Grant: Savior of the Union – Mitchell Yockelson

This is my first book for review from Booksneeze. (Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. Does the FTC really want me to say that? OK: done.) I wanted a physical book for once instead of a digital edition, and the book is very nice – I like this size of hardcover, and the cloth binding and glossy, jacketless surface. Good paper, great image on the cover, a nice readable font – overall, very attractive.

That’s the good news.

I was a little shocked when I opened the package. Nice as it looks, it tops out at 208 pages. As long and checkered a career as Grant’s, I would have thought, rated more than something barely longer than a novella, and I kept looking for indications that this is intended specifically for a young adult audience. If that is the case, if this is indeed meant as a USG primer for younger readers … no. Not even then is it okay.

My eyebrows were already raised over the slenderness of the book (honestly, I don’t think I’ve seen a grown-up non-fiction Civil War book that wasn’t at least twice this size, and after all Grant’s memoirs are in two hefty volumes), and in the introduction they went up a bit more as the Generals series editor discusses the aim of the series, to not elevate the generals to the pedestals where they often sit … and then cites the current volume by its apparent full title: “Grant, Savior of the Union”. Hee.

From the Editor’s note:

We can also move beyond the mythologies of film and leaden textbook to know the vital humanity and the agonizing conflicts, to find a literary experience of war which puts the smell of boot leather and canvas in the nostrils and both the horror and the glory of battle in the heart. This will endear our nation’s generals to us and help us learn the lessons they have to teach. Of this we are in desperate need, for they offer lessons of manhood in an age of androgyny, of courage in an age of terror, of prescience in an age of myopia, and of self-mastery in an age of sloth. To know their story and their meaning, then, is the goal here and in the hope that we will emerge from the experience a more learned, perhaps more gallant, and, certainly, more grateful people.

My word. If the book had been written a third as stirringly as this (slightly offensive – androgyny? Really? Is a gun or a sword required to prove manhood? And how is the twenty-first century less prescient than an age in which, just for starters, women had no rights and an entire race was enslaved?) call to arms, this would be a very different review.

Unfortunately, it was a mess.

I’ve been a bit of a Civil War buff since PBS first gave Ken Burns a place to play. That documentary mini-series almost immediately became one of my favorite things anyone ever made, and changed my world a bit, and I’ve seen it as often as possible (and finally treated myself to buying it not too long ago). My memory for the battles is rubbish – I don’t know my Sharpsburg from my Vicksburg. I’m just stupid that way. But what I do know is the personalities of the War – I came away from Burns’s film with some deep-set hatreds (McClellan, Forrest) and some equally deep loves (Lincoln, of course). And one man I learned to admire – superficially at first simply because he loved his horses, and then more consciously out of recognition for his generalship and his loyalty and his hardships – was Ulysses S. Grant.

I was looking forward to – well, what the editor’s note describes. I know a little; I was really hoping for a deeper insight into the man. Particularly given the brevity of the book I wasn’t expecting the scents and sounds and emotions of battle. I was hoping for some glimpse behind the photos I’m so familiar with, some flavor of who the man was beyond the facts. There was none of that here. None. In looking for a photo online just now, I saw a reference to a nickname Julia Grant had for her husband – she called him “Ulys”. That’s not in here. This book was a flat and dry – and muddled – recitation of facts and battles, with almost no insight into what was in Grant’s head or heart at any time.

And the writing … as I read I made a collection of questionable grammar, punctuation, and stylistic choices, but I don’t have the heart to skewer them all. Given a circumstance I don’t think I can really get into, it just doesn’t seem fair.

… Well, maybe just a few. Because whatever can be said about the writer, this was a shocking job of editing, and just ill done from start to finish.

The book mentioned the birth of each of Grant’s four children, with a paragraph or so about each. It then continued with Grant’s career and then hiatus from the Army, and then, five pages after the last birth was mentioned: “There Captain Grant, his wife, and their flock of four small children (7) were to be seen…” That seemed an odd placement for a footnote, so I flipped to the back to the (surprisingly sparse) notes, expecting some comment about a miscarriage or adoption or something which would make the mention of “four small children” unusual. Instead: “7. Fred, Nellie, Jesse, and Ulysses Jr., also known as Buck.” Oh. This despite the fact that this was page fifty, while Fred’s birth was mentioned on p. 41, Ulysses Jr. (no nickname) on p. 42, Ellen on 45, and Jesse on 46. It wasn’t hard to remember in that short a space.

Quite a bit about the footnotes was odd. Though there was a two-page bibliography, there were only a handful of books cited in the notes – along with, rather extraordinarily, a couple of blogs. I don’t care how erudite it is, I think I have a problem with using a blog as a source for a book of history and biography. Also, Chapter 12 had footnote superscriptions going up to 10, but actual notes only up to 7. In related news, there was no index to the book. It drove me a little crazy considering some of the other problems with the book.

