Brooks Simpson’s “Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865” was published in 2000 and is the first of two expected volumes on Grant’s life. Simpson is a historian and professor at Arizona State University. He has written a half-dozen books and is a noted authority on the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Because a second volume is (or at least once was) anticipated, this book does not cover Grant’s presidency or the drafting of his memoirs in the last weeks of his life. But neither does Simpson spend much time on Grant’s formative childhood or early life. The majority of the book is focused on his nearly two-decade long military career (almost 80% it to just his service in the Civil War).
Unlike earlier Grant biographer William McFeely, Professor Simpson is favorably disposed toward his subject. Fortunately his fondness never seems far out of balance. On the contrary, Simpson’s analysis seems remarkably balanced and rarely does he fail to take Grant to task for his strategic blunders or personal failings.
After seeming to rush through Grant’s early years Simpson’s narrative comes alive with the onset of the Civil War. The biography is at its best while exploring the complex web of military and social politics Grant was forced to navigate during the war. Here Simpson offers a compelling study of Grant’s often skillful management of his superiors, other senior military leaders and his troops.
But beyond exploring Grant’s interactions with military and political leaders and his management of troops in the field, this biography is a well researched study of Grant’s response to his own personal setbacks and failures. This is essentially an analysis of how Grant rose from relative obscurity (and, often, abysmal failure) to become the Union’s greatest military general.
Two sections of the book are particularly strong. The chapters covering Grant’s move to the Eastern Theater are riveting (though probably more detailed than some readers will appreciate). The description of Grant’s pursuit of Lee across Virginia to the Confederate surrender at Appomattox is particularly fascinating. But Simpson’s last chapter, summarizing the forces behind Grant’s rise from failed farmer and shopkeeper to military hero, may be the most compelling.
But while the book is quite well written and academically rigorous, little of its content will seem new to readers familiar with Grant or the Civil War. Ignoring differences in interpretation, I recall seeing little in Simpson’s narrative that I had not previously read. While this is disappointing to someone reading multiple biographies of Grant, it is of less concern to someone choosing this book as their “one” Grant biography to read.
Because the bulk of this book is focused on Grant’s actions during the Civil War it is not surprising that Simpson’s descriptions of the various military campaigns involving Grant are highly detailed. Unfortunately, while Simpson is an expert historian he is not always a natural storyteller and the narrative surrounding most of the battles is relatively sterile and antiseptic. Battles described by Simpson almost seem to be in black and while while the same scenes captured by Grant biographer Geoffrey Perret are far more colorful and vivid.
Also lacking is a consistent effort by Simpson to provide historical context. The biography is narrowly focused on Grant and his immediate surroundings, including whichever friends, family, advisors and others happen to be interacting with him at a given moment. Consequently there is relatively little acknowledgment of the national or global political scene – or even of great battles taking place away from Grant. For readers with a strong history background this is not an issue but for others it is like watching Grant through a very narrow lens.
Overall, Simpson’s analysis of Grant’s life from birth through the end of the Civil War is a valuable if not entirely unique study. Rather than uncovering significant new material, Simpson re-interprets old information from a slightly different perspective. While his explanation for Grant’s rise to military greatness is compelling, the second volume in this series has never appeared. Absent Simpson’s explanation for General Grant’s subsequent failure as president, the first volume alone cannot replace a cradle-to-grave biography of Grant for readers seeking a broad understanding of his entire life.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars