If you still didn’t know yet, Ulysses Grant is my favorite American in history. Why exactly? Probably because of the raw deal that this great man has received in our history books.
In a rare case of history being written by the vanquished, former Confederates or their descendants swarmed academia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and set in stone the Lost Cause narrative. Men like William Dunning gained a cult-like following when it came to Reconstruction Era teaching. Both the Lost Cause and the Dunning School of thought slandered the hell out of Grant’s reputation, and because these were the dominating mindsets of academia, it became the mainstream view.
I held these negative views of Grant growing up; it’s all I’d read in my history textbooks at school. But a few years ago I read an article about Grant that taught me something I didn’t know about him. I don’t even remember what it was but it piqued my interest and I started reading more about him.
I was shocked and embarrassed to find how badly I misunderstood such an important figure in such an important time in American history. As a history buff, my pride took a blow. Since then I’ve read three biographies on Grant and next I’m eyeing his personal memoirs, published by Mark Twain.
Anyway, on to the review! American Ulysses by Ronald White is one of the first books of the 21st century that really began to shift the public perception of Grant. There were a couple works before this, but pro-Confederate sympathies were still strong enough that these works were largely panned and relegated to the abyss of the bottom shelf of public libraries.
White does an admirable job of framing Grant’s life from birth to death, paying particular attention to his relationship to his wife, Julia Dent Grant. Their was an interesting relationship, Grant’s father being a strong abolitionist and Julia’s a slave owner. Julia was a true socialite, Ulysses an introvert. Grant couldn’t wait to leave the White House, Julia sorely missed the parties and galas held there.
Sometimes, opposites really do attract.
I also liked the more candid writing style compared to other biographers. White would refer to Grant by different names throughout the book. He called him by his birth name ‘Hiram’ up until Grant began to go by his middle name Ulysses, and when his West Point classmates called him ‘Sam Grant’ that’s what White called him, too.
American Ulysses was not as in-depth as my favorite Grant biography “Grant” by Ron Chernow, but it did come first and is mentioned by Chernow as a source of inspiration. For instance, White largely glosses over the part of Grant’s life when he was scammed out of his entire life’s savings, but Chernow dives deep into what was going on behind the scenes.
I’d recommend American Ulysses as a starting point for anyone wishing to read about Grant. It’s well written, easy to read, and about 300 pages shorter than Chernow’s biography so it’s not as daunting. 5 stars and a strong recommendation!