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 our 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, fond of...

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Grant Reviews

  • Laura

    Alexander Hamilton is a hard act to follow, but Chernow lives up to the expectations. Meticulously researched, the book is overflowing with details, insight, and analysis. This is backed up with extensive source notes. It took me almost three months to finish reading the biography: it's a book to be savored, not devoured. I've come away with a newfound respect for Ulysses, and highly recommend it.

    This book was generally provided by NetGalley.

  • 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. For the past few years I have tried to look closely at race in the United States and this book was a huge revelation. We’re fighting battles begun 100+ years ago. We

    get past this, we must get past this and we will get past this. Some people are going to change their minds and we’re moving ahead.

    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.

  • Craig Pearson

    Thank you to Netgalley for this book. This is the perfect adjunct to Grant's autobiography 'Memoirs'. The details and background that Chernow gives to fill out missing details in Grant's life is amazing. Chernow does give heavy emphasis to Grant's perceived or actual alcoholism. The author does use every possible word in the English language so be prepared with a dictionary while reading. As an example, he used the word 'adumbrating' which I at first thought was totally made up. It means 'foresh

    Thank you to Netgalley for this book. This is the perfect adjunct to Grant's autobiography 'Memoirs'. The details and background that Chernow gives to fill out missing details in Grant's life is amazing. Chernow does give heavy emphasis to Grant's perceived or actual alcoholism. The author does use every possible word in the English language so be prepared with a dictionary while reading. As an example, he used the word 'adumbrating' which I at first thought was totally made up. It means 'foreshadowing' and I wonder why the author did not use it instead.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Marks54

    This is the latest biography from the person who wrote the book that was made into Hamilton. I must admit that I do not see how the hip-hop will be worked into this story, but who knows?

    This is a book that should be of current interest to many readers. If one is dissatisfied with the current state of US national politics and the Presidency, this book will display a time when things were almost certainly worse. For those concerned with the fitness of generals to run the US Government without prac

    This is the latest biography from the person who wrote the book that was made into Hamilton. I must admit that I do not see how the hip-hop will be worked into this story, but who knows?

    This is a book that should be of current interest to many readers. If one is dissatisfied with the current state of US national politics and the Presidency, this book will display a time when things were almost certainly worse. For those concerned with the fitness of generals to run the US Government without practical political experience, this is the perfect story - although there are pluses and minuses to Grant’s record. Concerned about civil rights, race relations, white supremacists in government or the corruption of businessmen in positions of power? Again, this is the book to consult. ... and then there is the military side - with Grant’s memoirs telling the story there are battles - lots of battles - and some brilliant generalship.

    I agree that Grant has been one of the most underrated presidents. This book is part of a number of important works that seek to change that picture. Ronald White’s “American Ulysses” is another recent effective effort at correcting the historical record. Grant has also benefitted from recent high quality scholarship about the tainted picture of Reconstruction that has captured the historical record and the sordid rise of the Jim Crow laws in the South after the Civil War. When placed in a clearer context, Grant comes across in a much better light, although his record of holding his appointees to effective accountability is still troubled.

    This is a long book because Grant lived a very eventful life. The story of his memoirs is well known but still amazing - how he wrote one of the best professional memoirs ever under the pressure of a terminal diagnosis of throat cancer and a need to keep his family from becoming penniless due to his being financially victimized. Mark Twain’s late role in the production of Grant’s memoirs is certainly to his lasting credit. There is even a new version of the memoirs being released by Harvard — in conjunction with Chernow’s book it seems.

    Chernow is a fine biographer of plutocrats and revolutionary heroes. Now he has added a wonderful book about Grant to his record. It is well worth reading.

  • 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.

  • Socraticgadfly

    I'll first note what I appreciated about this book as compared to before having read it, before delving into those errors.

    I learned several tidbits about Grant's upbringing and his psyche that flesh out his adulthood, especially re his mom. And, Chernow persuaded me to moderately modify my opinion of Grant as a Reconstruction president, and MAYBE to modestly modify my thought of him on the corruption issue.

