First Impressions: Brands’s Grant

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.

14 thoughts on “First Impressions: Brands’s Grant

  1. jfepperson October 6, 2012 / 7:47 am

    I am astonished that he would make that error about the Yazoo bender. My gosh, it means he didn’t even read Catton! (Or your intro to the Cadwallader memoirs.)

  2. John Foskett October 6, 2012 / 8:36 am

    The following statement from your blog entry touches on one attribute of Grant’s which I’ve always found remarkable:

    “Yes, it’s well written … but part of that may be due to Brands’s decision to quote extensively Grant’s own words.”

    The popular image of Grant doesn’t focus much on what a terrific writer he was – and focuses even less on his artistic skills. I’m hard pressed to think of another significant military figure throughout history who, without any formal training in these areas, was so accomplished.

    • Keith Muchowski October 6, 2012 / 9:43 am

      Though his numerous memoirs were written by committee and are not very revealing, Eisenhower was an accomplished writer. In part his autobiographies are so bland because he wrote many of them while his and others’ careers were still in progress and he didn’t want to rock the boat. In the 1920’s he was a member of the American Battle Monuments Commission and traveled extensively in Europe visiting the still fresh trenches of WW1. He wrote the monograph “A Guide to the American Battlefields in Europe.” Though it is now somewhat dated, it is still a standard work in its genre. (You can’t help but wonder how his time at Gettysburg ten years earlier as a young officer influenced his work in France.) He also quietly assisted John Pershing’s on his memoirs, and advised Pershing to avoid the diary format and go with a narrative structure.

      • John Foskett October 7, 2012 / 8:55 am

        I’ll still take Grant, even if it’s a bit of a horse race. When you toss in artistic skills, Grant laps Ike. He was an accomplished artist.

        • Keith Muchowski October 7, 2012 / 2:59 pm

          I agree, and wasn’t saying or implying that either was “better.” It should be noted that Eisenhower was something of a painter. It is interesting that many professional military men are more well-rounded than the general public presumes. In the 19th, 20th, and 21st first century the West Point curriculum was extremely demanding. Eisenhower was well versed in military, political, and social philosophy through what he learned at the Academy, the staff colleges and command schools, and from his mentor Fox Connor. Neither he nor Grant were the empty suits their detractors, and large segments of the public, believed them to be.

          • Noma October 8, 2012 / 7:50 am

            Speaking of West Point artists, probably the best was James McNeill Whistler — who famously did not graduate because he thought that silicon was a gas.

            But, every once in awhile I find yet one more remarkable work by some West Point student. Recently I came upon a drawing of “Theseus slaying a Centaur” by an eighteen year old student named William Tecumseh Sherman.


            West Point seems to have many similar treasures stashed away. Is there any good book of art by West Point students?

          • John Foskett October 8, 2012 / 9:34 am

            And i shouldn’t have completely dismissed Ike as a painter. But Grant’s work reflects real talent. Some of his mateial is almost on the order of a Karl Bodmer.

  3. Noma October 8, 2012 / 12:33 pm

    Is it true that there are only 4 pages on Grant’s early life?

    If so, it seems like Korda’s Grant quote should indeed be taken into account:

    “I read but few lives of great men because biographers do not, as a rule, tell enough about the formative period of life. What I want to know is what a man did as a boy.”

    Two questions:

    1. Did you feel like the small amount of coverage on Grant’s formative period detracted from the overall presentation?

    2. What is the source of Korda’s quote? It sounds like a good one, but I could not find it anywhere.

  4. 1864bummer October 10, 2012 / 9:42 am

    “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.”

    William Tecumseh Sherman

  5. Noma October 24, 2012 / 8:21 am

    Just read a very interesting review on Amazon. In contrast to the general praise offered by a number of reviewers, this person “Cannibal” appeared to be sharply disappointed. At first I did not read it, because it was written in All Caps, but after skimming it, I ran a translation that converted it to Sentence case. Pretty interesting. I’ve filled in the first names as best as I could guess. It will be interesting to see what our readers think:


    This is the worst biography of Grant by a mainstream historian in the last generation. Professor Brand’s justification for writing this volume is that much of the material included in Simon’s thirty one volume collection of Grant’s papers have not been available to previous scholars. This is not the case. Adam Badeau during grant’s lifetime had complete access to government war records as well as to grant’s own private set. Many scholars after Badeau have used the same records Simon includes but have used other means to obtain access to them.

    By relying almost entirely on Simon’s volumes professor brands has neglected or misused virtually every other important source on arguably the most important American of the nineteenth century. Among the important works he has neglected are those by

    * [Albert Deane] Richardson
    * [Hamlin] Garland
    * [J.F.C] Fuller
    * [John] Keegan
    * [Lloyd] Lewis

    * [Bruce] Catton
    * [Joseph??] Cox
    * Cadwaller [Sylvanus Cadwallader ?]
    * [A.L.] Conger
    * [George William] Childs
    * [Horace] Porter
    * [James Harrison] Wilson

    * [ ??] Coppee
    * Scofield [John McAllister Schofield ?]
    * [John] Eaton
    * [William Conant] Church
    * [John W.] Emerson
    * [James] Longstreet
    * [W.F.G.] Shanks [Harper’s Magazine, Vol 31?]
    * [Oliver Otis] Howard

    He has also failed to consult works by grant’s son Jesse and by his grandson U.S. Grant III.

    He also attaches too much importance to Sherman’s memoirs which are unreliable and self-serving. Because Professor Brands has neglected to properly research his subject the book contains errors of fact and many misrepresentations.

    • Ned B October 24, 2012 / 9:14 am

      Coppee = Henry Coppee who wrote Grant and His Campaigns, published in 1866.
      Cox is probably Jacob D.

      • Noma October 24, 2012 / 10:38 am

        Thanks, Ned!

  6. Chuck November 2, 2012 / 4:37 am

    Thanks for sharing your initial views on Brands’ book. In perusing a copy of the cook, I noticed the photograph of Grant on horseback at City Point with a portion of the Union encampment behind him. Grant’s image has obviously been superimposed over the image of encamped Union troops to create a single photograph. Why wouldn’t Brands know that? And if he did, why wouldn’t he acknowledge it for the sake of accuracy?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s