Grant by Ron Chernow

Grant

Pulitzer Prize-winner and biographer of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and John D. Rockefeller, Ron Chernow returns with a sweeping and dramatic portrait of one of America's most complicated generals and presidents, Ulysses S. Grant.Ulysses S. Grant's life has typically been misunderstood. All too often he is caricatured as a chronic loser and inept businessman, fo...

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Grant Reviews

  • Trish

    This book requires a serious time commitment. Grant lived 132 years ago, not so long in the course of things. Much had been written about him at the time, and much after. He himself wrote memoirs that are highly regarded and that showed his intelligence and shrewdness. His mother-in-law Dent, Julia’s mother, noticed that although he had failings (alcohol) and could sometimes get off-track career-wise (an inability to make money as an independent entrepreneur), he had a fine political mind. That

    This book requires a serious time commitment. Grant lived 132 years ago, not so long in the course of things. Much had been written about him at the time, and much after. He himself wrote memoirs that are highly regarded and that showed his intelligence and shrewdness. His mother-in-law Dent, Julia’s mother, noticed that although he had failings (alcohol) and could sometimes get off-track career-wise (an inability to make money as an independent entrepreneur), he had a fine political mind. That his

    , a supporter of southern slave-holdings, had such good things to say about his instincts is impressive in itself.

    The cover copy says Grant was unappreciated for much of his career. This should give succor to individuals who struggle through various jobs, unable to find something in which they can excel. Grant went to West Point almost by accident, disliking the jobs assigned him by his father, a tanner. He apparently hated the smell of the tannery and warm blood, and found himself unable to eat meat unless it was charred beyond recognition. His horsemanship was legendary, even from a young age, and the skill served him well throughout his military career. That career stalled after a stint in the Mexican War, and revived during the Civil War when he could showcase his particular skills in strategy and logistics.

    The book cannot adequately be recapitulated in short form, so I resort to impressions hammered home by Chernow in a thousand examples: that Grant decided to trust certain people whether they were knaves or not. He tended to hold onto his initial impressions even when he had reason to abandon support for individuals who’d done him wrong. It strikes me that this failing of his, a failing of accuracy in judgment, could be a reason he as so well liked as a leader. He was loyal, generous, kind, and willing to forgive as well as extraordinarily skilled himself in being able to read a battlefield, the condition of his men, and the heart of the opposition.

    Grant was not as skilled at the diplomacy he would later be asked to perform in his role as president, though he gave more positions to people of color than any previous government, and he was instrumental in reforming the civil service. I would like to read more about a diplomat that Chernow seems to praise above all others, Hamilton Fish, Secretary of State for the entire of Grant’s presidency.

    More than anything, Chernow makes clear that Grant’s life, despite the lofty heights of public regard during certain periods, was a real struggle all the way through. Never has a presidency seemed like such a bum job: after having fought a terrible, bloody war on one’s own soil for so many years, Grant had to face the unrepentant vanquished again as leader of a divided nation. The racism and bitterness we see and hear now is a mere echo of what was going on during Reconstruction, when

    attempt to raise the quality of life of black people was fought every step of the way. Makes one want to force those who refuse to accept their defeat to their knees now—no more talk, no more accommodation. I wish it were as simple as bringing out the big guns (the law) and ending this. But we see now how deep the sense of entitlement still is.

    Any portion of this book is worthwhile to read even if you can’t get to the whole thing. It's so important to recall the details of the Civil War and its aftermath now, in this time of division in our own country. If I had my druthers, this book would be shorter. My brain’s ROM has been gummed up with this work for months now and it nearly crashed my hard drive. I feel I am cheating in some way by not being able to express more moments of revelation, but there were so many. I’m sure there is something to be said for putting in every detail of a man and his country, and perhaps it is reasonable to repeat oneself occasionally. Readers may select portions, or spread out the reading over a long period. However, it is difficult to digest a book of this size.

    I listened to the audio of this book and looked over the hard copy. The audio was very well read by veteran actor Mark Bramhall, and it was produced by Penguin Audio.

  • Michael Austin

    The sheer popularity of Ron Chernow, now known as the source of the most popular musical in the history of ever, ensures that both his new biography and its subject are going to be taken seriously in national conversation. The re-evaluation of Grant and Reconstruction that Chernow offers has been in progress for several decades among historians and experts. But Chernow is (quite literally now) a rock star--and that matters. Ulysses S. Grant deserves to be taken far more seriously as a president

    The sheer popularity of Ron Chernow, now known as the source of the most popular musical in the history of ever, ensures that both his new biography and its subject are going to be taken seriously in national conversation. The re-evaluation of Grant and Reconstruction that Chernow offers has been in progress for several decades among historians and experts. But Chernow is (quite literally now) a rock star--and that matters. Ulysses S. Grant deserves to be taken far more seriously as a president and a leading figure in the battle for civil rights than he has been for the last hundred years or so, and Chernow’s biography—despite being about a million pages long—is almost certainly going to do it.

