Ulysses S. Grant is usually depicted as a superb general in the Civil War and a mediocre president at best from 1869 to 1877. In this readable and persuasive biography, Jean Edward Smith argues that Grant’s record as president was better than his historical critics have charged. More important, the way in which Grant functioned in the White House flowed from the leadership style he had displayed in defeating the Confederacy.
The most interesting aspect of the book is Smith’s thesis that Grant sought during Reconstruction to protect the Civil Rights of African Americans in the South in a more sustained manner than other politicians of his day. In that respect, Grant comes across as a forceful and effective chief executive at a time of national retreat from the promise of racial justice. The same is true for Grant’s policy toward Native Americans in the West. The president’s “peace policy” looked to more equitable treatment of Indians in contrast to the callous exploitation of so many whites in and out of politics.
While sympathetic to Grant, Smith does not apologize for his subject. Grant’s mistakes in battle and ethical errors in politics are examined and put in their proper context. Smith shows how the good and bad in Grant emerged from his life experiences in war and peace. Rather than the enigmatic soldier and inept president of previous biographies, Grant comes across as human and understandable in this fascinating book. Anyone interested in the Civil War and Reconstruction will find Grant an engaging experience and the best one-volume study of the most important Union general and an underrated president.