    And, indeed, that last seems to reflect a de

    I'll first note what I appreciated about this book as compared to before having read it, before delving into those errors.

    I learned several tidbits about Grant's upbringing and his psyche that flesh out his adulthood, especially re his mom. And, Chernow persuaded me to moderately modify my opinion of Grant as a Reconstruction president, and MAYBE to modestly modify my thought of him on the corruption issue.

    And, indeed, that last seems to reflect a degree of hagiography by Chernow which in turn affected my final rating.

    Now, to those errors, which are a mix of errors of commission, of omission and interpretation.

    First error, and a biggie, is over Shiloh. Actually, it's two errors or more. Chernow ignores the controversy over Grant's order to Lew Wallace, and the high chance that it was poorly conceived, transmitted verbally, and issued without making himself familiar with the ground Wallace had to traverse, ie, the Shunpike controversy. Either Chernow knows this, despite his later, dismissive, "whatever happened," and this is hagiography, or else he doesn't know this and that is a problem. As is the "whatever happened."

    As for him portraying Grant's seeing Wallace as "just another political general," well, Wallace wasn't exactly. He served in Mexico, though he didn't see combat, and his dad had gone to the Point.

    Larger issues of Shiloh interpretation? Grant might not have been "whipped" if Buell hadn't hurried up his forces, but at the least, his situation would have been more dicey.

    Small error later, in discussing Grant's Indian policy. No, not all, or not nearly all, Indians were hunter gatherers. The Puebloans of the Southwest. The Navajos weren't raiders all the time. Many tribes of the Northwest relied heavily on fishing.

    Second small error, arguably? Andy Johnson as the most visibly racist president in history? Making allowances for some evolution since then, and less crudity on his part, the difference between Johnson and Woodrow Wilson is more one of degree than kind.

    Now, back to more serious stuff.

    First, the corruption issue.

    Maybe Grant wasn't "personally corrupt," but he didn't hire a Rawlins person to be a chief of staff critter, or back then, a Presidential secretary. While Babcock had been serviceable on Grant's wartime staff, he had done nothing then to show himself a Rawlins-like man of character or judge of others' character. Chernow never asks why Grant didn't do better, or why Grant didn't think he needed to do better, especially knowing Rawlins himself wouldn't be around.

    Also on the "not personally corrupt"? How did son Fred not only get to be Sheridan's aide-de-camp, BUT with the rank of lieutenant colonel, just two years after graduating the Point? I mean, the ADC position would be a minor amount of wire-pulling, since Fred had already done that with Sherman. But the rank? In the Indian Wars army, where promotions were few and far between?

    Biggie: Grant either ignored or overlooked Section 2 of the 14th amendment in worrying that the 15th empowered the South by counting blacks as 100 percent citizens for apportionment of electors and representatives. It reads as follows.

    Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

    And Chernow never points that out in talking about Grant's lament that the end of Reconstruction would empower the Democratic party even more.

    Grant as Reconstruction president? One reference to Eric Foner and no others to modern Reconstruction scholars even while noting that the modern view of Reconstruction was changing? Nor noting that Grant's Supreme Court appointees undermined the clear Congressional intent of the Fourteenth Amendment? Yes, I know, that would have made the book even longer. But, there it is. Otherwise, why didn't Grant "sell" Reconstruction better? Did he let himself be held hostage to his "Let us have peace" slogan? Again, no analysis here.

    Finally, near the end, Chernow gets the "turkey-gobbler strut" quote reversed; It was actually Blaine who said it of Conkling.

    I was originally thinking 4-star, still, but seeing this all come together ... the factual errors simply shouldn't have been made. The interpretive errors that aren't hagiographic shouldn't have been made either.

  • 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.

