The Man Who Saved the Union

November 15th, 2012

With all the (much deserved) attention Abraham Lincoln is getting as Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln prepares to hit theaters nationwide this weekend, we think it appropriate to highlight a recent review of a book about another man who helped to save the Union: Ulysses S. Grant. 

Reviewing The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace, by H.W. Brands, a historian at the University of Texas, Eric Foner—himself a historian at Columbia University—notes that “few American presidents have seen their reputations ebb and flow as dramatically as Ulysses S. Grant. At the time of his death in 1885, he was revered as the man whose military prowess had saved the Union and who as president had guided it through the turbulent years of Reconstruction. Later, as national reconciliation (among whites) took hold, Grant’s military and political careers came under severe criticism. On the battlefield he was a ‘butcher’ who, in contrast to the tactically superior Robert E. Lee, triumphed only because of a willingness to sacrifice his men in an endless war of attrition. Grant’s presidency came to be seen as a failure, marred by corruption and a Southern policy that unwisely sought to elevate blacks to political equality.”

But more recently, Foner points out, Grant’s accomplishments have been viewed in a more positive light—or at least a more nuanced one. Brands’s new biography is part of a collection of recent books (no fewer than seven since the year 2000) looking at Grant’s life. 

Foner writes:

Paradoxes abound in Grant’s career, posing formidable challenges to the biographer. His prewar life offered no inkling of his later accomplishments. Unlike Lincoln, Grant seemed to lack ambition. He did not want to go to West Point, and while there, he scrutinized congressional debates over the future of the military academy, hoping it would be abolished and he could return home. Forced to resign from the Army in the 1850s to avoid having charges brought against him for drunkenness, he ended up working in his brother’s Illinois leather store. His family deemed him a failure. He disdained politics and politicians but was reelected in 1872 with the largest popular majority of the 19th century. Finally, although uncommunicative in person, Grant somehow managed to write one of the finest autobiographies in American letters.[…]

“The Man Who Saved the Union” is most successful where events themselves offer a clear story line. Brands presents vivid and compelling accounts of the complex battles of the Civil War. He explains clearly Grant’s strengths as a general: his ability to visualize the entire battlefield in the midst of conflict when others could perceive only chaos, his willingness to take risks and his courage in the face of setbacks. When it comes to the presidency, however, the narrative seems to lose focus. Events succeed one another — Grant’s effort to annex the Dominican Republic, his “peace policy” toward Native Americans, the economic depression that began in 1873, the scandals that marked his second term — but with little cumulative impact.

The closest Brands comes to offering an interpretive schema to unite Grant’s military and political careers concerns slavery and the freed people. “Nearly a century would pass,” he writes in his brief conclusion, “before the country had another president who took civil rights as seriously as Grant did.” Unfortunately, the book’s account of Grant’s growing commitment to the rights of blacks is scattered and sporadic; it cries out for further elaboration. Brands does not really explain Grant’s conversion to emancipation during the war. He ignores Grant’s decision to create what he called a “Negro paradise” at Davis Bend, the Mississippi plantations of Jefferson Davis and his brother Joseph, where land was divided among groups of emancipated slaves. He does not make it clear why Grant came to side with Congress in its battle with Andrew Johnson over Reconstruction. […]

Grant’s famous motto, “Let us have peace,” adorns the entrance to his tomb in New York City. Brands rightly emphasizes that this was a call not simply for national reconciliation but also for consolidation of what had been won in the war — Union and emancipation. By the time Grant died, the first was secure; it took a long time for the nation to try once again to fulfill the promise of the second.

Learn more about Grant and his efforts to save the Union with the rest of Foner’s review

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