    Before reading the biography, my understanding of Grant boiled down to about five contradictory “facts”: he was a hard drinker, he won the civil war even though he wasn’t that good a general, he was compassionate towards Lee at Appomattox, he had one of the most corrupt presidential administrations in US history, and he went broke a lot.

    Chernow seems to know that readers have these preconceptions, and he either contradicts or deeply problematizes all of them along with demonstrating, with mountains of evidence, that Grant was, on the issue of civil rights, the most effective and committed president from the beginning of the Republic to 1960s. This is an extremely important thing for us to be talking about at a time when many of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement are in danger of being lost to yet another flare-up of a Civil War that still has yet to be conclusively won.

    But let’s start with Grant’s drinking. Chernow announces in the introduction that he will work from the assumption that Grant was an alcoholic who spent much of his life trying not to drink and was successful for large periods of time. He was not a social drinker, but a private one who binged, repented, abstained, and binged again. This cost him his job the first time he was in the Army, but, when he became a general (and with a lot of help from his aide-de-camp John Rawlins), he was able to avoid alcohol for months and even years at a time. And there is no evidence that he drank at all while he was president. But the rumors of drunkenness—largely based on his early dismissal from the Army—followed him throughout his life and surfaced every time somebody needed a reason to criticize him.

    Chernow also does a pretty good job of showing how Grant operated as a general, with one of the most comprehensive grasps of overall strategy that anyone in the world to that point had ever possessed. Because his initial job in the army was as a quartermaster, Grant developed an understanding of logistics that probably had as much to do with his victories as his military strategies. He knew how to keep an army fed, and he knew how to disrupt the feeding of other armies. This, combined with an understanding of multiple armies as part of a single strategic unit, allowed him to do what six previous commanders were unable to do, which is win a war with no advantages beyond immense superiority in manpower and industrial strength.

    My major criticism of the book is that Chernow does not give us a good tactical sense of what happened in the individual battles, but he does (like Grant) show clearly how he was able to think of the actions of multiple armies through multiple battles to produce a conclusion that was by no means guaranteed. Though the United States had far more population and industrial strength than the Confederate rebels, they did not have an inexhaustible supply of political will—and, had Grant not taken over the entire Armed Forces and mounted important victories, it is very likely that Lincoln would have been defeated in 1864 and the war would have ended with either a Northern withdrawal or a truce that preserved slavery.

    What comes through the most in the Civil War chapters is that Grant fundamentally believed in the idea of natural, political, and social equality for freed slaves. He strongly supported the use of Black troops in the regular army, and her argued fervently for emancipation when he was a general. In all of his letters, public statements, and writings after the start of the war, there is not a trace of even the paternalistic racism that most White liberals of the time displayed. He actually appears to have thought that black and white people were (with the exception of minor variations in pigmentation) pretty much the same.

    And this is the crucial fact of his two-term presidency. Grant fervently supported Lincoln and was crushed by his assassination. When he became president himself, he focused uncompromisingly on Lincoln’s vision for Reconstruction—one in which freed slaves would enjoy full political and, eventually, economic equality. To this end, he deployed the military relentlessly to break the Ku Klux Klan and its descendants. He fought hard for the 15th Amendment, and he was willing to enforce it with all of the power at his disposal. Frederick Douglass considered him the greatest presidential ally that African Americans ever had—greater even than Lincoln.

    When the mood of the country soured on Reconstruction, Grant used up nearly all of the political capital that he still had to keep military governors in place and protect the right of freed slaves to vote and live in peace. He believed that, if this effort ended too soon, the white power structure would use intimidation and state-sponsored violence to undue nearly everything that the Civil War accomplished. Which is exactly what happened after he left office. Grant recognized the Klan and the White Liners for what they were: terrorist organizations that wanted to effect through murder what they were unable to accomplish through rebellion. Grant kept them at bay for eight years, after which the prevented equal treatment under the law for the next eighty years. Despite the best efforts of the hero of the Civil War, we let the terrorists win. And Grant saw it all coming and wrote clearly and prophetically about how this fundamental betrayal would unfold.

    But what about the corruption? It is not without reason that the Grant administration was known as one of the most corrupt in history. Chernow argues, and I think he is correct, that Grant was personally a person of great integrity, but he had three disastrous characteristics that allowed this corruption to take root: he was naïve about people, he was a fierce friend, and he refused to back down when presented with clear evidence that a trusted adviser was guilty of serious wrongdoing. The big scandals of his administration—the scheme to annex the Dominican Republic, the Crédit Mobilier affair, and the Whiskey Ring scandal that touched several of his closest advisers and friends—were all brought about by the patronage culture that existed at the time. But, in each case, Grant believed people that he trusted and kept on believing them well past the point when their denials were credible. These were largely self-inflicted wounds.

    And this same set of tendencies proved disastrous in Grant’s post-presidential life, as a trusted friend and business partner bilked him out of most of his life savings. But this penury a the end of his life forced him to write his memoir, which became, and according to many people remains, the best book ever produced by a former politician or military officer in the United States.

