The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace
Hardcover. 718 pp.
October 2, 2012. Doubleday.
There is a phrase that critics — both book critics and movie critics, but mostly book critics — use so frequently in their reviews that it’s almost funny to come across it now. When a critic comes across an epic story or film, they love to describe it as a “sweeping, magisterial” work. Seriously, take a second to go right now to do a focused Google search in quotes of “sweeping, magisterial” — every single result that the search returns for several pages is either a book review or a film review! The phrase is so overused that it’s almost become a parody, like the voice-over actor who uses his deep baritone at the beginning of a movie trailer to intone, “In a world where…”. When I started reviewing books regularly, I decided I that I wanted to be careful to never use the “sweeping, magisterial” phrase as a crutch in my reviews, and I don’t think I have. Yet, I wouldn’t be honest to my readers if I didn’t admit that, as I sat down to write the review for H.W. Brands’s new book, The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (Doubleday, October 2, 2012), the first adjectives that came to my mind were “sweeping” and “magisterial”. And for that, I put the blame squarely on H.W. Brands and this comprehensive, supremely readable new biography about the quiet and unassuming General who stood nine inches shorter than Abraham Lincoln but was just as much of a giant of the dangerous and trying times that they lived in.
H.W. Brands, one of our finest historians, is no stranger to epic, penetrating biographies of American icons who are pillars of our nation’s historical architecture. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Benjamin Franklin, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (BOOK•KINDLE), as well as his biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Traitor To His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (BOOK•KINDLE), Brands has also brought us other great works such as American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 (BOOK•KINDLE), Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times (BOOK•KINDLE), The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream (BOOK•KINDLE), and TR: The Last Romantic to name just a few. By no means is that Brands’ full bibliography, either. Despite the fact that each of his books are meticulously researched, masterfully structured, and elegantly written, Brands is also astonishingly prolific, especially considering the depth and breadth of each of his books.
With The Man Who Saved the Union, Brands examines the life of the enigmatic Ulysses S. Grant, a man whose importance to the preservation of the nation through the Civil War is equal to Abraham Lincoln’s and who came from similarly obscure roots and faced personal failures and depressions much like Lincoln did prior to his election as President. What is most extraordinary about Ulysses S. Grant seems to be how very ordinary he was. No one ever expected much out of Grant and despite graduating from West Point and serving ably in the Mexican War, Grant didn’t do much during his first 40 years to prove those doubters wrong. Some missteps with alcohol while Grant was stationed thousands of miles from his family in lonely military outposts in California and Oregon following the Mexican War ended a military career that had become stagnant anyway. Reunited with his family, life for Grant remained difficult and frustrating as business failures and bad luck kept him drifting from one job to another before finally forcing him to seek work with his father’s tannery and leather goods business — the last place the squeamish, animal-loving Grant wanted to end up at.
The outbreak of the Civil War provided Grant with an opportunity to reenlist in the U.S. Army and The Man Who Saved the Union follows him as he helps organize militia in Illinois and then quickly rises from colonel to brigadier general. While the Union Army struggled in the East and President Lincoln frustratingly sought a commander who would actually fight in that theater of the war, Grant’s tenacious fighting and singular focus on victory gave the Union much-needed successes in the West. Brands recounts Grant’s leadership and vividly describes the battles that helped the Union gain control of the Mississippi River and resulted in Lincoln — and the entire nation — taking notice of the quiet, cigar-smoking general who actually fought, unlike the commanders in the East that Lincoln constantly prodded and poked and eventually fired.
By the beginning of 1864, Grant was a national hero and in recognition of his successes, abilities, and the Union’s need for his continued leadership, President Lincoln appointed him lieutenant general. The man who couldn’t hold on to a job a few years earlier was now sharing the highest military rank given to that point in American history with George Washington. Grant was given command of the entire Union Army and took personal charge of the underachieving Army of the Potomac in the East while one of Grant’s best friends, General William Tecumseh Sherman, took over in the West. Sherman is one of the highlights of The Man Who Saved the Union because of his passion, his candor, and his fascinating character, and his personal friendship and professional partnership with Grant is one of the important aspects of the Civil War. Fortunately for us, Brands spotlights their relationship and lets the two generals help carry their story through their letters to each other, reports to the War Department, and their respective autobiographies, which are two of the finest books written by major American historical figures.
In many ways, 1864 is the toughest year of the Civil War and Brands puts the reader in the middle of the brutal Wilderness campaign where Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee threw tens of thousands of soldiers at one another in some of the bloodiest battles in history. At the same time, Lincoln is seeking a reelection that is not only uncertain but, at times, seems unlikely. The Man Who Saved the Union reveals how Grant shot down calls for him to run for President against Lincoln and how Union victories in the late-summer and fall helped swing the election to Lincoln.
The war comes to a close in April 1865 and Brands does a great job with the dramatic surrender of General Lee to General Grant at Appomattox. Less than a week later, Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew Johnson became President. With the Civil War ending, The Man Who Saved the Union shifts into the second half of Ulysses S. Grant’s public career. Now that Grant has saved the Union, he decides that he must do whatever is necessary to help preserve it. Still the commanding general of the United States military, Grant was now overseeing soldiers flung throughout the nation — at frontier outposts battling Native Americans and occupying the former Confederate states of the South in order to protect newly-freed slaves, install loyal officials in state and local governments, ensure the rule of law, and complete Reconstruction. With Lincoln dead and Johnson in the White House, Radical Republicans battled the new President over the details of Reconstruction and Grant was often caught in the middle. As a subordinate, Grant refused to disobey or disrespect his commander-in-chief publicly, but privately, he disliked Johnson and was fed up with the President. Brands does perhaps the best job that I’ve read in describing the tension between Johnson and his Cabinet, as well as Johnson and Grant, and then the final break between President Johnson and General Grant.
Johnson had no chance of being elected President in his own right in 1868 and Brands notes that it was clear to everyone in the country that Ulysses S. Grant would be the next President. It’s interesting to read about Grant’s shift from a military man to a political leader in The Man Who Saved the Union, and Grant’s eight years as President are frequently overlooked. For decades Grant has been considered one of the worst Presidents in American history, but in recent years, that opinion has somewhat softened, particularly due to Grant’s progressive civil rights stance, which resulted in Grant signing the only civil rights legislation until 1957. Brands examines the Grant Administration in great detail and touches upon the scandals which tainted Grant’s Presidency despite no wrongdoing on the President’s part. While Grant certainly was a far better soldier than politician, Brands makes a solid case through his research that his record as President may deserve a closer look by historians.
In retirement, Grant and his wife, Julia, take a long-needed and well-deserved vacation that turned into a trip around the world which lasted over two years. Returning to the U.S., Grant nearly won the 1880 Republican Presidential nomination at a wild Republican National Convention before James Garfield was eventually nominated. In his final years, Grant looked to earn some money so that his family could live comfortably, but the bad luck in business that tormented him during the years prior to the Civil War returned. A crooked financial partner bilked Grant out of nearly every cent the general owned. Brands reveals the lengths that the aging American hero went to in order to find a way to provide for his family and details Grant’s dramatic final act of heroism. After Mark Twain worked out a lucrative deal for Grant to write his autobiography, Grant races to finish the book even though he is dying from throat cancer. Grant’s health rapidly deteriorates, but he continues to write, focused on the goal of finishing the book before his death so that his family would be able to live without financial worries. In July 1885, Grant — weighing less than 100 pounds and no longer able to speak — finished the book and it remains perhaps the best autobiography ever written by a former President (although it doesn’t cover his political career). A week after finishing the book, Grant died in New York and the country — North and South, Blue and Gray, Union and Confederate — turned out to mourn The Man Who Saved the Union.
There is a major difference between a “historian” and a “writer”, unless your name is H.W. Brands. The Man Who Saved the Union is a magnificent book that once again leaves me wondering how Brands is so thorough and prolific. The book also leaves me with a better understanding of Ulysses S. Grant. Americans know what Grant did and they see his face on the $50 bill, but this book truly helps reveal who Grant was and how this unlikely hero, bruised by failure and tested by disappointment, focused, fought, and became the savior of the Union.
