I’m completely absorbed at the moment in Jean Edward Smith’s biography of Ulysses Grant. It’s an amazing story, written with real panache and, it seems to me, historical rigor (two qualities that don’t always go together). Why am I so captured by Grant?
First, I grew up at a time when Grant was seen as a rather pitiful figure. A successful general, yes, but also drunk, disheveled and corrupt. And as president? A disaster. Smith makes a very different case and in the opening pages of the book also tries to address that image of Grant that I had. Grant was disheveled, certainly, but that’s part of his charm. He also had a fondness for drink, but when it mattered he was far more sober than most nineteenth century judges. The bad rap on Grant seems largely the work of southern historians eager to promote their guy – Robert E. Lee – at the expense of our guy.
One of the aspects of Grant’s career that I knew nothing about was his complete financial ruin before the war. He had been a successful soldier, but a minor scandal led him to leave the army. He was always poor with money – too kind-hearted and gullible – and he just scraped enough for him and his family to live on by selling firewood door-to-door in St Louis. Yet a couple of years later he was leading the Union army to victory at Vicksburg. Certainly as remarkable a rags-to-fame story as exists in American history. An extraordinary tale.
One useless piece of Grant trivia, sure to stump most people. What does the “S” in Ulysses S. Grant stand for?