    Chernow’s

    is most certainly a rehabilitation, but it is a curious sort of rehabilitation. The Grant that comes through in its pages is fiercely honest and loyal, but also naïve, stubborn, and, in many ways, unprepared for the crucible of politics in the Gilded Age. But the flip side in his inability to see the bad in people was his extraordinary ability to see good in people, which allowed him to pursue a course of reconciliation with the Confederacy at the same time that he sacrificed all of the capital he had to try to protect the freed slaves and new citizens of the South. He appointed more African-American, Jewish, and Native American individuals to prominent positions than all of the presidents before him—and for a hundred years after him—combined. And this is a legacy that deserves to be remembered.

  • Perry

    Walt Whitman of Ulysses S. Grant

    A blue ribbon historical biography by Ron Chernow, who is one of the only historical biographers in recent years to gain some public notoriety, from his

    serving as the basis and inspiration for the still-SRO "Hamilton" on Broadway.

    We read biographies, it seems to me, to remind us that the individual can matter and to learn what came to make the individuals who have mattered most. On both poi

    Walt Whitman of Ulysses S. Grant

    A blue ribbon historical biography by Ron Chernow, who is one of the only historical biographers in recent years to gain some public notoriety, from his

    serving as the basis and inspiration for the still-SRO "Hamilton" on Broadway.

    We read biographies, it seems to me, to remind us that the individual can matter and to learn what came to make the individuals who have mattered most. On both points, Chernow's

    is a grand slam.

    The book most significantly accomplishes two goals. One, it provides clarity, context and perspective on Grant's faults, and why he's gotten a bum rap in history classes over the past century after being one of the three most favorably viewed presidents at the end of the 19th century. Second, it shows his huge accomplishments during his two terms serving as United States president.

    Chernow holds Grant accountable for his faults, but demonstrates that they have been greatly exaggerated or overblown as the result of the Southerners' resentment and in service to their Lost Cause myth--that the Civil War was fought over states' rights and not over slavery.

    As Chernow thoroughly examines and concludes: Grant was an alcoholic, but a situational one rather than habitual drinker and the evidence indicates he never drank during a major military campaign; he was not a butcher on the battlefield, but beat the Southerners with smarts as well as numbers and even his mistakes--the carnage at Cold Harbor and bloody Shiloh--had in mind winning the war sooner than later and thus saving lives by its end; he was not incompetent, but rather gullible, naive and too trusting of those upon whom he relied and hired in his administration, as well as at fault for hiring too many old friends and family; and, while his administration was stained as corrupt, he never benefited a dime, and again was burned and his reputation tarnished by those he negligently trusted.

    The more important point of this bio is that the faults have unfairly obscured his successes in office. Grant fulfilled what he considered his mission as president: preserving the Union and safeguarding the freed slaves. He crushed the first incarnation of the KKK who had killed thousands of former slaves and their supporters. And, he ensured the passage of the civil rights amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the 13th outlawing slavery, the 14th applying the Bill of Rights--including every citizen's right to equal protection--to the states, and the 15th granting black men the right to vote. As Frederick Douglass declared, Lincoln made "the negro...a freeman and General Ulysses S. Grant made him a citizen," in placing Grant alongside Lincoln as the man who had done the most for the nation's 4 million former slaves.

    Chernow also splendidly covers his younger years and what made him so great as the commanding general of the Union Army.

    Chernow concludes that Grant is worthy of being labeled the "Civil Rights president." After reading this rather hefty bio, I agree.

  • Mehrsa

    Classic Chernow—it’s beautiful and complex and makes dull things riveting. I feel like I understand the man and the time better, but it’s also classic Chernow in that he glosses over some really crucial economic issues. How can you write about Hamilton without going into the logic of banking and how central that was? Here too, he glosses over the gold standard debate, which was one of the most central

    Issues of the time—almost every election after Grant hinged on it until the depression. Grant wa

    Classic Chernow—it’s beautiful and complex and makes dull things riveting. I feel like I understand the man and the time better, but it’s also classic Chernow in that he glosses over some really crucial economic issues. How can you write about Hamilton without going into the logic of banking and how central that was? Here too, he glosses over the gold standard debate, which was one of the most central

    Issues of the time—almost every election after Grant hinged on it until the depression. Grant was wrong on it, but no matter.

    The beauty of the book and the fact of it being written at this point in history is the reclaiming of the history of Reconstruction from Southern revisionism that completely rewrote the war and the violent upheaval of reconstruction by southern democrats. All the relevant information was in Foner’s reconstruction, but it’s in here again and it’s relevant again because we tend to forget this ugly history and since we’re still living with its effects, it’s crucial that we internalize the lessons—the Republicans after Grant (and during his administration) decided to stop fighting for black rights. Grant understood that what the South was taking through klan violence and disenfranchisement was exactly what he had fought to protect during the war. Good guy, that Grant. But also kind of clueless about money.

