Book Review - Grant, by Ron Chernow

Grant, by Ron Chernow

As soon as I started reading this book, I pretty quickly realized that I didn’t know very much about the man.  And I wondered if others felt this way too.  I unscientifically asked a few folks “what do you know about U.S. Grant?”  The answer invariably came back “Well, he was a drunkard, and used brute force to overwhelm Lee to win the Civil War.  Bad president.”  And that’s what I had thought as well.

In the same vein as David McCullough’s rehabilitation of John Adams, Ron Chernow provides us with a rich narrative of Grant’s life, providing deep and exploratory insights into his character, working through both his strengths and weaknesses.  Ultimately we learn that Grant, while having certain weaknesses and blind spots, found ways to conquer many, but not all, of the key issues that faced him during his life.  

Grant’s early military career ended in his getting kicked out for drunkenness, and he subsequently went into business, and failed miserably at it.  He was married to Julia Dent, who came from a slaveholding family in Missouri (Grant’s father-in-law remained unrepentant his entire life).  Grant, however, got his chance to get back into the military when the war started.  Between his wife Julia, and his closest military aide John Rawlins, Grant by and large controlled his drinking problem throughout the war, and later on, his presidency.  

We learn that Grant, far from being just a meat grinder general, was actually an astute strategist and tactician.  The battle and capture of Vicksburg, for example, ranks among the great military campaigns in world history.   Grant was also the first modern general to command multiple far flung, highly mobile armies in a unified, coordinated campaign, primarily utilizing Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee and Meade’s Army of the Potomac, as well as Phil Sheridan’s cavalary units.  Grant’s capture of Vicksburg, and Sherman’s subsequent march through the South, kept Joe Johnston’s army away from the eastern theatre while Grant (now in charge of all US Armies) and Meade kept Lee occupied.  Grant did acknowledge his campaign at Cold Harbor was one of the biggest regrets he had. 

Grant fully supported Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and was instrumental in accepting and organizing freed slaves in the nation’s war effort.  Grant, more than any other person, was responsible for how newly freed black Americans were treated on initial contact.  No less than Fredrick Douglass said of Grant:  

“To [President and General Ulysses S. Grant] more than any other man the negro owes his enfranchisement and the Indian a humane policy. In the matter of the protection of the freedman from violence his moral courage surpassed that of his party; hence his place as its head was given to timid men, and the country was allowed to drift, instead of stemming the current with stalwart arms.”  

Douglass’ second sentence is an indictment of the Republican Party growing weary of Grant’s ongoing efforts as President to combat, mostly successfully until the end of his second term, violence against blacks in the South, more on this in a moment.  Grant also was astute in offering generous terms to both Lee and Johnston on surrender - avoiding, until the Klan came up in the 1870s, continued guerrilla warfare from remnants of the Confederate Army.  Congress, and the Union States with Grant’s public support, passed the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. Ratification of these was required for a Confederate State to rejoin the Union.

As President, Grant seemed to find ways to surround himself with people who were corrupt - and he was often the last to see it.  On the other hand, Grant’s support for black Americans was unwavering - appointing the first black ambassador for the U.S., as well as a number of other administration posts.  He repeatedly sent troops down to the South to quell violence against black Americans, and worked to crush the Klan terror that sprung up during the Johnson administration.  Grant was a major proponent of Reconstruction, and during that time there were black congressmen and senators, as well as local elected officials.  Ultimately, however, the North got weary of federal troops in the South, and as federal troops left, Jim Crow arrived.  Without a military presence, Reconstruction was doomed.  

Grant’s record as president is decidedly mixed - the corruption scandals throughout his presidency reflected poor judgment, and while he made huge efforts to combat violence against blacks in the South, he alone could not stem the dismantling of Reconstruction.  In the end, Chernow presents Grant  as an earnest servant of the United States, however imperfect, and a staunch supporter of civil rights.