Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (Amazon Classics Edition) – Ulysses S. Grant

41HwlLK8+ILThe death of George Floyd (1973-2020) initiated a chain of events that have resulted in a criminal trial and more discussions about race in America.  It is a subject that will never go away and many still struggle to confront it with the honesty that is sometimes necessary.  I have noticed that when it comes to race in America and the nation’s history, it is almost impossible to grasp the entire picture without factoring in the effect of the American Civil War (1861-1865).  The conflict tore the nation apart over several issues, the most important of which was the topic of slavery.  Many states in the North had already abolished slavery, but in the South, it remained a way of life.  And because it was so critical to the South’s existence, the states that formed the Confederacy were willing to fight to the death to preserve what they felt was their right. Today we know with the benefit of hindsight that it was a lost cause from the start but the battle that ensued was a long and bloody conflict that left thousands dead and others critically wounded. Veterans who survived the conflict were forced to live with horrible memories of war that remained with them until their final days.  Among the war’s combatants was the Eighteenth President of the United States and former General Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885). In these extensive personal memoirs, he discusses the Civil War, the Mexican American War and his life which took him to places he could have never imagined, including his roles as a father and husband. 

I should point out that the book is quite long at more than six hundred pages.  However, at no point while reading the book, did I find myself bored with his writing.  From the start the book is engaging and Grant writes in a highly focused style that prevented him from veering off topic and employing rambling text.  The book is broken down into dozens of smaller chapters pertaining to a particular subject or time frame and it does help keep the reader’s attention from waning.  Readers will notice that Grant is very frank in his discussions of the events he witnessed during his time.  He does not mince words even at the expense of possibly offending some.  Although he fought on the American side of the Mexican War, he was not averse to giving his honest opinion and this quote should give readers and idea of the frankness in which the author gets his points across:

“The war was one of conquest, in the interest of an institution, and the probabilities are that private instructions were for the acquisition of territory out of which new States might be carved.”

The beauty in this book is that Grant does not hide behind patriotism and freely conveys his true feelings on various matters.  Some might be surprised that a former general and president is writing in this way but as can be seen in the book, Grant believed in transparency and the soul of the nation, even if it meant calling it out on its faults.  And make no mistake, he supported the Union unconditionally even if that meant his own life being taken from him.  Further, I feel that his words are crucial for Americans today in understanding the darker parts of our past including the founding of the United States. Grant’s account should help remove the mask of a “peaceful transition” between America and the continent’s native inhabitants.  Further, Grant makes an admission towards the end of the book regarding the future of Black Americans and the Caribbean city of Santo Domingo that will raise some eyebrows.

As the story progresses, we eventually come to the part in the story which every ready will be waiting for: The Civil War. Grant lays out the foundations for the war allowing the reader to understand just how important the issue of slavery was, and the threat Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) posed to the South.  I personally learned a couple of things and my eyes were glued to the screen when I read these statements by Grant:

“The Republican party was regarded in the South and the border States not only as opposed to the extension of slavery, but as favoring the compulsory abolition of the institution without compensation to the owners.” 

“The 4th of March, 1861, came, and Abraham Lincoln was sworn to maintain the Union against all its enemies. The secession of one State after another followed, until eleven had gone out.”

For all intents and purposes, the stage was set for the war in which America was fighting to save itself from an enemy within.  And Lincoln would become a savior and a casualty before the war’s conclusion.  The discussions about the war and the individual battles are extensive and it might benefit some readers to take notes while reading what Grant has to say.  Maps are provided but I think that a paperback or hardcover version might be better for those wishing to see actual positions on the terrain. The Kindle display is acceptable but does not match the clarity of a printed version.  To be expected, Grant focuses on the technical aspects of the campaigns which military buffs will love.  He does not go into political discussions for the most part except for when he reveals who he voted for in the presidential race and what he thought of Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson (1808-1875).  This is battlefield 101 and all its goodness. Grant was strategist and his brilliancy is on full display as the Union takes hold of the war and step by step, dismantles the Confederate Army.  Legendary figures on both sides enter the story as Grant knew nearly all quite well and he gives his assessment of them as military figures and leaders.  History buffs will find themselves unable to put the book down at times.

