Reviewed in the United States on November 25, 2017
Having read Ron Chernow's biographies of Washington, Hamilton, and now Grant, I am committed to reading Chernow's next irrespective of who the subject is. "Grant" is terrific. It is an enjoyable book, very readable with amazing insights into the character and challenges that Grant faced throughout his life. It is not a love letter; it is balanced - critical, sympathetic and admiring. "Grant" is incredibly well-researched and yet does not bog the reader down with every little fact, piece of data, and anecdote that Chernow discovered. Rather he shares information to tell his story.
"Grant" is 959 pages, 43 chapters, four Parts. Some maps and photos; I wish there had been more. I found that 25 pages a day was just the right pace for me, and I looked forward each day to savoring the next 25. In my own mind I thought of the book as having five parts: the Early years, the Civil War years, the four years before his Presidency, the two terms as President, and his final years. Obviously, the second and fourth parts (Civil War, Presidency) form the biggest chunks of the story and together they make an interesting comment on Grant's life and accomplishments. Here is a man who made tremendous contributions to his country in two roles, one in saving the Union as the General of the U.S. Army in the Civil War, and secondly as President of the US in eight of the most difficult years of our country's history. Reflect back on our 45 Presidents and you will not find many who can make the same claim, not even Lincoln.
EARLY YEARS So you think you know Grant? Then you probably realize he fought in the Mexican War, had a drinking problem, and was a store clerk when the Civil War started. But you may not realize Grant never really wanted to go to West Point; his father pressured him and even sealed the deal with a last minute favor from a Congressman. Grant was not a top student at West Point, nor mid-range for that matter. He was best at horsemanship and he earned widespread recognition from classmates for those skills. Many of his schoolmates became fellow in the Mexican War then surfaced again in the Civil War. Grant was a much better student in the battlefield - he studied and understood his fellow officers and came to learn their strengths and weaknesses, more importantly how they were likely to act alongside him or facing him. Much of Grant's war experience in Mexico was as a quartermaster, and he had to learn to provision for his Army, in a foreign country no less, especially how to maintain supply lines. This experience proved to be invaluable training for the War to come. Grant's drinking became a big issue during the War. There were many stories, some exaggerations, some lies. Chernow makes the point that for the most part Grant was an occasional drinker, someone who may go months without a drink, then binge for two or three days. And someone who had difficulty refusing a drink, someone who once started wouldn't stop. My initial reaction to the extensive emphasis on the drinking was that it was overdone. But it is a critical part of Grant's history and in following this story the reader must learn to deal with it. In this first section, there is a lot of personal history as well. Naturally there is a fair amount about wife Julia, the children and the difficulty in earning money for everyone's upkeep. But what I particularly enjoyed were the anecdotes about Grant's father, the abolitionist, and Grant's father-in-law, the slave owner. Interesting that although he detested his son-in-law, Col Dent accepted President and Mrs. Grant's offer to live with them in the White House and remained fiercely loyal to the Confederacy during his years there.
CIVIL WAR YEARS I have been a casual student of the Civil War; I have read several books, watched video courses and programs, and visited battlefields (Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Antietam, Gettysburg - I have resided in Virginia for the past 35 years). Almost all of the focus has been battles fought in the East. I have found that most Civil War treatments pay very little attention to what was going on in the "West" (essentially along the Mississippi and states along its eastern bank) except to position those battles as Grant's stepping stone to eventual leadership of the Union army. In "Grant" Chernow details these battles magnificently - Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga. Throughout Grant is portrayed as action oriented, ready to attack. Yet calm, steady, reflective - the battles have been planned to the nth degree. Occasionally, Union forces took a first battle day licking, but always were prepared to do the unexpected. On day two his army would regroup quickly and attack early the next day. Grant was a winner and he was fiercely loyal to Lincoln, and quickly becomes a Lincoln favorite. With his early string of victories U. S. Grant becomes Unconditional Surrender Grant. The only terms are his, but they are unexpectedly fair and gracious - all the way to and including Appomattox. Meanwhile Grant continues to also battle his drinking problem and jealous fellow officers over whom Grant is being promoted. Ultimately Grant is given responsibility for the whole of the Union Army and moves eastward. He immediately meets with Sherman and Sheridan to develop a multi-prong attack on Confederate forces from Virginia to Georgia. Grant begins his push against lee driving Lee southward away from Northern Virginia and Washington DC toward Richmond. I have read and studied several accounts of this portion of the War and none have been as riveting and exciting as Chernow's account. For me, this was the most exciting and enjoyable part of the book.
