Review: Hamilton biographer writes definitive biography of Ulysses S. Grant

“Grant” by Ron Chernow; Penguin Press (1,074 pages, $40)

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The Ulysses S. Grant revival is in full swing. Long caricatured by posterity as a pitiless butcher, a drunk and a hopelessly corrupt president, Grant has steadily seen his reputation climb. Scholars have reconsidered the record of the general who led the Union to victory in the Civil War, as well as Grant’s two-term presidency (1869-1877), revealing a luster long obscured by shopworn canards.

Two sympathetic takes on Grant have been published in the past year alone. Ronald White struck first with his excellent “American Ulysses.” Not to be outdone, Ron Chernow, known for books on Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, enters the fray with a mammoth biography that aspires to be definitive. Treating each phase of Grant’s life with breathtaking depth and propelled by a range of sources, “Grant” swells to nearly 1,000 pages; it’s a demanding but essential read.

Born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, in 1822, Grant attended West Point and served with distinction in the Mexican-American war. But the 1850s brought him low. He failed at farming and rent collecting; to make ends meet he sold firewood on the streets of St. Louis. Raised in an abolitionist household, Grant would clash severely with his slave-owning Missouri father-in-law, even as he maintained devotion to wife Julia. Chernow’s detailed portrait of Grant’s private life and struggles humanizes a man often described as sphinxlike.

In 1861, political connections and military experience won him a commission in the Union army as a colonel. War saved Grant from failure; Grant, in turn, would save the Union from its serial failures on the battlefield. Early victories in Tennessee earned the sobriquet “Unconditional Surrender,” matching his initials.

But Grant was dogged by allegations about his drinking, which Army rivals and political enemies exploited. Chernow is clear: Grant had a drinking problem, but he was a situational alcoholic. He went long periods without drinking, then went on a bender to relieve the pressures of command. He was shielded by his chief of staff, John Rawlins, who plays a major role in the Grant drama as manager of the general’s drinking problem and protector of his reputation.

Grant was surrounded by a phalanx of aides who memorably evoked Grant in memoirs and dispatches. Chernow uses their testimony to almost Cubist effect, bringing out different, contrasting sides of Grant’s character. The general would ponder battle plans for hours, seated in a chair, “looking like the laziest man in camp,” observed Horace Porter. Yet he could size up a map with an uncanny grasp of terrain. “He talked less and thought more than any one in the service,” Porter wrote, but added that Grant could be garrulous when moved and spun many a yarn around the fire.

An unbroken string of wins in the Western theater brought Grant east to finish off Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Virginia. Chernow is good on Grant’s growing commitment to civil rights, and his use of black troops in battle (opposed by many politicians in the North). Grant’s reputation would suffer as he ground Lee down — Northern papers howled as casualties rates soared but, as Chernow notes, the South suffered higher casualties as a percentage of total troops. Still, it is Lee who is typically depicted as gallant and noble, and Grant as a clod in a shabby uniform.

Grant’s presidency showcased his best and worst tendencies. Elected in 1868 after the disastrous term of Andrew Johnson, Grant rode to victory on a wave of postwar popularity. But his novice political skills would be tested. Accustomed to making quick decisions and not turning back, Grant consulted little. What looked decisive on the battlefield looked hasty in Washington. Several of his appointments engaged in corrupt activity, though Grant himself was honest. Chernow is right when he concludes that Grant “got the big issues right during his presidency, even if he bungled many of the small ones.”

No issue was bigger than civil rights. Grant’s administration vigorously combated the Ku Klux Klan, “crushing the largest wave of domestic terrorism in American history,” in Chernow’s words. Grant was unstinting in his devotion to the rights of African-Americans — standing, Chernow argues, “second only to Lincoln, for what he did for the freed slaves” — even as the North grew weary of enforcing new amendments to the Constitution. Reconciliation with the Southern states soon took priority over civil rights. There would be many second thoughts about Grant, whose military and political record was subjected to an acid scrutiny. Chernow, however, convincingly restores Grant to the pantheon of great Americans.

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THE GENERAL’S MEMOIRS

Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs have long been admired by students of American history and figures as disparate as Gertrude Stein and Edmund Wilson. In a final heroic act, Grant wrote the book, which was published by Mark Twain, while he was dying of throat cancer in 1885. Sold by an army of salesman, many of them Union veterans, the book was a great commercial and literary success.

A beautiful new annotated edition of “The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant” edited by scholar John F. Marszalek (Belknap Press, 784 pp., $39.95) allows readers to read the full text of this work and benefit from copious explanatory footnotes on each page. Written in a clear, plain-spoken style, the book takes Grant through his childhood in Ohio, time at West Point, service in the Mexican-American War and culminate with his experiences in the Civil War. With beautiful clarity, Grant describes events in Tennessee and Mississippi, where his renown began, and the war’s grim conclusion in Virginia, reflecting on the cost born by the nation.

 

 

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