  • Christopher Saunders

    Rehabilitating Ulysses Grant has become a cottage industry among biographers: in the past sixteen years alone, we've seen formidable studies by Jean Edward Smith, H.W. Brands, Brooks Simpson and Ronald C. White showing us that Grant, far from the drunken butcher-general and terrible president caricatured throughout the years, was a shrewd military leader and a well-intentioned, if not always effective Chief Executive. Ron Chernow's latest book covers little new ground, but a solid biography by a

    Rehabilitating Ulysses Grant has become a cottage industry among biographers: in the past sixteen years alone, we've seen formidable studies by Jean Edward Smith, H.W. Brands, Brooks Simpson and Ronald C. White showing us that Grant, far from the drunken butcher-general and terrible president caricatured throughout the years, was a shrewd military leader and a well-intentioned, if not always effective Chief Executive. Ron Chernow's latest book covers little new ground, but a solid biography by a talented historian is always worth checking out.

    Chernow provides the detailed yet accessible, humanizing style which made his earlier works (especially Alexander Hamilton) so enjoyable. He charts the familiar course of Grant's life, from near-destitution in Illinois through military and political success, with verve and commendable balance. One failing that many Grant biographers have is that they try overbalancing the ledger, depicting their subject as a God made flesh. Chernow (whose George Washington book occasionally suffered from this) avoids this temptation: there's much frank discussion of Grant's alcoholism, which if not as prevalent and crippling as his detractors claimed, still caused him sorrow and difficulties throughout his life. Similarly, his fractious family relations (despite a happy marriage to Julia Dent, he suffered a slave-owning, secessionist father-in-law and his own unscrupulous father, who sought to exploit his son's fame), poor business and political sense and more errant judgments (notably the infamous "Jew Order" of 1862, expelling Jewish traders from Union-occupied territory) receive due scrutiny and criticism.

    Besides such balance, Chernow's main contribution is enriching his subject's strengths and successes. Hardly an intellectual, Grant nonetheless possessed a keen, intuitive mind that absorbed military history, strategic lessons and classical literature, which along with a dogged, no-nonsense determination made him an ideal military commander for the Civil War. While often lacking in judgments of friends and family members, he possessed a shrewd eye for gifted subordinates and had a knack for sizing up opponents, be they hapless failures like Bragg and Pemberton or the near-sainted Robert E. Lee (whom Chernow deflates as an overrated tactician and Southern ideologue), whose skill and seasoned veterans required a different approach. Thus the brilliant campaigns against Ft. Donelson, Vicksburg and Chattanooga, along with more near-run battles at Shiloh, Cold Harbor and Petersburg are all of a piece; Grant isn't always brilliant or successful, doesn't always make the right call, but his mixture of strategic sense and tenacity make for a deadly opponent.

    Chernow also burnishes Grant's ideological background. He reads much into Grant's admiration for the unfussy Zachary Taylor and his disdain for the vain Winfield Scott and loathing for Napoleon; unlike George McClellan, for instance, he was a small-d democrat first, a soldier second. While Grant's often depicted as ambivalent about secession and slavery, Chernow shows that he, while hardly an abolitionist, harbored a deep-seated hatred of the "peculiar institution," was an early advocate of arming black troops and (despite a meme that remains popular in Lost Cause circles) never doubted slavery was the war's primary cause. This led him, as president, to embrace Reconstruction full-throttle, cracking down on the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups while fighting for black enfranchisement, along with his less-heralded effort to bring justice to Native Americans.

    Grant's presidency is trickiest to navigate. While it's true that Grant's been smeared by Lost Cause calumnists and that he was personally blameless for corruption, it's also true that his apologists tend to airbrush these traits to a nauseating degree. (No one argues that Warren G. Harding was a great president because he wasn't personally implicated in Teapot Dome.) Chernow balances his fight against the Klan with his harebrained scheme to annex Santo Domingo, the widespread crookedness of his staff members and subordinates, and the queer admixture of sincere reform and personal corruption that characterized the Southern Reconstruction governments. These fissures, along with personal feuds with Charles Sumner and others, split the GOP in 1872 and nearly destroyed Grant's reputation. Chernow argues that Grant, while not a worst-ever president as often claimed, entertained a rather mixed record as chief executive.

    The final chapters show Grant's checkered post-presidential life: an international tour that salvaged his reputation; a failed business deal and ill-advised campaign for a third term which sunk it again; his agonizing struggle with cancer and race to complete his memoirs. In these chapters as elsewhere, Chernow shows Grant as a genuinely good, well-intentioned man battling his own failings and the betrayal of those he trusts most, armed mainly with personal principles and unshakable stubbornness. He emerges as deeply flawed but roundly heroic, an epic figure worthy of both careful study and considered veneration.

  • Steven Z.

