Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Ulysses S. Grant (book review)

Ulysses S. Grant, by Steven O'Brien, is a biography of one of the most interesting figures in American history. Grant has a reputation as an alcoholic general, but does he deserve that reputation? In fact, most of Grant's drinking took place before the Civil War, when he was a failed businessman deep in debt. This interesting book discusses why Grant failed in business yet still made a great general. There was one incident that took place during his childhood which caught my eye. As a child, Grant was great with horses, but not so great with people. His father lent him $25 to buy a horse from a neighbor. Jesse Grant told his son to offer $20 at first, then $22.50 if the seller refused, and finally $25. Young Grant walked up to the man and proudly informed him,
"My father says I am to offer $20 for the colt, but if you will not take that, I am to offer $22.50, and if you won't take that, I am to give you $25."
Not only did the man take Grant's 25 dollars, he also told Jesse about his son's blunder. Jesse then spread the news around, perhaps to teach Grant a lesson. But Grant never did learn; his overly trusting nature combined with his lack of business sense would be his downfall later on during his life as a businessman.

Business may have been one thing, but war was another. Grant, during the Mexican-American war, showed traits that would make him a great general later on--he stayed calm in the face of danger, was incredibly brave, and willing to take great risks for victory. The soldier's life agreed with him; he gained weight and a healthy complexion. But when the war was over, Grant found that his next army assignments were anything but pleasant--he was sent to California to oversee the Gold Rush. It was here, during the long and dreary months at the army outpost in California, that Grant took up drinking. He returned home an alcoholic. Grant took up business to support his wife and children, who were about the only things that gave him joy during these times. It was an endless cycle of failed jobs and debt.

But when news came that a civil war was approaching, Grant lightened up a bit. Here was another chance to do what he was good at! Grant eagerly sided with the Union, and during the course of the first few years, won the Union victories at Fort Donelson, Fort Henry, and Vicksburg. In early 1864, Grant assumed duties as the lieutenant general--a rank that hadn't been occupied since the time of George Washington. Grant started on a campaign to crush the Confederate general Robert E. Lee and his elusive Army of Northern Virginia. On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. The Civil War was over.

Now a new chapter in Grant's life was starting. He returned home a hero. Everyone loved him and wanted him to run for president. After Andrew Johnson's presidency, Grant was elected to office. His family loved it at the White House, and so did Grant, but the famous general made a very bad president. He was involved in countless scandals. However, Grant was still elected to a second term. After his presidency was up, Grant didn't know what to do. During these years, he had no real home, but moved from house to house, staying with fans and relatives. But Grant still didn't know what to do with himself. Then, he had an idea. He started working on memoirs of his time fighting in the Civil War. Grant worked on this project until he died. They were published after his death to great acclaim. While working on the project, Grant felt himself slowly dying, and on July 28, 1885, the great commander of the Union army passed away.