US Grant: the Civil War Years: Grant Moves South and Grant Takes Command*****

usgrantthecivilwaryI was fortunate to receive a DRC of this two volume biography of America’s greatest general, US Grant. Thanks go to Open Road Media and Net Galley for providing it in exchange for this honest review. This is the sixth Grant biography I’ve read, and aside possibly from Grant’s own memoirs, which are valuable in a different way than this set, I have to say this is hands-down the best I have seen. Catton won the Pulitzer for one of his civil war trilogies, and this outstanding biography is in the same league. Those with a serious interest in the American Civil War or military history in general should get it. It’s available for purchase now.

When I had read a couple of US Grant biographies, I told myself that enough was enough, and that I should push away from this one subject in favor of others. I am glad I ignored my own advice, because I have come away from this prodigious, in-depth study with a deeper understanding than anything else has provided.  It’s over 1100 pages long, and over 800 pages once one discounts the end notes and index, but it is as great a pleasure to read at the end as at the start, if not more so.

Is this a good choice for someone new to the American Civil War? Generally speaking (if you’ll pardon the pun) I’d say no, but for someone otherwise well versed in military history or with a tremendous interest level, time, and stamina, it could be. Because Catton is known as an expert in this field, I especially enjoy not having to review his citations. I know his sources will be strong, and one brief overview convinces me this is true.

The first volume starts with his less than glorious entry into the war. As many know, he had been a member of the regular US army during the conflict with Mexico, and had fallen apart and had to go home. Now he is back, but only after a string or two has been pulled by a family friend, and even then, his task is a daunting one. Volunteer soldiers don’t take orders or submit to discipline as a West Point soldiers do, and when he arrives, it seems the lunatics are running the asylum. One of the things that I am impressed with anew every time I read about Grant is his unerring judgment, the social radar that is an indisputable part of his talent. By knowing where to go easy on his men and how to bring them into conformity where it’s most important, he creates a solid force to move South with.

The battles of Belmont, Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and the tragic but technically successful battle of Shiloh open up the Mississippi River for the Union and divide the South. Catton uses a number of anecdotes that are new to me, and his congenial tone, occasionally caustic wit, and spot-on analysis leave me both energized and contented at the same time.

The second volume, however, is where I learn the most. Until I read this biography, I haven’t understood exactly how great a risk Lincoln takes when he orders that the US military forces should be given the ballot, an unprecedented move, as he himself runs once more for the highest office. His opponent, McClellan, is a former Union general that at the war’s outset, was at the top of the chain of command.  He didn’t go home a happy man, and now he is running as a Copperhead, the moniker given those in the North that want to end the war and let the South leave the Union, slaves and all. And though I know it is often the case that soldiers and sailors choose to support their Commander in Chief at the ballot box, I haven’t fully recognized how badly this may go for Lincoln. Doesn’t every soldier want to go home? This is the Democratic ticket’s promise; end it now and send them home.

On top of all that, Lincoln and Grant, who think a lot alike, clamp their teeth together and endure the white knuckled ride that they know they’ll be facing when they decide against further prisoner exchanges with the South. There are two strong reasons for this decision: first, the South refuses to recognize Black men in uniform as soldiers, and won’t exchange them, assuming that all of them must be escaped slaves, including those with Northern accents. Grant declares that no prisoners will be swapped until the South is willing to parole every Northern soldier, and he means it.

In addition, both Lincoln and Grant realize that the South is running low on manpower. There are thousands of their soldiers sitting in military prisons; to trade them out and risk seeing them back in uniform is to turn a military contest into a war of annihilation. With prisoner exchanges, the war will last longer, and there will be more death. In a peculiar way, refusing to exchange prisoners is the more humane policy.

In an election year, this is a tough sell. There are families up North that have been notified that their son, brother, father, is a prisoner of the enemy, and word has by now been spread as to what kind of conditions those poor men face. How much harder is it to vote for Lincoln and the fight for the reunification of the republic when to do so is to prolong the time their loved one sits behind bars, slowly starving? Lincoln and Grant could temporarily resume prisoner exchanges until after the election, but they stand on principle, and it pays off.

Another thing that I don’t really grasp until I read the second volume is Grant’s relationship with the Army of the Potomac, a collection of men that to some extent have been poisoned with McClellanism. It’s a real tightrope walk, and he is deft in his dealing with it. I can’t tell you everything he does here; that’s the point of the book, after all. But I came away with a renewed respect for General Sheridan, and an interest in reading biographies of that general also.

How much of Sherman’s march through Georgia and then to the sea is Grant’s idea, and how much of it is Sherman’s? I come away understanding this better than before as well, although I have read both Grant’s and Sherman’s memoirs. Catton has a way of crystallizing events without oversimplifying them.

