A Life of Ulysses S. Grant
By Ronald C. White
Illustrated. 826 pp. Random House. $35.
Gore Vidal did not expect Ulysses S. Grant to be funny. In the novel “1876,” Vidal’s protagonist, Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler, hears an anecdote about President Grant’s disgust with Senator Charles Sumner’s ego. It was said that Sumner did not believe in the Bible. “No, I suppose not,” Grant replied; “he didn’t write it.”
“I laughed spontaneously, and with some surprise,” Vidal wrote, in the voice of Schuyler. “I had not thought General Grant a wit.” Few did, or do. When Grant came to Washington to take overall command of the Union armies in early 1864, he struck one officer as “stumpy, unmilitaryslouchy.” Maj. Gen. George Meade wrote that Grant “is very reticent, has never mixed with the world and has but little manner, indeed is somewhat ill at ease in the presence of strangers; hence a first impression is never favorable.”
“The world” Meade wrote of was less a sphere than a stratum, one of sophistication and social standing — for this was the era evoked in Edith Wharton’s “Age of Innocence” as much as Mark Twain’s “Roughing It.” Grant was roughing it. The Ohio-born son of a tanner, he survived West Point, did well at war in Mexico, then resigned from the Army amid rumors of heavy drinking. He failed in business, failed in farming and finally fell into his father’s leather shop in Galena, Ill. The Civil War slid him back into uniform. When he fought, he rose. However high his rank, though, he remained a nobody from nowhere, and he knew it. Grant hardened the membrane of contact between himself and “the world” into awkward armor plate, stiff layers of silence.
When a gap opened, the glimpse could be startling. Libbie and George Armstrong Custer met him in early 1864, but away from the world, surrounded by staff in a private railway car. “No show-off but quite unassuming,” Libbie wrote of Grant. “Talked all the while and was funny. Told the gentlemen that small Army men invariably ride horses 17 hands high,” very high indeed.
Grant himself stood just 5 feet 8 inches tall — his horse, over 17 hands. But he rode exceptionally well, as his staff knew. He made fun of himself out of confidence. This self-assurance proved his greatest strength in the corpse-piling Overland campaign of 1864, as he pushed through criticism to ultimate victory (with more skill than many acknowledged). In Grant’s terminology, he had “moral courage.”
This moral courage equated with ruthlessness, a steely ability to send men to die. Yet he often erupted in rage when he saw animals mistreated. For a biographer, such contradictions present an opportunity to depict a round character, in E.M. Forster’s sense, one who can surprise the reader convincingly. But Grant made it hard to find organic unity in his disunity. He “seldom discussed his feelings,” Ronald C. White writes in “American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant.” His interior often appeared indirectly, reflected in the color of his jokes. His crack about Sumner, for example, was cutting, even snarky. It hints at an outsider with resentments and frustrations as well as modesty and moral courage.
The Sumner joke does not appear in White’s stately and thoroughly researched book, and neither do many contradictions. The author of the highly regarded “A. Lincoln: A Biography” and several other books, White details mistakes, but not flaws. He wants us to admire Grant — for good reason. This worthy book solidifies the positive image amassed in recent decades, blotting out the caricature of a military butcher and political incompetent engraved in national memory by Jim Crow era historians. It illuminates Grant’s loving marriage, the sense of honor that made him agonize over debts, also his fundamental decency. It convinced me of his deep faith, and that his drinking has been grossly exaggerated.
“American Ulysses” gains real momentum with the Civil War — from Grant’s first days, drilling 80 recruits on Galena’s streets, to his brilliant Vicksburg campaign to Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. White sometimes bobbles military matters, lacking Jean Edward Smith’s sure grip in his fine 2001 biography. But like Grant himself, he overcomes slips to deliver a solid account.
Victory complicated Grant’s life by sucking him into politics, complicating the storytelling as well. “He wanted to matter in a world he had been watching closely all his life,” William S. McFeely observed in a sharply written, Pulitzer-winning 1981 biography. White is better than McFeely in grasping Grant’s commitment to justice, which turned him against Lincoln’s virulently racist successor, Andrew Johnson, but a little of McFeely’s alertness to ambition would have enriched this story. Here Grant rises effortlessly to the presidency; White speculates that he “may have been speechless at the enormity of the responsibility that lay ahead.” This awkward attempt to portray Grant’s interior suggests incredibly that he never pondered the uses of power.
Reconstruction dominated Grant’s presidency. Unlike many, he knew it brought liberation, not occupation, empowering African-Americans in states where they were a majority or large minority. White describes how he pushed Congress and his own administration to essentially invent civil-rights enforcement. He pays less attention to the mounting victories of white supremacists, as Attorney General Edwards Pierrepont and others in the cabinet undermined Grant’s position. Similarly, White praises Grant’s assimilationist “peace policy” toward American Indians, but skips over the climactic wars fought under his aegis.
In the White House, Grant’s contradictions had public repercussions. Now at the center of “the world,” he relied both on old friends — his chief of staff, the earnest John Rawlins, who died early in his administration, and the corrupt Orville Babcock, his private secretary — and on Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, the embodiment of patrician New York. In attempting to restore Grant’s reputation, White largely ignores Babcock until his schemes erupt in scandal, and he praises Fish as an able and upright assistant. Yet Fish, exceptionally skilled at foreign relations, sometimes pursued his own agenda. Grant tried to annex Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic), believing it would somehow ease racial oppression. Quixotic? Perhaps. But Fish opposed the plan because it meant absorbing “the Latin race.”
Then came the Panic of 1873 and an ensuing depression. Congress responded with the Inflation Bill, a modest monetarist measure to circulate more currency — far less aggressive than the Federal Reserve’s recent “quantitative easing.” Fish helped persuade Grant to veto it. White presents this as a highly popular decision. But the historian Nicolas Barreyre argues persuasively that the veto shattered the Republican coalition, giving Democrats control of the House of Representatives and leading to partisan corruption hearings that discredited the administration and helped end Reconstruction.
To grasp why, we need to understand the currency debate — how men like Fish saw the gold standard as a moral, even theological imperative, how Westerners saw the greenback, untethered to gold, as the government’s main tool for aiding a suffering public. Grant, who knew hardship better than anyone in his cabinet, had been expected to sign the bill. White describes his change of mind as essentially a rational decision, but his book as a whole suggests that Grant had an emotional need to be financially honorable, whatever the cost, precisely because he couldn’t manage his own money. Character may not be destiny, but certainly complicates it.
I wish that “American Ulysses” delved more deeply into Grant’s contradictions, yet agree with its final tally. White delineates Grant’s virtues better than any author before, and they outweighed his flaws. By the end, readers will see how fortunate the nation was that Grant went into the world — to save the Union, to lead it and, on his deathbed, to write one of the finest memoirs in all of American letters.
T.J. Stiles received a Pulitzer Prize for “Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America” in 2016 and for “The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt” in 2010.