Five Books About Ulysses S. Grant That You Should Read
On this bicentennial anniversary of Ulysses S. Grant’s birth I am sharing five books that have helped me to better understand this incredibly rich and consequential life. This is not intended as a definitive list. There are plenty of books that one could recommend.
The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, edited by John F. Marszalek (Harvard University Press, 2017).
Anyone trying to better understand Grant’s life should begin with his 2-volume memoir, completed just before his death in 1885. The book covers his early life through the end of the Civil War. You will not find a more engaging first-person account of the war. Grant is a wonderful writer. His descriptions of battle and his understanding of the evolution of the war gives readers a clear view of the challenges he faced commanding Union soldiers as he progressed through the ranks. There are many editions of this book that you can purhcase, but I highly recommend Harvard University Press’s recent annotated edition.
Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861-1868, by Brooks D. Simpson (University of North Carolina Press, 1991).
No one has taught me more about Ulysses S. Grant than Brooks Simpson. This is one of my favorite books about Grant and the Civil War. Simpson argues persuasively that Grant understood the politics of military command—that military strategy is an extension of civilian policy and overall war aims. According to Simpson, the defeat of the Confederacy and reconciliation was the ultimate goal of the war for Grant. President Andrew Johnson’s unwillingness to protect formerly enslaved people from white terrorism propelled the former general into national politics. Many of us are eagerly awaiting the second volume of Simpson’s biography of Grant, which will focus on his presidency.
U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth by Joan Waugh (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).
This is a wonderful book that explores the history and memory of Grant. The first half offers a thorough overview of Grant’s early life, his military career, and presidency, but it is the chapters on his evolving memory that sets this book apart from others. Waugh demonstrates how his reputation as a military commander, charges of alcoholism, and corruption during his presidency came to define his legacy in contrast with the growing popularity of the Lost Cause by the early twentieth century. The book’s publication in 2013 also makes it helpful to appreciating Grant’s recent resurgence in popularity among Americans.
The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, Charles W. Calhoun (University Press of Kansas, 2017).
This is a bear of a book that comes in at over 700 pages. I readily admit that I have not read it in its entirety. The book covers every aspect of Grant’s presidency, especially his handling of racial violence in the South. But Calhoun also explores how Grant formed his cabinet, his interactions with Congress and the press as well as his foreign policy and Native American relations. The book is well written and will reward anyone who wants a deep dive into the second (and until recently understudied) phase of Grant’s public life.
Grant’s Tomb: The Epic Death of Ulysses S. Grant and the Making of an American Pantheon, Louis L. Picone (Simon & Schuster, 2021).
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Picone begins with the rush on the part of Grant to complete his memoir in the face of cancer and a desire to secure his family’s financial future before his death. Picone highlights the nation’s outpouring of grief following Grant’s death and the elaborate funeral ceremony that took place in New York City. An estemated 1 million people lined the streets of the city to see the funeral procession and bid Grant a final goodbye. The book’s main focus is the push to honor Grant with an elaborate memorial. Picone explores funding issues, the design competition, and questions of how Grant was to be memorialized in what became “Grant’s Tomb” in New York City’s Riverside Park.
I hope this list is helpful. Again, this is not intended as definitive list of Grant books. Please feel free to share your favorite books in the comments below.
Happy birthday, President Grant.
Thanks for reading Civil War Memory! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.