Book Review/Summary of American Ulysses by Ronald White


Title: AMERICAN ULYSSES, The Life of Ulysses S. Grant.

Author: Ronald C. White, author of three bestselling books about Abraham Lincoln. He earned his PhD at Princeton and lectured on Lincoln at hundreds of Universities, and at Gettysburg and the White House.

Publisher: Random House (2016)


Early Years. There was nothing in Grant’s early years to indicate his potential to become a successful leader of the entire Union Army during our Civil War, later on — to become President of the United States, and then lionized during his 2.5-year trip to England, Europe, Palestine, and Asia. In his final years, he would write his Memoirs, published by Mark Twain, which to this day are considered one of the finest military/presidential memoirs ever written.

During those early years, he was employed by his father, Jesse,[1] in the family leather-tanning business, a place of remarkable stench, which Grant dearly hated. It was a job taken because he could find little other enduring work. Then, on to West Point, where he was hardly a scholar, graduating in the bottom third of his class. His low academic achievement, combined with a host of demerits, resulted in his assignment to a remote, desolate Oregon outpost, where his excessive drinking resulted in his commanding officer giving him a choice: either resign or be court martialed. He chose the resignation, and attempted to find some productive work. He wandered to California at the time of the Gold Rush, opening a general store, which failed.[2]

Then married to Julia, a love story of remarkable duration and commitment, he settled on his father-in-law’s lands, attempting to be a farmer and a timber harvester. Both failed. From all this, it would be almost impossible to foresee Grant’s military success, leading to the presidency, and worldwide adulation on his extended post-presidency overseas trip. But, it happened.

Corruption. Most Americans think of Grant’s presidency as a time of personal failure, including an era of remarkable corruption and personal ineptitude. Although Grant served two terms, elected by significant majorities, his Administration was hit by a remarkably severe depression in 1873. That event alone would jeopardize any president’s image.[3] There is no doubt that the aftermath of the Civil War was widespread corruption. There is something about war, particularly as devastating and disruptive as our Civil War, which lessens the binds of morality. The problem for Grant was that corruption reached very close to him, including a number of his Cabinet members. He dismissed one Cabinet member, upon a finding of corruption, only to replace him with another who was quickly found to be equally corrupt. The author asks: Why was Grant so capable in choosing gifted military leaders, and so inept in filling federal offices, particularly those quite close to him?[4]

Military Success. Our military historians assert that the South had significant advantages: far shorter supply lines than the North, fighting in terrains they knew so well, and a tremendously supportive citizenry. Of course, the North had its advantages: a much larger manufacturing capability, a good transportation system, and a cause (the abolishment of slavery) that gave moral fiber to the North, and international approval. Grant cashiered Union generals left and right, but he had good many remaining commanders, including Sherman, Sheridan, Porter, and Farragut. Grant’s willingness to fight, even when incurring horrendous casualties, endeared him to Lincoln, who grew increasingly exasperated by early Union generals’ inclination to withdraw after any significant encounter. This was McClellan’s problem, always overestimating the enemy’s strength, and preparing with such thoroughness that he rarely made any dynamic moves. A good many American military historians feel that the South’s major weakness was its lack of in-depth skilled military leaders. This is not the picture created by our author. Rather, his focus is on Grant’s dynamic skills, supported by a good many Union generals taking Grant’s methods as their guide. Which of these two arguments do you think is correct?

Julia. Grant and Julia were married for more than 40 years, each truly in love with the other for all those decades. Julia was a real trooper, following Grant during his early military years of nonaccomplishment, and then during the Civil War following him on many occasions to his command posts, which often were quite threadbare in dismal locations. Grant was not an extrovert, but Julia was. She enlivened many of his outpost locations with parties and conviviality. Similarly, when she was in the White House, she was the belle of Washington, D.C., enjoying herself tremendously. Actually, although Grant resolutely turned down the prospect of a third term, Julia was disappointed because she enjoyed her role as First Lady and social orchestrator. She also enjoyed Grant’s 2.5-year overseas excursion, meeting people of all ranks. Her liking for them was almost always reciprocated, including their visit with Queen Victoria and a host of other worldwide dignitaries, but also with a substantial number of ordinary people.

