Soldier of Destiny: Slavery, Secession, and the Redemption of Ulysses S. Grant
“Reeves' book is more than an intimate study of Grant and his family in a critical period of the future president’s life; it is a study of a white middle-class America in which economics, politics, and technology rapidly changed their society at the terrible cost of the American Civil War.”
John Reeves begins Soldier of Destiny: Slavery, Secession, and the Redemption of Ulysses S. Grant with Grant as an infantry captain at Fort Humboldt, California. Tired of the boredom and pettiness of his superior officer, he resigned and returned to his distant family that he so missed. Nothing would keep him anywhere or doing anything he found disagreeable. Grant followed his heart, and this book is, in part, about love.
Soldier of Destiny is a history of Grant and his family’s domestic life, including their connection with owning enslaved people. Throughout this work, the failures and problems of Ulysses S. Grant are placed in a credible context, not the exaggerations too often found in public memory. Reeves portrays his subject as often over-sensitive, silent, sullen, and a close keeper of his deep feelings and thoughts.
The subject also comes across as a quiet, good-humored romantic. He wrote glowing letters to his wife Julia Dent about the charms of the Pacific West and would beguile listeners with adventures of when he “served with laurels in the Mexican War, from 1846 to 1848.” Grant would devote 15 percent of his memoirs to his time in that campaign from which he wrote that he had learned so much.
To give dimension to his subject, the author extensively uses Grant’s private letters and explores the later president's family background. As with so many white Americans, the Grants had a troubled, if dysfunctional, history as both beneficiaries and victims of circumstances on the frontier.
The Grant family opposed the institution of slavery, and Ulysses’ successful “rags to riches” father Jesse refused to own anyone. Cousins, however, would support and even die for the Confederacy. While Grant was determined to fight for victory to preserve the Union, he presumed that the institution of slavery would continue where it existed. Reeves writes of Grant’s “moral ambivalence to slavery” during the war.
The family of Grant’s wife owned 30 slaves but lived with more precarious financial problems than the wealthier “free soil” (i.e., free labor) family of Jesse Grant in Kentucky. The author devotes a chapter to Grant and the slaves that his wife owned. With as much honesty as the sources will allow, Reeves discusses how each lived with the other, an example of an environment similar to many, if not most, households where white Americans and enslaved African Americans lived.
Grant made a life for his family as a promising small farmer living on a Missouri plantation with his wife Julia’s more aristocratic planter family. She would have preferred St. Louis to the frontier farmhouse where they lived, that her husband would so fondly remember.
Many white middle-class Americans and their families did much worse than the Grants in the turbulent economic times of the 1850s, but they never became prominent. Grant failed because of the Panic of 1857, his father-in-law’s debts, and illness, matters that white Americans could understand only too well. His father gave him a job in Galena, Illinois, where he worked successfully in a store selling leather and pork.
The presidential election of 1860 divided the Grant family and their relations. Ulysses S. Grant quickly rejoined the army when the war began. Rumors that followed him then and his reputation to the present of alcoholism and the partisan politics of Missouri initially held him back.
Yet Grant also had a reputation as a capable officer and precisely what the green volunteers needed. He was in his element as a military leader and soldier at war among a politically hostile civilian population. He played a role in suppressing Confederate support in Illinois and Missouri.
Grant was a brigadier general when he led troops at Belmont in his first battle of the Civil War on November 7, 1861. His bold action and use of boats and infantry heralded the later Vicksburg Campaign. He had a horse shot out from under him but still won the day. Surrounded, the general and his troops defeated the Confederates again, and they returned to their boats victorious.
Grant hardly had a smooth road from victory to victory. Reeves writes that the claims of drinking in 1861 “to dismiss all of the claims as army gossip is untenable.” The general was away from his family again. His father-in-law’s financial issues became critical. The cotton scandal involving Jesse Grant and the Jewish merchants had become a significant legend in Grant’s history. The general would write to his father that no enemy had done him more harm than his over-dominating father acting in his defense.
The author continues to try to present the facts, not simply rehash the legends. Western armies achieved successes early in the war despite men like General Henry Halleck's pettiness and officers like Grant's emotional sensitivity, all made worse by gossip, personalities, politics, and miscommunications.
Grant’s life between when he gave up his commission to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis in 1854 and when he was appointed commander of the federal armies in the Civil War ten years later can be told as a study in character. His qualities of being an efficient, hardworking, and quiet character triumphed over notably bad decisions.
This book’s purpose appears hazy, but Reeves tries to appraise the person honestly, not the war. “There have been countless books written about the military campaigns of U. S. Grant.” The book ends after a few words about the Chattanooga Campaign, not at Appomattox.
Soldier of Destiny appears to be a straightforward biography, but this concise, simple narrative has deeper currents. Reeves' book is more than an intimate study of Grant and his family in a critical period of the future president’s life; it is a study of a white middle-class America in which economics, politics, and technology rapidly changed their society at the terrible cost of the American Civil War.
Soldier of Destiny has annotation and a selective bibliography. It is illustrated.