American Ulysses A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald C. White Jr.

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I started watching a documentary on Netflix about the Civil War and it spiked an interest in the time period and people involved. I decided to start with an author I’m already familiar with and have enjoyed in the past.

I’m someone who needs an easy introduction to topics like these, before recently I wasn’t that interested in history and I’m trying to play catch up on years of ignoring the topic. I find that Ronald C. White writes in a way that’s engaging and also entry-level for those people without history degrees.

Like in his other biographies, White begins with Grant’s childhood and taking the time to introduce us to many members of his family that helped shape him as a person. He was a good student but stuck out from the crowd a bit due to his lack of interest in hunting. Most of his peers would go out with their fathers and hunt from time to time, but Grant always refused. He was one of the earliest animal rights activists and carried it through his lifetime. I sort of knew right here I would have a soft spot for the guy, as I too am an animal lover. Later on in the book, there was a scene where Grant came across one of his soldiers abusing his pack mule.

One day during the siege, Grant was observed walking the outer line when he encountered a mule-team driver beating and cursing one of the mules. He ordered the man to stop. The animal’s abuser, seeing a man with a blouse and no sign of rank, turned and began to swear at him. Grant had the man arrested and brought to his headquarters. Only then did the mule driver realize whom he had insulted. The man was ordered to be tied up by his thumbs. When released, the contrite soldier apologized for his language, telling Grant he did not know to whom he was speaking. Grant explained that he had punished the soldier not because of what he’d said to his commanding general: “I could defend myself, but the mule could not.

He was also very devoted to his wife, Julia and had more respect than most for women in his day in age. He always made it a point to treat women with respect whether it be his own wife and daughters or someone else’s.

His family had many outspoken abolitionists in their ranks, making it rather easy to figure out which side of the Civil War his family was going to land on. After the Civil War racism and reconstruction were paramount in everyone’s lives. I really enjoyed knowing that Grant did try his best, even though he wasn’t all that successful, to try and uplift the former slaves and bring about some semblance of equality. He resisted the efforts of the KKK and spoke out against them publicly. He was even branded a “Black Republican” and without hundreds of thousands of freed black men, he would have lost the presidential race.

I think it’s a shame that all I knew about this guy before the biography were his struggles with alcoholism. This book did go into that, and how his wife Julia helped him through some particularly difficult episodes – but he was so much more than that.

This book also left me feeling pretty down, the end of Grant’s life wasn’t all that great and it was largely due to his trusting nature. He believed and invested money in people he thought were friends, but were actually just conmen. He was scammed out of his money more than once, he was almost broke when he was diagnosed with throat cancer due to his love of cigars. It just seemed so tragic that someone with as many strengths as he had still had blind spots and faults that lead to his near financial destruction. He tried his best to write memoirs day and night before he died so there would be something his family could sell and make money off of once he was gone. He didn’t die without friends and admirers, over one million people marched along with his funeral procession, marking it as one of the most attended events of the time.

I found this book to be utterly compelling, well written and extremely narrative. There was so much to the book that I didn’t even know where to start with this review. It covered everything you could possibly want to know about Grant – his childhood, his rise in rank in the military, his Civil War experiences, his presidency and later years. I hate dry history books and I think that’s why I had gravitated away from them in the past. I strongly encourage anyone remotely interested in this time period or the man himself to pick this one up – it’s going to be one I remember for a long time.

 

 

 

 

2 comments

  1. I’m a huge civil war buff but most of my books are battle histories. And once I went to grad school (for something other than history) I quit buying them for a long time so my library is a little dated. What topics are you interested in?

    1. I like knowing the stories of the people who shaped the battles. I get a little battle history but also get a more intimate look at those that had to go through it.

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