Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero

Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero is the second book I've read by Michael Korda. Korda is one of the best history writers out there; he has a gift for taking old historical subjects and breathing life into them. As I believe I've mentioned before on this blog, it is quite rare to encounter a true page-turner among historical books and biographies, and this mini-biography of Ulysses S. Grant is one of those.

I call it a mini-biography because the book is only about 150 pages. However, this in no way hampers the ability of Korda to capture the feel and essence of Ulysses S. Grant. We are taken on a breakneck journey through the major events of Grant's life; from his dogged generalship in the Civil War from his controversial two-term presidency, we see Grant's successes and his failures cast in equal light. Like any one of us, Grant was human, and this is depicted fairly if sympathetically by the author.

Just a Man

One thing that makes Ulysses S. Grant so interesting is that, unlike most famous generals or leaders, he was a truly common man. This held true even when he was president of the United States. As Korda points out, Grant never seemed all that comfortable with being entrusted with such power. Grant could not respect those who held themselves aloft over other men. As a consequence of his common birth, lower-class upbringing, and constant bad luck in all business ventures throughout his life, Grant refused, as a general, to be regarded as anything but a man. He would drink often, he was constantly unkempt, his uniform perpetually dirty. In a time period where generals and presidents often colorfully maneuvered and postured for attention and favor, Grant stood alone as a man who was all business and cared only for one thing: to win.

Thus, as Korda explains, Grant's story is the quintessential American dream; a poor man fraught with bad luck is able to overcome circumstance in order to command the entire nation. I found it very interesting to read about a figure like this and, after thinking about it, I came to realize that this is the first time I've encountered an individual like Ulysses S. Grant. Even Truman was a politician who sought to curry favor in others. By contrast, Grant was elected president without even having to campaign for it; such was his popularity and such was the gratitude of the American people to his Civil War generalship. Consequentially, Grant was completely unprepared for the job of president, yet still he managed to steer the nation in the right direction, if primarily from a foreign policy perspective.

Military Genius?

One of the things which the author did exceedingly well was describe Grant's campaigns in the West during the Civil War, along with how Grant's approach to strategy was incredibly astute. Korda states, in fact, that he views Ulysses S. Grant as the greatest commander of all time. I found this to be quite the statement, and I'm not sure if it is one I agree with.

I found it questionable because Grant's strategy was exceedingly simple. He would find the enemy and then attack, attack, attack, until he found some way to defeat the opposing army or whittle them down to nothing. What made this so impressive during the Civil War was the fact that pretty much every other Union general was scared stiff of confronting the enemy and/or giving solid pursuit if the enemy retreated. Compared to them, Grant's determination to attack until victory was achieved was downright revolutionary and wholeheartedly welcomed by President Lincoln, who wanted the war ended as soon as possible.

Grant's strategy was perfect, but only for the Civil War. Thus I would argue that it was merely situational. Grant's all-out approach worked for the Civil War because it was a situation where the Confederacy had less manpower, less economic strength, and less overall support compared to the Union. A general who had no concern for casualties was the most frightening thing that could face the Confederacy; Grant's willingness to fight battles of attrition led swiftly to the Confederacy's downfall as, eventually, they had nothing left to fight him with. In the epilogue, Korda argues that this strategy of bringing all resources to bear and then pounding away at the enemy until he gives up is exactly the strategy that the United States needs to follow to win wars. He cites the Vietnam and Korean wars as situations where that strategy had been sorely needed.

However, imagine if Grant had been a general on the side of the Confederacy. Fighting battles of attrition would have flown poorly then. There is also the fact that battles can be won without slamming one's force at the enemy like a blunt instrument. It is a horrible waste of life to advance without concern for casualties; wars have been won through surgical strikes at key locations without requiring enormous and bloody set piece battles. It is also worth pointing out that wars today are a completely different animal. The United States military can pretty much take anything on in a head-to-head confrontation, but then you have to be prepared for the guerrilla warfare, insurgencies, and terrorists that follow. For America's enemies today fully realize that Grant's strategy of brute force should not be confronted. Instead, ironically like the American patriots and minutemen of old, our enemies hide away, spread dissent, and chip away at the edges of our resolve to fight.

And yet, look what I just did there; I pointed out that Grant's strategy is unbeatable (it cannot be confronted) when coming from the United States. So, I concede, Grant's strategy is great. Instead, I would argue that it is no longer applicable.


I found Michael Korda's mini-biography of Grant to be exceptional. It manages to pack an astonishing amount of detail into a short space; perfect for those unwilling or unable to stomach a more typical biography of 700+ pages. My only complaint is that he references President Eisenhower as an article of comparison too many times. Considering how Korda wrote a full-length biography of Eisenhower, using him repeatedly as an example smacks of laziness. After all, why not look up someone new with which to compare Grant?

In any case, I would suggest this book to any interested. Ulysses S. Grant is an interesting figure, a common man risen to the two most powerful positions in the United States: supreme commander of the military and president. It was touching to discover that his reputation for drinking was almost entirely due to him missing his wife while in the field. It is easy to dismiss Grant as a beer-drenched failure of a president, but after reading this biography I found that this stereotype is far from reality.

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