John Reeves is the author of A Fire in the Wilderness: The First Battle Between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.
Ron Chernow, who made Alexander Hamilton a household name, has a new book out on Ulysses S. Grant that instantly became a bestseller. That shouldn’t be surprising. Grant is a fascinating character who has generated considerable controversy among Civil War historians. Was he a battlefield genius or a butcher? Did he drink too much or was he merely the target of nasty rumors? Was he corrupt as President or just taken advantage of by his advisors?
Below are five great books on Grant that provide different answers to those questions.
1. The Complete Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant by Ulysses S. Grant
Grant’s memoirs might be the finest that have ever been written by a president. One historian, who has been critical of Grant, said of the memoirs, “There is conciseness, totality, and strength, but what is perhaps most striking is the timeless quality of the prose. It has classical force.”
A poet has described Grant’s writing as “fatless prose.” Upon taking command of the Union Army, Grant wrote General Meade, “Lee’s army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” The writing here is remarkable for its clarity.
Grant’s memoirs only cover the period up until the end of the Civil War. He was dying of cancer while writing and perhaps didn’t have time to examine the later years. Or he may have wanted to end the story on his crowning achievement.
2. Grant by William McFeely
McFeely won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Grant. It’s well-written and based on impressive archival research.
Lovers of Grant might be disappointed, however. McFeely is extremely critical of the general. He writes, “I am convinced that Ulysses S. Grant had no organic, artistic, or intellectual specialness.” McFeely also believes Grant was a butcher who didn’t value the lives of his men highly enough. Alas, McFeely never proposes what alternatives were available to Grant. Was it really possible for Grant to defeat Lee, while keeping casualties down?
3. Ulysses S. Grant: His Life and Character by Hamlin Garland
Garland was a popular 19th century writer who wrote a one-volume account of Grant’s life. The book was based on extensive interviews with soldiers and family members who knew Grant well. It’s a laudatory volume, but still an enjoyable and essential read for anyone interested in the Union commander.
4. U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth by Joan Waugh
Waugh asks the important question, “Why did Grant’s star shine so brightly for Americans of his own day, and why has it been eclipsed so completely for Americans since at least the mid-twentieth century?” The first half of this book is about Grant’s life and accomplishments. The second half is about how we remember him. This work seems particularly relevant right now as we try to reevaluate Civil War personalities.
5. Grant and Sherman: The Friendship that Won the Civil War by Charles Bracelyn Flood
Sherman once said of Grant, “He stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk; and now, sir, we stand by each other always.” I was skeptical of this book as I began reading it, but eventually was completely won over to the thesis. The friendship between Grant and Sherman really did win the war. Sherman preferred having someone he trusted in charge, and Grant needed to have a talented and loyal lieutenant. I highly recommend this book. It’s delightful.
Update: Here’s my review of Ron Chernow’s Grant: