Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero by Michael Korda. This is my review of this book which will be appearing in a future issue of Ohioana Quarterly.
This is a short and easy to read biography of one of America’s greatest generals. While most biographies of Grant focus on his success as a military leader and his failings as a President, the author (Michael Korda) puts a lot of effort into examining the other parts of Grant’s life. In doing so, he concludes that Grant was not the failure as President that many believe and that his shortcomings also carried the seeds of his greatness.
The author strangely (but effectively) begins the book by examining the mistake that Grant made by choosing to buried in New York rather than in Washington or Illinois. This choice of burial site has resulted in his tomb and monument being neglected in recent times. Korda explores the reasons why Grant made this decision and carefully explains why this choice derived from his own memories and feeling about different aspects of his life.
From there, the book explores Grant’s early life, his awkwardness, and why people underestimated him. Korda wrote, “He, who failed at almost everything he tried, succeed quite suddenly as a general, infused with unmistakable self-confidence and unshaken by the noise, carnage, and confusion of battle. People…wondered where the ‘new’ Grant came from, but the truth is that the new Grant was always present in the old one. You just has to look carefully, and most people hadn’t bothered” (p. 11).
In 1860, Grant was a failed soldier who worked a menial job for his father. The Civil War, which destroyed so many Americans, saved him. Within a few years, he would be a national hero and his fame would propel him to two terms as President of the United States. Korda only spends 51 pages on Grant in the Civil War but he is good at explaining why Grant rose so swiftly and why Lincoln viewed him favorably.
Most historians considered Grant a failure as President. Korda disagrees with this assessment. Although he aggress that Grant’s shortcomings lead to many political and financial scandals, he also believes that Grant served as a national calming presence that helped to reunify the nation. Grant was respected in the south and this helped the nation even as the defeated Confederate states were reconstructed. The author also makes a strong case for Grant having been a good statesman who managed foreign affairs in a successful fashion.
After leaving office, Grant and his wife toured the world for two years. They were received by grateful crowds and royalty everywhere they went. Grant returned to the USA where he lost an attempt at a third term in the White House and went deeply in debt as the result of a poorly conceived business venture. Dying of throat cancer, he was able to finish his memoirs a week before his death. That book became e best seller after his death and saved his family from financial ruin. Korda wrote, “He finished his last chapter only a week or so before his death and was still struggling with questions about the maps and the proofs when death was almost ready to take him. On his own terms, and in his own way, he had fought death and won” (p. 149).
Unfortunately, this book lacks an index. This makes it difficult to find information without having to skim large portions of the book. For example, Korda mentions Grant’s well known drinking problem in many parts of the book. Good luck trying to find them all though without reading the whole work. Despite this, Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero is an excellent book that most readers will like. It portrays Grant as he was which is both flawed and a great 19th Century American at the same time.