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Getting to know
U.S. Grant: The Making of a
by Michael B. Ballard
By Michael Aubrecht, FLS Town &
Date published: 9/10/2005 CIVIL WAR
Every so often, someone authors a
biography that not only changes my entire
perception of an individual I thought I "knew," but
also reminds me that all men are created equal. By
"equal" I mean human, and humans are far from
perfect. Unfortunately, historians have had a
tendency to forget that fact.
Even today, many biographers shy
away from "the ugly truth" and prefer to take the
easy way out by putting their subject on a pedestal
while simultaneously leaving his or her faults on
the editing-room floor.
for one, find it very refreshing when an author has
the conviction to depict a subject's story with
honesty and balance. Also, I find that I am able to
appreciate someone's success more pleasurably after
being exposed to some of his failures.
Such is the case with Michael
Ballard's wonderfully unbiased study of America's
top Union officer, who later became the eighteenth
president of the United States. In "U.S. Grant: The
Making of a General, 1861-1863," the author details
the life and times of Ulysses Simpson Grant during
three years of military service that ultimately
formed the character of the man we remember
a historian, I have often pondered the difference
between the disheveled general captured in Matthew
Brady's photographs and the elegant statesman whose
portrait graces the 50-dollar bill. After reading
Mr. Ballard's book, I finally feel that I
understand the one they called "Uncle Sam."
Focusing specifically on Grant's
life from 1861 to 1863, Ballard introduces us to a
budding officer who was still struggling to find
his place in American history. By refusing to
compromise on either the positive or negative
aspects of Grant's service, he skillfully paints a
candid portrait of a "soldier's soldier" who was
afraid of failure and full of contradiction.
Ballard recalls Grant's education at West Point and
how it affected the graduate's campaigns to
maintain control in the Midwestern territories.
From Belmont to Shiloh to Vicksburg and more, the
author recounts Grant's ascension through the
ranks, his extensive use of early amphibious
operations and his radical diplomatic policies that
ultimately changed the course of the Civil
Throughout the book, we are exposed
to a complex figure who vehemently believed in the
delegation of duty, yet struggled to follow the
orders of his superiors. We learn of an officer who
prided himself on being a soldier's confidant, yet
sometimes practiced deception within the chain of
command. We also see a general who preached the
swift and total destruction of opposing forces, and
then ordered the protection of the Southern
citizens. It seems that Grant was a man of many
faces whose sole incentive was to win at all
Ballard, who is a professor and
coordinator of the Congressional and Political
Research Center at Mississippi State University,
takes a unique approach to this story. His book is
different from previous studies of Grant,
presenting the social, political and personal
challenges that were faced by many up-and-coming
commanders during the Civil War. These descriptions
help to provide the reader with a broad view of the
Union chain of command and the "red tape" that
bound them on and off the battlefield.
revelation I found startling was the constant
back-stabbing that occurred among generals of the
same army, who were jockeying for rank and
reputation. Politics and egotism played a vital
role in the lives of Civil War generals.
Ballard's research exposes Grant
and his peers as being both brilliant and ignorant,
as well as gracious and stubborn.
Ballard also recalls Grant's
relentless frustration with difficult terrain,
unpredictable weather and the spread of disease,
while attempting to cross the Mississippi River.
learn that due to many circumstances beyond his
control, Grant was unfairly held responsible for
multiple stalemates and defeats that left his
service record tarnished in the eyes of the War
Department. Eventually, the general became fair
game for the Northern press, which was
exceptionally critical of the loss of life under
Only through his own tenacity and
perseverance was Grant able to escape retribution
from the leaders in Washington. Despite having a
reputation for indecisiveness and erratic
decision-making, Grant demonstrated an
extraordinary aptitude for the tactics of
diversion. Clearly, he understood that a successful
campaign depended on intelligent and constant
maneuvers that not only produced superiority in
numbers, but also forced the scattered Southern
forces to maintain a defensive posture. By keeping
up this initiative at all times, he was able to
ultimately compensate for multiple
addition to his skillful narrative, Ballard
personalizes his subject matter by quoting Grant's
own diary entries and letters. A myriad of
little-known facts, rare photographs and detailed
battle maps of the general's most pivotal
engagements further complement the book. Thanks to
many of these gems, we can all fully appreciate the
contributions of Ulysses S. Grant.
an e-mail interview with me, Ballard discussed his
personal view of Grant.
found him to be a sympathetic figure at times,
especially in his life before the war when his
marriage into a Missouri slave-holding family
placed stress on his relationship with his own
family. Also, the unfair charges of his being a
drunkard haunted him, as did his repeated failures
in business. The Civil War gave him a chance to
prove himself, but his rise to fame was not easy.
His performance at the Battle of Belmont was not
particularly skillful, and he was fortunate at Fort
Donelson to be up against incompetent Confederate
leadership. His experience at Shiloh angered his
immediate superior, Henry Halleck, and caused him
much depression and embarrassment. Yet, with the
encouragement of his friend, William T. Sherman, he
stuck it out, and despite run-ins with other
generals, he got the job done."
added, "That is what I admire about him most, and
why I think his admirers, then and ever since, find
him so compelling. Grant refused to quit, no matter
the problems, troubles, and tribulations he faced.
Yes, he was fortunate in not having to fight
competent generals in the West, but he still fought
brilliantly, especially during the latter phases of
the Vicksburg campaign. He had pride, but he was
unpretentious, and he was a superior tactician
during battles. Yet, he never stopped being old Sam
Grant, the failure from Missouri; instead, he took
advantage of opportunities to become Sam Grant, the
best general in the Union army."
After reading "The Making Of A
General," I too, have come to admire Ulysses S.
Grant, and I thank Michael Ballard for
re-introducing him to me.
MICHAEL AUBRECHT of Spotsylvania
County is the author of "Onward Christian Soldier:
The Spiritual Journey of Stonewall" and "Christian
Cavalier: The Spiritual Legacy of J.E.B. Stuart."
Visit his Web site at...