It was something of a Greek tragedy: A man of humble origins seeking his fortune stumbles again and again, but then the advent of a great war plucks him from obscurity and he gains heroic renown as the architect of magnificent battlefield victories, which in peacetime catapults him to the pinnacle of authority, as ruler of the land. But he dares to flirt with the hubris that his talent as a military commander will endow him with the sagacity to govern, which it surely does not. Tarnished by scandal, he abandons the ship of state to embark instead upon a grand journey across the globe, all the while plotting a return to power, which upon his homecoming is just within his grasp before it slips away forever. He then consoles himself with a lavish private life, amassing great riches, but is bilked by a charlatan, loses everything, and is reduced to abject poverty. Just then, when he is at his lowest ebb, the great hero suffers still another blow, as he is struck down by an illness with no cure. But he perseveres through many months of terrible suffering, penning a magnificent epic that he completes just before his death which restores his reputation and rescues his family from privation. His funeral is a national event, and his body is later entombed in a grand mausoleum that serves as a landmark for many generations to come.
That great hero was Ulysses S. Grant, and who could be better suited to resurrect his significance for a modern audience than Ron Chernow, author of acclaimed biographies of Hamilton and Washington? Chernow largely succeeds in this superbly written, glorious treatment of Grant’s life that is flawed only in its sometime lack of objectivity for its subject. Those who have read Chernow’s magisterial Hamilton will be encouraged to know that while this one is no less brilliant, it is a much more fast-moving narrative, not bogged down by the minutiae that often made that earlier, distinguished yet wordy tome slow-going. Still, at nearly a thousand pages, Grant, while hardly a brick, nevertheless remains quite the commitment.
In his time, Grant was the most famous man in America and nearly as celebrated abroad. He was considered by many to be not only one of the greatest generals of his era, but of all of history. He was praised almost equally for his prowess in battle as he was for his magnanimity to the forces of the defeated. In the aftermath of the Civil War and Lincoln’s murder, he stood at once as both a symbol of reconciliation with the conquered south, and a savior for the millions of formerly enslaved left to the mercy—and frequent brutality—of their former masters. With Lincoln dead and the postwar power of Reconstruction in the hands of the accidental President Andrew Johnson—whose hatred (and envy!) of southern white elites was matched only by his loathing of newly emancipated blacks—the entire nation, including the defeated south, looked to Grant as Lincoln’s authentic descendant as a moderate dedicated to reconciliation and the rebuilding of a fractured nation. A Congress controlled by the Radical Republican wing went to war with Johnson, who at first seemed hell-bent on punishing the former rebels—in opposition to the spirit of Appomattox inspired by Lincoln and decreed by Grant—but later swung to a position that was nearly diametrically opposed, championing the restoration of political privileges for ex-Confederates while almost gleefully trampling upon rights newly granted to formerly enslaved African Americans. Johnson barely survived impeachment, but his political career was over. Grant was the anointed, and soon the general who had beaten Robert E. Lee and saved the union—a man who had not that long before been forced out of the peacetime army for alcoholism and had endured such failure in private life that he had been reduced to working as a clerk in his father’s store—was the President of the United States.
So why is it that a hundred years later, when I was studying history in grade school, did Grant barely earn a mention beyond the requisite reference to Appomattox? How did someone so famous and so significant become so overlooked? It turns out that this has a lot more to do with the staying power of the south’s “Lost Cause” myth—once again resurgent in right-wing politics—than in Grant’s actual legacy.
Modern scholarship has debunked every aspect of the Lost Cause mythology, an ahistorical fiction devised by postwar Confederate political and military elites to supplant history with a make-believe heritage that falsely denies the centrality of slavery to the Civil War, and posits that the south bravely fought for a glorious cause with far better generals, but only met defeat due to prodigious northern resources and an overwhelming number of bluecoats. It also holds that Reconstruction was an oppressive period dominated by rapacious northern carpetbaggers who pillaged the defeated south, and saw coarse, uneducated blacks herded to polling places to serve as tools of northern interests to maintain political control over a conquered people. Grant, as a key player in the conflict and its aftermath, naturally figures in much of this myth-making and suffers as the result. Chernow’s Grant seeks to set the record straight.
In fact, both sides had an excess of bad generals and a dearth of competent ones, but—to Lincoln’s great chagrin—most eyes were focused on the eastern theater, where a series of mediocre Union generals were derailed by the gifted Robert E. Lee and his lieutenants. But in the west, there were far more talented generals, most notably Grant, an understated strategic genius who assembled a string of victories. The same weekend that Meade famously defeated Lee at Gettysburg, Grant delivered what was a far more significant, decisive blow to the south at Vicksburg in a brilliant campaign studied by military strategists for decades to follow. And then Grant came east, assuming control of all Union forces. The Lost Cause narrative casts Grant as “the butcher,” hurling blue lives senselessly into rebel lines, but the reality was that Grant had a grand strategy to defeat Lee that never wavered, and the result was Appomattox. Renowned historian Gary Gallagher rightly praises Lee as perhaps the finest field general of the war, but credits Grant as its greatest soldier.
