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Michael Korda on Ulysses S. Grant

Michael Korda is the editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster as well as the author of several best-selling novels.

Many years ago, when I was a schoolboy in Switzerland, I came home to London on vacation, and happened to find in my father’s book shelves a copy of Bruce Catton’s history of the Civil War. Until then, the war had hardly impinged on my mind at all – it wasn’t much taught in schools even in America, except for Lincoln freeing the slaves, and the Second World War, which was only just over. The First World War, in which my father had fought, seemed to have dwarfed it. There were even comic pieces about it in the Saturday Evening Post, and there was a general feeling that it was smaller, more sedate, and more formal than the two big wars of the 20th Century. Then I read Catton, and my eyes were opened, and soon I was reading everything I could on the Civil War.

On my return to America I started a lifetime habit of visiting Civil War battlefields. At first, it was Stonewall Jackson who fascinated me, perhaps because my first wife was a descendent of his; then I had a period in which my interest switched to Lee. But there was always something too remote and politely cold about Lee’s character to hold my interest.

Then, through friendships with Colonel Vincent J. Esposito, the editor of the monumental West Point Atlas of the American Wars and such military historians as Richard M. Watt (Dare Call it Treason) and Donald R. Morris (The Washing of the Spears), I began to read about Grant, and it was like Saul’s vision on the road to Damascus. Grant, with his slouchy hat and rumpled clothes, unkempt beard and omnipresent cigar, was the one man other than Lincoln, who understood that the war would be long and bloody, and could only be won by confronting the Confederate army and defeating it, not by fancy maneuvers or clever strategy.

The more I read about him, the more I admired him and liked him. When I read his memoirs, I understood that he was an authentic genius as well as a brilliant writer. In time, I came to realize that he was not just “an American hero,” but possibly “the American hero.” And over the years I realized that what I most wanted to do was to write about the real Grant, to strip away legends about his drinking and his occasional incompetence, and to show the reader what a great man Grant was; he was at once a military genius and an ordinary American, with no love of war and glory like Lee or Napoleon, but with an absolute mastery over how to fight and win. A hero without arrogance or vainglory, a warrior who excelled at fighting and hated what he was doing – in short, a hero only America could have produced.

The leader of Union forces in the Civil War and a two-term President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant embodied the American Dream.

FREEDOM HERO:
ULYSSES S. GRANT
by Lauren from New York

Born in 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio, to a tanner father and an apathetic mother who didn’t seem to love him, Grant was the oldest of six children. At an early age, he evidenced great talent with horses – he was never afraid of them and they always trusted him. Grant was such a lover of animals that he refused to hunt or kill them, rendering him highly unsuitable for work in his father’s tannery. Since there was little else for Grant to do, his father enrolled him at West Point. Ulysses was reluctant to go and did not succeed there, taking no interest in military training or tactics. No one could have ever expected him to rise to the power he did, eventually becoming Commander of all northern forces in the Civil War.

Upon graduation from West Point, Grant saw duty as an infantryman in the Mexican War. Although he did not have much responsibility during this conflict, Grant observed the behaviors of others, many men he would eventually fight with and against in the Civil War. A sensitive man, he disliked swearing and dirty stories and would not allow them in his presence. Grant was used to feeling unloved, and was easily hurt and embarrassed. He often felt out of place and lonely, yearning for his wife Julia, the sister of a West Point friend whom he had recently married. Grant stayed in the military for several years, and his frequent reassignments worsened his loneliness and led him to abuse alcohol. At age 32, he resigned from service (the same day he was promoted to Captain) and eventually moved with his wife and young family back to Ohio to work in his father’s leather shop, considered by himself and all those around him a miserable failure.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Grant reapplied to the military, and was reinstated as a Colonel. Initially commanding volunteer units, Grant’s success caught the eye of President Lincoln, who eventually appointed him General-in-Chief in 1864. Despite his inauspicious beginnings, Ulysses S. Grant possessed several qualities that rendered him an effective military leader. He never allowed himself to experience fear in the face of his enemy, reasoning that the enemy was probably just as afraid as he was. He also refused to retreat; instead, he changed course and found other methods of attack. Grant was always saddened by the sight of the injured and dead, but pushed through his discomfort. Holding no illusions about war, he realized its hellishness and concentrated on winning as many battles as he could (which sometimes meant he sought battles when others wouldn’t and endured terrible casualties on both sides of conflict) to end fighting. He earned the nickname “Unconditional Surrender” for his refusal to allow a Confederate commander any concessions after defeat. Unlike his military rival Robert E. Lee, Grant was “a plain, ordinary man with no pretensions to gentility or military glamour (Korda).”

Grant’s major successes in battle were gaining control of the Mississippi Valley, a strategic Confederate stronghold; winning the battle of Vicksburg and thereby effectively splitting the Confederate forces; and defeating Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and accepting his surrender at Appomattox, an event which essentially signaled the end of the Civil War. Afterwards, Grant and his family moved to Washington, where he enjoyed great renown and a friendship with President Lincoln. Although he was not really affiliated with any party, Grant was trusted by both the North and the South, and easily won the Presidential election of 1868 without any campaign or speeches. Unlike his battlefield experience, Grant had no instinct for politics, and his tenure in the White House was fraught with economic troubles he did not know how to handle and besmirched by poor advisors and a spotty foreign policy record. Although he and his wife greatly enjoyed the luxuries of the Presidency, they both felt uncomfortable in the Washington political scene. While many consider Grant’s Presidency a failure, he was able to calm the country after a terribly divisive Civil War, and helped to integrate the South after its schism from the North. After two terms as President, Grant mistakenly tried his luck on Wall Street; never successful in anything related to business, he went bankrupt.

Grant was soon dealt a double blow upon learning he had cancer of the throat. Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) approached him about writing a memoir, and, hoping to secure his beloved family’s financial future, Grant set about writing his history in earnest. Throughout his long, protracted death from cancer, Grant wrote, and died soon after the book’s completion. Grant’s majestic memoirs became the highest -selling book in United States history, just after the Bible. Ulysses S. Grant, the modest, easily-hurt, soft-spoken boy from Ohio who became the greatest General in American history and later President of the United States, intrigued and captivated all sorts of Americans for his strength, perseverance, and just plain good luck.


Written by Lauren from New York
Last changed on: 9/7/2005 12:03:00 PM

Korda, Michael. Ulysses S. Grant: Unlikely Hero. New York, NY: Atlas Books/HarperCollins Publishers, 2004.

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