Washington Post Book World, November 2, 2012
Few American presidents have seen their reputations ebb and flow as dramatically as Ulysses S. Grant. At the time of his death in 1885, he was revered as the man whose military prowess had saved the Union and who as president had guided it through the turbulent years of Reconstruction. Later, as national reconciliation (among whites) took hold, Grant’s military and political careers came under severe criticism. On the battlefield he was a “butcher” who, in contrast to the tactically superior Robert E. Lee, triumphed only because of a willingness to sacrifice his men in an endless war of attrition. Grant’s presidency came to be seen as a failure, marred by corruption and a Southern policy that unwisely sought to elevate blacks to political equality.
More recently, Grant’s standing has risen sharply. Military historians have made clear that Grant understood far better than Lee the strategic interconnection of the western and eastern war theaters. And as scholars have revised their view of Reconstruction, seeing it as a noble if flawed attempt to establish interracial democracy in the postwar South, Grant’s efforts to protect the basic rights of former slaves seem praiseworthy, not misguided.
Paradoxes abound in Grant’s career, posing formidable challenges to the biographer. His prewar life offered no inkling of his later accomplishments. Unlike Lincoln, Grant seemed to lack ambition. He did not want to go to West Point, and while there, he scrutinized congressional debates over the future of the military academy, hoping it would be abolished and he could return home. Forced to resign from the Army in the 1850s to avoid having charges brought against him for drunkenness, he ended up working in his brother’s Illinois leather store. His family deemed him a failure. He disdained politics and politicians but was reelected in 1872 with the largest popular majority of the 19th century. Finally, although uncommunicative in person, Grant somehow managed to write one of the finest autobiographies in American letters.
These contradictions have long intrigued historians. Since 2000, no fewer than seven biographies have appeared. The latest to tackle Grant’s life is H.W. Brands, who teaches history at the University of Texas. A remarkably productive scholar, Brands is the author of more than 20 books. Some prolific writers publish essentially the same work over and over again. Not Brands. His books range across centuries and genres — they include biographies (Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson), studies of particular time periods (the 1890s, the years since 1945) and detailed accounts of Cold War foreign policy.
Brands is essentially a storyteller, and a good one. His prose is lucid and colorful. He evokes the atmosphere of Grant’s era by filling the book with lengthy excerpts from primary sources — letters, first-person observations and recollections. What Brands does not do, however, is present new interpretive insights on questions that have engaged generations of historians: the “modernity” of the Civil War, the centrality of emancipation to the war’s outcome, the reasons for the failure of Reconstruction.
“The Man Who Saved the Union” is most successful where events themselves offer a clear story line. Brands presents vivid and compelling accounts of the complex battles of the Civil War. He explains clearly Grant’s strengths as a general: his ability to visualize the entire battlefield in the midst of conflict when others could perceive only chaos, his willingness to take risks and his courage in the face of setbacks. When it comes to the presidency, however, the narrative seems to lose focus. Events succeed one another — Grant’s effort to annex the Dominican Republic, his “peace policy” toward Native Americans, the economic depression that began in 1873, the scandals that marked his second term — but with little cumulative impact.
The closest Brands comes to offering an interpretive schema to unite Grant’s military and political careers concerns slavery and the freed people. “Nearly a century would pass,” he writes in his brief conclusion, “before the country had another president who took civil rights as seriously as Grant did.” Unfortunately, the book’s account of Grant’s growing commitment to the rights of blacks is scattered and sporadic; it cries out for further elaboration. Brands does not really explain Grant’s conversion to emancipation during the war. He ignores Grant’s decision to create what he called a “Negro paradise” at Davis Bend, the Mississippi plantations of Jefferson Davis and his brother Joseph, where land was divided among groups of emancipated slaves. He does not make it clear why Grant came to side with Congress in its battle with Andrew Johnson over Reconstruction.
In keeping with recent scholarship, Brands offers a sympathetic account of Grant’s forceful and temporarily successful effort as president to crush the Ku Klux Klan, which had inaugurated a reign of terror against the former slaves. But he says nothing about Grant’s refusal in 1875 to send federal assistance to Mississippi blacks facing a wave of violent intimidation (the Northern public, Grant wrote in explaining his decision, was “tired out with these annual autumnal outbreaks in the South”). Grant’s unwillingness to act reflected the broader Northern retreat from Reconstruction and its ideal of racial equality.
Grant’s famous motto, “Let us have peace,” adorns the entrance to his tomb in New York City. Brands rightly emphasizes that this was a call not simply for national reconciliation but also for consolidation of what had been won in the war — Union and emancipation. By the time Grant died, the first was secure; it took a long time for the nation to try once again to fulfill the promise of the second.