There is nothing new in Chernow’s bold account of Grant’s war years—which closely mirrors the current scholarly consensus—but his fast-paced narrative skillfully restores to life the drama of an often rumpled but rarely ruffled hero with a preternaturally quiet confidence who could frequently see the war through the eyes of his opponents and turn that advantage into repeated triumphs. Chernow starts with the young Ulysses, rescued from his dysfunctional family by West Point and the Mexican War, and rescued once more by his love for Julia, a plain, cross-eyed, slaveowner’s daughter whom Grant is smitten by. When he is separated from Julia, he drinks, and drink is his downfall. Chernow treats Grant’s alcoholism more carefully and clinically than most biographers. Unlike most alcohol abusers, Grant was neither a daily nor a binge drinker, but rather someone incapable of a single glass of spirits without getting falling-down drunk. This handicap, in an age when people commonly drank to great excess, was a calamity for Grant that forced him out of the service early in his career and hounded his reputation for the rest of his life, although it seems that he rarely drank at all.
Grant appears to have been extremely skilled in three areas: riding horses, commanding armies, and—which was not evident until near the end of his life—literary endeavors. In most other pursuits, he was mediocre or failing, and that is how the war found him, just barely scraping by. He proved to be an impressive commander, but most superiors dismissed him or plotted to remove him, except for a scant few that included, most notably, Abraham Lincoln, who wisely observed that unlike virtually all of his peers Grant not only never gave up, but always went after a retreating enemy. Grant was to become Lincoln’s general, and Lincoln let him win the war. Chernow’s Grant is another addition to the recent scholarship that has restored Grant to his rightful place as a military genius, a man who in his time was favorably compared to Napoleon and Caesar.
After the war, Grant shielded Lee and others from persecution by a north driven vengeful by Lincoln’s assassination, but never wavered in his support of freed slaves cast adrift by emancipation to an uncertain future. When Grant became President, after Johnson had derailed key elements of Reconstruction, it was Grant who used the power of the White House to protect blacks from waves of murder and terror by southern whites dedicated not only to denying them political rights but to reducing them to a new kind of servile status. It was Grant’s ultimate failure in this enterprise—in a tenure dominated by chaos and scandal—that contributed to the failure of Reconstruction. Throughout the south, ex-Confederate “redeemers” brutally terrorized blacks into submission as they recaptured control of state governments and institutionalized what came to be called Jim Crow. Actual history was sanitized, even erased, and a fictional Lost Cause version of the era came to falsely dominate the historiography for more than a century. Modern scholarship has disclosed the truth about Reconstruction, and Chernow’s work successfully restores Grant to his central role in it.
If there is a fault, it is that the author clearly admires his subject just a bit too much. Grant’s military record in the war was blemished by his 1862 issue of General Order 11, which expelled Jews—suspected of war profiteering—from his military district. While Chernow rightly condemns this egregious action, he makes excuses for Grant’s decision that feel just a bit thin. And Chernow desperately wants us to revisit Grant’s presidency—which most rank poorly—with a far more favorable eye. But it is the author’s own careful chronicle as a meticulous historian that makes for the most compelling quarrel with his own thesis in this regard. While the virulently racist Andrew Johnson certainly sought to sever Reconstruction at its roots, it seems eminently clear from Chernow’s account that Reconstruction actually succumbed to a kind of death of a thousand cuts during Grant’s two terms in the White House.
That was certainly not his intent: Grant courageously went to war with the original incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan and stood as protector-in-chief for terrorized blacks targeted by the Klan and other kindred groups, who sought “redemption” by restoring government and society to unreconstructed whites who adamantly refused to respect the rights of the formerly enslaved, at the ballot box and beyond. In this, he scored some early success, but in the long run it seems clear that this cause—and Grant himself—was defeated by his apparent lack of acumen for executive office. Out of his element, he struggled to navigate Washington politics. Himself utterly incorruptible, he was a terrible judge of people, and with few exceptions managed to surround himself with the dishonest and the incompetent. A brilliant mind in military matters turned out not to translate well into matters of civilian governance, as he managed to mimic the worst attributes of several unsuccessful future presidents. Like Hoover, he sometimes clung to ideology over practicality. Like Carter, he frequently agonized and vacillated. But, most damaging, like G.W. Bush, he felt an obligation to ever be the decision-maker, even when he was the least informed and least qualified to do so. The result were two chaotic terms that rode upon his personal popularity but were repeatedly marked by an inconsistency in approach and execution that ultimately destroyed nearly everything he sought to achieve.
A weary Grant, worn down and frustrated by the burdens of eight years in office, was nevertheless widely celebrated as he travelled around the world. Still, he yearned for a return to the White House. That was not to be, but much worse disappointment was to follow. As easily hoodwinked by the corrupt out of office as he was while in power, he entrusted a swindler with his fortune and lost everything. He then developed a painful, lingering throat cancer that physically crippled him while he heroically held on to write his memoirs, a great literary achievement that was such a success that its sales after his death restored his family from poverty and renewed his own reputation.
For all his flaws, Ulysses S. Grant was a great hero and the nation owes his legacy a great debt long left unpaid. Perhaps second only to Lincoln, Grant led the effort to crush the rebellion, save the Union, and end human chattel slavery. Without him, there might be no United States today. Chernow’s Grant is a remarkable achievement. It deserves to be read by every American.
NOTE: This review is now available for listening or download as a Podcast:
PODCAST#2 … Review of “Grant,” by Ron Chernow