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ULYSSES S. GRANT: TRIUMPH OVER ADVERSITY, 1822-1865, by Brooks D. Simpson, Houghton Mifflin, 576 pages, $35.00.

IN his Personal Memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant expressed a wish “to see truthful history written.” Brooks D. Simpson undertook his study of Grant with this same hope–no easy task considering that Grant’s improbable rise to greatness seems to defy understanding. In Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865, though, Simpson’s refreshing new approach to unraveling the enigma of Grant pays dividends.

Much has been made of Grant’s unlikely rise to glory. Historians point to his unremarkable childhood, his bouts with alcohol, and his repeated failures in private business after leaving the army in 1854. Rather than blaming Grant’s personal failings for his lack of early success, however, Simpson points to the simple traits that kept Grant afloat during his struggles–his quiet self-confidence, faith in success, and unshakable determination. Grant’s future mother-in-law, Ellen Dent, for one, recognized that elusive something in him and declared early on: “That young man will be heard from some day.”

Simpson’s book is a strategic study of how Grant handled adversity and why he flourished when he found his real niche as an army commander. It is, therefore, less anecdotal and colorful than Geoffrey Perret’s 1997 effort, Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier and President. Simpson thoroughly explores Grant’s relationships with his beloved wife, Julia, his abolitionist father, Jesse, and his pro-slavery father-in-law, Frederick Dent. The author’s analysis of army politics and intrigue–particularly following Grant’s 1864 arrival in the East–is especially strong.

Simpson occasionally overreaches in his support of Grant, especially on the slavery issue. But his work leaves the reader eager to know how he will explain Grant’s transformation from general to president in the forthcoming second volume of this biography. “Horses seem to understand Ulysses,” Grant’s mother, Hannah, once said. Few people can make the same claim, but Brooks D. Simpson has brought us one step closer.