The Ulysses Grant of a generation ago was a tragic figure. The hero of Appomattox, to be sure. But a bumbler. A drunk. A clueless enabler of crooks in his inner circle. And not all that bright.
Today’s Grant is a different character entirely. Smart. Strategic. Methodical. Visionary. Tolerant. Shrewd servant of the public interest and selfless guardian of the public trust.
Now H.W. Brands, the University of Texas historian known for his biographies of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, seals the new image, perhaps permanently. His Grant is captured crisply in the title of his new biography: “The Man Who Saved the Union.’’ But Brands’s Grant is more than that. He is, like the increasingly accepted view of Dwight D. Eisenhower, “indisputably above politics,’’ a crusader against race hatred, a warrior against what Grant himself called “lawlessness, turbulence, and bloodshed,’’ friend to black and Indian alike. Who knew?
Now we all do, and this new interpretation alters much about how we view a central figure in perhaps the most difficult passage in our history, from tension over slavery to Civil War to emancipation to Reconstruction and beyond. The great hero of the period was Lincoln, a plain man from the plains. The best supporting actor can be described in the same terms.
As a young man, Grant was neither congenial to, nor particularly opposed to, slavery, though it is clear the practice made him uneasy. Lacking other farm help, he took on slaves. His father-in-law owned many. Grant failed at farming, then at real estate, and drifted from one vocational flop to another, his self-esteem diminishing along the way. At the same time the country was falling apart.
Grant watched the nation collapse with wariness but without sophistication. “It is hard to realize that a State or States should commit so suicidal an act as to secede from the Union,’’ he said. He would see worse.
Grant fought the Confederate forces, but he also fought his own legacy of personal failure and, like William Techumseh Sherman, was considered unstable and defeatist — and a hothead and alcoholic as well. The Confederates proved easier to defeat, at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson and then, amid controversy over the cost of victory, at Shiloh, than his own reputation.
“He is one of the hard-fighting school of generals,’’ proclaimed The New York Times after Shiloh. Not everyone agreed, especially after the Union casualty counts became known. Said Horace Greeley, the fabled newspaperman: “There was no more preparation by General Grant for an attack than if he had been on a Fourth of July frolic.’’ Lincoln weighed in, in a remark that would shape the war and American history: “I can’t spare this man; he fights.’’
This was, more than any other American war, a political conflict, and Grant, more than any other general, was determined to prosecute it rather than practice politics. This suited his temperament, but also his philosophy.
Like Lincoln, Grant had a mid-continental viewpoint, which is to say he appreciated more than others the vital importance of controlling the mighty Mississippi, the great artery of America. Thus his determination, and Lincoln’s too, to capture Vicksburg, which if denied to the South would deprive the Confederacy of cattle, hogs, and corn.
Vicksburg and the victory in “the Tennessee,’' a military-designated region encompassing parts of four states, earned Grant, at 41, a singular honor, the rank of lieutenant general, last held permanently by George Washington. It also catapulted him into the firmament of American generals, a status confirmed at Appomattox, where he matched grit with grace by letting his enemy soldiers keep their horses for transport and plowing. He also agreed to feed Robert E. Lee’s hungry men.
With his record and profile he was the natural Republican presidential nominee in 1868. He didn’t campaign for it, but he didn’t disavow efforts on his behalf either. His philosophy was summarized in the four words he used to conclude his acceptance message: “Let us have peace.’’
During the eight years that followed there was an effort to corner the gold market, disputes over annexing Santo Domingo, rising Ku Klux Klan violence, a recession — and a Niagara of scandals. Through it all Grant seemed to care little for politics. When in the 1874 midterm congressional elections his Republicans were trounced, he seemed to be bothered very little.
This is a biography that is both comprehensive and comprehensible but not always compelling. It is a thorough examination of Grant’s life — but it skims over the life Grant lived. We know of his devotion to his wife, Julia, for example, but her character is not developed nor is the abiding romance between the two. We know Grant was sentimental, but we don’t see much of that either.
But Brands artfully portrays Grant as a man of his times — “his adult life had coincided with the Union’s long crisis’’ — and argues, persuasively, that he played a role in settling the great questions of his time:
“The Union was secure. Secession was a dead letter, mentioned only in the past tense. Slavery, the root of the sectional crisis, was a memory. American democracy required continual work, but the Union, democracy’s receptacle, would hold.’’
That is epitaph enough for any period in the life of a nation. It is extraordinary, and in this case deserved, for any one man’s life.
David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.