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Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero

Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero

3.9 9
by Michael Korda

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A lavishly illustrated edition of Michael Korda's acclaimed biography of the man who ended the Civil War, served two terms as president, and wrote one of the most successful military memoirs in American literature

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


A lavishly illustrated edition of Michael Korda's acclaimed biography of the man who ended the Civil War, served two terms as president, and wrote one of the most successful military memoirs in American literature

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, newly conceived with twenty-four pages of full-color art and many black-and-white illustrations throughout, Michael Korda offers a dramatic reconsideration of the man, his life, and his presidency. Ulysses S. Grant is an evenhanded and stirring portrait of a flawed leader who nevertheless ably guided the United States through a pivotal juncture in its history.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This little book will inevitably be compared with Josiah Bunting's similarly short biography of one of the world's greatest military figures (Forecasts, June 14). The marriage of author and subject works well, although Korda (Horse People: Scenes from the Riding Life, etc.) doesn't have much new to say about Lincoln's favorite general. That's not surprising, since everyone now writes about Grant in the shadow of Edmund Wilson, who gave new fame to Grant's memoirs, and William McFeely, who has written the best full biography to date. Even so, Korda freshly characterizes his man without psychologizing an unpromising subject. Grant was, after all, unyieldingly stolid and tight-lipped. While his qualities of directness and taciturnity made him a great general, they didn't yield up a fascinating man or a great president. Korda does about as good a job of bringing Grant to life as possible and handles all the essential set pieces-Grant as Mexican War officer, Civil War general, president and author of masterful memoirs on the eve of his death-with much skill. He's less perceptive than Bunting about Grant's presidency and occasionally puts unnecessary erudition on display, but on the whole this is a highly readable, accurate study of the man. (Oct. 1) FYI: This title launches the new Eminent Lives series, edited by James Atlas. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
This lively and well-constructed short biography of Ulysses Grant follows the method of Plutarch, describing Grant's life from the standpoints of narrative and character. Narratively, Korda outlines as well as anyone ever has the odd structure of Grant's life: two towering peaks of heroism rising out of a muddy plain of perplexity and failure. The first peak was his extraordinary rise to greatness and victory in the Civil War, after years of obscurity in the Army and various failed ventures. The second, following a dismal presidency and an aimless post-presidency climaxed by financial scandal and ruin, saw Grant race the clock to write his memoirs (and provide for his wife) as he died slowly and painfully of throat cancer. Korda concisely summarizes Grant's military gifts, describes his deeply happy marriage with the "walleyed" daughter of a slaveholding Confederate, and documents his apparently congenitally bad judgment about anything having to do with money. This failing blighted both his public and private lives. It condemned him to failure before the war, disgraced his presidency, and bankrupted him afterward. Even so, he was a great man, and Korda's biography is an excellent introduction to an important American life.
Library Journal
Korda, Simon & Schuster's editor in chief, initiates a new series of short biographies by trying to compact a complicated man into a short compass. Grant earned a reputation as a general and later a writer for being direct, making his orders and his autobiography clear and compelling. His military philosophy was simple: find the enemy, hit him hard, and keep moving. Korda might have taken Grant's advice. He succeeds in keeping Grant's life moving along in a series of telling anecdotes that reveal Grant as a man of unprepossessing presence in peace, cool temperament in war, bad luck in business, innocence and prescience in politics, and good fortune in marriage. But Korda relies overly on William McFeely's Grant: A Biography (1981) to get the man, and he stumbles over facts, misreads context, and wastes words in an un-Grantlike manner. Still, Korda rightly recognizes that Grant's character was more complex than the usual stereotype of him as a butcher in battle and a bungler in politics, and Grant emerges as the greatest general of his day. Useful for major public and academic libraries, but McFeely's book remains the better buy. Randall M. Miller, Saint Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-While these books are roughly the same length and both provide an easy read, they focus on different aspects of the subject. Bunting's goal is a re-examination of one of the most vilified presidents in American history. Though the author discusses the man's life before and after his presidency, he looks more closely at Grant's record and discovers more in it than has generally been credited. At the end, it must be said that Grant's intentions and character are more praiseworthy than his accomplishments, but one cannot gainsay the successes that he oversaw in foreign policy and in his determined enforcement of civil rights for freedmen in the South. Korda's volume is interested in investigating the psychology of one of the great Americans of the 19th century. He examines Grant's successes and failures and shows the parts of his character that are evident in both. In doing so, he produces a gripping study of the man, operating successfully under the stresses of war, enduring failure in the stresses of peace, and coping with his fatal cancer. It is a broad, sweeping view of the man's life and naturally tends to focus more on his military than on his political career. Neither book tells the whole story; together, though, they provide an admirable introduction to one of the great men of American history.-Ted Westervelt, Library of Congress, Washington, DC Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Who's buried in Grant's tomb? Apart from Ulysses and Julia, a vast library of biographies and historical studies devoted to the great Civil War general. To them comes this slender volume, inaugurating James Atlas's Eminent Lives series, by noted memoirist/novelist/editor/bon vivant Korda (Horse People, 2003, etc.). Korda adds nothing whatever to the scholarship, but he has an evident and immediate sympathy for his subject, who, of course, is remembered just as much for his persistent alcoholism as for his victories at places like Vicksburg and Fort Donelson, just as much for the scandals that marred his presidency as for the efforts he made to effect the Reconstruction. Korda praises Grant's virtues-"his reserve, his quiet determination, his courage in the face of adversity," all of which came into play when the general was dying of cancer and racing against the clock to finish his famed memoirs, now much in the news as a contrast to those of Bill Clinton. He also offers a couple of wrinkles that might give other students of Grant pause: Korda sees Grant as, well, a touchy fellow, where other biographers have been amazed at the thickness of his hide; Korda breezily hints that Grant prized the presidency because he got to eat turkey at the White House every day, where other biographers pass that matter by. Korda is a charming and learned writer, as always. But, as wide-ranging as his cultural references are, he's shaky on certain facts: Beyonce is not a teenager; the term "hooker" is not an invention of the Civil War; and so forth. Such errors can undermine his authority, which is tenuous in the matter of Grant in the first place, especially now that so many historians have turned theirattention to the general. Inconsequential but pleasant. For meatier treatments, see Jean Edward Smith's Grant (2001) and, more recently, Josiah Bunting's brief life of the general and president (p. 612).

