Reviewed in the United States on July 15, 2019
There is no doubt that Ron Chernow tells a beautiful story in his recent biography of Ulysses S. Grant. He is especially compelling in discussing the fight for Black civil rights during Reconstruction. But throughout, the author takes his subject’s side in controversy after controversy, even when the evidence doesn’t support it. And Chernow has a seriously deficient understanding of Grant, of the Civil War, and of military matters, in general. Despite his stellar reputation, Chernow surprisingly hasn’t done his homework and relies far too heavily on secondary sources (especially such partisan works by Adam Badeau, Horace Porter, and Grant’s own Personal Memoirs). It takes years and years of research and a finely critical eye to establish what really happened, given the multitude of oft-conflicting sources. Repeating, however nicely, the standard—inaccurate—version, is not the best way to present history.
The opening line in Chernow’s biography—”Even as other civil war generals rushed to publish their memoirs, flaunting their conquests and cashing in on their celebrity, Ulysses S. Grant refused to trumpet his accomplishments in print”—is positively wrong-headed. Instead, Professor Henry Coppée’s 1866 Grant biography was “published under General Grant’s sanction.” In 1868, Albert Richardson’s “authorized” biography came out, as did one by staffer James H. Wilson and Charles Dana, “designed mainly to promote Grant’s election to the presidency.” These latter two and Henry Deming’s were all “carefully guarded against any expression which could be used against him by the politicians,” in the upcoming election. A further “campaign biography” was penned by another Grant acolyte, James G. Wilson. Also in 1868, the most distorted flattery appeared in the first volume of a military trilogy by staffer Adam Badeau, who began working on it in 1865. Grant later told him:
“Your first volume was prepared in my office, while you occupied the position [of] of an officer on my staff, with the temporary rank of Col. This gave you [pay three grades beyond your actual rank] access to papers and documents that other writers at the time could not have convenient access to. You also had the assistance of several very intelligent staff officers to aid you in hunting up data, relating insidents[sic], furnishing military terms with which you were not then familia[r] &c. Your second and third volumnes[sic], were prepared abroad while you were holding office under the government. A great deal of time was spent by my staff officers in furnishing you information that you called for from time to time, and in some instances in sending you books and papers from the Archives in Washington at the risk of their being lost. You had possession of a copy of the records of my headquarters,--my work really--kept for my special use, until you were through with your work. I also read through every chapter of your book before the latter appeared before the public. I knew what care had been taken to get the facts of history correct. and corrected the facts.”
Grant was finely interested in those who praised him, no matter how falsely. Throughout the war and after, Ulysses S. Grant befriended journalists and authors who extolled him without qualification. And in his own Personal Memoirs, Grant lauded himself and his friends, while disparaging those men he didn’t like (including Generals McClernand, Wallace, Buell, Rosecrans, Thomas, Granger, Meade, and Warren, among others). Very often, he stole war-time laurels from those who actually deserved them and placed them on his own brow. All of this, and more, belies Chernow’s claim of modesty.
Horace Porter may have been the most resolute of Grant’s defenders, and authors such as Chernow unhesitatingly utilize his Campaigning with Grant to excuse Grant’s blundering Overland campaign. Porter, in his preface, maintained that, “While serving as a personal aid to the general-in-chief the author early acquired the habit of making careful and elaborate notes of everything of interest which came under his observation, and these reminiscences are simply a transcript of memoranda jotted down at the time.” The implication that he actually transcribed these supposed notes is ridiculous. Among his unbelievable renderings, Porter remembered verbatim a pair of four-sentence comments and then a speech lasting more than two pages, during a six-mile horseback ride with the General. In another instance where Porter seemingly lied, an ordnance boat had blown up during the stalemate at Petersburg—right below Grant’s headquarters. Porter described it in his book as a spectator (“On rushing to the edge of the bluff, we found that the cause of the explosion was the blowing up of a boat”), yet he had written at the time, “We had a great blow up near our head quarters while I was away.” But what apparently proves the comprehensiveness of Porter’s fabrications is an 1868 letter wherein he acknowledged that “I kept no notes in the field ….” I have described elsewhere various episodes in which Porter obviously falsified history. Yet Chernow relies on Porter for numerous anecdotes, however unlikely.