RECONSTRUCTION BEGINS One of the biggest surprises for me in "Grant" was to learn of the marked improvements Grant made to the welfare of African-Americans. The biggest contributions began during the War years when newly freed slaves marched behind the Union Army following victories; Grant permitted this to ensure their safety and continuing freedom. He later created African-American fighting units; this was strongly opposed by many in the military as well as the government, especially in arming these soldiers with guns and rifles. During the early reconstruction years incredible numbers of blacks were slaughtered in southern states out of hatred and fear of ultimate voting power. Although he was subsequently criticized for doing too little, too late, Grant dispatched troops to those states with the most violence, especially Louisiana. Eventually, the KKK was disbanded (only to resurface years later). Grant, became a huge hero, idolized in the press, particularly in the victorious North, but he was respected in the South as well especially for his humane treatment of the Confederate forces at Appomattox. This created big problems for President Andrew Johnson, of course, as he saw Grant only in terms of a likely opponent in the next election. Forgive the pun, but their relationship quickly went South....as did Johnson's career. Lots of good history here, particularly about how horrible was the violence directed at African Americans during this time, how Grant was among the first whites to look at the black man as an equal, and how Grant slowly evolved from a military man to a political one.
PRESIDENT GRANT Concerning Grant's presidency, Chernow quotes fellow historian Richard N. Current: "...he made a greater effort to secure the constitutional rights of blacks than did any President between Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson." Per Chernow, "Current... also saw Grant as the most underrated American President". Yet Grant certainly had his ups and downs as President. While he had many first term accomplishments - suppressing the Klan, reducing the post-war, swollen national debt, initiating reform of civil service and reducing the graft associated with contracts for Indian trading posts, settling a touchy ship sinking issue with England, appointing many blacks, Jews, Indians and women to government positions, and contributing to a general sense of peace and prosperity. He also had some black marks including charges of cronyism in his hiring and clumsy efforts to annex Santo Domingo. Nevertheless he was elected to a second consecutive term, the only president to do so between Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt. There were a number of scandals in his second term dealing with schemes to cheat the government of tax revenues, e.g. the Whiskey Ring. Grant never profited from these crimes but he was slow to accept that close friends had manipulated him to obtain critical positions. But once he understood the full depth of these crimes and certain individuals' guilt he quickly disassociated himself from them and demanded justice. In the midst of these scandals, a five year depression began in 1873, resulting in high unemployment and blame assessed by the press and opposition. Grant's popularity took a significant hit for the rest of his term.
FINAL YEARS At the conclusion of his second term, tired and bitterly disappointed in the direction that the new administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes, Grant decided on a world tour, a tour that would last more than two years. He was feted in seemingly all the capitals of Europe and Asian. His hosts were the Who's Who of International government and diplomacy of the mid nineteenth century: Gladstone, Disraeli, Queen Victoria, Garibaldi, King Leopold II, French President MacMahon, Pope Leo XIII, KIng of Greece, King Umberto I, von Bismarck, Czar Alexander II, Prince Kung of China. It was fascinating to read the many anecdotes of personal meetings and subsequent opinions from both sides, most favorable, but some not. And the public worshipped him. For example, as Grant departed England at Newcastle 150,000 came to the docks to see him. Mostly working people, cheering wildly. Grant had never been a comfortable speaker. As President, he would scratch out his own comments and read them in an almost inaudible monotone. Incredibly, his skills improved significantly on his tour, though he never grew to enjoy the experience. Once he returned home he gave considerable thought to his future, particularly his finances. In those days, the President did not receive a pension. Grant had some investments yet once again, he was swindled, this time by a young financial wizard who used Grant's name to build an enormous pyramid which eventually collapsed; Grant lost everything. About this time, Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer, perhaps not surprising since he smoked up to two dozen cigars a day, and often chewed on an unlit one for hours. To provide income for his wife after his passing Grant agreed to write his memoirs, published by Mark Twain. Sales were expected to be huge and door to door salesman canvassed for orders. It became a race against the clock; it was close. Grant won.
An excellent book. The New York Times had the good sense to put it on their 2017 recently released 100 notables list. I have read others by Chernow, all have been very, very good. I will read whatever he writes next.