  • Tom Johnson

    11/06/2017, Grant by Ron Chernow, “The books by Ron White, Charles Calhoun, Joan Waugh, Edwina Campbell, and Brooks Simpson, among others, are examples of publications that represent this resurgence.” (the reassessment of Grant). This is my ninth book on Ulysses S. Grant. The most complete but not the last word. Grant’s life is a fit subject for a life-long study. A study of truth and justice as fought for by a great American. Our nation is whole, damaged, but whole. Without Grant’s leadership w

    11/06/2017, Grant by Ron Chernow, “The books by Ron White, Charles Calhoun, Joan Waugh, Edwina Campbell, and Brooks Simpson, among others, are examples of publications that represent this resurgence.” (the reassessment of Grant). This is my ninth book on Ulysses S. Grant. The most complete but not the last word. Grant’s life is a fit subject for a life-long study. A study of truth and justice as fought for by a great American. Our nation is whole, damaged, but whole. Without Grant’s leadership who knows what may have happened? Pointless to ponder the what-ifs. The study of history is an attempt to find the most accurate assessment of what happened, why it happened the way it did, and, in this case, what are the ramifications of all that effusion of blood. The word “effusion” occurs frequently within the text and with good reason. The soldiers and ex-slaves bore the brunt of the mayhem and murder that occurred throughout Grant’s lifetime during the Civil War years and “Reconstruction”. The word “reconstruction” labels the time but does not describe the outcome – only the struggle. Where we find ourselves today can be so much better understood by reading this excellent book. White supremacy still rules the mind of a plurality of the transported Northern Europeans in the U.S.A.

    The following are from my notes jotted down during my reading. My never-ending effort to remember. Trying to keep the little grey cells active and alive.

    Privately Grant denounced the annexation of Texas. (“Remember the Alamo!” how stirring. Yet another moment in our glorious history of maintaining slavery with an effusion of blood. Mexico had outlawed slavery…” But who first freed the slaves? Mexico in 1828. And, even more importantly, what was the first country to recognize all persons as equal, regardless of race? Mexico… 1814, under the Chilpancingo Constitution. From

    ) So the Texans broke away for Freedom? The freedom to keep slaves that is. Our history stinks. “With liberty and justice for all”. At least for all who are white, lily-white, without a drop of the untermensch African in their veins. So, don’t take a knee, stand tall for… for what? A proud nation, ‘one nation under Trump’? Good God, spare me. Take a knee and bury your face in the palm of your hand. Not that I would be brave enough to do so myself. I always just go along and hope the waters stay calm. Glad there are those brave few who don’t. I found myself air-editorializing throughout the book.

    It wasn’t a fair battle. Taylor and Old Fuss and Feathers led an army that had modern arms and munitions, explosive shells of canister and grape. Mexico still fought with primitive cannons firing solid balls. Not the same effect at all.

    Polk’s War took one half of Mexico’s territory and expanded the U.S. by nearly a quarter. So, if a few Mexicans find themselves within our borders it seems a pettiness to point out such a triviality. With all that new territory, other than Texas, the question of expanding slavery to our new acquisitions (that would later become California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, New Mexico, and a good part of Colorado) moved the Civil War much closer to an inevitability.

    What makes Chernow such a pleasure to read is his ability to sort out the best references, the most interesting anecdotes, and assemble it all into an authoritative narrative. He covers Grant’s struggles with alcohol and his inability to detect the frauds amongst his “friends”. When Chernow finishes his investigations, I find that any questions regarding Grant’s two most troublesome weaknesses, alcohol and a too trusting nature, are put to rest.

    Grant was well read; consuming books, periodicals and newspapers throughout his life. He had a weakness for Dickens. Julia had crossed-eyes. For her reading was difficult, so, many an evening was spent with Ulysses reading aloud to Julia. His other joys were children and horses. How could one not like such a fellow?

