Review of “The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace” by H.W. Brands

General Ulysses S. Grant was in many respects a great man. He was undeniably a great general. As President of the United States, however, he didn’t perform nearly as well; he just wasn’t well-suited for the position. He had heart, and at least expressed much more passion for the plight of minorities (including women and people of color) and the injustices done to them than did even Lincoln, if not nearly as eloquently. But with an almost total lack of political instincts, his expressions remained ineffectual.

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During the Civil War, if the enemy proved intractable, Grant would [as Lincoln needlessly advised him in August 1864], “hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew and choke…!” When in office as President, however, Grant seemed to lack the stomach (or spine) for extended political wrangling, and would give in after the slightest resistance, no matter how egregious the results of the capitulation. Moreover, while Lincoln could take the measure of a man and work with it to his benefit, Grant appears to have been totally naïve about those around him, and about the ethos of greed that overtook the country after the Civil War. Finally, he let his emotions rule his utterances far too often. He was easily offended, defensive, thin-skinned, and could not refrain from showing it.

President U.S. Grant, 1870

President U.S. Grant, 1870

In this comprehensive biography, Brands reveals many details about Grant’s life from letters, Grant’s autobiography, and the testimony of others. What I never got a sense of, however, was just what Grant was thinking most of time (or not thinking, as the case may have been), nor much analysis of why events occurred as they did. Brands is at his best during Grant’s time in the Civil War. But even here, Brands just doesn’t go deep enough. For example, he quotes a number of sources about whether Grant actually was, or was not, drunk on several occasions, but never goes into why the rumors persisted, and doesn’t really even hazard an opinion as to how much truth there was to them.

Once the Civil War is over, so is the excitement in the book. Brands goes into [perhaps too much] detail about some of the greed-inspired scandals of the go-go years after the War, especially since many of them involved members of Grant’s cabinet, family, and friends. Grant was ostensibly oblivious to what was going on around him, never believing that his associates could commit such perfidy. At least, that’s what we are to take away from what Brands reports. What was Grant doing this whole time while all of his friends and family were robbing him right and left? What was he thinking? Brands never really tells us much.

Political cartoon lampooning the corruption around Grant

Political cartoon lampooning the corruption around Grant

When Grant finally left office, his relief was almost palpable. One definitely gets a strong sense of how odious the political process was to him, and how he tried to escape from participating in it not only after he was no longer President, but even while he was in office! However, while he did avoid political in-fighting whenever possible, he did not desist from speaking up on behalf of minorities.

Discussion: Having read a great deal about Grant already, I was able to see that Brands elided over some negative aspects of Grant’s career. During the Civil War, for instance, while Brands includes many details about battles that were won, he gives very cursory – and even misleading – coverage to those that didn’t go well (such as Petersburg with its disastrous Battle of the Crater). Similarly, Brands cherry-picks aspects of Grant’s Indian Policy to place Grant in a more positive light than he might have appeared had a more representative sample of his policies been revealed.

However, the phenomenon of biographers producing hagiographic works is fairly common, and I don’t blame Brands for admiring a man like Grant. For all his shortcomings in terms of political and social savvy, he was a brilliant military strategist; moral and upright; committed (at least personally) to justice for freed blacks; and compassionate about the plight of Native Americans (even if his policies wouldn’t be considered “enlightened” by current standards).

It is interesting that whereas Brands clearly loves Grant, one doesn’t get the same impression about Brands’ attitude toward Grant’s wife, Julia; her portrait in this biography is far from flattering. William Tecumseh Sherman, however, comes off very positively in this (as in other) portrayals.

General Sherman, Grant's BFF

General Sherman, Grant’s BFF

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

As far as the narration of this audiobook goes, I wasn’t particularly taken with it. Stephen Hoye delivers all of Grant’s pronouncements in the voice of someone who might be described as saintly but put-upon. It was a bit of a turn-off.

Moreover, there were some rather bad mispronunciations by the narrator. According to the CD box, Mr. Hoye “has worked as a professional actor in London and Los Angeles for over 30 years.” So don’t you think he could find out the proper pronunciation of what he is reading? It may take some work to find out how to say Salmon Chase’s name, but the pronunciation for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger Taney is everywhere. And I almost choked when he talked about the Grants visiting the city of Agra in India: the city’s name isn’t even pronounced in Hindi the way the narrator said it, much less English! As for the way he said “debouche”: Oh dear!

With respect to the question of whether this book is better in print or audio, aside from my quibbles with the narrator, I had no problem with taking in the details of the book despite not having access to pictures or maps. (On the other hand, I familiar enough with the subject that I was able to picture it all in my head in any event!)

Evaluation: It’s hard not to like stories about Grant, Sherman, Lincoln, and the Civil War Era. On the other hand, it’s hard to listen to how little the North cared what was happening to blacks in the South once the War was over. But this too is important, and must be appreciated to understand the history of our country and the legacy of the post-War backlash.

