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A magnificent book that once again leaves me wondering how Brands is so thorough and prolific
H.W. Brands reveals the Greatness of Ulysses S. Grant
Hardcover. 718 pp.
October 2, 2012. Doubleday.
There is a phrase that critics -- both book critics and movie critics, but mostly book critics -- use so frequently in their reviews that it's almost funny to come across it now. When a critic comes across an epic story or film, they love to describe it as a "sweeping, magisterial" work. Seriously, take a second to go right now to do a focused Google search in quotes of "sweeping, magisterial" -- every single result that the search returns for several pages is either a book review or a film review! The phrase is so overused that it's almost become a parody, like the voice-over actor who uses his deep baritone at the beginning of a movie trailer to intone, "In a world where...". When I started reviewing books regularly, I decided I that I wanted to be careful to never use the "sweeping, magisterial" phrase as a crutch in my reviews, and I don't think I have. Yet, I wouldn't be honest to my readers if I didn't admit that, as I sat down to write the review for H.W. Brands's new book, The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (Doubleday, October 2, 2012), the first adjectives that came to my mind were "sweeping" and "magisterial". And for that, I put the blame squarely on H.W. Brands and this comprehensive, supremely readable new biography about the quiet and unassuming General who stood nine inches shorter than Abraham Lincoln but was just as much of a giant of the dangerous and trying times that they lived in.
H.W. Brands, one of our finest historians, is no stranger to epic, penetrating biographies of American icons who are pillars of our nation's historical architecture. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Benjamin Franklin, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, as well as his biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Traitor To His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Brands has also brought us other great works such as American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900, Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream, and TR: The Last Romantic to name just a few. By no means is that Brands' full bibliography, either. Despite the fact that each of his books are meticulously researched, masterfully structured, and elegantly written, Brands is also astonishingly prolific, especially considering the depth and breadth of each of his books.
With The Man Who Saved the Union, Brands examines the life of the enigmatic Ulysses S. Grant, a man whose importance to the preservation of the nation through the Civil War is equal to Abraham Lincoln's and who came from similarly obscure roots and faced personal failures and depressions much like Lincoln did prior to his election as President. What is most extraordinary about Ulysses S. Grant seems to be how very ordinary he was. No one ever expected much out of Grant and despite graduating from West Point and serving ably in the Mexican War, Grant didn't do much during his first 40 years to prove those doubters wrong. Some missteps with alcohol while Grant was stationed thousands of miles from his family in lonely military outposts in California and Oregon following the Mexican War ended a military career that had become stagnant anyway. Reunited with his family, life for Grant remained difficult and frustrating as business failures and bad luck kept him drifting from one job to another before finally forcing him to seek work with his father's tannery and leather goods business -- the last place the squeamish, animal-loving Grant wanted to end up at.
The outbreak of the Civil War provided Grant with an opportunity to reenlist in the U.S. Army and The Man Who Saved the Union follows him as he helps organize militia in Illinois and then quickly rises from colonel to brigadier general. While the Union Army struggled in the East and President Lincoln frustratingly sought a commander who would actually fight in that theater of the war, Grant's tenacious fighting and singular focus on victory gave the Union much-needed successes in the West. Brands recounts Grant's leadership and vividly describes the battles that helped the Union gain control of the Mississippi River and resulted in Lincoln -- and the entire nation -- taking notice of the quiet, cigar-smoking general who actually fought, unlike the commanders in the East that Lincoln constantly prodded and poked and eventually fired.
By the beginning of 1864, Grant was a national hero and in recognition of his successes, abilities, and the Union's need for his continued leadership, President Lincoln appointed him lieutenant general. The man who couldn't hold on to a job a few years earlier was now sharing the highest military rank given to that point in American history with George Washington. Grant was given command of the entire Union Army and took personal charge of the underachieving Army of the Potomac in the East while one of Grant's best friends, General William Tecumseh Sherman, took over in the West. Sherman is one of the highlights of The Man Who Saved the Union because of his passion, his candor, and his fascinating character, and his personal friendship and professional partnership with Grant is one of the important aspects of the Civil War. Fortunately for us, Brands spotlights their relationship and lets the two generals help carry their story through their letters to each other, reports to the War Department, and their respective autobiographies, which are two of the finest books written by major American historical figures.
