Book Review: ‘Soldier Of Destiny’ Traces Ulysses S. Grant’s Complicated Route Before The White House

This cover image released by Pegasus Books shows "Soldier of Destiny: Slavery, Secession, and the Redemption of Ulysses S. Grant" by John Reeves. (Pegasus Books via AP)



Ulysses S. Grant’s standing among the presidents has improved in recent years, with critically acclaimed biographies by Ron Chernow and others offering a new perspective on his time in the White House.

But the 18th president who led the Union armies to victory in the Civil War still leaves a complicated legacy, especially when it comes to his relationship to slavery. That relationship is the centerpiece of John Reeves’ enlightening “Soldier of Destiny: Slavery, Secession and the Redemption of Ulysses S. Grant.”

Reeves’ book isn’t a comprehensive biography, and it doesn’t cover Grant’s time in the White House. But it gives readers an enlightening look at how he benefited from slavery years before he helped end the institution.

Reeves traces the evolution of Grant from someone who “actively participated in the slave culture of St. Louis” before the Civil War. Reeves is fair and blunt in depicting the role slavery played in Grant’s life as he tried to provide a “respectable middle-class lifestyle” for his family before the war.

“And this lifestyle, it must be remembered, was dependent on the ownership of human property,” Reeves writes. He also points out the ambivalence Grant displayed about slavery before the Civil War.

But he also examines the characteristics and skills that it took for Grant to go from an officer who was forced to resign from the Army to one of the most revered military heroes in history. This includes a detailed look at the key battles he faced during the Civil War.

Reeves doesn’t shy from highlighting the stains upon Grant’s military legacy including the reports of drinking that dogged Grant throughout the years. He also devotes a chapter to the order Grant issued expelling Jewish people from a military district he oversaw, an effort that was intended to halt illegal cotton speculation and remains a “black mark on his character,” Reeves writes.

Reeves manages to stitch Grant’s flaws and virtues into a thought-provoking portrait of a key historical figure who never lost faith in himself or his country.

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