    Recently Ron Chernow was asked on the CBS morning news program if his new biography, GRANT could become a Broadway musical as his previous book HAMILTON had. His response was clearly no, but he left open the possibility of a movie. Whatever the case, Chernow has written the most comprehensive biography of the man credited with changing the course of, and winning the Civil War, then went on to support Lincoln’s reconstruction program, and assumed the presidency. The book is quite long, to the poi

    Recently Ron Chernow was asked on the CBS morning news program if his new biography, GRANT could become a Broadway musical as his previous book HAMILTON had. His response was clearly no, but he left open the possibility of a movie. Whatever the case, Chernow has written the most comprehensive biography of the man credited with changing the course of, and winning the Civil War, then went on to support Lincoln’s reconstruction program, and assumed the presidency. The book is quite long, to the point that Chernow dedicated the book to his readers, as he stated in a New York Times interview he himself would have difficulty dealing with the length of his own books. As far as a film is concerned it is easy to contemplate such a complex life story that experienced numerous successes and failures. Before the Civil War his private life was riddled with failed businesses and depression. He had to deal with a father-in-law who thought very little of him, and a father who was rather intrusive. Troubled by alcoholism he would lead the North to victory over the Confederacy, was a proponent of civil rights for freed slaves, and guided the United States through the perilous years following the Civil War.

    Every high school student is taught that there was a great deal of corruption linked to the Grant administration, but in truth noting ever involved him on a personal level. The historiography dealing with Grant’s life and career beginning with William A. Dunning at the turn of the twentieth century has been rather negative, but Chernow’s effort has continued the new strain of thought reflected in recent biographies by Ronald C. White and Jean Edward Smith who argue that Grant was a great military leader and a better president than he has been given credit for.

    Chernow’s portrait of GRANT is all consuming beginning with a boyhood that witnesses a grandstanding father and a stubbornly private son. Along with his over-bearing father, Grant had to cope with a painfully retiring mother resulting in a young man who kept a world of buried feelings locked inside, a trait he would carry his entire life. Chernow follows his subject through his formative years and West Point until his marriage to Julia Dent, a southern woman who lived on a plantation. Since the Grants were rabid abolitionists it created tremendous pressure on the young couple, particularly Ulysses who could never measure up in terms of wealth to his father-in-law.

    Chernow is a wonderful writer of narrative history, but he also centers on the motivations and consequences of people’s actions. Employing his analytical skills to Grant’s intellectual development in dealing with American expansion during and following the Mexican War, and the problem of Texas we witness a man who realizes early on that the war incited by President James K. Polk could only exacerbate domestic tension by adding territories that the south would try and turn into slave states. Grant’s pre-presidential views are in a constant state of evolution; whether dealing with military strategy during the Civil War, his dealings with Union generals such as George McClellan, William T. Sherman, Philip Sheridan, and Henry Halleck; how to deal with the problem of “contraband” slaves and whether they should be employed by Union armies against the south; what approach to take against Robert E. Lee; and his developing relationship with Abraham Lincoln.

    Chernow’s Grant has a facile mind who was able to control his emotions and weigh his decisions. Grant realized that his reputation was one that stressed his problem with alcohol and the fact that casualties under his command were very high. Chernow spends a great deal of time dealing with the alcohol issue and concludes that Grant was the type of drunk who could control when to start and stop drinking. The evidence presented reflects the belief that Grant never drank during periods involving the preparation of and actual combat. The stress of battle needed an outlet, and when Julia was not around or his Chief of Staff John Rawlins was not present to manage him, Grant did resort to alcohol. As far as casualties were concerned, Grant unlike McClellan and George C. Meade did not pursue an offensive approach to war. Once Grant experienced success in the western theater, particularly at Vicksburg, his relationship with Lincoln was solidified as the president finally found a general who wanted to destroy the Confederate army, and not just concentrate on acquiring territory. Another major point that Chernow develops is that historians tend to concentrate on the Army of the Potomac and events in the east, with Grant’s life story the west comes into focus particularly its strategic value during the Civil War.

    Grant’s relationship with Lincoln was the key to victory. The strength of their bond can be seen with all the “presidential talk” surrounding Grant as the war wound down as he assured Lincoln he had no presidential aspirations. In dealing with the social issues that emerged with the Emancipation Proclamation we witness the further evolution of Grant’s thinking as he proposed what would come to be known as the Freedman’s Bureau to take care of freed slaves. Lincoln’s assassination hit Grant very hard, as he lost his partner in trying to bring the south back into the union without the former Confederates loosing total face. Once Lincoln was gone, Grant as General in Chief had to deal with Andrew Johnson, an avowed racist who went to war with radical Republicans in Congress. By wars end the “erstwhile goods clerk” from Galena, Illinois was in command of over one million men which could compete with any army in the world. For Grant that army would be reduced appreciatively, but was to be used to control southern rejectionists who committed numerous atrocities against freed blacks, and wanted to reinstitute the status quo ante bellum.