Animal Care. Grant, from earliest days, was a superb horseman, caring deeply and gently with his charges. He was such a skilled trainer that other cadets brought their horses to Grant for instruction. A cavalry commander at West Point recognized Grant as a skilled rider, singling him out for the high jump as part of the graduation ceremony. That bar stood at six feet, easily cleared by Grant and his horse — an accomplishment at that height to this day. There were numerous occasions on which Grant saw others abuse their horses; he intervened quite forcefully.[5]

Grant exhibited the same caring attitude when he saw others abuse women. It just was not something he would tolerate.

Care for Minorities. Grant steadfastly supported former slaves and the cause of the American Indians — often when it was not particularly popular to do so. His was a heartfelt feeling that all should be treated equally, with equal rights. The author’s detailed description of the racist attitudes and actions of the Democratic Party, particularly during Grant’s two presidential elections, is a phase of American political life that most Democrats would soon forget. The Party thought of the Black as a lesser breed, and connived with so many actions of Southerners to keep former slaves in just that condition. The Democratic Party opposed military force to compel equal treatment of the Blacks during Reconstruction. Grant was of just the opposite persuasion, often sending Union troops into the South to compel obedience with the recent amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Even among Republicans in the North, and among those who had previously supported Abolition with vigor, there was a growing attitude against enforcement, leaving alone the Ku Klux Klan and other elements of Southern oppression. Grant was of the opposite conviction, but by the time of the latter part of his second term, the tide had turned against him. His Republican successor certainly joined the tide, much to Grant’s anguish.[6]

Appomattox. When Grant accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, he offered very generous terms, long admired and appreciated among Confederate leaders. Our author intimates that these generous terms were solely of Grant’s creation. Certainly, some of the terms were Grant’s own, such as his providing 25,000 rations to Lee’s starving soldiers, and his willingness to let Confederate officers keep their horses and sidearms. However, the major provisions had been thoroughly discussed at the late-war meeting among Lincoln, Sheridan, Grant, and Porter. It was Lincoln’s position that everything should be done to restore the Nation, allowing the Confederates to return home in peace. Thus, Grant’s offer of parole to all of Lee’s army surrendering at Appomattox Courthouse, allowing them to return to their homes with their promise not to take up arms again against the Union, and that they would abide by the recent Amendments of the U. S. Constitution freeing slaves. Remember that this surrender did not end the Civil War, there was still combat occurring farther to the west. The worldwide normal practice at that junction would have been to treat Lee’s surrendering soldiers as prisoners of war, confined to prison camps. The Appomattox terms were viewed by the world as extraordinary peace-building generosity, which enabled Grant to bathe in a glow of appreciation particularly as he made is 2.5-year tour of the world.[7]

Grant’s Finances. As a result of his long string of business failures and his pitiful early military salary, Grant became president with very few financial assets. On two occasions, he was provided a home free by wealthy sponsors. Grant was so appreciative that it did no dawn on him that by today’s standards, these lavish gifts would be considered bribery. However, the author could find no instances in which Grant participated in overt corruption, as so many of his immediate advisors did. Still, a lack of personal resources hounded Grant. Because he had resigned from the army, rather than retiring, he was provided no military pension. It took decades for our Congress to rectify this technical distinction, finally in the last several years of Grant’s life, a relatively modest pension, with survivor benefits for his wife, Julia (an annual amount of $5,000, worth about $60,000 today). In the latter part of his presidency, Grant turned his personal finances over to his son, who did remarkably well, particularly one investment in a mining company. That investment enabled Grant and Julia to make their worldwide post-presidency trip, which they both tremendously enjoyed. That financial success, which meant so much to the Grants, wetted his appetite for additional potentially high-return investments.

Along came Ferdinand Ward, a very smooth and ingratiating promoter, who lured Grant into investing almost all of his assets, including borrowings from his wife’s savings and taking a substantial loan from Vanderbilt. Initially, Ward paid huge dividends to Grant, but only for a short while. What Ward was doing was a Ponzi scheme, taking in money from investors such as Grant, buying no assets, but using that money to distribute, at least initially, huge dividends to investors. Actually, one of Grant’s financial friends told him that the returns were unrealistic, and Grant should investigate Ward most carefully. Of course, this tremendously sound advice was ignored. Ward had tremendous chutzpah, telling Grant he knew of a bank which was in financial difficulties and that only a small loan to the bank would enable it to survive, yielding Grant tremendous returns. Grant financed this charade through borrowings from Vanderbilt and his wife’s savings account. Of course, it was all a sham, Ward taking immediate flight, but shortly captured by the police and sentenced to eight years in prison. Grant was devastated, but paid back the loan by Vanderbilt with the little cash he had remaining and boxes of his war memorabilia. Vanderbilt initially refused the repayment, but Grant was insistent. Vanderbilt gave the memorabilia as a gift to the government.

