Ulysses S. Grant was the first four-star general in the history of the United States Army and the only president between Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson to serve eight consecutive years in the White House. As general in chief, Grant revolutionized modern warfare. Rather than capture enemy territory or march on Southern cities, he concentrated on engaging and defeating the Confederate armies in the field, and he pursued that strategy relentlessly. As president, he brought stability to the country after years of war and upheaval. He tried to carry out the policies of Abraham Lincoln, the man he admired above all others, and to a considerable degree he succeeded. Yet today, Grant is remembered as a brilliant general but a failed president.
In this comprehensive biography, Jean Edward Smith reconciles these conflicting assessments of Grant's life. He argues convincingly that Grant is greatly underrated as a president. Following the turmoil of Andrew Johnson's administration, Grant guided the nation through the post- Civil War era, overseeing Reconstruction of the South and enforcing the freedoms of new African-American citizens. His presidential accomplishments were as considerable as his military victories, says Smith, for the same strength of character that made him successful on the battlefield also characterized his years in the White House.
Grant was the most unlikely of military heroes: a great soldier who disliked the army and longed for a civilian career. After graduating from West Point, he served with distinction in the Mexican War. Following the war he grew stale on frontier garrison postings, despaired for his absent wife and children, and began drinking heavily. He resigned from the army in 1854, failed at farming and other business endeavors, and was working as a clerk in the family leathergoods store when the Civil War began. Denied a place in the regular army, he was commissioned a colonel of volunteers and, as victory followed victory, moved steadily up the Union chain of command. Lincoln saw in Grant the general he had been looking for, and in the spring of 1864 the president brought him east to take command of all the Union armies.
Smith dispels the myth that Grant was a brutal general who willingly sacrificed his soldiers, pointing out that Grant's casualty ratio was consistently lower than Lee's. At the end of the war, Grant's generous terms to the Confederates at Appomattox foreshadowed his generosity to the South as president. But, as Smith notes, Grant also had his weaknesses. He was too trusting of his friends, some of whom schemed to profit through their association with him. Though Grant himself always acted honorably, his presidential administration was rocked by scandals.
"He was the steadfast center about and on which everything else turned," Philip Sheridan wrote, and others who served under Grant felt the same way. It was this aura of stability and integrity that allowed Grant as president to override a growing sectionalism and to navigate such national crises as the Panic of 1873 and the disputed Hayes-Tilden election of 1876.
At the end of his life, dying of cancer, Grant composed his memoirs, which are still regarded by historians as perhaps the finest military memoirs ever written. They sold phenomenally well, and Grant the failed businessman left his widow a fortune in royalties from sales of the book. His funeral procession through the streets of Manhattan closed the city, and behind his pallbearers, who included both Confederate and Union generals, marched thousands of veterans from both sides of the war.
- Pulitzer Prize
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Simon & Schuster
April 09, 2002
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Excerpt from Grant by Jean Edward Smith
Chapter Eleven: Grant and Lee
I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.
Ulysses S. Grant
With the blessing of God, I trust we shall be able to prevent General Grant from reaching Richmond.
Robert E. Lee
No two men better exemplified the cause for which they fought than Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant. Slaveholder, patrician, scion of the First Families of Virginia, the fifty-seven-year-old Lee personified the romantic virtues of the Old South. His father was Light-Horse Harry Lee, Washington's larger-than-life cavalry commander, governor of Virginia, spendthrift, womanizer, and ultimately a fugitive from debtor's prison who spent his last years in self-imposed exile in the West Indies. His mother was Ann Carter, daughter of the Tidewater Carters, the most prominent of James River planters, and once reputed to be the wealthiest family in America. Eager to emulate his father's soldierly example, and equally desirous of sparing his mother the cost of a civilian education, Lee entered West Point in 1825 and rarely looked back. Brevetted to the engineers, he served with distinction on the staff of General Winfield Scott during the Mexican War, became the ninth superintendent of the military academy in 1852, and three years later assumed temporary command of the 2nd Cavalry, his first troop duty in twenty-six years of active service. In 1859 Lee commanded the detachment that captured John Brown at Harpers Ferry, and on March 16, 1861, he was promoted to full colonel and assigned to command the 1st Cavalry regiment. The following month, when Virginia seceded, Lee promptly resigned his commission and headed south. "I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children," he wrote a Northern friend.
Lee's decision to join the Confederacy was not easily taken. The very day he learned Virginia had left the Union, he was offered the field command of the United States Army by the War Department. "I declined the offer," Lee wrote later, "stating as candidly and as courteously as I could, that though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States." Five days later, April 23, 1861, Lee assumed command of Virginia's military forces. Three weeks after that, with the formation of the Confederate States of America, he became a brigadier general in the Confederate army, and on August 31, 1861, was confirmed in the rank of full general.
Lee was a strikingly handsome man, above medium height and well proportioned. He had a massive torso, and sitting on a horse, his shoulders and neck made him appear larger than he actually was. According to his principal biographer, he preferred the company of women, especially pretty women, to that of men, although there was never a suggestion of scandal. Deeply religious, Lee's belief in God was personal, not denominational. He read his Bible and prayer book daily, and spent much time on his knees seeking solace and support. He did not use tobacco, hated whiskey, and rarely drank even the smallest amount of wine. Like Grant, he was blessed with great powers of endurance and a strong nervous system. Despite his innate dignity, he met people easily and had a well-developed memory for names. His mind was mathematical, directed toward problem solving rather than abstraction. He was an accomplished linguist, his reading encompassed a broader range than that of most officers, and, like many gifted commanders, he was bored by office routine. He viewed his father as a Revolutionary War hero, not a tragic bankrupt, and George Washington was his idol. Douglas Southall Freeman wrote that by 1861 Lee "had come to view duty as Washington did, to act as he thought Washington would, and even, perhaps, to emulate the grave, self-contained courtesy of the great American rebel."