By Jean Edward Smith

13,224 ratings - 3.98* vote

Ulysses S. Grant was the first four-star general in the history of the United States Army and the only president between Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson to serve eight consecutive years in the White House. As general in chief, Grant revolutionized modern warfare. As president, he brought stability to the country after years of war and upheaval. Yet today Grant is remembe Ulysses S. Grant was the first four-star general in the history of the United States Army and the only president between

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Book details

Paperback, 784 pages
April 9th 2002 by Simon Schuster

(first published June 29th 2001)

Original Title
0684849275 (ISBN13: 9780684849270)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


I picked an interesting moment to read this book. Right now, all across America, people are subverting history to their own political ends. Some - I'm looking at you Rick Perry - are actually advocating succession, as though treason is some kind of joke. Others are wrapping themselves in the banner of our nation's revolutionaries, though I'm pretty sure most of them couldn't tell me the difference between the Battle of Princeton and the Battle of Brandywine Creek for all the tea in their tea parties.

I say it's an interesting moment to read a biography of Hiram Ulysses Grant, known today as Ulysses Simpson Grant (a West Point clerical mistake), because Grant is victim of historical perversion. Perhaps he is America's most famous victim.

Think about it. What comes to mind when you hear Grant? Drunk. Butcher. A brute who only beat the genteel, beloved Lee through overwhelming force. A corrupt, failed president. And also a drunk. Today, he's barely clinging to his spot on the $50 bill.

This injustice is the calculated result of a generation of pro-southern historians, lost causers, and segregationists who have taken Grant's reputation and laundered it in pig filth.

The reality, though, is slightly different. For one, Grant is one of the top five generals in all US history, if not this nation's greatest man-at-arms. For two, he was a very good president in very difficult times. Finally, he was an incredible human being, a man possessed of a generous character and surpassing spirit, a man imbued with greatness only magnified by his humility.

If you don't believe me, you should start with Jean Edward Smith's Grant. This is truly the golden age of biography, with such great authors Robert Caro, Edmund Morris, and A. Scott Berg. Smith's work doesn't come near their works, but that doesn't diminish his achievement.

This is an eminently readable single-volume that touches on all the high-points of Grant's life. Generally, I don't believe in single-volume biographies; it's just impossible to cram a whole life - especially one as packed as Grant's - between just two covers.

I'll make an exception here. This is a solid, sturdy, no-frills book. It's the kind of biography that starts: "Ulysses Grant was born at Point Pleasant, Ohio, April 27, 1822." What it lacks in flourish it makes up for in scholarship, intelligence, and lucidity. In just over 600 pages, it takes us from Grant's childhood, through West Point and Mexico, his failed interwar businesses, his success in the Civil War, two-terms as President, and his tragic death from throat cancer.

Due to a lack of space, much is sacrificed. We don't get a lot of Grant's childhood, or his time at the military academy. More troubling, we are given precious little about Grant's home life: his wife Julia, his children. This yawing gap makes it hard to connect to Grant at a human level.

What we do get is a well-crafted argument for Grant's enduring contributions. I really appreciated how Smith connected Grant's early experiences during the Mexican War with his later successes in the Civil War. He shows this by comparing Grant's two Mexican War commanders - Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott - and how they each influenced Grant's later generalship of the Army of the West and the Army of the Potomac.

The bulk of the book is taken up by the Civil War. We follow Grant's improbable rise from militia commander to victor at Fort Henry at Fort Donelson. Smith shows with impeccable reason and abundant support that Grant was as fine a general as Lee. Vicksburg is obvious, but his much-maligned Wilderness Campaign is also shown in a different light. Smith shows two sides of Grant during the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor. The first side is Grant the tactician, with fine strategic concepts that were foiled by the weak, politically-appointed generals of the Army of the Potomac. (This point is also made by Bruce Catton in his Army of the Potomac Trilogy). The other side of Grant is the man of indomitable will. Even as Grant's subordinates were dragging their feet, ignoring his orders, and mucking up the works, Grant pressed on. He refused to retreat; he refused to get discouraged; and he refused to second guess himself, even after costly mistakes. (I, on the other hand, second guess myself after choosing the wrong item for lunch). Smith's treatment of Grant's maneuver from Cold Harbor to Petersburg is especially enlightening.