    Chernow provides a historically accurate portrayal of the Reconstruction period. Beginning with the presidency of Andrew Johnson the author dwells on the former Tennessee governor’s blatant racism and goal of restoring Confederate ideals as soon as possible. Grant, then General in Chief and temporary Secretary of War with Johnson’s suspension of Edwin M. Stanton challenged the new president on issues ranging from the Freedman’s Bureau, constitutional amendments, racist inspired riots and murder in Memphis and New Orleans, and the impeachment process. It is clear from Chernow’s analysis that Grant became the foremost protector of persecuted blacks in the south as his disgust with Johnson continually increased. With this process his world view moved closer to Radical Republicans. Grant believed that Johnson “had subverted the will of Congress in a way that bordered on treason.”(589) Grant grew very uncomfortable as he found himself in the middle between Johnson and the Radical Republicans over the interpretation of the Tenure of Office Act. For Grant military rule in the south should be terminated as soon as possible, but also believed that withdrawal should take place without sacrificing the welfare of blacks.

    It came as no surprise that Grant was easily elected to the presidency, a job he never really sought, but once in office seemed to enjoy. The problem was that Grant tended to view rich businessmen through rose colored glasses leading to weak and corrupt appointees. Grant, who during the war had a knack for choosing superb talent proved to have lost that skill as president. Men like Jay Gould and John Fiske tried to corner the gold market; Orville Babcock spied for whisky distillers within the administration along with General John McDonald, the Supervisor for Internal Revenue in Arkansas and Missouri; Secretary of War William M. Belknap made money selling trading posts that provided goods to Native-Americans; and of course the Credit Mobilier - all personified the looser morals of the Gilded Age which greatly detracted from his presidency. Grant was a victim of the disease of patronage as he repeatedly handed out positions to family and friends. Many of his problems resulted from the lack of a true civil service system.

    In his defense, Chernow argues that Grant was the first president to oversee a continental economy which led to the rise of big business, particularly the expansion of railroads that required government assistance providing fresh opportunities for graft. “With the federal government bound up in new moneymaking activities, there arose a gigantic grab for filthy lucre that affected statehouses as well and saturated the political system with corruption.”(645) Grant had to cope with a strong Congress whose powers had been amplified as the death of Lincoln and the actions of Johnson greatly reduced the power of the Executive branch. Overall, Grant’s problem was that after the Civil War the Republican Party evolved from a party of abolitionism to a more business oriented one.

    Chernow stresses the role of John Rawlins in helping Grant become the hero of the Civil War, but with his death a vacuum was created that no one could fill. Without Rawlins to help Grant control his drinking problems, act as a sounding board for decisions, and choosing the proper person for a position, it became easier for people to take advantage of Grant. The result was once Rawlins died, Grant’s presidency became a victim of “crafty, cynical politicians for whom the credulous Grant was no match.” Later in life Grant would admit his character flaws and blamed himself for choosing and working with individuals that helped contribute to the negative view of his presidency.

    Despite the corruption that hovered around the Grant presidency there are areas to admire. During his administration Grant faced a clandestine Civil War in the south. Remnants of the Confederacy morphed into the Klu Klux Klan and other racist groups that reigned murder and violence against blacks or any whites who supported them. Grant used the newly created Department of Justice and the military to prosecute offenders and safeguard possible victims. Though he could not totally eradicate the violence and hatred by 1872 he had destroyed the Klan in the south. However, by his second administration acts of violence against blacks in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Mississippi increased culminating in the Colfax massacre and others. When Grant sought to use federal troops to protect black voting rights he ran into northern opposition that had grown tired of Reconstruction.

    Another area that Grant should be commended for was the negotiations resulting in the Treaty of Washington that settled the “Alabama claims” issue with the British dating back to the Civil War. As a result Anglo-American cooperation would replace years of controversy and ill-feelings. Further, it allowed for the influx of British capital which greatly enhanced American industrial development.

    It is interesting to note the current manipulation of the “Civil War Monuments Issue” by politicians in light of Chernow’s analysis. The author explains Grant’s resentments against those who argued that he was only successful because of superior resources and men as opposed to the strategy he employed in defeating Lee’s army. Further, it vexed him that after the Civil War “the North denigrated its generals while southern generals were idealized.” Grant remarked that Southern generals were [seen as] models of chivalry and valor—our generals were venal, incompetent and course…Everything our opponents did was perfect. Lee was a demigod, Jackson was a demigod, while our generals were brutal butchers.” (516) Grant is probably turning over in his grave today as statues of the treasonous Lee are used as a vehicle to exploit the feelings of many individuals who still refuse to honor the 13th,14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution.

    Chernow’s work is masterful, well written, and the epitome of how history should be presented. Chernow does not miss a beat; from Grant’s military career, family life, battle to overcome alcoholism, to the trust in mankind that led to so many financial losses. If you have the time, GRANT is a major commitment, but if you choose to accept the challenge of engaging a book that weighs between two and three pounds you will not be disappointed.

