Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity, 1822-1865, by Brooks Simpson, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 523 pages, $35.
In Let Us Have Peace (1991), Brooks Simpson’s first book about Ulysses S. Grant, Simpson told us what we already knew about his subject–that in time of war he was a more than competent general officer who combined battlefield tenacity with political savvy to attain a level of success that placed him among the giants of U.S. military history. Then Simpson went much further and attempted, in the words of respected historian Hans L. Trefousse, “to rehabilitate Ulysses S. Grant as a statesman of political sagacity, a public figure with a vision of reuniting the country while doing justice to blacks.” John Y. Simon, the widely respected editor of the Ulysses S. Grant Papers, wrote that “Simpson’s Grant can do no wrong.”
In his new book, Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity, 1822-1865, Simpson, a professor of history and humanities at Arizona State University, again lionizes his hero unabashedly. He credits Grant with such superior intelligence and political acumen that the reader is left to wonder how the man could ever have piled up the succession of business and personal failures that he did during the antebellum years. If Grant’s military genius and political sagacity during the war were as profound as Simpson suggests, then it is difficult to reconcile the victorious general with the naïve postwar president whose handpicked appointees pillaged the national trust. That several of these unqualified and dishonest officials were his wife’s relatives, or former military cronies, speaks eloquently of Grant’s failings as president.
The Grant of 1822-1861, to whom Simpson dedicates less than one-sixth of the total text in this book, is as unremarkable as he is unpretentious. The reader again is left to wonder why it was that the enormous potential that Simpson suggests always existed could never bloom except in the deadly and violent panorama of civil war. Simpson tells us that young Grant frequently suffered from what 19th-century writers referred to as “melancholy,” or what today would be diagnosed as depression. It is a rationalization that hardly explains his antebellum failures. Abraham Lincoln waged a lifelong battle against “melancholia,” and yet became one of the most successful lawyers in Illinois history and eventually one of the nation’s greatest presidents.
Almost every section of Simpson’s book contains labored generalizations that the author constructs to defend his hero. It is not that Simpson has failed to consult the available primary sources in doing his research. He has certainly relied upon the best available evidence. The problem is that he has taken facts clearly established by those sources and interpreted them to cast Grant in the best possible light. In Simpson’s view, Grant acted upon the noblest of motives, emerging as an unstained hero worthy of our loftiest praise.
Simpson’s rosy interpretations often are a quantum leap beyond the evidence used to support them. For example, Simpson informs us that during the war Grant wholeheartedly supported Lincoln’s racial policies. Yet there is little in the early life of Grant to suggest that the institution of slavery deeply offended him. Grant’s emergence as a racial egalitarian seems to have been the product of political expediency and a recognition of the shifting sands of social and cultural change during the Civil War.
Throughout the book there are similar instances of Simpson’s subtleties in attempting to portray Grant’s actions and motives. Many of these reflect Simpson’s feverish attempts to convince us to adopt Grant as the Civil War’s other unstained hero (besides Lincoln). Simpson wants us to believe Grant played a more important role than any of his contemporaries in saving the Union, freeing the slaves, and preserving democracy in a world still largely hostile to it.
One example of Simpson’s optimism regarding Grant is his handling of Grant’s role in the Second Battle of Cold Harbor and its aftermath. The defeat at Cold Harbor, Virginia, in early June 1864 was possibly the most devastating setback inflicted upon the Army of the Potomac during the war. Though Grant did not initially admit Robert E. Lee had whipped him in the battle, in later conversations with other officers and in his postwar reports, he acknowledged that it was the one fight he regretted, and that if he had it to do over again, he would not order the attack of June 3. Grant ignored the fact that it was not just the appalling losses that his army suffered that made Cold Harbor so horrible. It was the experience of the days following the battle, when thousands of blue-clad soldiers lay between the battle lines, wounded and dying. Any attempt to assist dying colleagues in the face of Confederate sniper fire would have been suicidal for the Federal soldiers who crouched in their trenches only yards away from the killing field. The heat was unbearable, and the agony of those wounded soldiers was beyond description. Yet Grant did nothing to initiate a truce between the armies for more than two days after the battle. When he finally acted, he wanted Meade to be the one to propose a truce. It was only after it became clear that Lee would honor a cease-fire request only it if came from Grant himself that Grant finally proposed one.
Subsequent negotiations bogged down because Lee insisted a flag of truce first be sent and accepted, a condition Grant was reluctant to accept. The two generals did not agree on cease-fire terms until more than four days after the battle. When the stretcher bearers went forth, only two of the thousands of men who had fallen on the morning of June 3 were still alive.
The Cold Harbor tragedy was one of Grant’s worst moments of the war. It created an image of a man very unlike the youth who was sickened at the sight of slaughtered animals at his father’s tannery. Yet clearly Grant’s reluctance to raise a flag of truce was due not so much to a lack of compassion, but to his refusal to admit defeat. His dispatches after the battle also reveal a commander unwilling to admit the scope of his army’s loss. Simpson conveniently neglects to mention Grant’s initial telegraphic message from the battlefield on June 3. In that correspondence, Grant described his casualties as “not severe,” even though he had lost at least five men for every one Rebel casualty. This was the act of a man either distorting the truth, or of a commander who was not very well acquainted with the condition of his own army.
Instead of acknowledging Grant’s part, and fault, in this whole matter, Simpson nitpickingly contests every assertion made by historians that questions Grant’s judgment on June 3 and the days that followed. He attempts to shift the onus for the needless suffering of those soldiers from Grant to Lee. “Lee’s final proposal on June 7 was no different from the one Grant had made the previous morning,” he writes. “And not all the dead and wounded between the lines were wearing blue uniforms…. Lee seemed to take grim satisfaction in forcing Grant to follow the procedures he outlined.” Some of Simpson’s defenses amount to little more than rationalizations; others border on intellectual dishonesty.
In a book about a historical personage who has been written about as much as Grant, we are forced to ask the question, “Does this new work contribute anything new to what we know about its subject?” Simspon zealously defends Grant’s every foible and fault, but it is not clear that he has added anything valuable to existing scholarship.
David E. Long
East Carolina University