Misuse of commas: “They trained at Camp Yates, Illinois, named for the governor of that state, Robert Yates, for about a month.” Also, a sentence ought not to begin “Yet, the infantry…” Comma splice: “Grant’s men remained on the battlefield, it was far from a thorough victory.” There were more.

In a paragraph regarding Grant’s command going after a “pesky” group of Confederates: “It was learned that Harris’ men were camped about twenty-five miles to the south in Florida, Missouri; and on July 17, 1861 Grant and his men headed in that direction. Florida was the birthplace of Mark Twain, who befriended Grant many years later and helped him publish his memoirs.”
1) “Pesky”? How high a body count constitutes a “pesky”?
2) misuse of semi-colon (“The two main clauses that the semicolon joins should be closely related in meaning.”)
3) Where does Mark Twain come into this? It’s lovely that he will aid Grant 24 years later. But he has nothing to do with the battle, and …sure enough: he is never mentioned when the biography gets to the memoirs.

There were, close together, two quotes from Grant complaining about the scarcity of letters from Julia while he was stationed in the West. The topic is taken up again on the following page as if never seen before, culminating with “During the Mexican War he often complained about the lack of mail received from her.” Which besides being a poorly constructed sentence was … I know. You just said that. And what of it? Did Julia write him a letter hourly and they never reached him? Or did she really not write? If there is to be no follow-through on the topic, why bring it up at all? Again – this happened quite a bit.

The book spent time at the beginning talking about the friends Grant made at West Point, and the fact that two of the attendees at his wedding would in future be Confederate generals (though the assertion that Longstreet was his best man is actually not proven). There was a mention that Grant’s wife’s family owned slaves, and how he dealt with inheriting one. Yet there was never any discussion of how Grant or any of those friends or in-laws felt about the divisions the war created. There was a paragraph about Grant accepting surrender from General Buckner: “It must have been awkward for both, since Grant had once turned to Buckner for financial help after leaving the army.” Must have been? Didn’t either ever say? And it was more than simply an appeal for money: as per page 45 Buckner was his “classmate and friend”. That’s rather more awkward.

There was almost no mention of Grant’s predecessor in command of the Union army, General George McClellan. Part of the reason Lincoln was as excited about Grant’s performance – “I can’t spare this man; he fights” – was that McClellan did not fight. Much as I loathe the man, “Little Mac” was a big part of the first half of the War. It’s a little absurd that he was mentioned perhaps once. (I’m not sure if it was only once, because: no index.)

From a lengthy quote from a letter of Grant’s: “I have no further ambitions” Four lines later: “President Lincoln was thrilled to have a general who was ambitious.”

“But the bravery of the men under Grant’s command cannot be misunderstated.” Misun-which now? Grant’s “self-poise and confidence in himself” – gosh, yes, but was he self-assured? “Grant was able to relax some while he was home” – how colloquial. There were a few instances of surprisingly casual dialectic language.

There were several places where “one historian” or “one officer” is mentioned … Who? It strikes me as unprofessional to fail to back up a reference like that.

Other issues:
– Repetition of words, phrases, facts, whole quotes
– The use of photographs is peculiar, and adds nothing to the read. The worst was the placement of a portrait of Sherman in the middle of a chapter in which he makes no appearance, along with a portrait of Grant’s oldest son Fred, shown at about age 45 and notated as “Brig Gen. USA”: some thirty years after the battle being discussed at the moment – older than his father
– After an early buildup about Grant’s affection and appreciation for horses none were ever mentioned in the latter two-thirds of the book.
– Only spotty use of dates, and those less linear than half the episodes of Doctor Who there ever were, skipping from May to August to January of the same year, leapfrogging over entire seasons or years, dropping in a quote from 2000 and then going right back to the 19th century … For some battles the date and time were given, while others were much more vague. Suddenly I realize that while a bombardment of dates in a history can be dull-making, it is also kind of necessary.

In short … There was a lot wrong with this book. The above isn’t even the half of it. It isn’t even half of what I jotted down while reading, nor is that half of the real problem with this book. It’s just sad.

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6 Responses to Grant: Savior of the Union – Mitchell Yockelson

  1. This is why when I request books from this site I request fiction books. ;-)

  2. stewartry says:

    LOL – lesson learned, I think!

  3. Pingback: Review: Grant – Savior of the Union | Closed the Cover

  4. Beatnik Mary says:

    This is a fantastic post! I really appreciate how much work you put into this review. I’m just about to read this one myself (now I’m nervous about it, but at least it shouldn’t take me very long).

  5. stewartry says:

    Thank you so much! I hope you like it better than I did. (And as you say, if not it is short!)

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