A Final Word: Ulysses S. Grant

Bodies of Union soldiers at Gettysburg (Library of Congress)

Bodies of Union soldiers at Gettysburg (Library of Congress)

One last brief excerpt from Josiah Bunting III’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant, on the realities of combat and costs in human suffering of the Civil War:

“The Civil War was the most terrible in our history. In the century between Waterloo (1815) and the beginning of World War I (1914) its costs, measured in blood and suffering, were the greatest of any of the world’s wars. Deaths attributable to combat, both sides together, were 698,000; adding in the wounded, the casualty total is 1,168,000, or 1.9 percent of the population of the United States. The equivalent percentage today, given the current American population, would be just over 5,400,000 casualties. Ignorant armies of boys and young men, led by volunteer officers appointed for reasons that had nothing to do with their fitness to lead soldiers in battle, tore at one another, employing the baffled, suicidal tactics of the day.

“We no longer grasp this. The numbers both overwhelm and numb our capacity to respond. Thousands died in single battles, often soldiers from the same towns or counties – their regiments having been recruited by appeals to local pride and patriotism. At Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862, total casualties were greater than all losses in all American wars up to that date: twenty-three thousand killed, wounded or missing. Grant wrote: ‘I saw an open field . . . over which the Confederates had made repeated charges . . . so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing in any direction, stepping on dead bodies, without a foot touching the ground.’”

Published in: on December 21, 2008 at 8:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

Ulysses S. Grant


With at least 33 volumes now in print or soon to be published, Henry Holt and Company’s series of compact biographies of The American Presidents, edited until his death by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and since by Sean Wilentz, is an ambitious and worthy enterprise. If every volume in the series were as successful as Josiah Bunting III’s Ulysses S Grant, it would be a stunning achievement. Bunting’s biography of Grant is a slender (155 pages of text) but well-executed work, less detailed than more voluminous texts but satisfying despite the fairly stringent limits imposed by the series’ objectives. Indeed, Bunting offers occasional keen insights which might not be gleaned from the more “comprehensive” biographies.

Bunting’s appraisal of Grant is carefully balanced and objective, crediting his subject with many more positive achievements and a stronger record than was customary during the century after Grant’s two terms as president. This moderately “revisionist” view is more in accord with contemporary estimates (see, for example, Alvin Stephen Felzenberg’s The Leaders We Deserved (And A Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game; Felzenberg ranks Grant distinctly within the upper tier of presidents, tied for seventh place with Taylor, Truman, McKinley and Kennedy), and reflects the increasingly widespread perception that Grant was the strongest presidential exponent of Civil Rights between Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson. As Bunting phrases it, Grant was for his era “the central force in the achievement of civil rights for blacks, the most stalwart and most reliable among all American presidents for the next eighty years.”

Bunting also emphasizes Grant’s relatively enlightened policy toward Amerindians: “Grant fought for and supported during his administration an Indian policy that for its time was humane, generous in instinct and intent, far ahead of the conventional cultural and political wisdom of its day. It failed to understand that what needed to be protected was Indian culture itself. But the attempt was admirably conceived. It is a testimony to the odd blindness of American historiography that it has never received its due.” In Bunting’s work, it finally does.

For selected excerpts from Bunting’s Ulysses S Grant, see our earlier posts here and here.

Additional Online Information:

Keya Morgan’s Grant Archives contain interesting photographs and images of documents and letters along with some biographical information; his Ulysses S. Grant homepage includes more extensive information, including this selected bibliography.

Published in: on December 21, 2008 at 4:22 pm  Leave a Comment