Book Review: Soldier of Destiny: Slavery, Secession, and the Redemption of Ulysses S. Grant

Soldier of Destiny:  Slavery, Secession, and the Redemption of Ulysses S. Grant. By John Reeves.  New York:  Pegasus Books, Ltd, 2023.  Hardcover, 289 pp. $29.95.

Reviewed by John G. Selby

Ulysses S. Grant is having a moment. With 3 long biographies published in the last decade and a steady outpouring of smaller books focused on certain periods of his life, Grant’s reputation is soaring. Largely laudatory, recent books have often focused on Grant’s role in ending slavery through battle, and his efforts to defend fragile Black rights during Reconstruction.

With Soldier of Destiny: Slavery, Secession, and the Redemption of Ulysses S. Grant, John Reeves, author of two books on the Civil War, trains his attention on a lesser-studied period of Grant’s life, 1854—1861, focusing on the “importance of his relationship to his father and wife” and his “connection to slavery.” (242)  Reeves sticks to a common theme in Grant studies of “triumph over adversity,” but brings a nuanced approach to his analysis of Grant’s evolving views on slavery, his struggle with alcohol, and his persistent efforts to secure an economic foothold after resigning from the US Army in 1854.

Pre-war Grant was not an abolitionist. In fact, he managed and worked with enslaved people on his father-in-law’s plantation in Missouri after leaving the army, and his wife Julia had immediate control of four bondspeople until 1860 (and one of those four, Jules, stayed with her until running away in 1864). As late as 1863 Grant wrote to his chief Congressional benefactor, Elihu Washburne, “I was never an abolitionist, not even what could be called anti-slavery.” (59) But like thousands of his countrymen, he came to feel differently about slavery and the use of Black men as soldiers by late 1863. He told Washburne that “slavery is dead” and that Black men would make “good soldiers.” (215)

An enduring myth about Grant is that he was impoverished and a failure at every civilian occupation he tried after leaving the army. He could not be impoverished because the two most important men in his life, his father Jesse and his father-in-law Frederick Dent, would not let him fall into destitution. Dent was a prosperous farmer in Missouri who owned 890 acres of land, two houses (one in St. Louis), and 30 enslaved individuals. Grant essentially took over the daily management of the farm and was doing well financially until the Panic of 1857 forced him and Dent to sell land and farm stock. Grant then set up a real estate broker business that never gained traction and lost an election to become county examiner. Seeing Dent’s fortune continuing to decline, Grant swallowed his pride and asked his father to work in the family leather business in Galena, Illinois.

Today we might not think of a “leather” business as a “big business,” but under Jesse Grant’s capable hands it was indeed a large business. With annual revenues around $100,000 ($3.7 million in today’s dollars), it was one of the largest leather businesses in the Northwest in the biggest city in Illinois at the time (population near 20,000). Ulysses did well in his father’s business, hoping to save enough money to buy into the company as a partner. But when the war broke out, he felt compelled to help lead a volunteer regiment to put down the insurrection, and he left the family business in April 1861, never to return.

Another subject that Reeves tackles with sensitivity is Grant’s struggle with alcohol. He examines each of the moments when alcoholism took over his usually steady temperament, beginning with his poor performance at Fort Humboldt in California in 1854.  He notes that Grant had a low tolerance for alcohol, generally abstained from drinking, and wisely cosseted himself in his family or the presence of his closest aide, John Rawlins, to ensure that he was not tempted to drink. Still, Reeves writes that “Grant never spoke about his troubles with drink.” (210) He did not want to embarrass his father or his wife, and perhaps felt shame himself. But several times during the Civil War his supporters like William Sherman and Elihu Washburne had to come to his defense after a rumored “incident.” It must be noted that the “incidents” never occurred during a battle or a time of critical decision making.

Reeves devotes nearly half of his short book to an examination of Grant’s life from 1854-1861. The second half of the book covers the period from 1862-1864, ending with his appointment as Lieutenant General of the Army. He offers a brief, conventional analysis of Grant’s leadership in the major battles of 1862-1863. Reeves has a clear, gentle writing style, which makes for an easy read. He relies heavily on primary sources, though using relevant secondary sources to supplement his analysis. If you have not read much about Grant the man before, this book is a good place to start. Those looking for a new view of Grant’s command and strategy should look elsewhere.

John G. Selby is a Professor Emeritus of history at Roanoke College and the former holder of the John R. Turbyfill Chair in History. A Civil War scholar, Selby wrote: Meade the Price of Command, 1863-1865; Virginians at War: The Civil War Experiences of Seven Young Confederates; and coedited Civil War Talks: Further Reminiscences of George S. Bernard and His Fellow Veterans

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