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Ulysses S. Grant

The Unlikely Hero

Ulysses S. Grant by Michael Korda
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One of the first two volumes in Harper's Eminent Lives series, Korda brings his acclaimed storytelling talents to the life of Ulysses S. Grant – a man who managed to end the Civil War on a note of grace, serve two terms as president, write one of the most successful military memoirs in American literature, and is today remembered as a brilliant general but a failed president.

Ulysses S. Grant was the first officer since George Washington to become a four–star general in the United States Army, and the only president between Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson to serve eight consecutive years in the White House. In this succinct and vivid biography, Michael Korda considers Grant's character and reconciles the conflicting evaluations of his leadership abilities.

Grant's life played out as a true Horatio Alger story. Despite his humble background as the son of a tanner in Ohio, his lack of early success in the army, and assorted failed business ventures, his unwavering determination propelled him through the ranks of military leadership and into the presidency. But while the general's tenacity and steadfastness contributed to his success on the battlefield, it both aided and crippled his effectiveness in the White House.

Assessing Grant both within the context of his time and in contrast to more recent American leaders, Korda casts a benevolent eye on Grant's presidency while at the same time conceding his weaknesses. He suggests that though the general's second term ended in financial and political scandals, the fact remains that for eight years Grant exerted a calming influence on a country that had only just emerged from a horrendous civil war. Ulysses S. Grant is an even–handed and stirring portrait of a man who guided America through a pivotal juncture in its history.

HarperCollins; May 2008
176 pages; ISBN 9780061648489
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Title: Ulysses S. Grant
Author: Michael Korda
 
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Excerpt

Chapter One


In the summer of 2003 Ulysses S. Grant made news all across

the country that he had, in his lifetime, done so much to reunite:

Some of his descendants, a good part of the more serious press,

and the Grant Monument Association objected strongly to pop diva

Beyoncé Knowles, accompanied by a "troupe of barely clad dancers,"

using his tomb in New York City's Riverside Park as the background

for a raucous, "lascivious," nationally televised July Fourth

concert.

Beyoncé and her fans hardly seemed aware of who Grant was, or

why such a fuss should be made about the presence of loud music,

suggestive dancing, partial nudity, and a huge, boisterous crowd in

front of his tomb, which, as the New York Times pointed out, had

once been a bigger tourist attraction than the Statue of Liberty. In

fact, except for a few members of the Grant family who had been

trying for years to get the bodies of General Grant and his wife,

Julia, removed from the tomb on the grounds that it had been allowed

to fall into a disgraceful state of repair and decay, the level of public indignation was low. The Times even felt compelled to comment

rather sniffily that the general was "no longer the immensely

famous figure he once was." Grant's great-grandson Chapman

Foster Grant, fifty-eight, however, took a different view of Beyoncé's

concert, commenting, "Who knows? If the old guy were alive, he

might have liked it."

Knowing as much as we do about the general's relationship with

Mrs. Grant -- like President Lincoln, whom he much admired,

Grant was notoriously devoted to a wife who felt herself and her

family to be vastly socially superior to his and was not shy about letting

her opinion on the subject be known; and, like Mrs. Lincoln,

Mrs. Grant's physical charms, such as they may have been, were lost

on everybody but her dutiful husband -- it seems unlikely that Grant

would have allowed himself to appreciate Beyoncé's presence at his

tomb. Mrs. Grant, it was generally felt, kept her husband on a pretty

tight leash when it came to pretty girls, barely clothed or not.

As for Grant himself, while he had his problems with liquor --

his reputation as a drinker is perhaps the one thing that most Americans

still remember about him, that and the fact that his portrait,

with a glum, seedy, withdrawn, and slightly guilty expression, like

that of a man with a bad hangover, is on the fifty-dollar bill -- no

allegation of any sexual indiscretion blots his record. He reminds

one, in fact, of Byron's famous lines about George III:

He had that household virtue, most uncommon,

Of constancy to a bad, ugly woman.

Grant not only led a blameless domestic life, he was the very reverse

of flamboyant. Softspoken, given to long silences, taciturn, easily hurt and embarrassed, he was the most unlikely of military

heroes. He did not, like Gen. Ambrose Burnside, for example, who

was so soundly defeated by Lee at Fredericksburg, lend his name to a

style of swashbuckling full sidewhiskers -- "sideburns," as they came to

be known after him. Nor did he lend his name, as the unfortunate

Gen. Joseph Hooker (who succeeded Burnside and was defeated by

Lee at Chancellorsville) was thought to have done, to label the prostitutes

who were said to surround his headquarters, so that even today

they are still known as "hookers" by people who have never heard of

the general himself. Grant aimed to be the most ordinary appearing

and self-effacing of men, and to a very large extent he succeeded.

The fact that Beyoncé is black, as was much of the audience of

thousands gathered to listen to her concert, might have shocked the

general rather less than her near nudity or the "lascivious choreography"

reported by the Times. Grant probably did more than anyone

except Lincoln to destroy the institution of slavery in North America,

but, like Lincoln, he shared the social attitude toward Negroes of

his own race and his time. However, his innate good manners, natural

courtesy, and a certain broad-minded tolerance always marked his

behavior toward them. It was typical of him that while very few

other generals in that age would have had a Native American officer

on their staffs, Grant did, and as president he deplored the way in

which government agents exploited the Indians, seeming to have felt

that Custer got what was coming to him at the Little Big Horn.

Grant's personal and professional opinion of Custer had always

been low, and although he made more than his share of political and

financial mistakes in the White House and afterward, and his judgment

of character when it came to civilians was notoriously optimistic, his judgment of generalship was invariably ruthlessly objective

and on target. Grant was unsure about a lot of things, but he

knew a flashy, incompetent, and reckless general when he saw one,

so Custer's defeat at the hands of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse did

not surprise or shock him, unlike the rest of the United States.

What he would have made of the Grant family's long struggle

to extricate him and Mrs. Grant from Grant's Tomb as it fell into

disrepair and decay and move them elsewhere is hard to say. One of

the reasons the campaign failed was the question of where to put

the Grants if they were removed from their tomb in New York City.

With that mournful failure of judgment that was apt to come over

Grant off the battlefield, he and Mrs. Grant chose New York City

for their resting place, in part out of a dislike for Washington,

D.C. -- Grant's two terms as president had not produced in either of

them any affection for Washington society, nor, in the end, was

there much affection in Washington for them -- while Galena, Illinois,

which seemed too provincial a backwater in which to bury

such a great man, had even fewer happy memories for the Grants

than did Washington ...