And I nod with solemn satisfaction at the cold fury Grant experiences when he learns of the assassination of President Lincoln and the attempts on the lives of others, including himself.

I still shiver with pleasure when I reread the denouement, in which Grant sends General Weitzel and his troops, some of whom are Black, into Richmond when the Confederate capitol falls. I want to cheer as the throngs form for the military review in Washington DC after the war has been won; all those thousands of soldiers, all those citizens and international visitors in the stands and on the sidewalks, singing “John Brown’s Body”. Think of it!

I promised myself to be brief, and I haven’t really done that, but this is the least I can bring myself to say about this excellent biography. If my review is too long to hold your attention, then this two book series—even while allowing for the fact that Catton is a far better writer than I—will also be more of a meal than you are prepared for.

But for those with a sufficiently great interest level and stamina, I cannot imagine a better memoir of Grant for you to buy and enjoy. Enthusiastically recommended!

Grant, by Jean Edward Smith*****

grantWhat, another one? Yes friends, every time I find a noteworthy biography of Grant, it leads me to another. This is not a recent release; I found it on an annual pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books in my old hometown, Portland, Oregon. I always swing through the American Civil War shelves of their history section, and I make a pass through the military history area as well. I found this treasure, originally published in 2001 when I was too busy to read much of anything. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer; A New York Times and American Library Association Notable Book; and Publishers Weekly Book of the Year. But in choosing a thick, meaty biography such as this one—it weighs in at 781 pages, of which 628 are text, and the rest end-notes and index—I always skip to the back of the book and skim the sources. If a writer quotes other secondary texts at length, I know I can skip the book in my hand and search instead for those the writer has quoted. But Smith quotes primary documents, dusty letters, memos, and military records for which I would have to load my wide self into the car and drive around the country to various libraries in out of the way places. Source material like Smith’s is promising, so I bought a gently used copy for my own collection and brought it on home. And unlike the DRC’s I so frequently read at a feverish pace in order to review them by a particular date, I took my time with this one, knowing that if I only read a few pages each day and then reflected on them before moving on, I would retain more.

Usually the best place to read about a famous person is to read their own account. Grant’s autobiography was, at one time in US history, the second most commonly book owned by ordinary families. He was so deeply loved that many homes held two books: the Bible, and Grant’s memoir. That says a lot. And I did read that memoir quite awhile ago, and it was great. I recommend it. However, there are areas where we need an outside party to discuss things. For one thing, Grant was exceptionally modest. It takes an outsider to tell the full extent of his remarkable achievements, which Grant tended to soft-pedal. Also, alcoholism was not considered a disease during Grant’s lifetime, and his memoir simply makes no note whatsoever of his struggles with it; he doesn’t tell us about his early problems with it, or when he quit, and so he also doesn’t defend himself against later charges by enemies at times when most scholars say he was likely dry as a bone. And finally, of course, Grant was unable to tell us how the nation would respond to his death. So for those with a deep and abiding interest, it’s worth it to read multiple histories in which he is largely figured, as well as multiple biographies.

The fact that I had read a handful of Grant biographies in addition to Grant’s autobiography, yet came away with this volume studded with sticky notes marking new information as well as new insights and perspectives on known information is a good indication that Smith’s biography has met the gold standard.

We start with Grant’s childhood and his early gift for working with even the most difficult horses. Grant was physically quite compact, even by the standards of the day, about five feet five, weighing not more than 120 pounds. In another life, he could have been a jockey, but the purpose his life served gave us so much more. His education at West Point was not part of an initial plan toward a military career; his family could not afford to send him to college, and Grant sought higher education. A connected friend of his father’s got him into West Point, which charges no tuition but requires a period of service after graduation; until war broke out, his plan was to become a professor of mathematics, at which he excelled.

The war with Mexico is where he first saw service, and his job as quartermaster taught him a thing or two about priorities. Although many biographers say that Grant had no head for business, Smith argues that his early misfortunes in business were flukes for which outside causes were really to blame. As quartermaster, Grant succeeded in actually turning a profit for the army by buying flour, baking enough bread with it to feed the army and also sell to the local Mexican populace, with whom he kept friendly relations, and so Uncle Sam was able to feed his troops at bargain prices, since Grant put the profit back into food purchases and did not have to requisition the amount of other food ordinarily required. While in Texas and Mexico, he grew to greatly admire his commanding officer, General Zachary Taylor, whose understated, unpretentious manner and friendly relationships with those he commanded Grant would later emulate.

Smith carries us through all of Grant’s major battles, including Donaldson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and The Wilderness. He argues convincingly that Grant was never corrupted, but that those that would overturn the victory for African-Americans gained by the Civil War by denying them suffrage went out of their way to smear Grant’s reputation. Grant was also somewhat naïve when it came to politics. Surely he had had to deal with military politics—struggles for control between generals and generals, between generals and bureaucrats—but he did not understand initially how limited the executive power is, and how much Congress can undermine a president.