There is also a good deal of space devoted to Grant's presidency. Here, Smith has a harder time convincing the reader of Grant's worth. Still, it's worth noting that Grant served two terms, and very nearly was nominated for a third. Smith devotes a chapter each to Grant's foreign policy (he repaired relations with Great Britain), Indian policy (he was the best friend the Indians ever had in the White House), economic policy (he stood firm during the economic panic caused by Jay Gould's attempt to corner the gold market) and Grant's stance on Reconstruction (like Lincoln, Grant underwent a transformation during the Civil War, from disinterested observer of race relations to a man willing to use federal troops to protect blacks). In the end, Grant should be credited more for good intentions than concrete results. During 8 difficult years, he protected the Plains Tribes and held Reconstruction together; he deserves credit for this, even if his work later unraveled under the unprincipled Rutherford Hayes.

In keeping with its workmanlike structure and prose, Smith's Grant is unfailingly objective. There are no excuses made for Grant's shortcomings. His drinking problem is thoroughly examined, as is Grant's astonishing gullibility when it came to business matters. I lost count of how many failed businesses and bankruptcies Grant accumulated during his too-brief life. I do think more attention should've been paid to the scandals that marked Grant's administration; however, this is more a function of space than anything else.

I've always liked Grant. We share a birthday (April 27) and functional alcoholism. I respect his loyalty, his tenacity, and his ability to keep picking himself back up (this guy had more ups and downs than Lincoln). I also admire his well-groomed beard. While this bio didn't give me great insight into what made Grant tick, it did a credible job of demonstrating his astounding contributions to our nation.

Contributions enough to keep him on the fifty dollar bill.


Jean Edward Smith's Grant is an impressive achievement in biography. Smith is a thorough researcher, thoughtful writer, and a first-class prose stylist. With this biography, he expanded the conventional picture of Grant, revealing him as a heroic figure who was strong, dedicated, resilient and persevering, yet also flawed. Grant was a tight-lipped stoic who seldom showed his feelings – but beneath that shell was a warm and sensitive man with artistic sensibilities, dedicated to his family, loyal to his friends and by nature sympathetic to those in need or suffering under injustice.

One of Grant's most endearing qualities was a natural simplicity of manner. He developed such under the military apprenticeship of Zachary Taylor in Texas and Northern Mexico. He disdained bluster, showmanship or Napoleonic flummery. His actions and demeanor were plain, unassuming, direct and always professional. As a general, he was scrupulous in maintaining the chain-of-command and always appropriately subordinate to civilian authority. He had a native grasp of the value of momentum in a military campaign. He saw initiative as paramount. A wise general must strike the enemy, rock him on his heels, and follow through to victory. His battlefield successes grew from an innate feel for landscape and an ability to focus on the enemy's weaknesses and not his own. Grant had an uncanny capacity to judge officers in the field. He quickly assessed which subordinates could be relied upon in different situations. He not only mastered the art of leading large bodies of men on a battlefield, but inspired them as well. He understood how to be the general-in-chief of a republic.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Smith's Grant is the rehabilitation of his presidential career. His administrations have been viewed through the lens of history as corrupt failures. The facts do not bear out that representation. Grant was a man of scrupulous honesty and reformist tendencies. His weakness was in being too trusting and loyal to his friends and supporters and, perhaps, a touch naive. He believed many of the people with whom he dealt in Washington were as honest and dedicated to duty as he. The sound judgment of men Grant displayed on the battlefield did not carry over into politics – perhaps because the manners and ethics of army officers and politicians were not identical. While his second administration was damaged by corrupt subordinates, his presidency enjoyed great successes. In foreign policy, he and his Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish, engineered the Treaty of Washington in 1871 which settled all outstanding issues between Great Britain and the United States. The treaty is considered by some scholars of international law the greatest extant example of negotiation using the principles of arbitration. Grant's administration obtained 350 federal indictments in breaking the Whiskey Ring which defrauded the government of millions of dollars in tax revenue. Treasury Secretary Boutwell, under the president's direction, quashed the Fisk-Gould attempt to corner the gold market in late 1869. Grant strongly supported Reconstruction and the enfranchisement of freed slaves. He was rigorous in enforcing the laws in the South and suppressing white supremacists. The initial post-war explosion in Ku Klux Klan and White League violence was thwarted by U.S. troops under the command of Phil Sheridan, John Pope and others, but on direct orders from Grant. Subsequent presidents, Congresses and the Supreme Court undid much of Grant's good work during Reconstruction. His Indian policies, though ethnocentric by modern standards, were dedicated to peace, along with fair and humane treatment of the Native Americans. He appointed his former aide, Ely Parker, as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Parker, a Seneca of the Iroquois Confederation, was the first Native American to hold that post. Grant took on corruption among government workers as well. Only a recalcitrant Congress prevented him from instituting wide-spread civil service reform in 1871. The issue then lay dormant until the Pendleton Act passed in 1883, incorporating the rules drafted by Grant's civil service commission.

