Analyzing Mediocre, Good, and Great U.S. Grant Biographies

Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The other day I came across a history blog run by a gentleman named Stephen Floyd. Mr. Floyd is using his blog to share his experiences on a “journey through the best presidential biographies,” which includes reading almost 100 biographies of U.S. presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama. Stephen is currently reading a few biographies of President Ulysses S. Grant, and I feel inspired to write an overview of what I consider the most notable “mediocre, good, and great” Grant biographies. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of biographies on Grant that one can choose from, and I’d argue that there really isn’t a “definitive” study of Grant out there at this time. Nevertheless, I am going to focus on ten noteworthy authors here.

I consider a “mediocre” Grant biography to be one that hardcore scholars should read in order to understand the evolving literature/historiography of Grant studies, but casual readers can probably avoid. “Good” biographies are worth picking up at your local library or cheaply on Amazon. I deem “great” biographies as essential to understanding the life of Ulysses S. Grant and highly recommend their purchase by those interested.

Here we go:

Mediocre

William McFeely – Grant (1981): University of Georgia history professor William McFeely won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1981 biography of Grant. The study was meticulously researched and his bibliography is a good resource for seeking solid primary and secondary resources for researching Grant. The study was groundbreaking for its time, but in my opinion this book is uneven and many of its interpretations are questionable. To take one example, during McFeely’s analysis of Grant’s time in St. Louis in the 1850s he cites a letter written from Grant in which he mentions a negro “boy” who labored at the White Haven estate and was either Frederick Dent’s (Grant’s Father-in-law) slave or a laborer hired by Grant. McFeely uses this scant evidence to argue that this “boy” was actually William Jones, Grant’s slave from an unknown date in the late 1850s until 1859. It very well might have been Jones, but no one really knows who this “boy” was – McFeely is simply speculating and passing these speculations as “history” to his readers. Later, in his analysis of Grant’s presidency, McFeely argues that Grant didn’t really care about blacks during his presidency, even though Grant passionately advocated for passage of the 15th Amendment granting black males the right to vote. President Grant also fought for the protection of Southern blacks from political terrorism by groups like the Ku Klux Klan long after his Northern Republican contemporaries in Congress lost interest in military reconstruction and the protection of black rights. Finally, McFeely too often dabbles in psychobabble that simply lacks any credible primary source documentation. Bob Pollock addresses one instance of McFeely’s psychobabble here.

Edward H. Bonkemper III – Ulysses S. Grant: A Victor, Not a Butcher: The Military Genius of the Man Who Won the Civil War (2004)Edward Bonkemper attempts to save General Grant’s reputation as a drunken and reckless butcher during the American Civil War. Bonkemper’s efforts are commendable and there is not a lot to disagree with in this book. The problem, however, is that Bonkemper’s analysis is unoriginal, stale, and bordering on hagiography. J.F.C. Fuller’s study of Grant’s generalship–which will make an appearance later in this essay–thoroughly debunked the “Grant’s a butcher” claim in the 1930s, and several other scholars including Bruce Catton and T. Harry Williams also refuted those claims later in the 1950s and 60s. Not much original research to see here.

Geoffrey Perret – Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President (1997): Like Bonkemper, Geoffrey Perret aims for a sympathetic portrayal of Grant that illuminates both his generalship and presidency in a positive light. Perret’s writing is clear and his narrative is easy to follow, but the book is plagued with mistakes throughout. Far too many to enumerate here. His interpretation of Ulysses and Julia’s courtship and early marriage is also off, in my opinion, by suggesting that their relationship was more tenuous than it really was. Despite extended leaves of absence during Grant’s military service throughout the 1840s and 50s, one would be hard pressed to find a more loving relationship than the one between Ulysses and Julia. Perret seems to miss the dynamics of this relationship in his interpretation.

Good

Joan Waugh – U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (2009): Joan Waugh’s study of Grant is partly a biography of Grant’s life and partly a memory study that analyzes Grant’s last years, his 1885 death and funeral, and the ways people chose to commemorate and remember his life in the years after his death. When it comes to studying Grant’s funeral and death commemoration, this book is tops. Waugh writes in a clear and engaging manner, but I felt there was too much time spent on the biography part (which was pedestrian at times) and not enough on the memory study (which is what makes this book unique). I also thought she missed an opportunity by not analyzing the ways people remembered Grant in the early twentieth century and how those memories still shape much of our understanding of him today. That book remains to be written.

J.F.C. Fuller – Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship (1937): Although British General J.F.C. Fuller’s comparative study of Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee is dated, this publication is a real treat to read, especially for someone like me who does not specialize in military history. In a time when scholars like Douglas Southall Freeman were extolling the virtues of Lee’s generalship and labeling Grant’s generalship–especially his 1864 Overland Campaign–as a reckless destruction of human lives, Fuller was one of the first scholars to question this conventional wisdom of Grant and Lee. Most importantly, Fuller demonstrates through statistical analysis that it was actually Lee who was more reckless with the lives of his troops than Grant (Lee’s casualty rate was roughly 18%; Grant, about 10%). Fuller convincingly argues in favor of Grant’s generalship during the American Civil War. If you’re able to get a 1937 edition of this book, do so. The pull-out maps are easy to interpret and nicely compliment Fuller’s written analysis of Grant and Lee’s generalship.