The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H.W. Brands is available now from Doubleday. You can order the book from Amazon, or download it instantly for your Kindle. H.W. Brands has written numerous best-selling books and has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is currently the Dickson Allen Anderson Professor of History at the University of Texas in Austin. His website is www.hwbrands.com and he is on Twitter @hwbrands.
John Quincy Adams
Harlow Giles Unger
Hardcover. 364 pp.
September 2012. Da Capo Press.
In 1781, as the United States battled for its independence, a handful of Americans traveled to European capitals and royal courts to battle for diplomatic recognition and financial support from the established powers of the world. The Continental Congress dispatched Francis Dana of Massachusetts, who had been serving as secretary to the American delegation in France, to the court of Russian Empress Catherine the Great in Saint Petersburg, well over 4,000 miles from Dana’s comfortable law office in Boston. As if his mission wasn’t difficult enough, Dana faced a major obstacle: the lingua franca of international diplomacy — and the Russian court — was French, a language that Dana did not speak. Before leaving for Saint Petersburg, Dana found himself a secretary who was fluent in French — John Quincy Adams, who had accompanied his father, John Adams, when the Continental Congress sent the elder Adams to France. After some words of advice from his father, John Quincy Adams embarked upon the long trip to Russia and one of the most remarkable careers of any American public servant.
He was fourteen years old.
John Quincy Adams was, of course, the eldest son of John and Abigail Adams, America’s original power couple. After decades and decades of being relatively overlooked in comparison to his contemporaries such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and other Founding Fathers, John Adams has finally been getting his due for the role he played in our nation’s independence and early survival. David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the elder Adams led to the “Atlas of Independence” being immortalized in a critically-acclaimed HBO miniseries and the 2nd President has taken his rightful place amongst the giants of the American history.
His son, born in 1767 and raised with the Revolution, is a peripheral character in the HBO miniseries, but in his 80 years, John Quincy Adams operated everywhere but the periphery. At the age of 10, JQA traveled to Europe with his father as the elder Adams worked to gain military support, earn diplomatic recognition, and establish credit for the fledgling United States. Traveling across the Atlantic Ocean in a time of war, the ship carrying John Quincy and his father engaged in a brief battle with a British ship and were fortunate to emerge victorious. Had the British won the battle, 10-year-old John Quincy Adams likely would have been captured and pressed into involuntary service with the Royal Navy while his father, considered a traitor to King George III’s rule, almost certainly would have been summarily executed and hanged from the ship’s yardarm.
With only a brief return home to Massachusetts in 1779, John Quincy Adams spent the ages 10-17 in Europe, and his service as secretary to Francis Dana kicked off service to his country that lasted until the moment he died over 65 years later. Yet, few solid biographies have been written about John Quincy Adams’s incredible life. With his new book, John Quincy Adams (Da Capo Press, September 2012), Harlow Giles Unger tells the story of this great American who devoted his entire life to serving his country, never hesitated to risk his political standing in order to fight for what was right, and whose towering intellect is astonishing even from a distance of 245 years since his birth. And as Mr. Unger artfully writes, John Quincy Adams also had perhaps the best resume of any man ever elected President yet found his four years in the White House to be the nadir of his life personally and professionally. Then, almost to prove his resilience and his devotion to the nation that he grew up with and helped build, Adams spent the years after his Presidency as a tireless advocate for justice. Retirement for John Quincy Adams meant an unprecedented post-Presidential career in the U.S. House of Representatives and never rested, dedicating the last 17 years of his life to stubbornly fighting for what he felt was right, giving a voice to the voiceless, and building a body of work that was far more of a monument to his greatness than any statue or painting, sculptures or accolades.
