William T. Sherman wrote to Ulysses S. Grant just before his promotion to lieutenant general after huge 1863 victories at Vicksburg and Chattanooga: "You are now Washington's legitimate successor, and occupy a position of almost dangerous elevation ... But if you can continue as heretofore to be yourself -- simple, honest, and unpretending -- you will enjoy through life ... the homage of millions of human beings who will award you a large share for securing to them and their descendants a government of law and stability."
In his biography of Grant, H.W. Brands maintains that Grant took Sherman's advice and achieved greatness by securing the American republic. This compelling narrative dubs Grant "The Man Who Saved the Union," a theme that Mr. Brands pursues through the Civil War, into Grant's two terms as president, and beyond.
Grant was America's greatest hero and most famous citizen at the end of the Civil War, but his reputation has waxed and waned since his death in 1885. Grant's critics have painted his expert generalship as overly destructive bloodletting. Often depicted as a tortured alcoholic, Grant is also regularly listed by historians as one of the worst U.S. presidents, who presided over enormous corruption and the breakdown of Southern Reconstruction.
Mr. Brands rejects all of these criticisms in an extraordinarily well-written survey of Grant's life that aims to rehabilitate his image. A history professor at University of Texas and a prolific author, he stakes a claim for Grant as a simple man whose military genius won the Civil War and who didn't hesitate to use military power to suppress Southern violence (most especially the Ku Klux Klan) during Reconstruction. In Mr. Brands' view, Grant deserves little blame for the corruption of political associates during his presidency. Mr. Brands confirms the widely held opinion of Grant's memoirs, composed as he was dying of throat cancer, as among the most significant ever published in the United States.
Grant emerges as a no-nonsense man, who was brilliant in battle and one of the best-ever U.S. military commanders, if something of a political naif.
Grant was born in Ohio in 1823, entering into a lifelong struggle to get along with his father, founder of a successful leather business. Grant was a mediocre student at West Point, where he excelled only at math and horsemanship.
While stationed in St. Louis in 1843, he met Julia Dent, who would become his wife in 1848 after he distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War. Julia comes across as a dim but devoted helpmate during their 37-year marriage, whose own status as a slave owner never disturbed her devotion to Grant or to the Union.
Though Mr. Brands soft-pedals the issue of Grant's drinking in later years, he depicts the family hardship caused when Grant resigned from the Army in 1854, probably to avoid a court-martial for drunkenness. After failing as a farmer and joining the family business in Galena, Ill., Grant came into his true calling when the Civil War broke out in 1861, ushering him back into the army, where he was soon promoted from colonel to brigadier general.
The best part of this biography depicts Grant's Civil War. Mr. Brands does not explain explicitly how Grant achieved greatness, but emphasizes Grant's good relationships with those he commanded, plus his bravery, tenacity and "habit of exuding confidence." He depicts Grant as a brilliant commander -- from early campaigns in Missouri and attacks on Forts Henry and Donaldson, to the risky capture of Vicksburg, to the bloody battles around Petersburg, to the Wilderness and the final all-out push against Lee that ended the war.
Through it all, Grant was never much good with money or politics, which haunted his postwar career as president. In Mr. Brands' telling, however, Grant is seen as a sincere man who came to care about enforcing African-American freedom and who always did his best to ensure the stability of the U.S. government.
This shouldn't be the first or only book readers pick up about the Civil War and Reconstruction; it does not attempt to provide enough context to understand fully the war's causes or its progress. Mr. Brands' Reconstruction focus remains too tight on Washington, D.C., to explain why Reconstruction fell apart by 1877.
But the author offers exciting prose and fresh perspective on Grant that will make readers want to learn more.
Sarah J. Purcell (PURCELSJ@grinnell.edu) is an associate professor of history and director of the Rosenfield Program in Public Affairs, International Relations & Human Rights at Grinnell College in Iowa. She is at work on a new book, "Spectacle of Grief: The Politics of Mourning and the U.S. Civil War." First Published November 4, 2012 4:00 AM