If there is one subject about which I wished Grant had discussed more, it is the assassination of Lincoln.  Grant mentions little about it largely mentioning his reasons for not going to Ford’s Theater that night.  As to why Grant avoided a lengthy discussion of the murder, I am not sure but it in no way detracts from the incredible story he is telling. What is clear though, is that he not only liked Lincoln but respected him highly as the nation’s leader. Lincoln in return, respected Grant’s abilities on the battlefield during a conflict the Union had to win by all costs.  Following Lincoln’s murder, Andrew Johnson assumes the presidency and Grant makes observations about that as well. Nothing slanderous will be found in his account but I strongly recommend that readers follow-up this book with material on Johnson’s impeachment trial in which he narrowly avoided conviction. The recent events of the past year will seem like history repeating itself.  However, America survived the Civil War and will continue to survive more challenges that lay ahead as we continue to correct course.  And if we need words of wisdom about our past and the dark side of war and human rights, we have this book by a former president that still stand the test of time. Highly recommended.

Readers interested in the viewpoint from the Confederacy might enjoy this diary by Leroy Wiley Gresham (1847-1865) called The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham 1860-1865, which is a very good look at the conflict from the eyes of a southerner firmly behind the Confederate cause.  Gresham died not long after the war ended but his observations about the war’s progression are interesting for a young man who had not yet reached his eighteenth birthday.

“Everyone has his superstitions. One of mine has always been when I started to go anywhere, or to do anything, never to turn back or to stop until the thing intended was accomplished.” – Ulysses S. Grant 

ASIN : B08CDW51LB

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl – Harriet Jacobs

 

JacobsUndeniably, slavery is one of America’s darkest moments.  It was an extremely dehumanizing system of exploitation and violence that destroyed families, claimed lives and helped propel the nation towards the Civil War.  Even today, the issue is hotly contested as we continue to reconcile with its residual effects.  We have come a very long way from the era of legalized slavery in the United States but still have a long way to go before achieving true equality for all.  Black Americans have long suffered grave injustices but there is no need to go into them here.  Instead, the focus will be on this autobiography that was written by a former slave named Harriet Jacobs (1813 or 1815 – 1897).   In the book, the main character has the pseudonym of Linda Brent, who is the slave of the book’s antagonists, Dr. Flint and his family.  And what she reveals about her life reaffirms the many dark truths about a slave’s life. 

It may be hard for some readers to even approach the subject matter due to its nature but in the early 1800s, Jacobs’ experience was the daily reality for thousands of black men and women living in the Deep South. However, in this case there is a rare exception: Linda knows how to read and write.  Generally, it was deeply forbidden for slave to become literate and nearly all faced death if it was discovered they had been reading and writing without the slave-owner’s knowledge.  After introducing us to her immediate family, the story picks up in pace when Dr. Flint enters the picture.  Linda finds herself maturing and catches the roving eye of the doctor, resulting in Mrs. Flint making Linda the target of her rage. Dr. Flint’s infatuation sets the tone for the rest of the book which is a struggle between good and evil until the very end. Linda’s brother Benjamin, provides us with the first act of resistance which shows how many blacks refused to be part of the degrading system of slavery.  He would not be the last and even news of Nat Turner’s (1800-1831) rebellion reaches our main character.  Linda possesses a keen eye to observe the dysfunction of slavery and American society.  She reflects on the plight of the black man and makes a statement that captures the very essence of humiliation and degradation endured by black people: 

“I admit that the black man is inferior. But what is it that makes him so? It is the ignorance in which white men compel him to live; it is the torturing whip that lashes manhood out of him; it is the fierce bloodhounds of the South, and the scarcely less cruel human bloodhounds of the north, who enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. They do the work.” 

Dr. Flint is relentless in his pursuit and develops a fanatical obsession with ruling every aspect of her life.  The two engage in a cat and mouse game with Linda doing her best to avoid the doctor’s advances.  Her grandmother serves as her guardian angel but is limited in her capacity due to her status as a slave.  Linda eventually becomes a mother herself and the rage of the doctor at this perceived “indignation” only reinforces her will to one day become free.  The moment of clarity that comes to her, sets the stage for the second part of the book as she makes her break and finds a way north with the help of another guardian angel who finds a way for her to go north to the Free States. 

Upon arrival in the North, Linda soon embraces a new world.  And while prejudice still exists, she is finally able to live on her terms and away from the doctor. But he proves to be more resilient than expected and his actions to reclaiming her provide the remainder of the book with its heightened suspense that will keep readers in its grip. Linda moves throughout the Northeast, stopping in Philadelphia, New York and Boston.  And incredibly, she experiences a trip abroad that widens her perspective on life in America.  Before returning she informs us that: 

“I remained abroad ten months, which was much longer than I had anticipated. During all that time, I never saw the slightest symptom of prejudice against color. Indeed, I entirely forgot it, till the time came for us to return to America.” 

Although prejudice did and does exist in Europe, the American system of slavery is noted for its brutality.  And America’s dark past with Jim Crow and other systems of discrimination have had profound effects on current day affairs. But her comment, reminds me of how the legendary musician Miles Davis (1926-1991) felt about Paris and returning to America.  Linda does love her country and has found happiness in the North, far removed from the clutches of Dr. Flint.  But a series of events results in her relocating to escape slave hunters. And the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 sends shockwaves through the communities of free blacks and Abolitionists determined to end slavery once and for all.   She does not fall victim to the act in the story and continues to live as a free woman, due to the interventions of a close friend who could not accept seeing her constantly fleeing for her life.  Dr. Flint also meets his fate in the book and it helps bring the story to the conclusion we all will be hoping for.  And although this is just one account of life in bondage, there were millions of others who had similar experiences.  This story is a critical part of America’s dark and ugly past that continues to haunt us today.  Highly recommended. 

Study the past if you would define the future”  ― Confucius

ASIN : B08LG95G3G

William L. Shirer: Twentieth Century Journey: The Start, 1904–1930; The Nightmare Years, 1930–1940; A Native’s Return, 1945–1988 – William L. Shirer

shirer Quite some time has passed since my last post, mainly due to work matters and my being fully invested in finishing the book that is the subject of this review.  Originally, I had planned on reading this three-part autobiography by William L. Shirer (1904-1993) one book at a time but Amazon also offers them combined and I decided to take the plunge.  Shirer  is by far, one of my favorite authors and there was no way I could pass this one up.  Some of you may be familiar with him and recall that he is best known for his time as a CBS correspondent stationed in Nazi Germany during Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) rise to power. Upon returning to the United States, he moved to radio full time and lived the rest of his years as an author of historical non-fiction that has stood the test of time. 

At the onset, I did not fully appreciate the length of the material.  And to say that the e-book is a long would be an understatement.  But contained within is an incredible story by one of America’s greatest witnesses to history.  Up first is volume one called “The Start” and his story begins in the Midwest in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on February 04, 1904, shortly after the turn of the century.  America was a very different place and Shirer is a master storyteller who brings the distant past back to life, allowing us to re-live what it was like in a time before cars, planes and the modern technology we take for granted daily.  As Shirer tells his story, he reveals something about his family’s ancestry that would later be a source of irony in the book. To be more specific, Shirer explains: 

“The family name originally was Scheurer, a fairly common name in the German Black Forest region. Some time during the trek west it was Anglicized to Shirer. My grandfather attached no importance to the change, explaining to me once, when I asked him, that it was done mainly because the town officials and tradesmen mistakenly kept writing it the way they thought it sounded, and it was simpler to go along with them.” 

In a twist of fate, the author of German stock, would make his name famous by reporting on the atrocities of the Third Reich in his family’s fatherland.  But Germany was not his first destination as a foreign news correspondence. In fact, Germany was not even on his list of places to be stationed.  How and why he left the United States to work in Europe is fully explained and it is clear that from a young age, Shirer’s life was destined to be anything but ordinary.  It surely was a complex fate and Shirer sums up the turn of events in this passage: 

“I had come over to Europe for two months. As it turned out, I would remain there to live and work for two decades, experiencing and chronicling the remaining years of an uneasy peace, the decline of the democracies, the rise of the dictatorships, turmoil, upheaval, violence, savage repression, and finally war.” 

Shirer did return to the United States early in his career, but a meeting with Robert Rutherford “Colonel” McCormick (1880-1955) of the Chicago Tribune turned out to be more than he could ever expected and set him down the path that would take him back to Europe and finally Berlin, where he would witness the rise of Nazi Germany.  The first volume is a good and Shirer’s memories of his time in Europe wherein he convalesced with some of the greatest writers and stars are interesting.  Among the many stars who make an appearance are literary greats Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951), Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) and Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961).  Shirer is like a human recorder, observing everything and brining the past back to life through his words.  It becomes clear that Europe is a second home and a place more familiar to him than the United States.  And though he would eventually return home, the reader will begin to see that Europe is the place where the best is yet to come and his to Germany in the second volume called “The Nightmare Years”, is where we see the William Shirer that most of us will be familiar with.  

In the second volume, Berlin takes center stage as Hitler is ramping up the Germany war machine as part of his master plan to dominate Europe. But first, he moves to annex neighboring countries without the use of force and Shirer revisits each episode to explain how Hitler pulled off those feats and why no one moved to stop him.  It will make some readers wonder whether World War II could have been prevented as early as 1938. Hitler seized on the inaction of Britain and France, setting his sights on Poland. But this time, people did step in and the world went to war.  Shirer, who had left the Chicago Tribune in a weird series of events that is discussed in the book, was hired by legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965) to become the CBS Correspondent in Berlin. This change of fate placed Shirer at the scene of the crimes so to speak as the Nazi regime plotted and schemed its way to become a looming threat across an entire continent. 

His interactions with the German officials are particularly amusing and reveal the façade presented to ordinary Germanys by the Nazis who had assured them that Germany did not want war with anyone.  Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) makes repeated appearances throughout the story and the full extent of his delusion is on display.  Shirer gives his analysis of Goebbels and the other characters in Hitler’s inner circle whose names are infamous in world history.  I believe Oscar Wilde had it right when he said “the world is a stage, but the play is badly cast”.  However, in Nazi Germany, the cast was not only but deadly to anyone deemed inferior or Jewish.  Shirer does not go into the issue of the concentration camps extensively and I believe to do so would have required a different book. But he does bring up the matter later on during the Nuremberg trials. This part of the story is focused on the rise, menace and fall of Nazi Germany but in a highly compressed format.  Also, Shirer and his family left Germany in 1940, five years before the Germany military surrendered to Allied forces. His return home and life after war are covered extensive in volume three titled “A Native’s Return”. 

Upon returning home, Shirer starts the process of becoming re-acclimated with his native land. I do not believe he ever imagined how his life would change as he re-settled in America.  He found a place on radio but his relationship with Murrow takes a strange turn and Shirer goes through the entire story of his departure from CBS. I have not heard Murrow’s side if he ever put it in writing or gave statements orally.  But, the influence of former CBS president William S. Paley (1901-1990) is clearly evident and cast a dark cloud over the events as they play out.  But Shirer does not stay down for long and moves through life facing adversity head on.  And one decision in 1954, changed his life and reputation forever. It was then that he decided to write his masterpiece, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, a book that remains among my favorites.  What I found surprising through Shirer’s words is that originally, no one wanted to publish the book.  It sounds mind-boggling today but I can understand that in 1954, a book over 1,000 pages was not an easy sell and still is not.  But in writing that book, Shirer created the definitive account of the Third SS Reich.  

Following the success of the book, Shirer embark on another project about the French defeat in World War II, a book which I have added to my list.  That book’s creation and reception are explained and shows the extent of knowledge Shirer possessed with regards to the war.  As the third volume progresses, he offers his continuing commentary on historical events in American history from Watergate to the Iran-Contra scandal.  And his frankly discusses his personal problems including the relationship with his wife Tess and his heart problems in later years.  Incredibly, Shirer never stops moving and even fulfils is dream of seeing Russia.  A good recap of that trip is also included in Shirer’s signature writing style.  As the third volume winds down, Shirer provides an overview of his life and those of his closest friends who all meet their own ending in various ways.  It truly is an incredible story of a journey through a century that changed our world.  As an American, he was placed in a unique position observe the world and as a final reflection, Shirer closes the three-part series with this quote that I personally can relate to for a number of reasons: 

“It was a complex fate, maybe, as Henry James said, to be an American and one, I realize, not especially admired by some in other countries and other cultures, who perceived us as “the ugly Americans.” Still, as I wrote in the last line of the general introduction, I am glad it was mine.” – William L. Shirer 

B08L9JTCYQ

A Promised Land – Barack Obama

20210101_134744I believe that we can all agree that 2020 was a year unlike any other in modern history.  The coronavirus, officially known as Covid-19, brought the world to a grinding halt and disrupted our lives in ways we could have never imagined.  Here in the United States, we saw the pandemic take hold, social unrest erupt and the election of Joe Biden, Jr., as the next President of the United States of America. His swearing in on January 20, will mark the final stage in the transition between administrations. For some, it signals the return of politics largely void of the more extreme rhetoric that has gripped the country in recent years.  Former President Barack Obama, will undoubtedly be called on for support and advice.  I have often thought back to the Obama administration and the decisions that were made on a range of issues. But in particular, I have become even more interested in what life is really like as the Commander-In-Chief.   This book, by the 44th President of the United States is exactly what I had been looking for. Not only does it provide an insider’s view into life within the White House, it is also a sobering account of life as a politician.  There are highs and lows with a lot in between.  

The book is in part an autobiography, with Obama reflecting on his childhood in both Hawaii and Indonesia.  However, the more mundane aspects of his life story are not included.  In fact, his early life is fairly compressed into a small section of the book.  The story picks up the pace when he meets his future wife Michelle, at the law firm of Sidley & Austin in Chicago, IL.  And this description of his first impression of her is one of the highlights in the book: 

Michelle Lavaughn Robinson was already practicing will when we met. She was 25 years old and an associate at Sidley & Austin, the Chicago law firm where I worked the summer after my first year of law school. She was tall, beautiful, funny, outgoing, generous and wickedly smart-and I was smitten almost from the second I saw her.

For Michelle, the story is a little different as she explains in her own book Becoming, which has become one of my favorites for its honesty and ease at which it can put an interested reader.  Curiously, when I have asked my own parents of how they came together, their versions also slightly differ.  Perhaps it is the passage of time or the way in which men and women view their shared history that results in varying versions of the romance between them.  Regardless, the required component of love that is built upon a strong foundation, can be found here and the journey they embark on with two daughters, is nothing short of incredible. 

