W.F. Burke: Review of H.W. Brands's "The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace" (Doubleday 2012)


W. F. Burke is a freelance book reviewer 

H.W. Brands, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, has followed his magisterial work on Franklin D. Roosevelt, A Traitor to His Class (2008) with an equally majestic The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace.

The first hundred pages of Brands's book covers the life of "Ulys" from childhood days in Ohio to his days clerking in his father's store in Galena, Illinois, where Grant, age thirty-eight, returned to the army after the outbreak of the Civil War. Over the subsequent 300 pages Brands offers a stirring recapitulation of the Civil War, told with such aplomb that the next chapter in Grant's life -- the presidency -- could not be other than anti-climactic.

As a general, Grant's dogged determination was an asset; as president his doggedness sometimes became a liability.  By refusing to let go of certain issues or compromise when he believed himself in the right, Grant alienated many whose help was necessary to his effectiveness as legislator. Wishing to annex the Dominican Republic in 1870 -- believing it the best interest of the country to do so -- Grant refused to let the issue drop after annexation was defeated by Congress. ”A cannier politician,” Brands writes, “would have accepted defeat and moved on,” but Grant, showing “the same stubbornness that had carried him to victory at Vicksburg … remarshaled his forces,” and continued to beat, to no one’s benefit, what was essentially a dead horse. Not that Grant was an ineffective legislator -- his two presidential administrations were solid and competent if not spectacular. Grant's moral strength and aura of indomitability, made his voice one the nation listened to -- if not always heed -- but, as Brands points out, Grant's second administration was a time of national depression, and that plus the graft of some of Grant's appointees created a bad odor.

Though undeniably of great character and that rarest of all birds, an honest politician, Grant seemed blind to the avarice of his associates. Grant was repeatedly taken advantage of by the duplicitous throughout his life. Was Grant deliberately naive? Profoundly innocent? Both? Grant was "astonished," Brands writes, at learning that his private secretary, secretary of war, secretary of the Navy, ambassador to England, and his own brother Orvil had all handsomely profited by betraying the public trust.

Brother Orvil was not the only Grant whose actions were inimical to Ulysses. Grant's son, Buck, introduced Grant to the swindler whose chicanery left Grant, on the verge of old age, broke and in debt. Grant's father Jesse was so indiscreet with information that Grant had to order his father to keep quiet. A deeper look by Brands into the relationship between Ulysses and his father would have been beneficial. Jesse was of a prickly character, and seems not to have approved -- or to have lost approval -- of his mild-mannered son. The old man refused Grant a loan when Grant was struggling as a farmer, and, later, gave Grant a job in the family business only because Ulysses' younger brother Simpson had contracted consumption and become less fit for work. The parental disapproval (or was it parsimony?) caused Grant some unnecessary suffering in his personal life.

As victorious general, Grant was a hero of the nation; but was he also "the man who saved the union"? What of Lincoln? Lincoln's untimely death precluded his "saving" the union. Lincoln gave his last breath in defense of the union, leaving others, like Grant, to save what the war had wrought. By sending federal soldiers to defend the freedmen and women and southern Republicans, Grant, as president, insured the union would not revert to antebellum days and that gains made through civil war -- the emancipation of slaves, foremost -- would not be completely lost in the aftermath. By upholding the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, Grant ensured that those amendments became more than ideals. That those ideals -- of justice and equality -- became watered-down as years passed was none of Grant's doing, but of men less honest, less forthright, less of stature, than the savior of the union.

Brands’ book will surely take place beside other sterling accounts of Grant’s life, such as William S. McFeely’s Grant: A Biography (2002) and Jean Edward Smith’s Grant (2001). Yet, despite Brands’s work, and the nearly 150 other previous biographies of Grant, the country’s eighteenth president remains, and will probably always remain, something of an enigma due, in part, not to his singularity but to his ordinariness. An American everyman cast by fate into an exalted position he neither sought nor seemed to want, Grant held the line and the fort, even when the edifice seemed to be crumbling. The many contradictions in his character -- an indifferent soldier who became general-in-chief; an abject failure in civilian life who became president; and honest man whose administration was infamous for graft; a man of few words who wrote an acclaimed and masterful memoir -- only add to the fascination he has engendered as a flawed but genuine hero of the nation.

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