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Book Review – ‘American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant’ by Ronald C. White

Click on the image to borrow a copy of this book from DLS Digital Media Library

Having bought this biography following a recommendation on the Cove, or spotted it on a reading list somewhere, I really wasn’t expecting too much. Biographical works, particularly those of long-dead military leaders turned politicians can be eye-wateringly dull, turgid affairs that challenge the reader’s staying power and interest levels. So I have been more than happy to find that this life of Grant grabbed and kept my attention, almost from the first page.

Before getting into the heart of why you should give this book a go, I should provide some context – The American Civil War? The defining moment in US history. A couple of great movies, Glory and Gettysburg come to mind. Neighbour pitched against neighbour, brother against brother; that sort of thing. The first truly industrial war, whose lessons the European Powers chose to ignore in the run up to the First World War – but beyond those cliches, my knowledge of the US Civil War is, at very best, skin deep. And my knowledge of Ulysses S. Grant was less than that. If you find yourself in that category, or if you have any sort of interest in military history, or US political history, or you want to know something of one of the great military commanders of the mid-nineteenth century, then you could do a lot worse than pick up White’s biography.

It presents a captivating portrait of a fascinating man, whose path to the White House was so far removed from the circus we see today that the reader might be forgiven for yearning for those simpler times. Grant’s life naturally falls into three broads parts; the period before the Civil War, the war itself, and his two-term presidency. To distil it down to those headings, akin to the scope for a PowerPoint brief, is of course to vastly oversimplify his life and its impact. From the boy whose difficult relationship with his father was often vital at key junctures; to the reluctant soldier who excelled at his job but was utterly despondent when separated from his family; to the iron-willed general whose magnanimous terms with Lee at Appomattox proved he knew that peace was as important to win as the war; and to the President whose sole motivation was duty to his nation; the reader cannot help but admire him and his life.

Much of White’s source material, particularly from 1861-65, was penned by Grant himself, in his very regular letters to his wife, Julia. (As an aside, I wonder if the future biographers of contemporary military commanders will be able to draw on the same rich vein, now that letter writing has all but had its day). With official records, other post-war memoirs and soldiers’ diaries, we are taken on an unputdownable gallop from Fort Donelson to The Battle of the Wilderness (and everything in between where Grant was directly involved). Given that scope, don’t expect a blow by blow account of each battle or campaign. Instead, you’ll get a very thorough introduction to the conduct of the war, Grant’s leadership and his relationships with his fellow generals and political masters, particularly his military boss and immediate predecessor as general-in-chief, Halleck, and Abraham Lincoln. (If you are reading the kindle version, you may find it difficult to see the detail on the accompanying campaign maps.) While the entire biography paints a flattering picture of Grant, his faults – both actual and perceived – are not glossed over and help provide a balanced portrait.

Those looking for lessons from Grant’s development as a leader will find plenty to file away. That he was not lacking in physical courage is clear from his conduct in the Mexican War of the 1840s. The same period demonstrated his commitment to what we would now describe as professional mastery, when as Quartermaster for the US Expeditionary Force, he kept supplies moving in very difficult circumstances. For those seeking examples of his moral courage, there are plenty of examples as he dealt with the corruption scandals that dogged his second term in the White House. His political battles to rebuild US society into one that went some way to justify the vast expense in blood and treasure during the Civil War must have seemed to him at times to be without end; but his perseverance ensured success.

A highly recommended book that might be my favourite book of the year to date.


About the author: Malcolm Beck from the Royal Australian Infantry Corps commands the 2nd/30th Training Group, a small cadre staff responsible for the delivery of jungle and field training to Australian Army Companies who are based at Royal Malaysian Air Force Base Butterworth for three month periods. He was commissioned from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 1995, joined the Australian Army in 2005 and has seen service in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Timor Leste and Afghanistan.

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