Greetings, my fellow port swillers!

This afternoon, ol’ Robbo finished off the latest literary recommendation from the Mothe, “renowned presidential biographer” H.W. Brands’ The Man Who Saved The Union:  Ulysses Grant in War and Peace.  All in all, I am inclined to think it well worth a read for anyone who, like Robbo, is interested in and/or admires Sam Grant.

The first part of the book deals with Grant’s misspent yoot and astonishing blossoming as a professional soldier.  Since much of the material about his early years is drawn directly from Grant’s own memoirs, which I’ve read numerous times, I didn’t really learn much, although I appreciated some of the additional citations, including a journal kept by a slave of Julia Dent’s in which some notes of Grant’s courtship were preserved.   As to Brands’ description of the Civil War, it’s a pretty good overview, although again, I’ve read numerous much more detailed accounts of the War in general and Grant’s actions in particular, including (to name a few) the memoirs of Grant, Sherman and Sheridan and the great two-part opus of Bruce Catton (which, unless I missed it, Brands does not cite or reference a single time.  Heresy!)  My only beef would be the uneven treatment of campaigns and battles in which Grant did not participate directly.  The Red River and Mobile Bay, for example, are ignored completely.  On the other hand, Brands devotes far too much ink to Pickett’s Charge and seems to fall for the romantic notion that the Confederacy was this close to achieving final victory at the stone wall.  (I have argued before that it really wasn’t that close.  Yes, there was some panic among some of the Federal units, but Pickett had no support and Union reinforcements were coming in from all over the field.)

The second part of the book deals with Grant’s political life.  Most people today, if asked to summarize Grant’s presidency, would say, “Huh? Who?”  Most people possessed of some basic knowledge of American history would most likely say, “bedeviled by scandal and corruption that Grant himself was too inept to stop”.  Here is where Brands’ work is most valuable, at least to me.  His argument is that yes, the scandals occurred, but there were others that Grant did break up.  Furthermore, Grant achieved the overarching goal of his presidency, which was to prevent the Union from sliding back into the sectarian strife from which it had just emerged.  To this end, he did everything in his power to integrate southern blacks – and repentant southern whites – into the political process, including sending Federal troops to deal with the Klan, passing and enforcing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and other real politick and legal efforts.  (Grant’s opinion of  blacks themselves has always struck me as a bit ambivalent.  However, he was absolutely – and I think correctly – convinced that if slavery and its attendant attitudes were not completely rooted out, the two sections of the country would be right back at each other’s throats.)  One thing of which I had been unaware was Grant’s later active campaigning on behalf of James Garfield in 1880 in order to ensure the Republicans held the White House at least four more years in order to stave off Democratic efforts to undo Reconstruction.   While in the end he did not succeed completely,  it is very much arguable that he did, as the title suggests, save the Union a second time.

The political section also deals with some other aspects of Grant’s administration, including his attempt to treat the Indians humanely as the country expanded westward, an abortive effort to annex what is now the Dominican Republic (eagerly sought by the Dominicans themselves), his policy of expanded trade with Mexico and his continual effort to get the United States back to the gold standard.   Here, I think the book is a bit uneven.  The discussions of Indian and trade policies rayther fizzle a bit, the Dominican effort was fascinating but in the end irrelevant, and I’m afraid I suffered something of a MEGO when reading about the currency battles.  Monetary policy is, of course, important, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually interesting.

Brands finishes up with a discussion of Grant’s post-presidential activities, his tours around the world, his above-mentioned canvassing, his sudden financial plight owing to the machinations of a slippery Wall Street fraud and his resultant work with Sam Clemens to write his memoirs and raise money for his family, and his death from throat cancer.  Throughout this section, Grant’s enormous popularity is emphasized again and again, the good will coming from both friends and former enemies.  Considering his relative political obscurity now, this is quite surprising.

So what happened?  Brands argues that both Northern and Southern political interests in the late 19th Century took a turn in a direction which necessitated the sweeping of Reconstruction and its great hero under the historickal rug.  To this end, all the old slanders about Grant – his drinking, his political ineptitude, the scandals and cronyism – came to the fore, shoving his achievements into the background.  I am very satisfied with Brands’ effort to rehabilitate Grant’s reputation.

I have just a couple minor nits with the book.  For covering such an immense amount of territory, I think it is probably a bit too short and superficial, especially, as I mention, about the War.  I understand that this is just an overview, but perhaps it would have been better to break the subject down into two books.  Also,  Brands dabbles a bit in pop-psychology, particularly regarding Grant’s relationship with his father, which was never all that good.  I’m not fond of this kind of mental speculation, but I wish that if Brands was going to do it, he would at least do it more thoroughly.  The last we hear of old Jesse is when he’s trying to trade on General Grant’s name to get in on illicit southern cotton importation during the War.  After that, he simply vanishes from the text and nothing more is ever said of Grant’s attitudes about him.    Finally, there are some annoying glitches in the text – a misuse of the words upstream and downstream suggesting a lack of knowledge of which direction the Tennessee River flows, the information that two of Grant’s pallbearers were Phil Sherman and William Sheridan – which indicate some sloppy editing.

All in all, though, a satisfying study.  I would give it, say, four glasses out of five.

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