This isn’t the absolute best book on Grant I’ve read, but I still enjoyed it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Random House Audio on 23 compact discs (unabridged), 2012

Kid Lit Review of “Awesome America: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the HIstory, People, and Culture” by Katy Steinmetz

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I was pretty impressed with this book. It has loads of photos and sidebars with interesting facts, and is colorful and fun. While it doesn’t give enough coverage (in my opinion) to the struggles of non-whites for a place at the table, it doesn’t ignore them either. It could also have included more on labor and the conflicts between corporate accumulation of wealth versus the rights of workers, and the reasons why it has been so difficult historically to impose restraints on the wealthy. The whole system of funding and contributing to political campaigns still plays such a large role in America’s political process, from debates over bank regulations to debates over gun controls, that it seems worth some mention.

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Most importantly, there really should have been more on the role of the U.S. Government in the massacre of Native Americans. Even now, following the Orlando shooting of June, 2016, in which 49 people were killed and 53 others were wounded, the media call this event “the deadliest shooting in American history.”  This characterization ignores previous mass shootings in this country, such as the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, in which 165 Cheyennes and Arapahos, two-thirds of whom were women and children, were slaughtered by the Colorado Militia, and the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, in which more than 150 Native American women, children and elderly men were killed in cold blood by U.S. Army troops, just to cite two of the most egregious examples.

But I do appreciate that the author never used the phrase that Columbus “discovered” America, and in fact is quite explicit in pointing out that native peoples lived here first. And the author does mention the “Trail of Tears” initiated by President Andrew Jackson, although it is not identified as such.

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On additional positive notes, and there are many for this book, the author includes sections on music and the arts, on sports, inventions, hobbies, top tourist spots in America, American slang, and regional foods and sayings. Women and minorities are fairly well represented. Not only U.S. Presidents, but First Ladies get a section, and there is plenty of information about the physical characteristics of the country.

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The final chapter provides a year-by-year timeline with historical highlights, and a glossary, annotated list of websites, and a short list for more reading completes the book. There is an index, but unfortunately it is very inadequate. But you can download a curriculum guide, here.

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Evaluation: Overall, this is a great addition to any home or school library, or as an accompaniment for a summer road trip (and yes, there is a section on Route 66!) There are more than 800 illustrations in this beautiful book.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Time Inc Books, 2016

July 19, 1996 – First Murder Conviction Based on Animal’s DNA

On this day in history, Douglas Leo Beamish was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with 18 years of parole ineligibility in the Supreme Court of Prince Edward Island (Trial Division).

Beamish, the estranged husband of Shirley Duguay, was the primary suspect in Shirley’s disappearance. When the body was found, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) found a leather jacket nearby covered in Duguay’s blood. Although Beamish’s friends and family acknowledged that Beamish owned a similar jacket, none would positively identify it.

But in addition to the blood, investigators pulled two white hairs from the jacket. The hairs turned out to be not human but cat fur. Detectives recalled that Beamish’s parents owned a white cat named Snowball and obtained a blood sample. (Beamish was at that time living with his parents.) Police inspector Roger Savoie could not find a Canadian laboratory to perform DNA analysis of the cat hairs, so he called experts in the U.S. and eventually reached Dr. Stephen J. O’Brien, chief of the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity at the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Md., an expert on cats and their genes. He agreed to do the testing, analyzing the hairs in the jacket and Snowball’s blood. But even though they matched, Dr. O’Brien wondered if the cats on the island were so inbred that all of their DNA was essentially identical. He asked Detective Savoie to round up 20 cats in the neighborhood and send their blood too. To everyone’s relief (with the undoubted exception of Mr. Beamish), they found abundant genetic diversity among the cats.

Convicted murderer Douglas Beamish and his cat Snowball. Photo by Dr. Stephen O’Brien

Convicted murderer Douglas Beamish and his cat Snowball. Photo by Dr. Stephen O’Brien

The introduction of Snowball’s hair as evidence was the world’s first use of non-human DNA in a criminal trial. Douglas Beamish was charged with first-degree murder and found guilty of second-degree.

Beamish appealed his conviction in 1998 and 1999. Both appeals were rejected.

Since this groundbreaking case, several prosecutors in the United States have presented in court forensic DNA evidence derived from animal samples.

Review of “Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American” by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier

Frederick Douglass escaped slavery, educated himself, and became a social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. He took a prominent role on the national stage during the time of Lincoln, the Civil War, and the struggle for black suffrage that followed.

Picturing Frederick Douglas mech.indd

This gorgeous volume contains 160 photographs of Frederick Douglass, the most photographed man of his century. The photos, taken from 1841 to 1895, are extensively annotated. The book also includes pictures of Douglass that were representations of him by others, including cartoons, sketches, and posters. Most importantly, it contains a biography and the text of a number of Douglass’s speeches, especially those on the importance of the visual image, and how images could and should change perceptions of Americans about the morality of slavery.

