Last June at the Civil War Institute Kevin Levin (Civil War Memory), Keith Harris (Cosmic America), and yours truly were part of a panel discussion on Civil War blogging moderated by Peter Carmichael. This weekend C-SPAN3 will air the entire eighty minutes of our session at 6 PM and 10 PM Eastern time on Saturday, and 11 AM on Sunday (click here for a live feed at those times). The session will also air on C-SPAN radio at 9:45 PM Eastern time on Saturday.
I’ve been looking through this book for a day, and here’s what I can tell you concerning my initial impressions:
First, it is a very readable biography of Grant. It certainly replaces Perret. Smith has more detail, but Brands writes well, and uses a great deal of readily-available material (most of you could readily access most of the sources he uses). So, if you wanted someone to read a one volume biography of Grant, this would not be a bad choice, and I think most readers will like it.
The book reminds me how documentary editions have shaped historical research. Brands is heavily dependent on The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant. That might seem obvious (any Grant biography would find them invaluable), but I don’t see much work in other manuscript collections. Reader might enjoy examining the notes to see the basis of the research.
I saw two places where Brands slipped badly, and each is important in a different way as to what they tell us about the work.
Brands relies fairly heavily on Charles Dana’s story of Grant’s supposed Yazoo bender in June 1863. Nothing wrong with that. However, he then dates John A. Rawlins’s letter to Grant as having been written after Grant’s return, when the letter was written before Grant departed on his journey. Thus Brands treats a letter written before Grant departed as having been written in response to events after Grant departed. Others have already highlighted this issue of chronology, but Brands seems unaware of such discussions.
Puzzling in a different way is Brands’s criticism of Grant’s decision in May 1875 to announce that he would not stand for a third term. Brands sees this as a mistake, as a surrender of leverage and a reassurance to Democrats. He’s blissfully ignorant of how cries of a third term for Grant (and hints of a dictatorship to follow) were Democratic stock-in-trade in 1874, when the Republicans suffered serious losses in the midterm elections. Other Republicans were worried that any more talk of a third term would damage party fortunes in 1875. Other historians (especially Mark Summers) have covered this in detail, but, as Brands rarely delves into the literature of the Grant administration and American political history, he has no grasp of context.
In short, as an introduction to Grant, Brands’s volume might serve as a longer alternative to the work of Josiah Bunting. However, I don’t think I’d use the word definitive just yet. If I can note such mistakes from a few hours of poking around, I wonder what I might find by a read from beginning to end. Yes, it’s well written … but part of that may be due to Brands’s decision to quote extensively Grant’s own words.