Soldier, Statesman, and the 18th President of the United States.
Recently the History Channel aired a three part mini-series on the 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant. One of the historians and commentators on that program was author Ron Chernow, whose biography of this American soldier and statesman was published in 2017. When I recommended the show to my son, Sean, I happened to comment that I would probably have to break down and get the book at some point even though the genre is not one that I normally read. In the fact, the only other ones that I’ve read in the past two years are Print the Legend – The Life and Times of John Ford and Alexander Hamilton, both of which were gifted to me by my son. Well, he did it again, sending Grant to me for Father’s Day! As you can see, it’s taken me some time to get through 1,074 pages, but Chernow has written yet another meticulously researched and definitive portrait of the man, his legacy, and period in which he lived.
Historians have sometimes overlooked Grant’s military genius arguing that the North won the Civil War because of its industrial base and manpower advantages versus the Confederate South, and they have also expressed mixed views on his presidency because of the rampant corruption within his administration during his two terms in office (1869-1877). Chernow disputes both, articulating Grant’s tactical and strategic brilliance as the commander of the Union forces and his accomplishments as President that, in his opinion, elevate him to the stature of Washington and Lincoln.
Chernow doesn’t skip or smooth over his faults and failures. He examines in great detail his battle with alcoholism, a disease that came very close to relegating Grant to obscurity as a disgraced military officer; he resigned his commission in 1854 rather than face a potential court martial over allegations of drunkenness while on duty. He was a failure as a businessman. His naivety, misguided loyalty, and ill-advised faith in many of the people he appointed to government positions certainly led to the scandals that tainted his tenure as President. However, Chernow lays out a clear picture of how Grant’s character and leadership overcame these deficiencies to accomplish not only the defeat of the Confederacy but the lifelong crusade for equality and civil rights of Native, African, and Jewish Americans.
For the Civil War buffs out there, Chernow goes into great deal about Grant’s success as a field commander on the Western front which would eventually elevate him to command of the Union Armies, the special trust and confidence bestowed upon him by President Lincoln, his relentless pursuit of Confederate forces wherever he encountered them (vice capturing cities or territory), his endorsement of a scorched earth/total war strategy in Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign and Sherman’s March to the Sea/Burning of Atlanta to bring home the realities of war to Southern civilians as well as soldiers, his incorporation of freed slaves into the military, and his knowledge/familiarity with Confederate officers, including Robert E. Lee, in his war planning and military campaigns. Chernow credits Grant with the ability to clearly see, coordinate, and employ forces across the entire spectrum of war, and in so doing forcing Lee to surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.
For those more interested in Grant’s presidency, Chernow tells us that he was a reluctant politician, never encouraging his nomination to the highest office in the land. Once elected, however, he did everything in his power to bring about Reconstruction and negate the rise of white supremist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. He stabilized the post-war economy, settled diplomatic disputes with Britain over their support for the Confederacy, while also creating the Department of Justice, the first Civil Service Commission, and the National Parks system. He failed in his efforts to annex the Dominican Republic, had mixed results in his Native American policy, and was denied a third term principally due to federal corruption scandals, of which he had no complicity besides poor judgment and loyalty to friends.
Grant died of throat and tongue cancer in 1885, and Chernow gives us an agonizing look at his final days in which he struggled to complete his biography before his death. Grant suffered severe financial reversals after he left office, and was determined to provide for his family before he died. Fortunately with Mark Twain’s help, his memoirs proved to be both a critical and financial success.
There is so much detail in the book that it probably isn’t for everyone. I confess that I read several other novels while completing the biography, which is why it took me so long to finish. It is, however, a scholarly achievement that cannot and should not be overlooked. Historians will not find a more definitive biography on Ulysses S. Grant, and Ron Chernow deserves immense credit for giving us a better understanding of the man and his place in history.