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


by John Reeves

New York: Pegasus, 2023. Pp. viii, 289. llus., map, notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN:1639365273

The Evolution of U.S. Grant

John Reeves’s Soldier of Destiny represents the latest work of revision and rediscovery of this most important historical figure in U.S. history. Although not a detailed biography, Reeves’ book focuses on critical aspects of Grant’s journey which led to his appointment to command all Union forces in 1864.

Beginning with Grant’s resignation from the army in 1854 because of alcohol abuse and ending with his promotion to Lieutenant General at a ceremony in the White House in March of 1864, Reeves focuses on Grant’s complex relationship with slavery, his struggle with alcohol abuse, and his difficulties as a farmer and leather goods store manager.

As to Grant’s relationship with slavery, Reeves clearly describes how he was caught between his wife, Julia and her slave-holding family, and his father, Jesse Root Grant, a strong anti-slavery advocate. Grant would, before the Civil War, display significant ambivalence towards slavery. In fact, his wife’s slaves were an integral source of labor at the Grant home, White Haven in Missouri.

However, as the Civil War progressed, Grant would come to recognize the importance of emancipation, the recruitment of black troops, and finally, the need to eliminate this most horrific institution. In fact, Reeves points out that Grant’s increasing prowess as a military commander would result in the freedom of more than two million enslaved people; many more than would have been freed by the stroke of a presidential pen.

In reviewing Grant’s relationship with slavery, Reeves’ narrative outlines his civilian responsibilities in St. Louis, Missouri and Galena, Illinois as a farmer and leather goods store proprietor. The common canard has been that Grant was a failure in his civilian endeavors and that only the Civil War rescued him from historical oblivion. But the author destroys that myth by showing convincingly that Grant’s characteristics of diligent hard work and resourcefulness allowed him to be relatively successful in a challenging Midwestern economy. It was only the significant national economic downturns of the 1850s which resulted in Grant’s difficult farming and business shortcomings.

By exploring Grant’s military command through the crucible of the battlefields at Belmont, Shiloh, and the Vicksburg Campaign, the author makes the case that those very characteristics that Grant displayed in civilian life were the keys to making him a successful battlefield commander, thus fulfilling his destiny. In essence, Grant’s destiny was the result of his inner moral strength, persistence, and grace under pressure. In doing so, Reeves candidly addresses Grant’s deficiencies, including the issue of his drinking and the very ill-advised order expelling Jewish merchants from his military district (the infamous General Order Number 11).

This book provides a thought-provoking portrait of Grant’s virtues, strengths and weaknesses, offering readers a very balanced view of this influential figure. Despite the significant challenges presented by the Civil War, Grant’s unwavering faith in himself and the nation strongly emerges as his strength in overcoming those most turbulent and dangerous times.

This might best be set forth by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote used in the book:

The foregoing has the ring of a biography, without the satisfaction of knowing that the hero, like Grant, lolling in his general store in Galena, is ready to be called to an intricate destiny.”

This most complex man, in pursuit of his intricate destiny, would save and redeem the nation.

In summary, Soldier of Destiny provides a fresh perspective on Grant, emphasizing his connection and evolving views on slavery forged through his increasing military prowess and leadership that led him to become one of the most significant historical figures in U.S. history. Reeves' meticulous research, use of numerous primary and secondary sources, and thoughtful analysis, makes this book a valuable edition in Grant scholarship, and a must read for all students of American history and particularly of the Civil War.


Our Reviewer: A former captain in the Army Reserve, Prof. William "Pat" Schuber is on the faculty of the School of Public and Global Affairs (SPGA), at Fairleigh Dickinson University, teaching leadership, government, homeland security, law, ethics, and communication, and is also an instructor in the Police Executive Leadership Course, sponsored by the New Jersey Association Chiefs of Police and the New Jersey State Police (NJSP). The author of An Open Door to History: A Guide to Historic Sites in Bergen County and many articles in journals and books, he has conducted Leadership Staff Ride Seminars at Gettysburg, Antietam, Trenton, Princeton, Monmouth Courthouse, and Brandywine, as well as in Normandy, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. His earlier reviews include The Venlo Sting, From the Mountains to the Bay, and Calamity at Frederick




Note: Soldier of Destiny is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: William “Pat” Schuber   

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