant’s lifelong love affair with Mexico. His involvement in the Mexican War is well known; more obscure, but no less fascinating are his various efforts, both as general and president, to enlist American support for Mexico’s aspirations to become a liberal democracy. … Grant’s religious odyssey has been overlooked or misunderstood. He is a son of Methodism. When the fast-growing Protestant denomination in the nineteenth century decided to build a national church in Washington, as one of its trustees Grant took part in its dedication four days before his inauguration as president in 1869. The unrecognized person in Grant’s faith story is John Heyl Vincent, his Methodist pastor in Galena who went on to found the now world-famous Chautauqua Institution in New York in 1874 and summoned President Grant to participate there the following summer.” [p. xxv]

White doesn’t shrink away from the scandals that beset the years of Grant’s administration, “Yet Grant as president defended the political rights of African Americans, battled against the Ku Klux Klan and voter suppression, reimagined Indian policy, rethought the role of the federal government in a changing America, and foresaw that as the United States would now assume a larger place in world affairs, a durable peace with Great Britain would provide the nation with a major ally.” [p. xxvi]

Born Hiram Ulysses Grant, his name became Ulysses S. Grant when he went to West Point. His congressman, Thomas Hamer, knew he was called “Ulysses” by his family and assumed that was his first name, and made the further assumption that since his mother’s maiden name was Simpson his middle name, as was the custom with many families, would be his mother’s maiden name. Grant was just as happy, since he was afraid his initials, H.U.G., would lead to “Hug” as a nickname with which he would be saddled. Instead, U.S.G. became U.S. Grant, or “Uncle Sam” Grant, thus his nickname became Sam. Sam Grant graduated in 1843, 21st out of 39 students. “This has been used to measure Grant’s intellectual abilities, but in fact the narrative of his intellectual evolution at West Point has been left untold. later in life he wrote, ‘Much of the time, I am sorry to say, was devoted to novels, but not those of a trashy sort.” [p. 34] White analyzes the novels Grant read during his time at West Point, something few if any previous biographers have done. We learn Grant excelled in math, showed real talent in art as a painter, and shone brightest as a horseman.

This book is the product of prodigious research, and Mr. White is a wonderful writer. Generally a positive biography, the book reveals much of the man who was the general and president. I can highly recommend this book. If you want to understand Ulysses S. Grant, consider reading this book. It’s excellent.

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3 comments

  1. I found too many errors in the Civil War part to give it a positive review.

    1. Military aspects were a definite weak spot, but I felt the book’s strengths, especially the understanding of Grant as a human being, outweighed the weaknesses.

  2. He definitely understood his subject, but I found too many weaknesses. I wrote up a review of my own last year, but decided not to try and publish/post it. Guess I am becoming a hard-case in my old age …

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