As with his other biographies, Dr. Smith has included a comprehensive bibliography with Grant. He added many detailed and informative footnotes which flesh out the narrative, when necessary, especially regarding the many court decisions with impact on Reconstruction, Indian affairs, fiscal matters and interpretation of the post-Civil War constitutional amendments. The maps, by Jeffrey L. Ward, are superior, but too few and far between.

Rarely do I agree with columnist George Will, but he once called Jean Edward Smith, "'s foremost biographer of formidable figures in American history." On this, I could not agree more. Jean Edward Smith's Grant rates a strong Four Stars in my library.

Steven Peterson

I have read other biographies of U. S. Grant, but this ranks very high. The most important difference between this version and others is the more nuanced treatment of his presidency.

The book follows a pretty standard path. The guiding theme can be summarized thus (Page 15): "The biography emphasizes the continuity in Grant's life. The common thread is strength of character--an indomitable will that never flagged in the face of adversity."

The book adopts a chronological approach: It begins with his childhood and then his time at West Point, getting his commission; his role in the Mexican War (where his courage under fire made some impressions); his failures after he left the army; his very early role in the Civil War where he could get volunteers to work with him and gain discipline; his accession to field command and his early tests--such as Belmont. Then, we proceed from battle to battle, all the time learning of his strength of character and unwillingness to reverse courses or give in to panic.

He often chided other commanders for worrying about what the opposing general might do. His view? Let the other side worry what we'll do. Sometimes that led to real problems on the battlefield, but it also made possible success in battles like Forts Henry and Donelson; Shiloh (Grant's early mistakes were made up for by his strength and confidence in continuing the fight); Vicksburg (his casting off from his supply lines was especially indicative of his courage); Chattanooga.

The story continues until Appomattox and his generous terms for Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. After the war, he tried to ensure that freed blacks were treated properly and that reconstruction was enforced. He butted heads with President Andrew Johnson.

His own political career? He became president in 1869 and served two terms (the first to serve two full terms in many decades). A standard story is "Grant the failed President." But Smith argues that Grant was actually pretty good. He did the right thing with reconstruction, protection of the rights of freed slaves, efforts to treat Native Americans fairly, refusal to take the easy road in tough economic circumstances, and so on. At the same time, Smith understands that Grant's trusting nature could allow people to take advantage of that good nature.

And, of course, the end of his life and his desperate race to provide his family with economic security.

All in all, one of the better biographies of Grant. . . .

Donna Davis

What, another one? Yes friends, every time I find a noteworthy biography of Grant, it leads me to another. This is not a recent release; I found it on an annual pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books in my old hometown, Portland, Oregon. I always swing through the American Civil War shelves of their history section, and I make a pass through the military history area as well. I found this treasure, originally published in 2001 when I was too busy to read much of anything. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer; A New York Times and American Library Association Notable Book; and Publishers Weekly Book of the Year. But in choosing a thick, meaty biography such as this one—it weighs in at 781 pages, of which 628 are text, and the rest end-notes and index—I always skip to the back of the book and skim the sources. If a writer quotes other secondary texts at length, I know I can skip the book in my hand and search instead for those the writer has quoted. But Smith quotes primary documents, dusty letters, memos, and military records for which I would have to load my wide self into the car and drive around the country to various libraries in out of the way places. Source material like Smith’s is promising, so I bought a gently used copy for my own collection and brought it on home. And unlike the DRC’s I so frequently read at a feverish pace in order to review them by a particular date, I took my time with this one, knowing that if I only read a few pages each day and then reflected on them before moving on, I would retain more.

