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Getting to know Grant, afresh
Biographer paints a fascinating, believable portrait of the famed Union commander as a complex, flawed human being who never gave up.

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Date published: 9/10/2005

U. S. GRANT: THE MAKING OF A GENERAL, 1861-1863, by Michael B. Ballard. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., Lanham, Md., 206 pages. $24.95.

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.

I, 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 today.

As 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 War.


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