Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier and President, by Geoffrey Perret, Random House, New York, (800) 762-0600, 560 pages, $35.
It is one of the puzzles of Civil War scholarship that Ulysses S. Grant has rarely been the subject of a full-length biography–much less one favorably disposed toward its subject. Geoffrey Perret, the author of several biographies and an overview of American military history, attempts to remedy that in a singular narrative. His prose is lively, and the book is fast-paced. His admiration for Grant is evident, and his sober treatment of Grant’s encounters with alcohol are refreshing. The Ulysses S. Grant who emerges in these pages is a likeable fellow, self-assured, yet not without flaws and errors, and underestimated by others because of his quiet, unassuming demeanor.
On the battlefield Perret’s Grant is a skilled, calm leader who makes few mistakes. But Perret could have devoted more space to describing how Grant led, and readers familiar with Grant will find little new here. If Perret has it right when it comes to Cold Harbor, where George G. Meade, not Grant, mishandled matters to ensure disaster, he has it wrong when he chooses not to chastise Grant for his failure to exercise command effectively during the Battle of the Crater eight weeks later. If Grant’s subordinates botched things at critical points, it is only fair to add that in some cases, Grant had insisted on their appointments in the first place.
Readers will come away from Perret’s account of Grant’s Civil War career irritated by numerous factual gaffs. For example, the Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter on April 12, not 15, 1861; the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was not issued in October 1862; Grant did not go east until March 1864; and Chickamauga was not fought on September 22, 1863. And there are matters of interpretation that give one pause. Although he recognizes that Alexander McClure’s account of a conversation with Lincoln after Shiloh is largely if not entirely fictitious, Perret still insists that Lincoln declared, “I can’t spare this man; he fights!” Perret also would have benefitted had he consulted much more of the recent scholarship on Grant and Civil War military operations.
Matters do not improve after Appomattox. Perret passes rather quickly over Grant’s role in Reconstruction during the Johnson administration, offering no new information on this period. His treatment of Grant’s presidency, which argues that Grant was not the failure historians so often assert, is also plagued by errors. He elevates Grant’s diplomatic representatives from ministers to ambassadors, allows Alexander T. Stewart to serve as treasury secretary for two months (Stewart never actually served), and forgets that the controversy over the Whiskey Ring came to a head before the resignation of Secretary of War William Belknap. One wonders whether Perret actually read Eric Foner’s work on Reconstruction (he cites a concise version). He proudly informs us that Grant crushed the Ku Klux Klan in 1872 (a conclusion questioned by recent studies), but says not a word about the persistence and triumph of political terrorism in the South during Grant’s second term. Such fumbles mar the persuasiveness of Perret’s case that Grant was a far better president than is generally believed; that Grant developed some skills as a politician and party leader is not evident in this account.
Perret’s book is littered with references to William S. McFeely’s Grant: A Biography (1981), which some people still consider to be the standard biography. Although Perret is not the first person to point out shortcomings in McFeely’s book, his pursuit of his predecessor is a most determined one. However, his own missteps render puzzling the enthusiastic endorsement of the book offered by John Y. Simon, long acknowledged as the nation’s foremost expert on Grant.
What, then, are we to make of Perret’s Grant? Troublesome errors suggest that author and publisher have simply not done their homework, unfortunately undermining the book’s credibility. That Perret offers an alternative to McFeely is clear; that it is in some respects an improvement is evident; but it is a shame that a man of his talents has missed his opportunity to do so much more.
Brooks D. Simpson
Arizona State University