Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

American Ulysses

American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald C. White Jr.


When Ulysses S. Grant died, Fredrick Douglas described him as “a man too broad for prejudice, too humane to despise the humblest, too great to be small at any point. In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior”. In American Ulysses, Ronald White sets out to justify this eulogy and succeeds magnificently.

Though overshadowed in life and death by Abraham Lincoln, it was the partnership of these two men which saved America, physically and morally. Lincoln set the principles and provided the enduring words, but it was Grant who put it into action. As a Union general in the Civil War, and US President he did more than any other man to end slavery and make good the nation’s promise of freedom in the years after.

Grant’s reputation, then and now has not always been strong. His military prowess is admired in Staff Colleges, and parts of the literary establishment recognise the eloquence of his memoirs. But in popular lore he was a failure before the war, a drunk during it, and a corrupt naif as President afterwards.

In this sympathetic, but not hagiographic, biography, White challenges all these claims. He shows Grant as a quiet, humble and cautious man. One who took well until adulthood to find his own views on slavery, often sitting quietly before his anti-slavery father and later pro-slavery father-in-law. It was not until he commended the entire Union army that that he would find his voice, and purpose. Though in the charming customs of the day, he would be twice elected President to achieve these goals without ever directly campaigning for it.

Grant certainly came from poor stock. His was a leather tanning family from out west, who lucked into sending their first born to West Point. Grant’s career in the Mexican War was honourable though undistinguished. He would later struggle with the boredom and isolation of peacetime service, likely turning to drink. He resigned rather than face disgrace, and would struggle for years as a farmer, having to accept work in his father’s shop to sustain his growing family. 

The war would transform his life, as it would for generations of Americans. Despite the Union need for trained military men, Grant had to push hard to find his first command. Eventually he would take up a position out west, far from the glamour of defending Washington and the army of the Potomac.

Yet, he had what few others on the Union side possessed. A willingness to fight and an understanding of the use of battle for the purposes of the war. He would combine naval and land forces to joint effect in ways few others would for near a century. He would command not through the lash and the tongue but as a quiet, calm respectable man who knew the soldiers’ life and was happy to sleep under a tree in a week-old shirt alongside his men.

Where Grant was ambitious in uniform, he was often retiring outside of it. Yet faced with the scheming and failures of Andrew Johnson, Grant the war-winner realised that unless he also served the nation in peace as well, the sole justification of the war and its 750’000 casualties could be wasted.

White presents a credible defence of Grant as President, though it’s notable that when telling stories of Grant’s achievements, the author is want to add commentary. When mentioning his failures or mis-steps the prose is much more straight and dry, leaving the reader to gauge. Reading about Grant’s presidential years was a profoundly depressing experience given the extensive discussion contained within on his efforts to prevent black disenfranchisement and harassment in the South. This has been a 150 year struggle in the US, and at times my mind drifted to asking if it was even worth it.

Not in the sense to accept such discrimination, but the work to try to bind and maintain these discriminators in a country which proclaims, as its birthright, that all men are created equal. Would not it be easier to just let those hateful few split, and provide fair refuge to all who leave their shores? This was something Grant bled to prevent, and ultimately I am convinced he was right.

America struggles more than any other nation with modernity, but it is in that struggle that its world-inspiring creeds and leaders such as Lincoln and Grant emerge. It would have been the betrayal of all that America was or ever could be to make this accommodation, and it would not have brought peace or comfort. Yet still it often seems we are so very far from resolving the foundational issues of Grant’s time: accepting the basic dignity of those different from us.

White shines a warm and bright but tight spotlight on Grant. As such, readers would do well to have a solid outline US civil war history before diving in, though this is perhaps reasonable to expect for those who would pick up such a book. The lens is slightly widened for the Presidential years, but I often found myself wanting a little bit more context and setting.

Still at 860 odd pages, there’s already plenty of detail. Whatever words White banks from skipping through US history, he saves to provide a rich, enthralling and compelling portrait of a deeply intelligent yet humble leader. One who, like his mythic namesake, was cunning in war, struggled long, travelled far, was occasionally taken in by sirens, but always tried to do the honourable thing and uphold the best traditions of his society and return to his family.

A fine biography of an even finer man. Recommended.

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