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Ulysses S. Grant
The Unlikely Hero

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 ...

Ulysses S. Grant
The Unlikely Hero
. Copyright © by Michael Korda. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Michael Korda is the author of Ulysses S. Grant, Ike, Hero, and Charmed Lives. Educated at Le Rosey in Switzerland and at Magdalen College, Oxford, he served in the Royal Air Force. He took part in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and on its fiftieth anniversary was awarded the Order of Merit of the People's Republic of Hungary. He and his wife, Margaret, make their home in Dutchess County, New York.

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Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very well written in compact prose. Korda's sympathy for Grant is evident throughout, yet he doesn't shy from Grant's failings. A wonderful story artfully told.
LordVader More than 1 year ago
It was interesting to learn about the essence of US Grant in a mere 176 pages rather than having to wade through a much larger book. I plan to read more books by Korda.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have read Grant's Memoirs and several other biographies of the general. To me they are all great readings. I am surprised that Michael Korda did not do for Grant what he did for IKE.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), says Michael Korda, was an 'unlikely hero.' He was, writes Korda, 'thin-skinned, sensitive, and burdened with the inferiority complex of a boy who had been brought up by harsh and distant parents, made fun of at school, been passed over for promotion in the army, failed at every attempt to make money or improve his situation, and eventually settled into life as a clerk in his father's store and the town drunk until the Civil War came along and saved him.' The author portrays Grant as one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, of American military leaders. And while Grant was one of our weaker presidents, says Korda, he succeeded in keeping the nation at peace during troubled times. The book discusses Grant's years at West Point, his service in the Mexican War, his marriage to Julia Dent, and the birth of their four children: Frederick, Ulysses Junior, Nellie, and Jesse. Grant was born on April 27, 1822, in Point Pleasant, Ohio. In May 1860, after the dismal failure of numerous business enterprises, he moved to Galena, Illinois, and accepted a clerkship in his father's leather store. He died on July 23, 1885, at Mt. McGregor, New York, only a week or so before completing his monumental Memoirs. Of course, the main reason we are still fascinated with Grant today is because of his military genius in the horrific conflict of the Civil War. Korda points out that nearly 625,000 Americans were killed in the Civil War, compared to 400,000 in World War II and 58,000 in Vietnam. Korda follows Grant from Fort Henry (on the Tennessee River), Fort Donelson (on the Cumberland River), Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing), Vicksburg, Chattanooga (Missionary Ridge), Cold Harbor, the siege of Petersburg, and his pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia to Appomattox Court House, the venue of Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender. Grant saw clearly (as did Lincoln) that the only way to win the war was to keep pounding away relentlessly and doggedly at the enemy. On Feb. 16, 1862, he sent a stern missive to Gen. S. B. Buckner, commander of Fort Donelson (near Dover, Tennessee): 'No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.' On May 11, 1864, in 'the Wilderness' near Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, Grant sent a dispatch to Washington: 'I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.' And on Aug. 1, 1864, writing from City Point, Virginia, Grant sent this dispatch to Gen. Henry W. Halleck: 'Wherever the enemy goes let our troops go also.' Although Grant's presidency was embroiled in scandal, Korda insists that Grant was honest to a fault, but too naive and trusting of others. Grant emerges as a decent, honorable, and likable man. And Korda's concise biography of Grant should appeal even to those who are not Civil War buffs. A final point should be emphasized. Korda's assessment of Grant is constantly compared to the leaders of World War II and to the present war in the Middle East ('Operation Iraqi Freedom'). The latter comparison is inferred rather than explicit, but Korda's meaning is unmistakable. Grant left some important words of wisdom for us today, imploring us to resist the arrogant encroachments of a theocratic fundamentalism: 'Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and the state forever separate.' Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero launches the Eminent Lives Series from HarperCollins. Forthcoming volumes include studies of Alexander the Great, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, William Shakespeare, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Sigmund Freud. Roy E. Perry of Nolensville (rperry1778@aol.com) is an advertising copywriter at a Nashville publishing house. ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael Korda, who served in the British armed forces, is editor-in-chief of Simon & Schust
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Laced with subjective comments, devoid of critical analysis, and brimming with the author's overt fascination with the Duke of Wellington. At best - I would recommend this as an introductory biography of GEN Grant for middle school readers.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago