The Man Who Saved the Union: H.W. Brands Talks U.S. Grant

Categories: Books, History

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H.W. Brands' new book The Man Who Saved the Union is not the first book we've encountered about Ulysses S. Grant this year, but it's certainly the most voluminous. Brands, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, was in St. Louis yesterday to talk about the book at the Missouri History Museum and the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site at Grant's Farm...and with Daily RFT.

Why here? Well, Grant is the only U.S. president ever to have lived in St. Louis; his wife, Julia Dent, was from here, and after he retired from his first stint in the Army in the 1854, he tried to make a living farming what is now Grant's Farm (though it should probably technically be called Dent's Farm, since his father-in-law owned the land) and then selling real estate in the city. Both enterprises failed, and he decamped, in disgrace, for his family's tannery in Galena, Illinois.

And why Grant? Let Brands explain.

H.W. Brands: One of the reasons I took [Grant] on was that I came to appreciate that the most difficult time to be president was during Reconstruction.

Daily RFT: Even more than during the war?

During the war there's no politics. The armies just line up and slug it out. Once the South goes out, Lincoln doesn't have to get the South to agree with him anymore. War simplifies things. People are either for or against you. And for an individual, war is far simpler. Grant exemplifies a common experience of a person who did well in war who was not successful in civilian life. He could not get himself together.

By the end of the St. Louis period, when he took refuge in Galena, Grant has accepted his humiliation. Unlike Napoleon or Alexander the Great or Theodore Roosevelt [subject of a previous Brands biography], whose ambition you could see from a distance, Grant did not have a burning drive to make himself great. He just wanted to have an OK life, to be a good father and husband -- and then came the war.

Which changed everything.

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