    Shiloh was the first shocking effusion of blood. It changed Grant’s view of the Civil War. Over a two-day period 100,000 troops engaged in vicious fighting, twenty-four thousand being killed or wounded. Grant, “During the night, rain fell in torrents and our troops were exposed to the storm without shelter.” No understanding of germs and the need for clean instruments during amputation, no anesthetics. During the night after the first day’s battle, hogs attacked the wounded and fed on the dead, the sounds of the hogs, the dying men, and the dying horses were hellish. Rifled muskets and cannon and the Minié ball created an even deadlier form of war. All these factors led to Grant’s conversion to Total Warfare. He now realized that all Southern Society would have to be vanquished. His goal was to end the war as fast as possible and that meant total war. Of course, looking back, we can see that it never was possible to beat the racism out of white America. The battle flag, monuments to some truly awful men, are some grim reminders of the deep and abiding hate that still commands the southern heart. And of course, the nasty northern Copperhead also lives on by the millions.

    There are so many parallels between the then and the now it is numbing. We seem to have gotten nowhere. After Shiloh, the northern press vilified Grant with erroneous accounts of the battle. Print first then verify seemed to be the rule. Enflaming an already jittery northern public was as good a sport back then as it is now. Charges of Grant’s drunkenness followed. Here is where the Copperhead press earned its bread. They may have lacked social media back in 1862 but that didn’t seem to effect by much the amount of time it took for a villainous canard to take root. Canard: "absurd or fabricated story intended as an imposition," 1851 from French canard "a hoax," literally "a duck" A duck takes root? Yes, that should be absurd enough. And, of course, Elihu Washburne once again took up the cudgel for his man Grant, beating back the calumny. Most importantly, A. Lincoln remained steadfast in his faith in Grant. Their partnership was setting rapidly as USG proved himself a man of unrelenting action.

    January 1, 1863, The Emancipation Proclamation. Eventually 179,000 black troops would fight for the North. So, taking a knee disrespects the troops? Why is it that the social injustice and outright malice these black men faced after their service doesn’t deserve a moment of introspection? Every war this nation has fought has found the black man standing by his Country, and yet, our holy flag is desecrated because some concerned citizen feels that “Liberty and Justice for All” should actually mean “All”? the hypocrisy is galling. When black troops proved themselves men, the plantation mentality could not deal with it. To the white man, the only acceptable phrase was “black boy”. They would sooner lynch the black man than accept his manhood. The black man being a heroic patriot was, and is, simply unacceptable. An example of black troop performance from page 283: “On that day, two thousand Texan troops under Maj. Gen. John Walker invaded a Union supply depot, garrisoned by a thousand, mostly black, troops recently mustered into regiments in Grant’s district. Jefferson Davis had already warned that rebellious slaves in northern uniforms would be sent back to their old masters or hanged as criminals…The Union victory at Milliken’s Bend was notable for its hand-to-hand savagery. “After it was over,” wrote Charles Dana, “many men were found dead with bayonet stabs, and others with their skulls broken open by butts of muskets.” …Far from succumbing to terror, the novice black troops, stuck with outdated muskets, fought off the larger rebel contingent and won honor for blacks everywhere with their bayonet charge… The defeat shocked southern sensibilities.” From pages 284-285, “Frederick Douglas recognized that once the black man had a musket on his shoulder, and a bullet in his pocket…” there was “no power on earth that could deny that he has earned his citizenship in the United States.” Of course, that is not how it has worked out. In fact, by proving his ability and his worth, the black man only drove the white supremacist to a frenzy of even more heinous acts of criminality.

    Forgive me a side note; I couldn’t help but find the mental image engendered by this sentence, describing the environs of Vicksburg, humorous. “The low-lying delta around it, a trackless wilderness of bayous and backwater, overhung by trees and infested by snakes, alligators, and bears…” An infestation of bears? A swamp infested with gators and snakes I can picture, but unlike reptiles, mammalian predators seldom form an infestation. Ol’ Slew Foot is a bit of a loner.

    Mired in murky swamps

    Breathless in hot fetid air

    Soldiers struggle onwards

    Neath trees festooned with bears

    Took a while but I finally found a song of the South dedicated to the native black bear,

    Wendy Holcombe is a story all by herself. She’s too good for just one song so here’s another,

    . Sadly, Holcombe died of a congenital heart defect at the age of 23. I would never have known about her without Chernow suffering a bear delusion.