Usually the best place to read about a famous person is to read their own account. Grant’s autobiography was, at one time in US history, the second most commonly book owned by ordinary families. He was so deeply loved that many homes held two books: the Bible, and Grant’s memoir. That says a lot. And I did read that memoir quite awhile ago, and it was great. I recommend it. However, there are areas where we need an outside party to discuss things. For one thing, Grant was exceptionally modest. It takes an outsider to tell the full extent of his remarkable achievements, which Grant tended to soft-pedal. Also, alcoholism was not considered a disease during Grant’s lifetime, and his memoir simply makes no note whatsoever of his struggles with it; he doesn’t tell us about his early problems with it, or when he quit, and so he also doesn’t defend himself against later charges by enemies at times when most scholars say he was likely dry as a bone. And finally, of course, Grant was unable to tell us how the nation would respond to his death. So for those with a deep and abiding interest, it’s worth it to read multiple histories in which he is largely figured, as well as multiple biographies.

The fact that I had read a handful of Grant biographies in addition to Grant’s autobiography, yet came away with this volume studded with sticky notes marking new information as well as new insights and perspectives on known information is a good indication that Smith’s biography has met the gold standard.

We start with Grant’s childhood and his early gift for working with even the most difficult horses. Grant was physically quite compact, even by the standards of the day, about five feet five, weighing not more than 120 pounds. In another life, he could have been a jockey, but the purpose his life served gave us so much more. His education at West Point was not part of an initial plan toward a military career; his family could not afford to send him to college, and Grant sought higher education. A connected friend of his father’s got him into West Point, which charges no tuition but requires a period of service after graduation; until war broke out, his plan was to become a professor of mathematics, at which he excelled.

The war with Mexico is where he first saw service, and his job as quartermaster taught him a thing or two about priorities. Although many biographers say that Grant had no head for business, Smith argues that his early misfortunes in business were flukes for which outside causes were really to blame. As quartermaster, Grant succeeded in actually turning a profit for the army by buying flour, baking enough bread with it to feed the army and also sell to the local Mexican populace, with whom he kept friendly relations, and so Uncle Sam was able to feed his troops at bargain prices, since Grant put the profit back into food purchases and did not have to requisition the amount of other food ordinarily required. While in Texas and Mexico, he grew to greatly admire his commanding officer, General Zachary Taylor, whose understated, unpretentious manner and friendly relationships with those he commanded Grant would later emulate.

Smith carries us through all of Grant’s major battles, including Donaldson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and The Wilderness. He argues convincingly that Grant was never corrupted, but that those that would overturn the victory for African-Americans gained by the Civil War by denying them suffrage went out of their way to smear Grant’s reputation. Grant was also somewhat naïve when it came to politics. Surely he had had to deal with military politics—struggles for control between generals and generals, between generals and bureaucrats—but he did not understand initially how limited the executive power is, and how much Congress can undermine a president.

Grant had not wanted to become president, had in fact hoped to return to the beautiful West Coast after the war, but Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln as president after his assassination, so brutally and intentionally set about dismantling Lincoln’s legacy that he felt compelled to run. He was nominated by his party unopposed, never even attended the nominating convention, and won the general election by a landslide.

The American people loved him. I myself feel he was our last truly progressive president, and although Smith never makes such a flat assertion as mine, he gives me plenty of documentation to back it with, should I ever again find myself in a position where it’s called for.

This tome is not for the novice. If the reader is new to the American Civil War, I recommend James McPherson’s Pulitzer winning Battle Cry of Freedom, which is lengthy, comprehensive, and fascinating. For those looking for less of a time commitment, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, well researched historical fiction which also won the Pulitzer, is excellent. If you like it and want more, his son Jeff has continued the series one battle at a time, and I have yet to find a book he’s written that is not worth your time and money. All of these titles are reviewed on my blog.

For those that know the basics of the Civil War but are interested in learning more about Grant himself, this biography is the best I have read to date apart from his autobiography, which is also excellent.

