General William T. Sherman, an acute if opinionated observer, once wrote of his friend and commander, Ulysses S. Grant, "he is a mystery, and I believe he is a mystery to himself". Grant's personality has always presented challenges to biographers. So, too, has the full and variegated nature of his career. The most successful general of the American civil war, Grant also served as commanding general during the tumultuous first Reconstruction years, and was elected in 1868 to the presidency for two consecutive terms - the only president to have been so in the last half of the 19th century. Brooks Simpson has decided not to try to compress all this into one volume, but to produce two, concentrating here on his civil war career.
How Grant achieved such eminence puzzled his contemporaries. His career before 1861 had been a failure. He could not break his dependency on his over-powering father, Jesse R. Grant, and his father-in-law, Frederick Dent (who never overcame his suspicion that Grant was not good enough to marry his daughter). Indeed, the only success that Grant achieved was his happy marriage to Julia.
Although Grant had graduated from West Point just before the Mexican war (1846-48), he was never given an opportunity to excel. In 1854 he resigned from the army, bored and disillusioned, amid rumours that he drank too much. His business ventures did not prosper. So 1861 found Grant working as a clerk in his father's store in Galena, Illinois. When the civil war broke out in April, he re-enlisted as a colonel. Some of his contemporaries from the "old" army continued to distrust his judgement. But Charles F. Smith, a divisional commander serving under Grant in 1862, who had previously been commandant at West Point while Grant had been a cadet, instilled self-belief in Grant. Grant did not match expectations of what a commander should look like. He was scruffy, disliked public speaking and overt wire-pulling. "Really, Mr President, I have had enough of this show business," he told Abraham Lincoln after his elevation to general-in-chief in the spring of 1864 forced him to spend several weeks in Washington DC.
This triumph over the limitations of his appearance is a particularly interesting theme. Simpson makes it clear that Grant was never a political novice. Rather an astute operator who made the most of his political connections, he even appointed a chief of staff, John A. Rawlins, who looked after his political interests. Unlike other civil war generals, moreover, he was always respectful in his dealings with the Lincoln administration. Even when the president foisted on him a political adventurer, John A. McClernand, during the Vicksburg campaign, Grant did not make a fuss. He simply out-manoeuvred McClernand at every turn.
Closer acquaintance with Grant allowed many observers to recognise qualities that were concealed by his modest persona and glimpse a more cerebral general. But unlike other Union generals, Grant could do more than produce good plans; he could see them through to a victorious conclusion.
He had an indomitable spirit that rose to overcome the awful moral challenges posed by war. He instantly grasped that the one thing a general could not waste was time. Consequently, he was decisive. He took decisions quickly and easily, and then modified them in the light of changed circumstances. Grant proved himself (especially while general-in-chief in 1864-65) an effective manager of subordinates and delegated sensibly. He liked men who spoke their minds such as Rawlins and Sherman (and later Philip H. Sheridan).
Perhaps the key to Grant's success was that he always looked for and ruthlessly exploited any opportunities that were offered for offensive action. He rejected the essentially defensive and reactive outlook that prevailed among previous Union commanders in Virginia. Grant was a humane man, but he would accept heavy casualties if the strategic end justified it. In 1864, the Army of the Potomac suffered some 55,000 casualties. Yet these losses were not futile: Grant destroyed the offensive capability of his great opponent Robert E. Lee's army of northern Virginia, and laid the foundations for the victories of 1865. He achieved more in three months than his timorous predecessors had in three years. "There will be no turning back," he reassured Lincoln. Grant demonstrated that running away from hard fighting does not save life in the long run.
Simpson provides a fair-minded and readable account of Grant's military career. He offers a sensitive appraisal of Grant's achievements and of his relations with his superiors and subordinates. Occasionally, the book might have profited from a more analytical approach. Little new emerges about Grant's evolving military techniques, but Simpson does offer new material about Grant's drinking. Though he never answers the fundamental question, namely, why did rumours about drink inflict political damage on Grant, while Joseph Hooker and others were invulnerable (or impervious) to such charges?
Simpson also illustrates a curious paradox of current American military historiography. While he accepts the broadening of the civil war to bring death and suffering on civilians with no complaint, once decisions - even in successful campaigns as against Vicksburg in 1863 - lead to sizeable casualties, he begins moralising. "There was no excuse for Grant's behaviour," he claims, after the repulse of the assault on the city on May 22. But even the best generals make mistakes - and the lists might have been much longer if not for Grant's skill.
Brian Holden Reid is professor of American history and military institutions, King's College, London.
Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity, 1822-1865
Author - Brooks D. Simpson
ISBN - 0 395 65994 9
Publisher - Houghton Mifflin
Price - £21.99
Pages - 533