This scholarly but readable biography of the Civil War general and president finds some new facets in understanding “the silent man.”
Deriving much of his scholarship from Grant’s extensive letters to his wife, Julia Dent, and from The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, edited by John Y. Simon, White (A. Lincoln: A Biography, 2009, etc.) offers a fresh assessment of this enigmatic leader, who, like his Homeric namesake, failed at many things before he succeeded in life. Indeed, the author rebuts many of the long-held notions about Grant—e.g., that he was nonintellectual and that he was a heavy drinker. He was first and foremost a reader, though largely self-educated. He certainly could not have graduated from West Point without an extensive intellect, and while he was never a hunter, he had a magical way with horses, in particular. Both these traits endeared him to his longtime love and wife, Julia, who was also a horsewoman and avid reader. Grant was raised by fervent Methodist parents and was a churchgoing man himself. Though he probably had to resign from the army in 1854 at age 32 because of a drinking episode, he was henceforth known to inflict strict discipline on his troops regarding alcohol. (Smoking cigars seemed to have been his vice, and he died of throat cancer.) While White does not provide a nuanced chronicle of the Civil War, which can be found in countless other histories, he does ably portray a sense of the transformation of his subject from civilian to soldier and, from there, to reluctant hero. Northerners and President Abraham Lincoln were clamoring for victories, and Grant actually delivered, most spectacularly in seizing control of the Mississippi at Vicksburg. The author portrays a humble, gentle, independent soul—a writer, in the end, who found his voice writing his extraordinary memoirs just before his death in 1885.
An engaging resurrection of Grant featuring excellent maps and character sketches.