Jean Edward Smith – Grant (2002): Marshall University history professor Jean Edward Smith writes a detailed and comprehensive biography of Grant that tops out at more than 700 pages. If you’re looking for a book that addresses every facet of Grant’s life, this book might be for you. Smith’s greatest contribution, in my opinion, is his analysis of Grant’s presidency, which receives a good amount of attention in the book. What keeps me from putting this book into the “great” category, however, is that there are too many mistakes and sloppy citations throughout. Dmitri Rotov of Civil War Bookshelf goes even further by suggesting that Smith may have plagiarized at least one passage from historian Bruce Catton and that he incorrectly attributed a painting of Mexico to Grant during his service in the Mexican-American war. See Rotov’s evidence here and here.

Great

Josiah Bunting III – Ulysses S. Grant (2004): For those looking for a punchy, concise analysis of Grant’s life, I highly recommend checking out Josiah Bunting’s brief biography, which clocks in around 200 pages. Bunting does a nice job of interpreting Grant’s presidency (although I would like to have seen more about Grant’s reconstruction policies), and the book is full of eloquent passages that provide a nice historical context for explaining the world in which Grant operated. I enjoyed this book very much.

Jonathan D. Sarna – When General Grant Expelled the Jews (2012): Brandeis University history professor Jonathan Sarna’s book on Grant is more of an analysis of a particular moment in Grant’s life than a comprehensive biography of his entire life, but I still consider it a biography because the book also covers his childhood in Ohio and his presidency. In December 1862, Grant issued General Orders No. 11, which expelled all Jews “as a class” from his military lines in the Western Theater of the American Civil War. This draconian order was roundly criticized at the time and rescinded by President Lincoln not long after receiving complaints from leaders in the American Jewish community. General Orders No. 11 would remain a blot on Grant’s character for the rest of his life, but Sarna’s surprisingly forgiving interpretation shows readers how Grant made efforts after the war–especially during his presidency–to apologize and make amends for what he readily acknowledged to be a horrible mistake. This book is a fun read that demonstrates Grant’s personal capacity for growth throughout his life.

Frank Scaturro – President Grant Reconsidered (1999): Prior to 1999, the vast majority of Grant biographies either ignored Grant’s presidency or portrayed his presidency in a negative light. William B. Hesseltine’s Ulysses S. Grant, Politician (1937), for example, was one of the most comprehensive and widely cited studies of Grant’s presidency up until McFeely’s 1981 publication. Hesseltine was extremely critical and dismissive of Grant, even going so far as to say at one point that “Ulysses S. Grant was a loser. Even dogs didn’t like him.” New York politician and former National Park Service volunteer Frank Scaturro destroys these arguments and engages in what I consider to be the finest analysis of Grant’s presidency. Common assumptions about Grant’s acceptance of corruption and his retreat from Reconstruction are demolished here, and later scholars like Bunting and Smith readily acknowledge the influence of Scaturro’s study on their own interpretations of Grant’s presidency. I highly recommend this book. The only downside is that the book is rare and now out of print. As of this writing, the cheapest copy I could find online was about $125 (I managed to get a copy for $13 a couple years ago). Good luck finding it for an affordable price.

Anything written by Brooks D. Simpson: Arizona State University history professor Brooks Simpson is undoubtedly the most prominent Grant scholar of the past twenty years, and his scholarship greatly influences my own work interpreting Grant with the National Park Service. His 1991 publication Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861-1868 sheds new light on Grant’s political acumen and convincingly argues that Grant’s success on the battlefield must also be attributed to his ability to work with the powers in Washington, D.C. Simpson also spends a considerable amount of time on the crucial period from 1865-1868 when Grant acted as General of the Armies (and temporarily as Secretary of War) during Andrew Johnson’s presidency, a period other scholars often ignore or give short shrift to. His chapter on Grant’s reconstruction policies in The Reconstruction Presidents (1998) illuminates Grant’s uphill battle to find a balance between liberty and order in the postwar South. Finally, his biography of Grant’s life up to Appomattox in Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865 (2000) provides a detailed, nuanced analysis of Grant’s early life and his generalship during the American Civil War.

Are there any other Grant related books you enjoy reading? Share them in the comments below!

Cheers

*Addendum: It’s been pointed out to me twice in the comments section that I omitted the Lloyd Lewis/Bruce Catton trilogy of Grant biographies. I should not have left them off this list. Lewis started the trilogy in 1950 with Captain Sam Grant but suffered a fatal heart attack before finishing the series. Bruce Catton finished the trilogy with Grant Moves South: 1861-1863 (1960) and Grant Takes Command: 1863-1865 (1968). I’d put the trilogy in the “good” section, but only because the research is a bit dated. Both authors, but especially Catton, were marvelous writers and it’s well worth the ten or twelve dollars to purchase the entire trilogy.