  • Jeanette

    This is quite a biography. When I was young they taught me Grant's role, especially in his Presidency years, to be significantly less important than I believe it was. And to completely over blow his alcoholism as "practiced". But regardless of my former nuance of detail considering Grant or how he has been taught, this book made him come alive. It holds depth of his times too, to an incredible degree.

    He seemed to be the very best of the best that is human when under extreme and completely "prese

    This is quite a biography. When I was young they taught me Grant's role, especially in his Presidency years, to be significantly less important than I believe it was. And to completely over blow his alcoholism as "practiced". But regardless of my former nuance of detail considering Grant or how he has been taught, this book made him come alive. It holds depth of his times too, to an incredible degree.

    He seemed to be the very best of the best that is human when under extreme and completely "present" pressure. That's rare.

    The book itself has a few flaws, mostly in length of detail that's rather repetitive and some that is quite tangent, but you really do get the person beyond the General, the politician, or the husband/ family man. But I think it could have been done at 2/3rds the length.

    There are some aspects, considering the humongous detail of most personal interrelationship minutia and the quite considerable portions of his life when he was sick with various infirmities, let alone his last cancer when he dictated his own history- that I thought were fully there, but not as slanted to be as dire, unusual, unfortunate as they were. Several issues not set into the much wider picture of essential to the "heal" and USA identity too. (The economics post-war especially.) I wonder what could have been the difference if he had been "good with money" himself or understood, in any intuitive sense, how it works. His indifference and ignorance with wanting or achieving wealth (and not understanding that "friends" could think very differently about this), not just within his own political/life sphere either, seems not as much a concern as it should have been in such a lengthy study?? He was poor at it. Beyond the trusting matters or fierce loyalties which were not deserved, he didn't understand economics.

    But what bravery considering that he was forced to go to West Point and that it wasn't even his 2nd choice to be set upon the military path- and where that took his life in totality. When I think of him now, I will focus on the small and slender as an arrow 116 lbs horseman whose jump was the climax of his commencement ceremony. A record that still stands.

  • Tony

    A mere ten years ago this would have been my Book of the Year. But I’m a different reader now. Not necessarily a better or smarter reader, just different. So I pause when I read a sentence like:

    Where is the editor to ask: Ron, do you really mean his

    physiology? Because that would be all the functions of a living organism, which is, you know, a whole lot of physiology. And, Ron,

    ? Do you really mean every single time? And, Ron, I’m g

    A mere ten years ago this would have been my Book of the Year. But I’m a different reader now. Not necessarily a better or smarter reader, just different. So I pause when I read a sentence like:

    Where is the editor to ask: Ron, do you really mean his

    physiology? Because that would be all the functions of a living organism, which is, you know, a whole lot of physiology. And, Ron,

    ? Do you really mean every single time? And, Ron, I’m going to have to wrestle you to the ground if you insist on saying

    .

    I pause too when I read:

    Sorry, but there is not a single shred of evidence in this book or elsewhere that Grant believed he had made mistakes or that he wished to correct them. On the contrary, if he got a chance to do it again, I suspect he would still try to annex Santo Domingo, still send Sheridan out to trample the rights of Native Americans fairly won through treaties, still appoint incompetents to Cabinet level positions, and still demand the resignations of actual qualified appointees who disagreed with him. And, Ron,

    ?

    Four years ago, Frank P. Varney published

    which forever changed the way I read History. He took the conventional wisdom of historians that General William S. Rosecrans was weak, vain and irresolute and lacking Grant’s superlative drive and focus, and then he backtracked through each volume to find the basis of why that was said to be so. Invariably, the footnote trail led to Grant’s

    . Varney went beyond that single source and looked at military orders, dispatches, and correspondence, and I think convincingly showed that the consensus verdict on Rosecrans was flawed. He showed too, to my satisfaction, that Grant’s literary assault on Rosecrans was spiteful, vindictive and self-serving. So, I waited for Chernow to get to the battle of Chattanooga. And he wrote:

    You know, the party line. A different reader now, I looked for Chernow’s authority for such a claim. There’s none; except, what should have been a caution, a citation to Grant’s wife’s Memoirs, recounting Grant ‘smiling’ when he got Rosecrans’ transfer paper.

    See, there’s enough in Chernow’s own book to demand skepticism of Grant, without even going to groundbreaking historical research. Grant

    Rosecrans -

    - until he didn’t. The same with Grant on Winfield Scott Hancock, who Grant praised until he suspected Hancock of political aspirations in competition with his own, and then was deemed a coward. No single person did more to advance Grant’s career than Elihu Washburne. Yet, the moment Grant suspected Washburne of having presidential ambitions, Grant ended his relationship with him. Confronted with irrefutable evidence of fraud, Grant could turn a blind eye if it helped family or friends, even directing his attorney general not to make deals which could lead to convictions. And then there are the many omissions and equivocations in the

    that Chernow points out.

    But if you have your mind made up, as Chernow seems to have done, then you can insist that Grant was ‘scrupulously honest’ and a ‘stickler for the truth.’ This then becomes an

    , so Grant wins every dispute.