Highly recommended to those with a strong interest; basic knowledge of the American Civil War; and college level literacy skills and stamina. Brilliant work.


“Grant” is Jean Edward Smith’s 2001 biography of the eighteenth U.S. president. It was the 2002 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Biography. Smith taught at the University of Toronto for 35 years before joining the faculty of Marshall University where he is Professor of Political Science. The most recent of his dozen books are FDR and Eisenhower in War and Peace.

Smith’s biography is the most widely read of all the Ulysses S. Grant biographies and with good reason. Among the eighty-four presidential biographies I’ve read so far, Smith’s narrative has perhaps the best combinations of effortless fluidity, vivid detail, historical context and insight that I’ve encountered.

Weighing in at over 600 pages (not counting notes or bibliography) this biography feels surprisingly light while remaining appropriately erudite and serious. The half-dozen or so pages in Smith’s preface are among the most potent and thoughtful introductory pages I’ve seen written on behalf of any president.

For the first three-fourths of the book I had a hard time convincing myself to put this biography down…even for a moment. Not until Smith begins his careful five-chapter analysis of Grant’s two-term presidency does the book’s pace slow measurably. At that point the weight of Grant’s complex and sometimes controversial presidency alters the flow but not the intelligence of the text.

Smith’s description of the Mexican War is easily one of the best and most wonderfully descriptive I’ve ever read. Even Zachary Taylor’s biographers were unable to provide the same level of clarity and perspective. And, more importantly, this is the chapter where Smith begins to connect Taylor’s unique, reserved leadership style to that of the future military genius and president Grant is to become.

Despite being my fourth biography of Grant, I found details embedded in the narrative I had not seen elsewhere. But rather than seeming tedious or unnecessary (as details so often feel) they serve to enhance the story and do not weigh it down. And rather than simply providing a chronological template to Grant’s life filled with interesting nuances and minutiae, Smith regularly connects the dots for the reader by making observations other biographers occasionally ignore or miss.

Excellent in nearly every way, this biography is not quite perfect. In addition to slowing measurably during Grant’s presidency, this book suffers from at least one other flaw: after treating its audience to six-hundred pages of war, peace, poverty, fantastic military genius and perplexing presidential naiveté, the last eight years of Grant’s life are dispatched in about twenty pages.

His around-the-world trip is well chronicled and the facts surrounding his authorship of his Memoirs seems complete. Yet the book terminates one paragraph following his death. The reader is left to wonder how the world reacted to his passing or how his legacy evolved in the decades ahead. It feels a bit as though the author bumped against a publishing deadline and was forced to abruptly finish the book.

Despite my desire for a longer, more satisfying conclusion, however, this biography is excellent. It combines certain narrative elements of McCullough’s “John Adams” with the flavor and perspective provided by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.” Simply stated, Jean Edward Smith’s “Grant” is very nearly my ideal biography; it is colorful and descriptive, consistently articulate and incredibly informative. I almost cannot imagine a better biography of Ulysses S. Grant.

Overall rating: 4½ stars

Conor Madigan

With one exception, which I found distasteful and heartbreaking, Smith's work rings out with precise intensity on and off the battlefield.

(As a kid, I visited the Gettysburg battlefield sixteen times: maybe ten in the summer, six in spring. We'd always take the train from Chicago to Harrisburg, and my Grandparents lived in New Oxford, not a stone's throw. The second time I had a 'heat-related event', we'd parked our rental sedan under Devil's Den and began our mother and son stroll out to the day. By noon, the heat had overwhelmed the orchards in a waver. It wasn't black-out, but near. I was ten. Years later, I revisited, around aged sixteen, and again a blistering heat--this time I'd come prepared, mother in tow, to get to some of the more notorious ghost sites, where you'd swear, in the swelter, some cold hand washed over your shoulder, a second of relief followed by a shock of terror. This just to say, I love battlefields and their characters: land, water, forest, mound, mount, hill, entrenchment, line, skirmish line, etc.)