Memoirs. A publishing house badgered Grant for years to write his memoirs, offering him a ten percent royalty. Grant submitted an article to the publisher, which was nothing more than extracts from his official military reports, exact, but lifeless. The publisher encouraged Grant to write from his own personal observations, putting himself into the text. At this time, a longtime friend, Mark Twain, visited Grant and heard about the publisher’s offer. Grant had not at that time signed any contract with the publisher. Mark Twain offered 20 percent royalties or 70 percent of profits to Grant, a remarkable improvement over the publisher’s offer. Grant took the 70 percent alternative, quite wisely, because his resultant two-volume work sold well over a hundred thousand copies. Grant’s portion of the profits more than adequately provided for Julia and his children for the rest of their lives — a long-term Grant goal. During the completion phases of the two volumes, Grant suffered tremendously from tongue cancer, which finally took his life at the age of 63. Under extreme health duress, Grant fought to stay alive, writing to complete the manuscript, a literary achievement of enduring status.

Military Genius. Particularly as Union casualties mounted horrendously, Grant was accused of ineptitude, just throwing massive bodies of troops against a wily and entrenched opponent. There is a little bit of truth in this charge, because Grant was a resolute attacker (just what Lincoln wanted because so many of his prior generals, such as McClellan, seemed never to effectively take the offensive. However, Grant did have military genius. His conquest of the deeply fortified fortress at Vicksburg on the Mississippi River has been studied at West Point for generations. Grant had so many feints and ruses that the fortress commander never knew where Grant would attack next, while always preventing Confederate reinforcement of the besieged fortress. Grant also worked in tremendously fine cooperation with the Union Navy headed by Admiral Porter. This degree of cooperation had rarely been seen in prior military history. For just one other example of his genius, early in the Civil War (1862), the Union-held Fort Henry was being overrun by Confederates. Grant was on a steamer on the Tennessee River, and raced at top speed to the combat. The Union commander asked Grant for advice as to how he should retreat. Grant’s response: “We attack.” This attack was so successful that the Confederates were sent scurrying.[8]

Conclusion. This paper touches only briefly on the extended detail of the author’s 700-page book. What emerges is a picture of a most unusual man. His early years gave no evidence of future prospect — so many early life and business failures. Certainly, his achievements at West Point were far from sterling, graduating in the bottom third of his class, while obtaining a host of demerits. The result was that he was assigned to an obscure outpost. He was so disillusioned by that early military experience that he resigned, wondering what he was going to do with his life. When the Civil War broke out, he was eager to get into the fray. His application was mostly ignored early on because his career pattern was far from outstanding. However, the war demand for officers, including particularly West Point graduates, resulted in his being called. Because he was an aggressive fighter, with a number of successes to his credit, he was advanced rapidly in rank, primarily because Lincoln wanted an aggressive fighter, something that his other generals seemed to lack. At the Battle of Shiloh, which resulted in horrendous casualties, one evening, Sherman cautiously asked Grant whether it was time to withdraw. Grant’s response: “We win tomorrow.” Grant was right, but the cost in lives was very high. Was he a military genius? There were a number of battles in which he demonstrated tremendous skills. But, there are other occasions in which his dogged determination won the day, but with extraordinary casualties.

His presidency was marred by pervasive corruption, and that is how he is mostly remembered by the American people. His biggest problem was that he naively gave so many of his Cabinet members and other high government officers the benefit of the doubt. During his post-presidency 2.5-year tour of the world, adulation greeted him everywhere, both by thousands of common people and by highest ranking officials. During his presidency and before, he was a very poor public speaker, and avoided such occasions as much as possible. On his worldwide tour, he gained his voice, revered as a generous peacemaker and undoer of a moral depravity — slavery. His memoirs produced something he had never had — financial security for his wife and children. These memoirs even today are recognized as a tremendous literary accomplishment. Not bad for someone who had previously been confined to writing terse field orders to his commanders.

