Despite the pivotal role he played in the Civil War and the importance of his administration to Reconstruction, I don’t recall spending any meaningful time studying Ulysses S. Grant in school.
My only brush with his presidency involved memorizing his name as one of the then-forty presidents during a high school trip to the Texas State History Fair. During that drive to Austin we had to do something.…so those of us on the trip decided to learn the presidents’ names in order. Sad, really.
When I finished reading a dozen biographies of Lincoln a couple months ago I assumed I would be in for a slow spell until my encounter with Teddy Roosevelt sometime early in 2015. Fortunately, Grant and his biographers proved me very wrong!
Ulysses Grant’s life story is astonishingly fascinating. There are certainly stretches of his life which proved dull and uneventful – and sometimes spectacularly unsuccessful. But biographers tended not to linger on those moments and taken as a whole, Grant’s sixty-three years are almost inspirational.
Grant certainly seems to prove the adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover. He was that kid we all knew who sat in the back of class, paid little attention to the day’s lesson, never had much to say and would befriend almost anyone who would make even a modest effort to get to know him. Incredibly unpretentious and modest, no one could have foreseen that Grant was destined to become a spectacularly successful military leader…and president of the United States.
A cursory review of the ebb and flow of Grant’s presidential legacy over time reveals a remarkable evolution in opinion. After a enjoying an early period of spirited acclaim, Grant’s reputation suffered within a few decades of leaving office and did not recover until the last two decades of the twentieth century. Each of the Grant biographies I read was published during this recent period of re-evaluation and each, save the first, judged his reputation unfairly tarnished.
* My first biography of Grant was William McFeely’s 1981 “Grant: A Biography.” Knowing little of Grant’s story when I began this Pulitzer Prize winning biography, I found it educational and thought-provoking. But I also found it somewhat limiting. McFeely focuses too tightly on Grant and provides little historical context – background which could have explained Grant’s actions in connection to his surroundings rather than leaving them in isolation as if somehow random or detached.
In addition, McFeely is well-known for his negative opinion of Grant. Although I could not detect it at the time without broader exposure to Grant, McFeely’s perspective of the general now seems flawed and unreasonably jaundiced. I can’t recall a single mention of praise or adoration toward Grant…but surely there must have been one somewhere.
Possibly more important to me than objectivity is writing style. After all, I’m seeking the best and most enjoyable presidential biographies; thoughtful and transparent bias can be tolerated. But McFeely’s writing style is anything but smooth and fluid. Important messages, except those key to his take-down of Grant, have to be teased from the text and when something could be said clearly, McFeely often seems to choose a more abstruse path. (Full review here)
* Next was Geoffrey Perret’s 1997 “Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President.” Often described as fatally riddled with factual errors, I found Perret’s survey of Grant’s life much more interesting than McFeely’s. Although the errors I spotted (or read about) are generally minor and of relatively little consequence to most readers, they would be acutely annoying to a professional historian.
But my issue with Perret’s book is that it seems too casual at times – and filled with excessive hyperbole. And in contrast to McFeely, who was reluctant to praise Grant, Perret is liberal with applause. But overall, the biography is captivating, a bit provocative and capable of holding my attention to the very end. (Full review here)
* My third Grant biography was Brooks Simpson’s 2000 “Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865.” This was the first in an anticipated two-volume series and covers Grant’s life only through the end of the Civil War. Simpson’s analysis is more sober and serious than Perret’s but more forgiving (and balanced) than McFeely’s. But because the second volume to this series has never appeared, Simpson’s coverage of Grant is restricted to his pre-presidency and is therefore incomplete. (Full review here)
* My next biography was “Grant” by Jean Edward Smith. Published in 2001, this was the biography of Grant I had been waiting for. This book starts off with a bang – six or eight of the most thoughtful and potent introductory pages to a presidential biography I’ve seen – and rarely slows down from there.
For the first three-fourths of the book (until Grant’s presidency) I could not put this biography down. Smith’s narrative is fluid, colorful, captivating and insightful. The Mexican War comes to life in a way that even Zachary Taylor’s biographers could not match, and Smith’s review of Grant and the Civil War is excellent.