Smith's playfulness with Grant's character as a junior officer in the Mexican War alerted me, first off, to the light grace with which a biographer must attend their duty, while laying down an absolutely gobsmacking amount of information in the play of character and action. What we're getting with Smith is a veteran biographer and historian enthusiastically trundling into the muck to find a young junior officer's trust and awe of his commanding officer: Taylor. Some kind of near depressive haunt pulls on Grant, calling on him in tedium as a poverty-stricken farmer, to seek out leadership as Civil War sets its lines. By the time we're at The Frontier, Taylor's regular appearance as a specter of leadership from Grant's young time in Mexico has a resounding and impactful energy. He carries with him the ancient art to win wars; the level-headedness to lead a nation from them.


Ulysses S. Grant may not have been a great president, but he was far better a president than I had ever before recognized, and he was unquestionably a great general, great American, and perhaps a great human being. I don't write off moral shortcomings of historical figures by claiming that "you can't hold them accountable to today's standards" - the heck we can't! We should indeed hold past leaders accountable to today's standards, just as we should have to answer to future generations. But even by today's loftier (I hope) standards, Grant stands pretty tall: a true believer in the effort to reconstruct the South in a far fairer way for freedmen, as well as dealing in a much more honest and humane way with Native Americans, Grant was took stands against many others in government and in the general public.
Grant was by no means perfect, but even his worst weaknesses seemed to be based on his decency. First, he was too trusting with his money and, hence, bad with his investments. Second, he supported people, on occasion, who were not worthy of his support. Third, and this fault was, according to Smith, far less bad than has often been discussed, was Grant's turn to alcohol. He was by no means the drunk of legend, but he did like the happy juice here and there.
Smith is a fine writer who offered a much needed alternate perspective of Grant. I have not read enough about Grant to know if Smith is entirely accurate, but if he's even partially or mostly right, then he did a find job of informing readers of a U.S. Grant we all need to know more about.


Engaging, it reads more like narrative history than biography. Grant was a man of strong character, modesty,formidable intellect, and rock-solid self-confidence. Although littered with typos, and the fact that many passages actually read almost verbatim like other books on Grant and the Civil War, in all I enjoyed the book.

Grant's military genius is indisputable , as is Smith's strong appreciation for it. Some of it was actually simple ( such as that instead of concentrating on the advantages held by the enemy he focused on the areas in which the Union forces had advantages. More importantly he demanded that those under him, the corps and division commanders, do the same. The men--particularly the enlisted men and junior officers--loved him. He was reserved and quiet, traveled with a small staff, often wearing the uniform of a private and the coat of a captain with the stars pinned to the shoulders as his only badges of rank. He was a real soldier--slept wherever he could, whether in a field or a house, ate whatever rations were available and was usually as tired, sore and dirty as his men.

At the same time he was a general to his core. He never stopped thinking about the enemy and how he could defeat him. Grant refused to be bogged down in laying siege to Richmond or by going after cities but realized that the only way that the Union could win was by destroying the Confederate army and the will of the people in the South to support the war. His strategic vision was impeccable, his deployment of infantry, cavalry and even naval forces was without peer, his sense of tactics, when to hit and when to feint, when to attack frontally and when to slip sideways to stretch out the enemy line, seemed perfect.

The text's account of Grant's generalship in the West is succinct but adequate. "Vicksburg was Grant's great victory in the West" and Chattanooga confirmed his military ability. He then was called by President Lincoln to become general-in-chief of the Union army. The next notes that "The center piece of Grant's strategy was a combined offensive by Meade's Army of the Potomac against Lee, and Sherman's Division of the Mississippi against Johnston." Grant established his headquarters with Meade's Army of the Potomac and the final campaign began in May 1864 with the Battle of the Wilderness where Grant was surprised by not anticipating the Confederate attack. Following the battle Grant correctly ".... told his staff that while the battle might appear to have been a draw, we remain in possession of the field." The text next gives a brief but good account of Army of the Potomac's campaign from the Wilderness, to crossing the Rapidan River and finally to Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

The chapters on reconstruction are interesting. The text observes "While Grant and Lee were taking the high road to reconciliation, the seeds of vengeance were sprouting in the North." This phase of "Reconstruction labeled Presidential Reconstruction by historians, sought to bring the white South back into the Union at the expense of Negro rights." Initially Grant was skeptical about enfranchising freedmen but later gave strong endorsement to black suffrage. The author states that Grant exhibited considerable diplomatic skill-a trait with which he is seldom credited-in pushing Reconstruction while bringing the southern states quickly back into the Union.

