An unabashed admirer of the great Civil War general portrays the most unlikely, reluctant American hero since George Washington.
While there are moments of frustrating small-picture detail to veteran biographer Brands’ (The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr, 2012, etc.) book, his portrayal of his subject’s essential humanity proves truly compelling. The author sticks to Grant’s own words, through letters and contemporary records, rather than relying on what later historians wrote. Since Grant was so unassuming and unprepossessing, this can be a torturous exercise. From his initial reluctance to consider himself a candidate for West Point, to his taking up farming in Illinois and business out of desperation to support a growing family, largely relying on filial indulgence and always uncomfortable managing his wife’s slaves, Grant never displayed a sense of self-confidence, except in handling horses. The breakout of the war saved Grant from drifting, and he was soon swept up in preparing his local militia in Galena, Ill., where he was employed in his family’s business. In his methodical fashion, Brands shows how Grant’s quiet proficiency continually caught the attention of his superiors. His ability to organize, discipline and inspire his men gained him swift promotions and earned him accolades in a series of signal battles, especially Vicksburg. Though President Lincoln doubted some of his strategies, Grant was the general that Lincoln needed (“[H]e makes things git! Where he is, things move!” Lincoln declared), and with William Sherman as Grant’s right-arm scourge, the Rebels were ground into the sea. Brands also considers Grant’s reputation for drinking, his deep devotion to his wife, his aversion to speechmaking and politics and his moral center.
A direct, engaging approach to Grant’s life that would have pleased him.