The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (2012) by H. W. Brands (Random House Audio Publishing Group; Books on Tape, 27 hrs, 51 mins)
I've got this thing about the American Civil War. No, I'm not a reenactor, or the kind of person who goes on pilgrimages to Gettysburg or Appomattox. However, I do love soaking up information about the people involved, the fateful decisions, the ways in which Americans ripped their own country apart and then worked equally hard to repair it.
The Man Who Saved the Union, then, was perfect for me. After all, it wasn't just about Grant; Brands uses the general to explore the issues of his time, which shaped who Grant would ultimately become. His life is the quintessential story of the person who rises up from nothing to become powerful and respected by an entire nation.
From his time at West Point, to his fruitless search for meaningful employment during his twenties and thirties, up to his reinstatement in the army and triumph over the Confederacy, Grant remained a quiet, thoughtful person, moving through life without any specific plan. His success as a general in the Union Army won over Lincoln, and Grant's confidence in his own military strategies enabled him to defeat Lee and force the Confederacy to abandon hopes of further revolt.
As Brands points out, several of our presidents were former military men, and Grant's election was almost inevitable. He had become a symbol of American unity and victory, a calm, determined man who would knit the country back together without debasing the states that had tried to secede. Grant never sought political office, and as president, he never got used to public speaking or political shenanigans. Nonetheless, during both terms, Grant advocated for the rights of African Americans and the rule of law in states that still attempted to defy the federal government.
And as I've pointed out in other reviews of biographies, many such books make their subjects sound like saintly wonders and everyone else misguided or stupid. While Brands doesn't go to that extreme, he does cast a very rosy glow on Grant, making me wonder just how amazingly wonderfully fantastic he really was. After all, Grant was human, and made his share of mistakes, both in his personal and political life. But he was also faced with some of the greatest challenges of his time, and valued fairness and determination above all else.
So if you're into Civil War history or presidential biographies, The Man Who Saved the Union is right up your alley.