The sections on Grant's presidency are perhaps the best. He vigorously worked to make reconstruction succeed and fought hard to combat white supremacy atrocities in the south. When he took office in 1869 there were foreign policy issues, Cuba and the claims against Britain for the Confederate Navy's commerce raider CSS Alabama. Both issues were effectively addressed by Grant's administration. Smith makes the interesting comparison that "Grant's role in American diplomacy was not unlike that of Eisenhower almost a century later. Both enjoyed enormous international statue and both provided firm yet understated guidance to United States foreign policy."

Grant also initiated efforts to address the grievances of American Indians. The text reveals "He sympathized with their plight, regretted their degradation, and was determined to shepherd them into full membership in American Society." However, settlers moving west created problems as they overran Indian lands with Custer's last stand bringing Grant's Indian peace policy to the point of collapse.

The military history of Grant is only part of his story. His transformation from a pathetic firewood salesmen in 1857 to the two-term President of the country only eleven years later, occupies the final third of his story. Grant's presidency was a more mixed bag than his superb performance during the War. He dealt with the vast Reconstruction of the South, still sullen and determined to block any progressive treatment of African-Americans. Grant was patient with the South but ultimately achieved the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which gave the right to vote to all citizens. He quickly grasped intricate problems of economic policy and steered the country through a steep decline in business activity early in his first term. He pared down the national debt, which had ballooned 40 times during the War. He chose his cabinet wisely and led them patiently. He won a second term with the largest popular vote margin of any president since Andrew Jackson. He took politics out of civil service. His political skills developed slowly but steadily, just as he had shown in his military life.

In all, I enjoyed immensely.


Prolific biography readers are flipping out about this book and how it's redefined our understanding of Grant and whatnot. I am not a prolific reader of biographies and didn't know much about Grant before this, so I can't comment on that, but I did freaking love this book. Like kept reading parts of it to my longsuffering family, kept quoting it, kept opening Wikipedia tabs on subjects it discussed, loved it. I even dreamed about it.
I probably wouldn't commit to a book this size if it were not absolutely riveting. As it was, I found myself happy that there was so much of it. (A decent chunk of it is also just footnotes/bibliography.)

The amount of research Jean Edward Smith did for this book boggles my mind. Not only is it meticulously sourced, it's also beautifully composed. The narrative flows easily, despite its huge scope (encompasses Grant's entire life, from his birth to his death, and provides relevant details on all the subjects it touches on). Parts were sobering, others hilarious--and every bit is presented in a balanced, objective way that acknowledges Grant's human shortcomings while still showing what an incredible person he was.

I've found a new favorite genre, I think.

(I received this book for free through a Goodreads giveaway.)


This was one of the most enjoyable biographies I've read. This is how biographies should be written: in such a way that the narrative flows and doesn't get bogged down in minutiae; further information about certain events or people mentioned in the main text is supplied through concise & pertinent footnotes.

The only thing I regret about this book is that I didn't read it sooner - it sat on my book shelf for over a year!

While it was interesting to learn about U.S. Grant and his remarkable life (from his down & out days to his military glory), I also liked learning about Reconstruction in the South, Bigot President Andrew 'White Supremacy' Johnson (curse you, John Wilkes Booth!), and Indian Affairs.

Most interesting fact learned while reading this book:

'On April 14, 1865, after attending a cabinet meeting, U.S. Grant accepted an invitation for him and Julia (his wife) to accompany the Lincolns to Ford's Theater that evening. However, before leaving the White House, a messenger arrived with a note from Julia, saying she wanted to leave Washington at once to return home and see their children. So Grant made his excuses to the president and left to rejoin Julia.' (p.409)

That evening at Ford's Theater Lincoln was shot through the head.

'Grant always regretted not having gone to Ford's Theater with the president. He was certain that if he had been there he would have heard Booth enter the box and would have been able to protect Lincoln. His admiration for the president added to his sense of loss and kept alive his feeling of guilt for many years.' (p.410)

It's really amazing how an apparently insignificant event (Julia wanting to leave Washington right away) can lead to such a tragic one (Lincoln's assassination). Makes you wonder 'What If...?'