In many ways, 1864 is the toughest year of the Civil War and Brands puts the reader in the middle of the brutal Wilderness campaign where Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee threw tens of thousands of soldiers at one another in some of the bloodiest battles in history. At the same time, Lincoln is seeking a reelection that is not only uncertain but, at times, seems unlikely. The Man Who Saved the Union reveals how Grant shot down calls for him to run for President against Lincoln and how Union victories in the late-summer and fall helped swing the election to Lincoln.
The war comes to a close in April 1865 and Brands does a great job with the dramatic surrender of General Lee to General Grant at Appomattox. Less than a week later, Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew Johnson became President. With the Civil War ending, The Man Who Saved the Union shifts into the second half of Ulysses S. Grant's public career. Now that Grant has saved the Union, he decides that he must do whatever is necessary to help preserve it. Still the commanding general of the United States military, Grant was now overseeing soldiers flung throughout the nation -- at frontier outposts battling Native Americans and occupying the former Confederate states of the South in order to protect newly-freed slaves, install loyal officials in state and local governments, ensure the rule of law, and complete Reconstruction. With Lincoln dead and Johnson in the White House, Radical Republicans battled the new President over the details of Reconstruction and Grant was often caught in the middle. As a subordinate, Grant refused to disobey or disrespect his commander-in-chief publicly, but privately, he disliked Johnson and was fed up with the President. Brands does perhaps the best job that I've read in describing the tension between Johnson and his Cabinet, as well as Johnson and Grant, and then the final break between President Johnson and General Grant.
Johnson had no chance of being elected President in his own right in 1868 and Brands notes that it was clear to everyone in the country that Ulysses S. Grant would be the next President. It's interesting to read about Grant's shift from a military man to a political leader in The Man Who Saved the Union, and Grant's eight years as President are frequently overlooked. For decades Grant has been considered one of the worst Presidents in American history, but in recent years, that opinion has somewhat softened, particularly due to Grant's progressive civil rights stance, which resulted in Grant signing the only civil rights legislation until 1957. Brands examines the Grant Administration in great detail and touches upon the scandals which tainted Grant's Presidency despite no wrongdoing on the President's part. While Grant certainly was a far better soldier than politician, Brands makes a solid case through his research that his record as President may deserve a closer look by historians.
In retirement, Grant and his wife, Julia, take a long-needed and well-deserved vacation that turned into a trip around the world which lasted over two years. Returning to the U.S., Grant nearly won the 1880 Republican Presidential nomination at a wild Republican National Convention before James Garfield was eventually nominated. In his final years, Grant looked to earn some money so that his family could live comfortably, but the bad luck in business that tormented him during the years prior to the Civil War returned. A crooked financial partner bilked Grant out of nearly every cent the general owned. Brands reveals the lengths that the aging American hero went to in order to find a way to provide for his family and details Grant's dramatic final act of heroism. After Mark Twain worked out a lucrative deal for Grant to write his autobiography, Grant races to finish the book even though he is dying from throat cancer. Grant's health rapidly deteriorates, but he continues to write, focused on the goal of finishing the book before his death so that his family would be able to live without financial worries. In July 1885, Grant -- weighing less than 100 pounds and no longer able to speak -- finished the book and it remains perhaps the best autobiography ever written by a former President (although it doesn't cover his political career). A week after finishing the book, Grant died in New York and the country -- North and South, Blue and Gray, Union and Confederate -- turned out to mourn The Man Who Saved the Union.
There is a major difference between a "historian" and a "writer", unless your name is H.W. Brands. The Man Who Saved the Union is a magnificent book that once again leaves me wondering how Brands is so thorough and prolific. The book also leaves me with a better understanding of Ulysses S. Grant. Americans know what Grant did and they see his face on the $50 bill, but this book truly helps reveal who Grant was and how this unlikely hero, bruised by failure and tested by disappointment, focused, fought, and became the savior of the Union.
The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H.W. Brands is available now from Doubleday. You can order the book from Amazon, or download it instantly for your Kindle. H.W. Brands has written numerous best-selling books and has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is currently the Dickson Allen Anderson Professor of History at the University of Texas in Austin. His website is www.hwbrands.com and he is on Twitter @hwbrands.
Anthony Bergen, Senior Literary Editor: Anthony Bergen is a writer and Presidential historian based in Sacramento, California. His historical work has been published by numerous outlets and historical associations including pieces for the New Hampshire Historical Society's Franklin Pierce Bicentennial, ConsiderableThoughts.com and the National Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial celebration. Anthony has also been a contributing joke-writer for several touring stand-up comedians and "The KiddChris Show" on Portland's KUFO FM.