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This is one of the very best biographies that I have ever read. In addition to being written in a lyrical prose, it offers a much needed corrective to the withering, and unfair, historical portrait that Grant has been stuck with. Let's face it, here's what most of us know about Grant: he didn't do much at West Point, was a failure in business, drank his way through the Civil War, winning only because he was willing to kill his own soldiers, oversaw one of the most corrupt Presidential administrations ever and died. The most important previous biography, William McFeely's Pulitzer Prizewinning Grant (1981), took a sufficiently negative view of Grant that it did little to change, and even reinforced, these received truths. Like almost all misrepresentations in History, there are kernels of truth in the portrait, but it leaves out much and Perret is able to convincingly challenge much of the rest of it.
Missing from that portrayal are Grant's fundamental decency as a man, his exemplary service in the Mexican War, his genuine strategic insight and at times nearly prophetic foresight (as when he offered to have a Cabinet member put his personal wealth in a blind trust), and his authorship of perhaps the best book written by a U. S. President (only Teddy Roosevelt can really challenge for the title), one of the great books of the 19th Century, his Personal Memoirs. Perret gives each of these the full treatment that it deserves and Grant's exceptional character and his control over his emotions and ego run like a leit motif throughout the book.
Perhaps more importantly, Perret takes on each of the negative characterizations that has accrued to Grant's reputation over the years. Grant did perform indifferently at the Military Academy, but Perret points out that simply attending college (and West Point was one of the best in the world) put Grant in the educated elite of his time. Moreover, besides being an exceptional and much envied horseman, Grant performed well in classes that interested him and went on to study military history and tactics for the rest of his life, developing a really fine analytical mind on military matters.
Grant did not do well in business, but he was scrupulously honest and as he first demonstrated as a quartermaster in the Mexican War, he was capable, even gifted, at managing materiel. Later when he was running the entire Union Army, he did so professionally and even brilliantly. It's hard to see how he can be faulted so heavily for bad luck running small businesses and given so little credit for managing what must have been one of the largest enterprises in human history up until that time.
Grant did drink, but there is no evidence that it ever effected the performance of his duties. Also, he drank only when he was lonely. Any time that his wife was in the vicinity he was a virtual teetotaler.
As to the manner in which he won the war, it seems increasingly possible to me that there were only three men on Earth who genuinely understood the dynamics of the Civil war as it was unfolding: Winfield Scott, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. Winfield Scott, as the War began, enunciated his Anaconda Plan, calling for the North to exploit its superior numbers and for Union troops to close off the Mississippi and then start squeezing the South like a rodent in the grip of a snake. But Scott was an old man by that time and was not capable of managing the effort. Lincoln knew that Scott was correct in his strategic vision, but it fell to him to keep the political plates spinning and to find the generals to carry out the plan. Destiny handed him the ideal instrument in U.S. Grant who grasped the vision and had the iron will to carry it out. If Grant was sometimes willing to suffer losses as the price of engaging the foe, he never wasted lives intentionally and was shattered by the occasions where men under his command did die futilely.
Finally, on the issue of the corruption in his administration, Perret makes one point that I found profound. Grant's administration was not any more corrupt than the ones that succeeded it, but the fact that it was more corrupt than the ones that preceded it has caused it to be seen as extraordinarily scandalous. And it was more scandal ridden, not because of anything intrinsic to Grant, but because one of the consequences of the War was that the Federal government had grown tremendously in size and there was simply more there to steal. Similarly, the explosive growth in the size of government in the past sixty years has been accompanied by an unending series of scandals regardless of administration.
In the end, whether or not Perret succeeds in winning all of these battles to reclaim Grant's reputation, he definitely does get the reader to take a step back and look at Grant with a fresh perspective. The Grant who emerges from this portrait is a genuine American hero and one of the most honorable and decent men ever to become President. This is an outstanding book and a valuable reassessment of a seemingly ordinary man who called upon his own extraordinary will to achieve great things and shape American history. Most highly recommended.
There are only a handful of biographies that I would rank with this one:
Berg, A. Scott
-BOOKNOTES: Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President Author: Geoffrey Perret (CSPAN)
-REVIEW: Ulysses S. Grant Soldier & President. By Geoffrey Perret (Eric Foner, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: Ulysses S. Grant was an unremarkable man, except at the times when it mattered most. (Richard F. Welch, The History Net)
-REVIEW: (Cincinnati CWRT Book Reviews)
-ESSAY: Grant's Lifelong Struggle with Alcohol: Examining the controversy surrounding Grant and alcohol. (Kevin Anderson, The History Net)
-REVIEW: of A COUNTRY MADE BY WAR From the Revolution to Vietnam - The Story of America's Rise to Power. By Geoffrey Perret (Harry G. Summers Jr., NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW ESSAY: Gordon A. Craig: The Grand Decider
The Warrior Queens by Antonia Fraser
A Country Made by War: From the Revolution to Vietnam by Geoffrey Perret
The Wages of War by Richard Severo and Lewis Milford
Technology and War: From 2000 BC to the Present by Martin van Creveld
Of Arms and Men: A History of War, Weapons, and Aggression by Robert L. O'Connell
The Price of Admiralty: The Evolution of Naval Warfare by John Keegan
War: Ends and Means by Paul Seabury and Angelo Codevilla
The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution by Robert Jervis
-REVIEW: of OLD SOLDIERS NEVER DIE The Life of Douglas MacArthur. By Geoffrey Perret (Alonzo L. Hamby, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of EISENHOWER By Geoffrey Perret (David M. Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
I read "Soldier President" after reading Orrin's review. I'm not sure how he arrived at the "A+" grade he gave the book, or the assertion that it's one of the best biographies ever written. The best I can say about this book is that it's a good primer for the reader who knows next to nothing about Grant. Simply put, the book is very superficial, a Reader's Digest overview of one of our more compelling historical figures.
I read the book hoping I'd find a detailed exploration of Grant's life, with insights into how he became as great as he was. I hoped for new analyses of how his tactical and strategic vision developed. I was sorely disappointed. I looking for a feast, what I got a rice cake: light, bland and wholly unsatisfying.
- Feb-18-2005, 10:24