“The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses S. Grant in War and Peace” by H.W. Brands


I finally finished this book and I know I said I would not be finished by the end of February but it turned out to be a great read!

Most of the books I read tend to focus on the details of a particular battle or war and not the people who fight or lead the armies. Those books are heavily highlighted with post-it flags and then put on a book shelf to be used in the future as reference. This is not one of those books. This is truly a biography of Ulysses S. Grant, as both the General and President.

The book totals some 760 pages and is divided into three parts: Part I covers his early years, West Point, and post-West Point life up until just before the Civil War. Part II covers the events immediately preceding the Civil War (think Bloody Kansas and Harper’s Ferry) to the battle at Appomattox (where General Lee surrendered and the Civil War was brought to a close). Part III covers the ending of the Civil War, his presidency, post-presidency, and finally his end.

Brand did a great deal of research but most of the book is taken from letters and memoirs of the parties involved. Brand eloquently weaves a connection between the biography and the letters/memoirs. While voluminous, the reading was not at all tedious. Some military books tend to get bogged down in statistics but only in a couple of instances does Brand actually list the statistics. He uses it more to frame the picture of the battle instead of defining the battle itself. There were actually a couple of times where I was inpatient and thinking Brand wouldn’t tell us how many casualties there were for a particular battle because he was so focused on the strategy of the battle that I used Google to figure out what was the result. I really just needed to be more patient!

Everything I knew about Grant could be summarized by the statement “History’s Best General but Worst President”. This book taught me that I was only half correct. He was one of the best Generals and I also personally think one of the best presidents.

As a General, Brand describes Grant as an excellent general for these reasons: “…for reasons perhaps partly inborn and partly acquired, rarely revisited choices once made. He planned according to the information at hand; he prepared for all reasonable contingencies; he decided what to do as events unfolded. Then, calm in the conviction that he could have done no more, he accepted what destiny delivered.” (p 337). This underlies the book’s theme in Part II of Grant as an excellent strategist. While he internally mourned the loss of men, he realized that battles could not be won without the ultimate sacrifice and strategized in such a way that not only tried minimize losses (of soldiers, artillery, and ground) but what would also have the greatest impact in the both the short-term and the long-term.

I think the reason I thought of Grant as a so-so president is because just after he left office, public opinion from businessmen and politicians tried to make his terms seem unsuccessful and I think it is those opinions that color the history books we are required to read in school. While the second term in office was populated with scandals of his cabinet members, Grant actually was never accused of wrong doing but as we all know, a couple of bad apples spoil the bunch and so it is with Grant. I find this rather distressing because it overlooks so many groundbreaking (at the time) laws that he proposed, strongly supported and signed into law. These came from his determination that the newly freedmen be given all equitable rights according to law, that the states must be responsible for their own government, and that the country must be fiscally solvent and sound. He pushed through what is commonly referred to the Ku Klux Klan act to diminish their uprising and to protect the freedmen. I know Lincoln is considered the Great Emancipator but Grant did far more to not only give rights to those who were previously barred from them but to also lift them up to be influential and productive members of the newly reunited America. Brand does an excellent job of not just showing the reader Grant’s accomplishments but also the why and how he was able attain these feats. I think Brand did a great job explaining the why so the reader almost felt like they know Grant by the end of the book.

I really love this book and it was one of the better books I have read in a long time. I give this 4 stars (out of 5) on Goodreads because I think Brand may be a bit too pro-Grant in some places (very few though) and this colored his writing a bit. But overall, if you are looking for a book about one of our greatest historical figures in this country, I would highly recommend it!

At bat: “The History of Warfare” by John Keegan. I just started this yesterday but I’m already enjoying so here’s hoping it stays that way.

On deck: “The Crimean War: A History” by Orlando Figes.

In the bullpen: TBD (but any suggestions are welcome! I added my Goodreads link to the main page so you could see what’s on the to-be-read bookshelf.)


About jenvolk5

Bank auditor by day, trivia and knowledge hound all other times.
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