    This book also presents the many travails of Julia. Especially unnerving was her run-ins with Mary Todd Lincoln and why the Grants were not at Ford’s Theatre on that fateful night. The many small stories keep the book interesting. For a 959-page book it never dragged, never gave a sense of being overly long or tedious. Writing this review is proving more of an effort. But that’s why I do it. Exercise the little grey cells. The book deserves a careful read. Chernow reveals so much hidden history.

    Page 562, “on August 16, (1865) Johnson issued an order that allowed southern whites to recapture land confiscated from them during the war… it forced freedmen to abandon the forty-acre plots they had started to work, turning the men into powerless sharecroppers, bound to the land owned by whites.” With little interruption, Slavery by another name began again. With just one election, the sacred word of our government can turn to dross. The courts offer small recourse being themselves just another branch of government subject to partisan corruption.

    The black voter was as frightening to the white supremacists then as they are now. Reading ‘Grant’ goes a long way in explaining why we find ourselves in today’s wretched mess. Once Grant left the White House our government completely abandoned the African Americans. The 13th, 14th and15th amendments were rendered moot.

    Through ‘Grant’ we learn that Trump’s awfulness had a precedent in the actions and character flaws of President Andrew Johnson. Hamilton’s fear of democracy has some basis in fact. The mob can make some truly disastrous decisions. The off-year election of 1866 went a long way in damping the damage Johnson could accomplish. We can only hope that 2018 gives us the same relief. Unfortunately, in this modern-day USA, we must deal with the monstrous Gerrymander.

    Reading ‘Grant’ is like reading today’s news. Murder and mayhem on a daily basis without any hope of a strong judicial system to moderate the aggression of hate. Will we ever be blessed with another Grant? He was a force for Justice. From page 590,” Nothing alarmed the white south more than black power at the polls.” Nothing has changed in 152 years, not one iota. And a few pages later, “Only through voting could freed people protect their liberties.” Sadly, the south remains unreconstructed. From page 619, the motto of the Democratic Party of 1866, “This is a white man’s country – let white men rule.” Well, I was wrong, something has changed, that motto now belongs to today’s Republican Party. My home state of Wisconsin puts false to the notion that fear of the black voter is only endemic to the South.

    What good was the Civil War? Page 687, now former slaves would count as full citizens, (instead of the constitutional 3/5 of a person) swelling the electoral tally for southern states. This was fine as long as freed people exercised their full voting rights. Instead, over time, the white south would receive extra delegates in Congress and electoral votes in presidential races while stifling black voting power. “It was unjust to the North”, Grant subsequently lamented…the old slave holders…keep those votes, but disenfranchise the negroes. That is one of the gravest mistakes in the policy of Reconstruction.” If the election of 2018 does not take power away from the Republican Congress, it will be a long dark night in America.

    Ours is not a democratic government; the Senate giving Wyoming’s citizens two senators the same as California’s millions, the House distorted by the corrupt gerrymander, and worst, the slavery inspired Electoral College. Reconstruction failed. The Supreme Court of those benighted times, chose state’s rights over individual rights, the 13th 14th and 15th Amendments be dammed. Post 1876, the return of white supremacy throughout the south, through a campaign of murder and terror, meant that for Black America, the Civil War settled nothing. Grant realized this and was deeply saddened. During the last year of his life all his remaining strength was dedicated to providing for his Julia. ‘Grant’ is also a love story.

    There is so much more to comment on. At 959 pages, Mr. Chernow’s ‘Grant’ leaves nothing out. The plains Indians, his relationship with the Jews, his admiration of the new industrialists, his aversion to organized labor, his Quixotic crusade against the KKK and the White League, his triumphant world tour, how easily he was bamboozled by conmen, his rescue by Mark Twain… If you would know US History from The Mexican War through Reconstruction read ‘Grant’. If you would know US history during the Colonial Times read ‘Hamilton’. If you would know the post-Civil War period, the rise of industrial America, read ‘Titan’. Ron Chernow is a master of US history.

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