Chernow’s book greatly contributes to the myth of Grant as the best general of the American Civil War (assuming Robert E Lee’s former exalted position) or even one of the greatest military leaders ever, as well as being an honest and honorable man and underestimated president. But that’s not the book’s only problem. Just in the section on the battle of Shiloh, Chernow recirculates the falsehood that William T. Sherman commanded two divisions (his own and John A. McClernand’s); he has Grant expecting Lew Wallace to have marched at up to six miles per hour on April 6th over a partially mud-filled route; he has Grant thinking that Wallace was insubordinate and believing that Wallace had planned to get in the Confederate rear (that was only Wallace’s thought upon the arrival of Grant’s aide, not his plan); and he has Grant ordering Wallace to Pittsburg Landing, which contradicts a mountain of evidence that Wallace was ordered to the right of the army. The whole chapter ignores Grant’s lack of intelligence-gathering and his almost complete lack of preparations. Chernow writes how “Perhaps no other Union general at this stage of the war would have dared such a counteroffensive” on April 7th. Yet Buell counterattacked that day, and Chernow contradicts himself by stating that Grant couldn’t order Buell and the Army of the Ohio, meaning that Buell must have “dared such a counteroffensive.” Chernow insults every other Union general by intimating that they would not have counterattacked, despite the 20,000 soldiers who had just arrived doubling the Union force.
Furthermore, Chernow has trouble with the basic military facts and concepts. He writes that losses for the two opponents at Shiloh totaled 24,000 killed or wounded (but almost 4,000 of these were actually missing or captured), and then he goes on to contend that this dwarfed those at the Battle of Waterloo, where the participants really suffered twice as many casualties or more. He finishes this section with a misreading of Grant’s Memoirs by stating that “Grant believed Corinth could have been taken two days after Shiloh.” Grant had actually written that, “For myself I am satisfied that Corinth could have been captured in a two days’ campaign commenced promptly on the arrival of reinforcements after the battle of Shiloh.” The book is rife with similar errors.
In an example of terrible scholarship, Chernow’s first full paragraph on Page 323, describing the November 25, 1863 assault by General George H. Thomas’ troops on Missionary Ridge, includes four quotations. Instead, each of the four pertains to a completely different action:
• Chernow has Grant mentioning how the “troops moved under fire with all the precision of veterans on parade,” citing PUSG 9:434, but this reference is dated November 23 (even in Chernow’s endnotes) and concerns the capture of Orchard Knob by the Army of the Cumberland on the 23rd, making it impossible to have anything to do with the assault on Missionary Ridge two days later.
• Chernow then writes that, “Many Confederate defenders stood in poor condition, one observer describing them as ‘rough and ragged men with no vestige of a uniform,’” citing Page 563 of Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire, where it’s clear that this also concerns the capture of Orchard Knob on November 23rd.
• Chernow next quotes Grant’s description as to how the “assaulting column advanced to the very rifle pits of the enemy and held their position firmly without wavering,” citing PUSG 9:561. But this concerned “Sherman’s attack” with the Army of the Tennessee against Tunnel Hill earlier on November 25, 1863, so the quote does not refer in any way to Thomas’ attack a mile or two south.
• The last utterly impossible quote in this paragraph, “‘He seems perfectly cool,’ wrote William Wrenshall Smith, ‘and one could be with him for hours, and not know that any great movements were going on,’” cites Smith’s “Holocaust Holiday” article, in which his diary entry is dated November 23, 1863. This again concerns the capture of Orchard Knob.
Four major errors concerning four consecutive quotations in one paragraph!
Among his misquotes, Chernow has William F. Smith calling George G. Meade a helpless child and opium eater. It was Benjamin Butler to whom Smith referred. Sheridan seemed like “a hound in the leash,” not a “hound in the lash.” Misreading another document, the author wrote how, as Grant’s “cavalcade approached Chattanooga, torrential rains left the beleaguered party ‘dark, wet and hungry,’ as Dr. Kittoe told Julia Grant.” No, Kittoe wrote, “a little after dark wet and hungry just as we got into Chattanooga the Generals horse fell.” Saying that rainfall left the General’s entourage “dark” doesn’t even make sense. And Chernow makes Roscoe Conkling the speaker and not the object of James Blaine’s “… supereminent, overpowering, turkey-gobbler strut.”
One could go on and on with such mistakes and special pleading. Chernow even excuses Grant’s dismal presidency: “Partly Grant’s problem arose from poorly chosen appointees, but the main cause of the corruption under his aegis was the postwar expansion of the federal government with its myriad opportunities for graft.” No, Grant permitted vast dishonesty to permeate his two administrations. He defended the perpetrators and even facilitated their misdeeds, at times.
But the adulatory public evidently doesn’t care whether the “facts” are actual or merely “alternative,” as long as the preconceived “hero” comes out on top.