John Quincy Adams is Harlow Giles Unger’s twentieth book and sixth biography of a major Founding Father (or, in JQA’s case, Founding Son). There are few historians of the United States from the Revolution up to the Jacksonian era who have the knowledge and ability to make familiar faces seem brand-new and shine the spotlight on some of the more obscure figures or those who are often overshadowed by the most famous of the Founders. I doubt there is a more prolific historian over the past decade of this nation’s early history. It seems that every time I finish reading a new book from Mr. Unger I immediately see an even newer title coming soon. In not quite two years, I have enjoyed FIVE new releases from the Mr. Unger: John Quincy Adams (BOOK•KINDLE); Improbable Patriot: The Secret History of Monsieur de Beaumarchais, the French Playwright Who Saved the American Revolution (BOOK•KINDLE); American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked the American Revolution (BOOK•KINDLE); Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call To a New Nation (BOOK•KINDLE); and The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call To Greatness (BOOK•KINDLE). As a writer, I’m jealous at how quickly Mr. Unger is able to churn out such quality works of top-notch history. As a reader, I’m grateful and ecstatic for every Unger book that I’m able to snatch up, devour, and proudly place on my bookshelf.
As is his style, Unger’s John Quincy Adams is first-class history from cover-to-cover and what is most remarkable is that the life of JQA was not only one of the busiest and most accomplished of any figure that Unger’s written about but also one of the longest since Adams’s public career began as a teenager and lasted until the moment he died. However, this book is fast-paced and supremely readable while not missing any aspect of JQA’s life. To posterity, Adams left one of the greatest gifts of any historical figure — a detailed diary that he rarely missed a daily entry for 70 years. Unger seamlessly weaves the words of Adams into his narrative and Unger’s always-solid research augments a story that it seems like JQA helps tell.
If I tried to encapsulate the life and career of John Quincy Adams, my book review would be 15,000 words long, and since Harlow Giles Unger can do it far better than I could, I’ll just urge you to pick up the book. What I can say is that judging John Quincy Adams on his disappointing Presidency is like judging the career of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps on his two bronze medals rather than his 18 gold medals. When we look at Adams, we must attempt to comprehend the depth and breadth of his impact on the first 70 years of the United States. Adams was one of the few (if not the only) Americans to have known George Washington, who appointed him to his first ambassadorial post, and Abraham Lincoln, who he briefly served with in the House of Representatives. He represented the United States as minister in six different European countries and served on various diplomatic delegations, including the team that negotiated the Treaty of Ghent and ended the War of 1812. JQA was a lawyer, a historian, a political philosopher, and a poet. As President Monroe’s Secretary of State, he helped shape the Monroe Doctrine, negotiated the Adams-Onís Treaty which transferred Spanish Florida to the United States, and worked with the British to establish the present-day U.S./Canadian border from the Great Lakes to the Rockies.
His one-term as President was born out of controversy, yet no evidence ever proved that Adams and Henry Clay truly worked out a “Corrupt Bargain” to award JQA the 1824 election and deny it to Andrew Jackson. Jackson spent the entire four years of the Adams Administration running against President Adams and defeated him in 1828, but spending the rest of his life in Congress after voters in Massachusetts elected him to the House in 1830 was his proudest accomplishment personally and his most important legacy historically. From defending the slaves from the Amistad to ensuring the right of Americans to petition their government, Adams became one of the loudest voices for the anti-slavery movement. And when John Quincy Adams died in February 1848, it was at his post, in the cathedral of democracy itself, the United States Capitol building. Over a century later, when John F. Kennedy wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning book about courageous American political leaders, Profiles In Courage, the first of the eight principled patriots that Kennedy profiled was “Old Man Eloquent” — John Quincy Adams.
John Quincy Adams is one of the most fascinating, inspiring, and brilliant figures in all of American history. Harlow Giles Unger is one of the preeminent historians and chroniclers of our nation’s first 75 years. Nobody is better-equipped to write this biography, and we’re lucky that Unger has told the story of this underrated American icon, legendary diplomat, and tireless advocate of everything that is just and righteous in our country.
John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger is available now from Da Capo Press. You can order the book from Amazon, or download it instantly for your Kindle. Harlow Giles Unger is a former Distinguished Visiting Fellow in American History at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate and one of the preeminent historians of the Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary era. This is his 20th book and you can find more information about this book and his other work on his website: www.harlowgilesunger.com. For those of you lucky enough to be in the Washington, D.C. area, Mr. Unger will be speaking and signing copies of John Quincy Adams on September 30th at 2:00 PM in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery.