1,104 pages, Penguin Press, ISBN-13: 978-1594204876
Grant by Ron Chernow is the first biography of the great general that I have ever read, a terrible confession to make for one who cut his historical teeth on the American Civil War (thanks, Dad); while I read his memoirs lo many moons ago (and reviewed them in 2013), this is the first life of Grant that tells his tale from the outside looking in, and man, did I pick a doozy. Chernow’s Grant is meticulously researched and beautifully-written, with an easy style and flow that make this biography feel less like a lecture and more like an intimate conversation. He provides descriptions and details that bring the time period and the people to vivid life: in Chernow’s book we find that Ulysses S. Grant (well, actually Hiram Ulysses Grant) may have had one of the quintessential American lives: he started out with advantages, took a series of serious falls while struggling with alcoholism, then rediscovered himself and operated to the highest capacity. To be sure, he made many mistakes and, due to the corruption of his administration, his record as president is forever tainted. But there is no denying that he was a great military strategist, a pioneer on race relations and a world-class intellect, and Chernow, in this absolutely masterful life and times, covers it all with his usual thoroughness and style.
Grant was a complex man: both brilliant and naive; overly trusting in civilian life while able to perfectly predict what others would do on the battlefield; a man who claimed to have no great political ambitions yet was a rare two term president. Chernow reminds us of the personal connections of the generals of both the North and South – Grant attended West Point and fought in the Mexican War alongside William T. Sherman, Robert E. Lee and a veritable who’s who of future Civil War generals (hell, the best man at his wedding was James Longstreet, who would go on to be become Lee’s warhorse during the Civil War). Chernow also brings front and center Grant’s hard work for African Americans, supporting the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, with equality and voting rights for all among his lifelong crusades. While President Lincoln is remembered in American history as the one who ended slavery, readers of Grant will see that President Grant should be remembered as a tireless proponent of civil rights and militant enemy of the Ku Klux Klan. This from a man who came from a dysfunctional family: his father, Jesse Root Grant, was a venal, narrow-minded businessman, specializing in leather and self-promotion; meanwhile his mother, Hannah Simpson Grant, was distant and cold, more concerned with her religion than her relationships. As the eldest son, Grant bore a great responsibility and was sent to get a military education at West Point, rather against his will. Marrying for love, his in-laws were no better, but in Julia Dent Grant he a devoted and tireless life partner.
Chernow doesn’t shy away from Grant’s failures in civilian life: his poverty before rejoining the army for the Civil War, his constant struggle with alcoholism or Grant’s repeated mistakes in trusting the wrong people in matters of finance – and often in government. Grant’s personal traits were legion, like pride, stubbornness and loyalty, among others, are shown as what made him the greatest general of his time, but also caused a steep learning curve as President. Though his career began well in the Mexican wars, a reassignment to a California backwater led to a destructive pattern: he grew bored and went on drinking binges when separated from his family, a major theme in the book. In Chernow’s view Grant couldn’t handle alcohol and when absent his support systems (principally his wife but also key aides), he could go on benders for days when idle in isolated locales. Once this was noticed, he was fired and it would dog him for the rest of his life – as an accusation and as a worry in decisive crises. While I believe Chernow is correct in his interpretation, and he makes the case that Grant overcame his problem, the tone is often protective if never quite defensive. He addresses other problematic issues in a similar attitude and tone. Unemployment initiated a terrible slide in Grant’s life. He tried and failed at a number of alternative careers, including business, real estate, farming, and finally as a clerk in his father’s shop, and was infamously reduced to selling wood on the street to make ends meet and was regarded in the local community as a loser and drunk.
Then the war broke out and the Union, desperate for of experienced officers, offered Grant another chance. To put it mildly, Grant completely remade himself: stepping up at a public meeting and expounding on what needed to be done, he was lucky for Elihu B. Washburne, Grant’s congressman, heard him and immediately became a staunch political patron. In spite of his many enemies, this set Grant on an incredible trajectory. Gaining valuable experience as a quartermaster and remembering everything he had learned, he emerged as a formidable fighter and grew into a master strategist. Lincoln soon noticed that this Westerner with the drinking problem was the only one of his generals who could (or would) fight, and he stuck by him through thick and thin. Teaming up with William Tecumseh Sherman, they fought in the western theater of war where they provided some of the most resounding victories for the Union – Belmont, Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg – whereas Union generals in the east fumbled repeatedly. Once he was appointed general in chief, he worked with Sherman in a pincer motion, converging on Lee in Virginia in an exhausting war of attrition. The war offered clarity and focus to Grant, who concentrated on it with what can be called genius, immersed in detail but also conceiving a grand, yet flexible, design. Chernow argues convincingly that Lee may have been master of the battlefield, but he lacked Grant’s strategic vision; furthermore, Grant was cool under pressure, rarely expressing emotion, and capable of adapting his plans as the need arose. Meanwhile, he found a number of subordinates who were loyal, gifted, and honest, including Sherman and Phil Sheridan. Grant became the conquering hero of the war, which thrust him into contention to become president. First, he came to fight Andrew Johnson as the South appeared to be given a free hand to return its traditional elite to power. Second, he developed a deep understanding of the plight of freedmen and Indians, which led him to attempt to protect them from the depredations of whites. As a result, he was viewed as the best chance of the reformist republican party to stay in power and implement reconstruction.
Unfortunately, without the clarity of war, many of Grant's virtues – a complete lack of guile, naive honesty and little understanding of the murkiness of political goals – became liabilities. The assistants he got were happy to indulge in corrupt practices which continually shocked Grant and undermined his political position. Chernow is at pains to prove that Grant never took part in these imbroglios, but openly acknowledges his failures and blind spots: for example, as was normal at the time, Grant freely accepted gifts from businessmen as compensation for his sacrifices and in thanks for his military service; he also palled around with titans of the Gilded Age which led to many scandals. Throughout, Chernow argues that Grant was hindered by the patronage system and the autonomy of Senators, who acted as feudal barons on behalf of the elites of their states. According to Chernow, two of Grant’s presidential legacies deserve attention: first, he pursued racial justice, in particular smashing the first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, and in order to do so he empowered the Department of Justice – the first federal institution that could pursue justice free of the control of local or state authorities – to investigate and prosecute the Klan. Though many similar organizations sprung up, this had a lasting, if imperfect, impact: if the South remained a place of domestic terrorism, it could have been much worse according to Chernow (Grant also sought to protect Indians from slaughter, though here too his legacy is mixed and contradictory). Second, he sought to professionalize the civil service, an immense task that would partially dismantle the patronage system and diminish power in the Senate. Again, he only partially succeeded.
Once out of power, he traveled the world and broadened his mind. After being swindled and financially ruined (i.e. he lent his name to a Ponzi scheme), he accepted Mark Twain’s offer to write his memoires to provide for his family as he entered his final illness. Now it may be talking shop, but Chernow was impressed by Grant’s ability to write: in about a year’s time, Grant wrote about 330,000 words – sometimes as many as 10,000 per day – with little need for editing, an amazing accomplishment for one who wasn’t thought of as a writer. Fans of history, biography and military history will rejoice in Ron Chernow’s Grant, which will stand unchallenged as his definitive biography for a long time. With an easy, flowing narrative, Chernow has rehabilitated Grant and, while he may often cut Grant too much slack, I definitely see his virtues more clearly now. This is one of those rare books that can be read as an intimate dialogue with a great mind.