Grant had not wanted to become president, had in fact hoped to return to the beautiful West Coast after the war, but Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln as president after his assassination, so brutally and intentionally set about dismantling Lincoln’s legacy that he felt compelled to run. He was nominated by his party unopposed, never even attended the nominating convention, and won the general election by a landslide.

The American people loved him. I myself feel he was our last truly progressive president, and although Smith never makes such a flat assertion as mine, he gives me plenty of documentation to back it with, should I ever again find myself in a position where it’s called for.

This tome is not for the novice. If the reader is new to the American Civil War, I recommend James McPherson’s Pulitzer winning Battle Cry of Freedom, which is lengthy, comprehensive, and fascinating. For those looking for less of a time commitment, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, well researched historical fiction which also won the Pulitzer, is excellent. If you like it and want more, his son Jeff has continued the series one battle at a time, and I have yet to find a book he’s written that is not worth your time and money. All of these titles are reviewed on my blog.

For those that know the basics of the Civil War but are interested in learning more about Grant himself, this biography is the best I have read to date apart from his autobiography, which is also excellent.

Highly recommended to those with a strong interest; basic knowledge of the American Civil War; and college level literacy skills and stamina. Brilliant work.

Confederate Bushwhacker: Mark Twain in the Shadow of the Civil War, by Jerome Loving *****

confederate bushwhacker Good things come to those who wait. Jerome Loving established his credentials as an academic and historian a long time ago. I haven’t read the other biographies he has written, but they’re going on my list now.

Here’s what you have to know going into it: if you are looking for the sound bite, the cut-to-the-chase, you can’t have that wish. Loving uses induction rather than deduction, and brick by brick he builds toward his conclusion, taking the time to set context in a way that only a specialized biography such as this one, which focuses on the single year 1885, can do. And since I received this gorgeous little hardcover book as a Goodreads.com First Reads giveaway, I was impatient at first. “What the heck. Where’s the bushwhacking? Where’s Grant?”

Uh uh uh. No. Go back, reread. Everything that is in this book is there for a reason. If you hustle through the first part to get to the second, you may leave too many holes in the foundation. Do you want the wall to fall down? Of course not.

What I noticed, as I marched through with my sticky notes, is that the clusters were initially sparse, as the stage was set, and then suddenly ramped up around page 100, and by the end of the biography I was putting a sticky on every page and sometimes on facing pages.

I could tell you what he has to say; I went back and looked at all of those notes, but then, why would I wreck it for you? An author who builds up to the last page does not need a reviewer to hand over his punch line for him.

Instead, I can tell you that this is a careful, painstaking, well-documented analysis of a complex character. Twain’s ideas evolved between his 20’s and the end of his life, and of course, for most of us they do, but perhaps because his mind was open and searching, or perhaps because of his great fondness for “Sam” Grant, he watched what took place–including the Haymarket martyrdom, which I never knew had been an interest of his–and revised his ideas accordingly. Smart people can do that.

Perhaps the greatest measure of the success of this work is that it not only makes me want to see what else Loving has written, it also makes me want to revisit Twain. I had avoided much of Twain’s philosophical writing because of his anger toward the “damn human race”, to which I am much attached, thanks. But I want to see more about the connection between the events that played out during this time period and his changing perspectives.

One small correction is in order to Loving’s work, though I know this is a tiny, picky detail: Loving states that a huge redwood tree had been named for Grant. Ahem. It is a Sequoia tree. It is immense, but it is General Sherman’s that is the largest in the entire world. Sequoias belong to the same family as redwoods, but they are different. Having driven several days from Seattle to Southern California to see the tree; survived a four-car pile-up, rescued my luggage, bandaged and iced myself and my children, hired a rental car and driven onward to fulfill my mission, I can’t let it go by without mentioning it. Two great huge trees in honor of my two favorite American generals of all time. Sequoias. A hint is that they are located in Sequoia National Park. Makes sense, no?The biggest tree in the world!  50%

If you are reading this exclusively for the Civil War aspect, I will tell you that most of the book is not devoted to that time period; it says it is about 1885, not 1865, and when examining the book’s jacket, a knee-jerk reaction will leave you dangling. There is a small but meaty portion in which Twain discusses his part in the American Civil War, but this is not a Civil War history.

For those who read memoirs and biographies as rapaciously as I do, this is a must-read. For those who enjoy American history and literature, and most of all Twain, it is highly recommended. If you like Grant and maybe have even plowed through his remarkably readable autobiography, even better! But you can easily understand this book without it.

Many of my Goodreads.com First Reads will eventually be given away to my daughter’s school or some other good cause. Not this one; it will retain a place of pride in our home library. Thank you for writing it, Mr. Loving, and thanks to the University Press of New England for the free copy.