Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity 1822-1865, by Brooks D. Simpson *****

ulyssessgrantEveryone needs heroes, and Grant has long been one of mine. This outstanding biography by Brooks D. Simpson is engrossing, and Simpson’s storytelling is well documented. I read several books at a go, but I found myself turning to this one oftener than my others. It is well organized and provides a balanced, meticulously researched look at Grant’s life through the end of the American Civil War. (Another volume that will deal with his presidency through the end of his life is planned, and I look forward to it also.) Thank you, thank you to Edelweiss Books, Above The Treeline, and Zenith Press for the ARC. I rated this book 4.5 stars and rounded it up.

Generally, I have a bias toward autobiographies and memoirs, because in most cases, the person can tell their own story in their own voice much better than some outside person. Exceptions are those who would over-inflate their own glory, sometimes unnecessarily (think Patton); really bad guys, like Goebbels; dead folks who went without writing a memoir, also like Goebbels; and a fourth group that I hadn’t even considered till I read this biography: people who are so modest that they understate their own achievements. Grant was just such a modest man, and he only wrote his autobiography because he was dying and in debt, and was told that the book would provide enough income to keep his wife Julia housed, fed, and reasonably happy until she followed him in death. He passed over many opportunities to point out his own remarkable qualities because his nature was unpretentious and unassuming, and so those of us who love history and biographies can’t ask for much better than what Simpson has offered here.

My second-favorite general (the first being Sherman) was born Hiram Ulysses Grant. The regional accent made his first name into a single syllable that sounded like “harm”. His father Jesse was overcome with pride in his young son, who could ride standing up on the back of a horse by the time he was five years old. “My Ullys” was bragged about constantly, to where people grew tired of hearing about it. In later years, his horsemanship would stand him in good stead, both in the war with Mexico and the American Civil War. If the reader considers that a horse back then was militarily a lot like a jeep of today, but animate and so more subject to performance based on its treatment by the rider, this takes on greater importance still.

Simpson characterizes Grant’s father Jesse as a braggart and windbag, but I could not help thinking that all children ought to have at least one parent who is so absolutely convinced they will grow up to do marvelous things.

Some parents who dream big and dream early about their offspring are deflated when the child reaches the age of majority without turning rocks into bread or parting the nearest sea to walk through it. So it was with Jesse Grant. His son didn’t do well at farming or in business, and Jesse made it clear to his son that he hadn’t lived up to expectations. At least, not yet. Although it meant having to go hat in hand to an old friend with whom he had quarreled, Jesse asked that his son be given one of his state’s positions as a student at West Point. It wasn’t about being in the military; it was about getting a college education free. And it was there that “Sam” Grant (nicknamed by Sherman, who was an upperclassman when Grant arrived) found the key to his future. Grant excelled at mathematics, and had war not come, he would most likely have followed through on his ambition to become a professor of mathematics. Fate crossed his path, and between the events that unfolded and Grant’s superior qualities, his life impacted the world in ways that are impossible to measure.

Simpson fills in all sorts of gaps in my own knowledge of Grant. He speaks frankly about Grant and alcohol, and sets the record as clear as it is likely to get given the time elapsed. He talks about his leadership qualities, and also points out what he sees as the errors in judgment Grant made (although I occasionally quibbled with him, as if he were in a chair across the room and could hear me; seemed to me in some cases, Grant could have been criticized no matter which way he went.) But our writer champions Grant’s greatest qualities, among which were his absolutely even temperament, and the fact that he never became frightened or agitated during battle, as well as his unstoppable determination and work ethic. He was a man of high principles, and he also knew how to back off from a power struggle even when he carried the authority to smack someone down. Humanity could use a few more folks like that.

Grant was unafraid to promote the use of Black soldiers, and pushed to include them even when the generals he commanded weren’t all that happy about doing so. He treated them with more decency and dignity, perhaps, than any other general (all of whom were Caucasian). He refused to participate in prisoner-of-war exchanges with the Confederates for as long as they killed or mistreated Black soldiers rather than regarding them as military prisoners. That’s integrity.

Most of all, the writer demonstrates that the greatest historical criticism of Grant’s generalship, that he used men up needlessly and was heedless of lives lost, is unfair and incorrect. In fact, had the Union had fewer generals like McClellan and more like Grant earlier in the war, it might have been done and over a whole lot sooner.

I flagged a lot of quotes and have not included all of my notes in this review, but common sense dictates that I end this here. By now surely you can see that if the American Civil War and General Ulysses S. Grant are topics that interest you—or that might do so—then this approachable yet scholarly volume is surely worth your time and money.