What I found to be appealing about the book is that Obama does not avoid discussing his own mistakes, transgressions and administrative policies that did not work out.  And like other world leaders, he experienced self-doubt, not in a prohibitive way but as a young politician questioning whether he can make his mark against established political juggernauts.  With the benefit of hindsight, we know today that fate was on his side.  The campaign and the election itself are covered with particular detail paid to the mission his team faced in getting most of America to vote for a largely unknown bi-racial candidate with a Muslim name.  The story reveals a lot about America while showing how far we have come and how far we still have to go.  I am aware that those who do not like the former president will have their opinions formed before reading the book if they choose to do so. And others will have the opposite mindset and possibly be blinded to his faults due to their admiration of him.  Regardless of your political affiliation, if you decide to read this book, you must do so with an open mind.  

Although I remember clearly when he was elected, I still found myself reading with suspense as the primary results came in followed by the general election.  In the wake of his victory, he begins to put together his cabinet and this part of the book will be of high interest to those who are curious as to how presidents assemble their teams.  It is an exhaustive process and the amount of tasks that have to be completed the by the new Commander-In-Chief are staggering.  Personally, the Obamas’ lives are changed forever for better and worse.  He discusses this aspect as well, with high focus on the lack of privacy afforded to a high profile public official.  Further, his ethnicity put him under a more focused microscope and for right-wing figures, he was the perfect target for all that they believed was wrong with America. However, it is clear that deep down, he is a human being like the rest of us who loves action films, a pickup game of basketball and spending time with his family.  It will be easy to see why so many voters felt that they could relate to him on a personal level.  And I found one section of the book in which current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) gives him this advice on being president: 

“Mister President”, Nancy said to me on one call, “I tell my members that what you managed to do in such a short time is historic. I’m just so very proud, really. But right now, the public doesn’t know what you accomplished. They don’t know how awful the Republicans are behaving, just trying to block you and everything. And voters aren’t going to know if you aren’t willing to tell them” 

At times during his presidency, it seemed as Washington was about to go off the rails. But, before that could happen, the country was in dire shape due to a recession in 2008. Obama explains what awaited him as he came into office and how his cabinet tackled the looming financial crisis.  Some readers may be shocked to learn just how close the nation came to financial collapse and why that threat exist today as a pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the American and world’s economies, which are inextricably linked as readers will see.  As Commander-in-Chief, Obama travels the globe and provides us with keen observations of a host of world figures, some of whom remain in power today.  And on the domestic front, the battle with House and Senate Republicans takes center stage with Senator Mitchell McConnell, Jr. (R-KY) filling the role of the antagonist in the story.   Obama never portrays McConnell as being evil and recognizes that the senator from Kentucky is a seasoned veteran of politics.  Also, he makes it a point to keep the focus on legislation and avoids personal attacks and scrutiny of the personal lives of those opposing him.  I felt that this approach was correct and provided the book with the touch of class needed for it be well-received.  Although he is honest about his feelings with regards to their actions, he also acknowledges their strengths and accomplishments.  

Some readers might be expecting a long discussion regarding the current president but Obama only dedicates a short section to Trump, which focuses mainly on the birther conspiracy that gained traction during his first term.  Interestingly, Obama points out something in Trump’s actions that readers will pick up on as they move through that section.  It will make one wonder whether Trump really believes what he says or is simply a master at manipulation and riding the waves of conservative sentiments. 

Towards the end of the book, Obama moves on to the Middle East and the final mission to locate and eliminate Osama Bin Laden (1957-2011).  The reasons for greenlighting the mission and how it developed are explained and left to readers to decide whether it was the right call.   What is clear is that by all accounts, it was the success that had been hoped for.  And while it did not eliminate Islamic terror, it did satisfy one promise he made before getting elected that if he had Bin Laden in the cross-hairs, he would authorize the mission. The book closes after the Bin Laden raid and I had expected more to follow regarding his second term in office. However, if he had included a discussion of the next four years, the book would have grown to a staggering amount of pages and tuned even the most die-hard readers off.  Perhaps there will be another book but only time will tell.  However, for the present time, we have this memoir of a ground-breaking time in United States history. 

ISBN-10: 1524763160
ISBN-13: 978-1524763169