Ulysses S. Grant led two lives: His first life, a professional soldier, dedicated to carrying out the dictates of the nation’s political leaders, and his second, a president by popular demand during the rancorous Reconstruction years after the Civil War.
In his first life, Grant, who nearly pulled the plug on his West Point career before graduating, attained a success well beyond the expectations of his contemporaries, his own father, and maybe even himself. He had appeared to be a lost soul prior to the Civil War.
Then his victories in the West provided the North with the will to continue the fight when spirits lagged and some predicted the great American experiment in self-government had run its course. Abraham Lincoln said of him: “Grant is the first general I’ve had” in this war.
Grant’s defeat of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, which effectively ended the Civil War, catapulted this unpretentious cigar-smoking general to the stature of national hero, the likes of which had only been seen twice before – in George Washington and Andrew Jackson – and once since in Dwight Eisenhower.
On his second life as a two-term president, the pendulum of judgment on Grant’s performance has swung both ways more than once, and nearly 150 years after Grant’s first inauguration, the jury is still out.
Just as Grant led two lives, one might say noted historian H.W. Brands, in his latest presidential biography, has written two books under the cover of a single title.
The first is a 380-page gripping and fast-paced account of the Civil War in which Grant either is in the forefront of the action, or is looming in the shadows just off stage. Brands’ approach of chronicling Grant’s exploits through the general’s archived letters to his wife, Julia, gives Brands the advantage of not needing to explore every minute detail of the war. He keeps the narrative flowing by shifting from Grant to Lincoln, William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan to flesh out the picture.
Brands’ civil war, like Grant’s civil war, was all about slavery, the one issue that would split asunder the fragile mid-19th century union of sovereign states. Slavery was the issue; “states rights” was just the code.
This war put an end to legalized slavery in this nation, but it also quashed the notion that some members of the nation – in this case, member states which just had lost an election – could defy the will of the majority and overcome defeat at the polls simply by dissolving the federation.
You’ll recall secession was not a new idea. South Carolina came within a few votes of seceding way back in the 1790s after the first northerner was elected president. They tried again in 1828. By December 1860, many fed-up but short-sighted northerners were ready to wish their southern brethren a good riddance.
In this book, Gen. Grant develops a clear vision of what the war is all about. Brands refuses to buy into the romantic fantasy that the Confederate soldiers had all the bravery, and the Confederate generals had all the brains.
He describes as brilliant Grant’s strategy to cut off and isolate the main body of the Confederacy from the West, and then to constrict them in an ever-shrinking box. In Grant and his eventual subordinates Sherman and Sheridan, Lincoln had finally found a general willing to treat this deadly conflict as all-out war.
Brands even makes a strong military case for Sherman’s notorious march through Georgia and then back up through the Carolinas. He quotes Sherman as saying: “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”
As the fighting came to an end at a farmhouse outside the crossroads village of Appomattox Court House, Va., Grant was mirroring the thinking of his political role model, Lincoln, when he demanded his men treat the defeated enemy with the greatest respect.
Upon the death of Lincoln, Brand’s second book, about a 200-pager, begins. This book is a slower-moving, sometimes plodding and more nuanced treatment of a war hero turned president.
By most accounts, Grant’s successes in the polarized political atmosphere of Washington, where the general was out of his element, were limited, at best. Many have judged his presidency a failure.
In Brands’ sympathetic hearing of Ulysses Grant, his presidency was successful in that Lincoln’s dream of a reunited nation under a single government was achieved during his eight years in office. Talk of secession faded, never to be seriously discussed again. Yes, there were scandals in the Grant administration, and yes, Grant’s political naivete uncovered glaring inadequacies.
It was Grant who exclaimed: “I am not a politician, never was, and never hope to be.”
Grant formed a Cabinet the way he might form a military staff: Gather your trusted buddies around you, point the direction, and let them do their thing. Brands would stipulate that probably wasn’t the best way to run the nation, but it was the way Grant knew.
This still was the 19th century – pre-Teddy Roosevelt – when the president’s job was to dispense federal jobs and keep the federal offices running. It was the job of the Congress – that same Senate and House of Representatives locked in stalemate today – to govern the nation.
Lincoln had been an aberration. He was president during the most devastating war our nation had seen up to that time. But after Lincoln, a vengeful Congress was ready to reclaim its rightful role, a role it would jealously guard for another 35 years, through the presidencies of stalwarts like Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield and Chester Arthur.
In Brands’ assessment, if Grant had left the job of governing to Congress, the nation likely would have backslid to pre-Civil War values. In many states, freed slaves would be citizens without rights. The states rights fight would continue. Lincoln’s dream would be squandered.
Brands insists Grant never lost sight that the Civil War was fought over slavery. Grant, in an unpopular move, sent federal troops into the Deep South to stanch the wanton killing of blacks by the Ku Klux Klan and white paramilitary groups. It would be almost 90 years before another general-turned-president would send troops into the South to protect the civil rights of its citizens.
Brands makes the case that it was during the North-South split in the Republican Party and the resurgence of the Democratic Party that revisionist historians tarnished the image of a heroic Grant, a general and president who was larger than life right up to his death. So now, more than a century after his interment in that grand memorial overlooking the Hudson River in New York’s Riverside Park, the question remains unresolved: Which is the true Grant and which is the revisionist Grant?
This book, the first major Grant biography in a decade, comes down squarely on the side of a president dealt a serious disservice by historians.
Yet the suspicion in this quarter is that the final word is yet to be written on the character and presidential ranking of one of our country’s most successful wartime generals, and one of our least revered presidents.
The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace
By H.W. Brands
718 pages, $35
Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.