Only Grant’s presidential years slow the book’s pace (there’s little a biographer can do about this, I’m afraid) and the book ends far too abruptly. Given Jean Edward Smith’s excellent introduction, I’m surprised the book’s conclusion isn’t equally penetrating and revealing. But while reading this book I quickly knew I had found a favorite, and the imperfect ending did little to upset that view. (Full review here)
* Fifth on my list was Josiah Bunting’s 2004 “Ulysses S. Grant.” A member of The American Presidents Series, this biography is exactly what you would expect: short, straightforward and entirely comprehensible. Nearly every important message about Grant’s life is provided and nearly every crucial detail is included. Left behind, of course, is much of the nuance and flavor of Grant’s life – the granularity that makes his story really come to life.
Although geared toward an impatient reader and excellent for such a concise biography, I can’t help but believe that anyone who appreciates this book would find Jean Edward Smith’s biography even more compelling – despite the extra pages. But for readers committed to a balance of brevity and insight, Bunting’s biography of Grant succeeds remarkably well. (Full review here)
* Finally, I read H.W. Brands’s 2012 “The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses S. Grant in War and Peace.” As the sixth biography of Grant I had read in as many weeks I feared there was little new I could learn about Grant unless Brands uncovers something unique about Grant. He does not, and I felt as though I was re-reading much of what Bunting, Smith and Simpson had previously written.
What is different is Brands’s writing style, but not the substance of what is put on the page. Other than simply fulfilling a desire to write about Grant, I’m not sure of this biography’s raison d’être. In many respects, coming so late in the Grant renaissance and with little new to say, this seems just another sympathetic and thoughtful biography.
And although it lacks the fluidity and narrative charm of Jean Edward Smith’s biography, the drama of Perret’s and the brevity of Bunting’s, Brands’s biography of Grant is comprehensive, methodical, deliberate and objective. (Full review here)
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–>On my “Ulysses Grant follow-up list” (yes, it already exists) I am including Grant’s Memoirs as well as the three-volume Lewis/Catton series. Oh…and Ron Chernow’s upcoming biography of Grant as well!
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[Added April 2019]
* Two years after I completed my initial round of reading related to Ulysses Grant, Ronald White’s “American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant” was published. Between late March and early April 2019 I finally had an opportunity to read this highly-anticipated and well-regarded biography.
While I found “American Ulysses” to be good, it’s not quite great. White is the first biographer afforded access to the complete collection of “The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant” and yet there is relatively little which stands out as particularly new or revelatory.
Jean Edward Smith’s narrative is more colorful, engaging and insightful. Bunting’s biography packs more “punch” in far less space. And Brooks Simpson’s treatment of Grant’s pre-presidency probably provides the most detailed (if not exciting) exploration of Grant’s early life.
To his great credit, White includes an extensive collection of invaluable charts and diagrams in this biography, and his positive reassessment of Grant’s image is compelling. But the narrative is probably a better historical work than a literary one, and Grant’s personality is never fully dissected.
As a comprehensive, and certainly more-than-satisfactory, review of the life of Ulysses S. Grant this biography succeeds. But for anyone who has already navigated Grant’s life there is probably not enough new insight or analysis to make this a truly compelling read. (Full review here)
[Added June 2020]
* Three years after I completed my initial journey through the best biographies of Grant, Ron Chernow’s “Grant” was published. By far the longest of the Grant biographies I’ve read, it is also one of the very best.
Some have argued that Chernow’s biography is late in the “rehabilitation” game for the 18th president and that nothing new is revealed. I am somewhat sympathetic with this argument; the dust jacket claims Grant’s life “has typically been misunderstood” but Chernow is hardly the first biographer to reveal the more nuanced Grant. And no bombshell revelations appear in this book.
But this biography provides a far more fulsome, vivid and nuanced portrait of Grant than the more concise reviews of his life found elsewhere and Chernow undertakes a more exhaustive and thoughtful exploration of Grant’s alleged alcoholism than I’ve seen.
Casual consumers of presidential history may be inclined to turn to shorter treatments of Grant’s life; in that case, Jean Edward Smith’s biography of Grant is an excellent alternative (and a fantastic choice in any case). But anyone with a keen fascination in Ulysses S. Grant – or who revels in Ron Chernow’s literary fluency – will want to pass on this excellent biography. (Full review here)
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