Ulysses S. Grant emerges a hero in new bio

Matt Damsker
Special for USA TODAY
'American Ulysses' by Ronald C. White

American political thinking has a way of coalescing around concepts that hold the public’s attention for a time, then fade. “Temperament,” for example, is on many tongues this election season, after years of not being much on anyone’s mind.

That may be why Ronald C. White’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant, American Ulysses (Random House, 667 pp., **** out of four stars), seems especially relevant, despite its focus on the sepia-toned memory of a military leader who rose to prominence — and then the presidency — in the 1860s.

This exhaustive book, at nearly 700 pages, portrays a deeply introspective man of ideals, a man of measured thought and careful action who found himself in the crosshairs of American history at its most crucial moment. As Abraham Lincoln’s Union-saving commanding general during the Civil War, the Ohioan Grant, an early West Point graduate, was hardly a war-whooping rouser of his troops. In fact, he first distinguished himself during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 as a quiet quartermaster, managing supply lines with discipline and dedication.

Author Ronald C. White

Historian White, we’re told, spent seven years researching Grant, uncovering some new correspondence, and so he emerges with a fresh interpretation of the man. He convincingly refutes the dusty conclusion that Grant was, for all his wartime heroism, a drunk whose two-term presidency, from 1869-77, was notable mainly for its corruption.

“To the extent Grant developed his military abilities during the Mexican War, he did so largely by observing the leadership of senior officers,” writes White. “He was impressed by (General Zachary) Taylor’s dress and his approachability.” Taylor’s temperament, his calm in the face of danger, was a match for Grant’s, but there were struggles. White concludes that a period of heavy drinking at a remote posting in northern California — during which Grant felt without purpose and missed his beloved wife, Julia, and their children — led him to resign from the Army in 1854, only to return to it as the Civil War began.

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at his Cold Harbor, Va., headquarters in June 1864.

But White finds little if any evidence that Grant fought alcoholism afterward, despite rumors and accusations. If anything, Grant’s incessant cigar-smoking was likely his chief undoing — he died of throat cancer in 1885, and the most poignant section of the book is White’s account of how Grant suffered through his sickness yet worked on to complete his Personal Memoirs, a richly expressive chronicle (as published by Mark Twain) that has never been out of print.

The larger point of White’s book, which challenges the reader with detailed dissections of the Civil War battles that Grant’s Union Army fought en route to a bitter triumph, is that Grant was a noble man of vision. White believes the disputed scandals of Grant’s second term in office unfairly overshadow what he fought for — the political rights of African-Americans, a better Indian policy, effective federalism — and against, including voter suppression and the Ku Klux Klan.

A true American Ulysses, Grant lost and found himself on his road to American greatness.