Douglass gave Susan B. Anthony this photo of himself, taken in May 1848. Albert Cook Myers Collection, Chester County Historical Society

Douglass gave Susan B. Anthony this photo of himself, taken in May 1848. Albert Cook Myers Collection, Chester County Historical Society

Douglass was way ahead of his time in many ways, one of which was his understanding of the power of pictures to mesmerize, to capture truth, to counter caricatures, and to stir the emotions. Recognition of the revolutionary potential of representation led Douglass to believe that photography would establish that blacks held as property were not in fact “things” but human beings. He capitalized on his own dignified appearance to help spread this message, distributing his own photos widely.

But as Douglass’s ancestor, Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., points out in an Afterword, it was not only the pictures of Douglass and others that established that all people were created equal:

His words painted a portrait of profound depth and refinement, and they destroyed the enslaver’s hoax that there are people born for a life of servitude.”

Frederick Douglass, Collection of the New-York Historical Society

Frederick Douglass, Collection of the New-York Historical Society

The authors, in their Introduction, also credit the reinforcing influence of both Douglass’s textual and visual avenues of communication:

Indeed, his portraits and words sent a message to the world that he had as much claim to citizenship, with the rights of equality before the law, as his white peers.”


Evaluation: This book, of “coffee-table” quality, should be an essential part of any library on history as well as art. Frederick Douglass, had and still has, so much to teach us about heroism, persistence, intelligence, and integrity.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.

Carte de visite of Frederick Douglass, January 21, 1863 Hillsdale College

Carte de visite of Frederick Douglass, January 21, 1863 Hillsdale College

July 15, 1801 – Signing of the Concordat of 1801 Between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII

On this date in history, an agreement was signed between Napoleon Bonaparte of France and Pope Pius VII, recognizing the Catholic Church as the majority church of France.

Napoleon was not especially enamored of either the Pope or the Church, but he understood that the people of France did not share his attitudes, and hoped for a settlement with the Roman Catholic Church.

In addition, there was a new Pope (Pius VII) whose views on social questions were not thought to be a problem for post-Revolutionary France. Napoleon was eager to eliminate one of the remaining grievances of rebels against his leadership, and so in June of 1800 he opened negotiations with the Vatican. Among other provisions, Napoleon offered to restore full public worship in return for allowing him to select all new bishops from among men nominated by the Pope. He would fund new dioceses and parishes (but he would not restore lands seized during the revolution), and bishops would swear not to “disturb the public tranquility.” Parish priests had to be acceptable to the government, and the government agreed to restore Sunday as a day of rest. Although the document was signed on this date, it was not publicized for another nine months. And a year later, Napoleon appended a number of other restrictions and regulations.

"Signature of the Concordat between the French Government and His Holiness Pius VII for the re-establishment of the Catholic religion in France". On the left is Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, Papal Secretary of State. Next to him is the Pope and Napoleon is in the center

“Signature of the Concordat between the French Government and His Holiness Pius VII for the re-establishment of the Catholic religion in France”. On the left is Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, Papal Secretary of State. Next to him is the Pope and Napoleon is in the center

The Concordat was generally welcomed by the populace except for former revolutionaries, and not by the leadership or the army. Nevertheless, it was officially proclaimed at a mass at Notre-Dame on Easter Sunday, April 18, 1802.

The Concordat remained in effect until 1905.

July 12, 1816 – Jefferson on Original Intent

In a letter to Samuel Kercheval (a Virginia lawyer and author) written by Thomas Jefferson on this day in history, Jefferson wrote in part:

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present, but without the experience of the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead. I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

You can read the full letter here.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

July 10, 1941 – Jedwabne Massacre in Poland

On this day in history, a group of some forty Polish residents, recruited by the Germans and by the order of the Polish mayor, rounded up at least 340 Polish Jews, including their own neighbors as well as some forty other Jews from nearby towns who had sought refuge in Jedwabne. The Jews were taken to the town square, attacked, and beaten. Some forty were killed on the square. The others were then taken to a barn, locked in, and burned alive in the presence of eight German gendarmes, who shot those who tried to escape. German photographers took pictures.

In 2003, a new investigation by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) confirmed that the pogrom was committed by Polish inhabitants of the town but they attributed responsibility for the crime to the Germans, who “inspired” it. The IPN added that the majority of Jedwabne residents were “utterly passive,” although they did not “participate” in the pogrom.

The IPN reported that a small group of Jews survived the massacre, and were transferred by the Germans to a ghetto in Lomza. The number of Polish Jews compressed in the Lomza Ghetto ranged from 10,000 to 18,000. They came from the villages of Jedwabne, Stawiski, Piątnica, Łomża, Wizna, Rotki and others. The Ghetto was liquidated on November 1, 1942, when all inhabitants were shipped out to extermination camps.

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