    You can still like Grant, as I do, and yet admit the flaws.

    Some other random thoughts about the book:

    In

    , Chernow seemed to dwell, almost creepily, on Hamilton’s sexuality. Here, Chernow seems preoccupied with Grant’s drinking. Not that Grant’s alcoholism wasn’t important. It was. But, here, every meal seems to need a report whether Grant inverted his wine glass. And,

    , Chernow ends the book with that issue, as if that was Grant’s greatest challenge.

    If a biographer’s ‘sources’ are mostly other previous biographies – McFeely, Foote, McPherson, Catton – one wonders why the need for this new book. It may be that an author has achieved certain purchase that his view, his take on things becomes the reason. And Chernow has certainly won all the awards and now, thanks to Broadway, has earned star status. Chernow’s judgment is that Grant was smarter than you’d think, unquestionably honest, but hopelessly naïve with business associates. Nothing new there. What Chernow highlights though is Grant’s efforts in support of new rights for African-Americans.

    I fear I’ve criticized this writing to the point where it seems I hated the book. I didn’t. On the contrary, I fairly gobbled it up. I just found some things jarring. Grant is still a great story, with lessons for today. And this book challenged me (a good thing), just perhaps in unintended ways.

    Can't wait for the musical.

  • Jim

    I was torn between 4 stars or 5 stars for this outstanding biography and decided to split the difference giving it 4.5 stars. The only demerits being that at times when it delved into politics I found it a little dry but that is probably me and has nothing to do with the authors writing talent. I read one other book by

    , that being

    . The research that went into this narrative is outstanding and the author's writing style is such that you feel as though you k

    I was torn between 4 stars or 5 stars for this outstanding biography and decided to split the difference giving it 4.5 stars. The only demerits being that at times when it delved into politics I found it a little dry but that is probably me and has nothing to do with the authors writing talent. I read one other book by

    , that being

    . The research that went into this narrative is outstanding and the author's writing style is such that you feel as though you know the person. He was not just a general during the Civil War and a President. He was a son, husband, and a father. He was also a friend to many historical figures in the 19th century. In this narrative you get to meet them all.

    I knew of Ulysses S. Grant of course. Robert E. Lee surrendered to him at Appomattox, he went on to become the 18th President of the United States, was well known for his cigars and drinking reputation, and appears on the fifty dollar bill. Then there is the well known riddle of "Who is buried in Grant's tomb?". There is a lot more to this complex man. For instance I did not know that he was not born Ulysses S. Grant.

    As president he was a proponent of civil rights and had to deal with the birth of the Klu Klux Klan and with domestic terrorism. There were also several scandals during his two terms as President. This book does not white wash over these. Grant was not directly involved in these except in the people he appointed to offices and whom he trusted.

    At over one thousand pages this is a serious read but if you enjoy history and biography I would strongly recommend this book. Before I started this book I knew a little about Ulysses S. Grant. By the time I finished reading the book I felt like I knew Ulysses S. Grant. There is more to the man than the reputation that one sometimes finds.

    Interesting fact from this book and the Civil War:

  • Jean Poulos

    I have read a number of biographies of both Ulysses Grant and his wife, Julia. Chernow’s is by far the most detailed and documented. I have always enjoyed Chernow’s biographies even if they are very long. Chernow always presents a rich sensitive portrait of his topic, in this case, Ulysses S. Grant.

    The book is well written and meticulously researched. I was impressed how thoroughly he investigated the claims of Grant’s alcoholism. He pointed out what might have been true or false claims of his p

    I have read a number of biographies of both Ulysses Grant and his wife, Julia. Chernow’s is by far the most detailed and documented. I have always enjoyed Chernow’s biographies even if they are very long. Chernow always presents a rich sensitive portrait of his topic, in this case, Ulysses S. Grant.

    The book is well written and meticulously researched. I was impressed how thoroughly he investigated the claims of Grant’s alcoholism. He pointed out what might have been true or false claims of his periodic drinking. Mostly the book is unbiased. The author covers the entire life of Grant with a more in-depth look at his military career and the Civil War. He reports on Grant’s mistakes as well as the accomplishments. Chernow documents how Grant helped the slaves during the Civil War and after as president. Grant wanted to see them educated and obtain the vote. Grant helped pushed through the 15 Amendment to the Constitution. Chernow paints a picture of Grant as an advocate for civil rights after the War. Chernow shows how Grant’s trust of people had always caused him problems particularly when he was president. The author reviews in detail the various scandals of Grant’s presidency. I found the section of Andrew Johnson’s presidency and his attempts at blocking reconstruction post-Civil War most interesting. I know I have read about this before, but I think it meant more to me now because of the current political turmoil. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and learned more about Grant and his time.

    I read this as an audiobook downloaded from Audible. The book is just over forty-eight hours or 1020 pages. Mark Bramhall does an excellent job narrating the book. Bramhall has won twelve Earphone Award.

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