Was Grant the high-accomplisher described by our author, or should he be accurately remembered as a failed president? I believe the truth lies somewhere in between. What do you think?

Let’s discuss.


[1] Grant and his father had a rather strained relationship, but when Grant achieved high military accomplishments, and then became president of the United States, Jesse notoriously used his relationship to Grant to promote all sorts of nefarious ventures for the father’s personal gain. It was not a pretty picture.

[2] Historians have found, primarily through searches of gold assay offices in gold-rush areas that very few prospectors achieved any sort of wealth. Substantial earnings were achieved, however, by local general stores and gold-rush provisioners. So, Grant’s general store in Northern California was opened at just the right time, and should have been remarkably prosperous. It took a real effort to fail.

[3] Herbert Hoover suffered the same fate, largely as a result of the Great Depression. He had previously exhibited tremendous purpose and organization, providing aid-relief to war-torn Europe after WWI. He followed the economic thinking of the day: When federal revenues declined, it was imperative that federal expenditures be reduced — a balanced budget was a holy grail. Of course, cutting federal expenditures at that critical time, reduced individual incomes, just when their consumer purchases were desperately needed by the economy. Actually, FDR campaigned on a promise that he would balance the budget, a promise that went by the wayside as he introduced so many programs to put Americans back to work. The result was significant federal debt, just what John Maynard Keynes later opposed. Most economists believe that these welfare/work programs did not take us out of the Great Depression, rather — it was the vast government expenditures as we entered WWII.

[4] A good question. During his military era, Grant chose people who were loyal to him and dynamic in combat, just as he was. Unfortunately, in the political world, these two traits were not effective, particularly for those who were deeply corrupt, but were held on by Grant long after their misdeeds surfaced because they appeared to him to be loyal.

[5] Robert E. Lee was also a skilled horseman, but noted mostly for his grace in the saddle. By contrast, Grant was an arduous rider, while Lee gave a magnificent appearance.

[6] What Grant was combatting was a pervasive attitude of the South during Reconstruction that the Black was an inferior person, and certainly should be compelled to accept his role and by no means to be an active voter. The Southern beliefs were so strong that the South remained firmly Democratic all the way up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when the South suddenly converted to Republican, once again to keep the Black down. Although much diminished, there is still in our South an undercurrent of these same beliefs which were so transparently strong during Reconstruction. For historical comparison: The Roman Empire conquered Greece, enslaving many of its skilled leaders and artisans, often taking them to Rome. However, the Romans, rather than viewing these enslaved Greeks as lesser people, recognized their talents, and swiftly incorporated them into the mainstreams of society and government. Why did the Romans accomplish so much, when racial equality has taken so long in America? That’s a question for our discussion. In another historical dimension: The Roman Empire conquered many peoples of tremendously diverse cultures and religions. Rome made no effort to interfere with these cultures and religions. Look today at the horrible conflicts between Shiites and Sunnis in the Middle East, tearing that part of the world apart, with one of the largest outflows of refugees our planet has ever experienced. Also, the intense warfare between Hindus and Muslims when India gained its independence from England in the late 1940s. Historians estimate that over a million deaths resulted from this religious conflict. Also, take a look at the tremendous loss of life during Rwanda’s civil war, a conflict between the Tutsis and the Hutus — about ten percent of that nation’s total population perished in this tribal/religious warfare. How could the Romans have done so well, with succeeding generations doing so poorly? Another topic for our discussion.

[7] When Sheridan conquered the remaining significant portion of the Confederate Army, he offered the same Appomattox terms. By then Lincoln was dead, and so many in Congress wanted no such generosity, reprimanding Sheridan. This would not have occurred if Lincoln had lived, most probably.

[8] Many years later, during WWII, the British were overrunning a German-held position in North Africa. German General Erwin Rommel flew to the site. His local commanding officer asked how the retreat should be organized. Rommel said: “We attack.” The British, who had decisive advantages in numbers and materiel, were sent scurrying by this surprise move. History sometimes does repeat itself.