Grant by Ron Chernow is not a book; it is tome. He writes a very contemporary biography of Ulysses S. Grant, perhaps unclouded by the political passions and machinations of the 19th century. We often hear more that is negative about Grant than what was positive. We hear he was often drunk, that he headed one of the most corrupt governments in our history, that he was a gullible and simple man, without social graces or persuasive public speaking abilities. Writers in the past accepted, for the most part, that Grant had strong military successes, but opinions of his abilities range from a lazy leader to a military savant (which Chernow feels is much closer to the truth).
Prior to the Civil War, America was experiencing a time of great divisiveness (perhaps even worse that what we are seeing in the 21st century). Slavery and state’s rights were the issues that most passionately divided the nation (and they still are 151 years later). Strong abolitionist movements in the northern states enraged the South whose lifestyle and economy revolved around slave labor. The South claimed that the Federal government had no right to make laws in this matter. The verbal battles were bitter and the differences irreconcilable. Whatever you may feel is the reason for the Civil War (the GOP still cites the state’s rights issue; while Dems tend to cite the issue of keeping human beings as slaves), Grant evolved on the issue of slavery until he came to believe that it was an anathema and absolutely the point of the war. The Union considered the South to be traitors who wanted to dissolve the Republic. Although it may drive you crazy, you need to remember that in the 19th century Southerners were the Democrats and the abolitionists were Republicans.
Chernow does not sidestep graphic descriptions of the terrible tragedy of human destruction left in the wake of every victory and every defeat in the brutal Civil War. Grant, who seemed unable to be a successful businessman, proved to have a genius for warfare, a focus that seemed to appear only when battle loomed, and a broad and long view of the overall geography, scope, and strategy involved in any given battle. Since Grant was educated at West Point, he knew many of the officers on both sides in the Civil War and he had personal insight into how they would behave. Try not to read about these battles while eating.
I can never cover all of the information imparted in this biography. It is minutely comprehensive and still, somehow, eminently readable. It is long but well worth the investment in time. What I appreciated most about Ron Chernow’s tome is the attention he gave to what happened in the South after the war. Perhaps Grant was too sympathetic to the officers and men when the war ended at Appomattox. He did nothing to humiliate them. He let them lay down their weapons and leave without persecution to go home to their land and families. But perhaps this allowed the South to keep too much of its pride and they secretly kept alive the resentments that had caused the rift to begin with. Chernow does not skirt the details of the ways Southern slave owners took out their anger on freed Americans of African Descent.
According to Chernow and his exhaustive research Ku Klux Klan activity was far more prevalent and deadly in those years of Reconstruction than represented in the stories we tell ourselves today (and in our school history classes). Current events teach us that those feelings kept alive in the South and imported to the North still inform our politics, and the feelings of white supremacy that seem to have been resurrected, but which never actually left us. Grant earned the lasting respect of black folks by sending troops to try to stop the carnage and the total unwillingness of slave owners to accept the freedom of their former slaves. He supported programs to educate former slaves and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were passed while he was President. Frederick Douglas remained a loyal acquaintance of Grant and expressed his gratitude again and again for the support Grant provided to back up freedom for all Americans. If Grant accomplished nothing else, what he accomplished in the arena of freedom and equality for formerly enslaved Americans should move him far above the rank he held until now in the pantheon of American presidents. He deplored the fact that Reconstruction did not end racial hatred in Southern whites.
Mr. Chernow does not buy the tales that make drunkenness a key trait in Grant’s life. He finds a pattern to Grant’s binges and gives him credit for fighting against the hold alcohol had for him when he was without the comforts of his family (as soldiers often are). He admits that Grant was connected to a number of corrupt schemes while he was President and later when he resided in NYC. But if you follow the money you find that Grant never was at all corrupt himself. He was guilty of being unable to see through people, especially when they were friends. Since many people had been his fellow soldiers he tended to give them credit for being loyal friends when they were actually involved in collecting payoffs in scams such as the whisky ring, and the Indian ring, and other scandals of the Gilded Age. Juicy, interesting, and deplorable stuff. Many government rules were different than they are today and corruption was easy if you valued money over morals. Probably a number of rules and protections in our current government were passed to fight the human impulse to corruption which exists, of course, to this day.
It’s a wonderful biography, well researched and full of quotes from primary sources and although it may put a crimp in your accounting of the number of books you get to read this year it will offer such in-depth quality that you will not mind the hit you take in terms of the quantity of books you get to read.