Review: Grant – Ron Chernow

15 May


-Ron Chernow

Ulysses S. Grant had the misfortune of having his legacy and reputation dictated, to a very large extent, by his enemies. Unlike Robert E. Lee, a known traitor (on the grounds he happened to be on the side that lost), Grant’s life has been warped out of all recognition by people with personal and/or political axes to grind. Indeed, the fact most people remember about Grant is the drinking, not the Civil War victory or the Presidency. Ron Chernow, who has written well-received biographies of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, has attempted to retrifiy that injustice. One may question just how far he has succeeded.


Grant’s strengths, Chernow insists, were also his weaknesses. His first inclination was to go on the attack, to find a way to take the war to the enemy; this had the downside, in many ways, of allowing the enemy to surprise him because he didn’t take the time to consider what, if anything, the enemy might try to do to his forces. This cost him – badly – during the war; in politics, it manifested as a peculiar naivety. Grant had no inclination to play the political game, trading patronage and suchlike for influence and support. Some of his cabinet selections were good choices; others were either disqualified (something that a very basic check would surely have revealed) or dangerously corrupt. Grant’s inclination to fight to the finish, whatever the cause, left him wasting political capital when a more nuanced approach might have been more effective.

Indeed, Grant was rarely willing to believe the worst of people, particularly those who had wormed their way into his trust, until it was too late. His administration, particularly in its second term, endured wave after wave of scandals that, while they never touched Grant himself (although they often left him with egg on his face), forced him to waste time and effort dealing with them.

Yet, Grant was also a grimly resolute man and a firm believer in civil rights. It was Grant who did everything in his power to fight the KKK and the rise of Jim Crow; it was Grant who believed, firmly, that the South should be held accountable for its crimes. Grant’s campaign against the KKK holds many lessons for those of us who need to deal with terrorism today. He was at his best when dealing with an enemy he could plainly see, which might well account for his success as a general. The cutthroat world of Washington politics was not his chosen battlefield.

But perhaps he could not be faulted for this. Grant’s role as military commander, under Lincoln, was relatively simple. He had Lincoln’s unstinting support and repaid it with victory. Under Johnston, however, Grant found himself caught in a whirlwind of political intrigue as Johnston battled with Congress over his policies towards the defeated South. He could not please both of them and it is a testament to Grant’s skill, and gritty determination, that he was not destroyed by the maelstrom. And yet, the forces that put him in the White House were also the forces he needed to confront if he was to put the country on an even footing. Very few presidents, with the possible exception of Obama, have ever been in such a precarious position.

Grant was not, Chernow notes, lucky with his family or comrades. His father was a ruthless self-promoter, who often tried to use his son’s position to enrich the family; his birth family feuded with his in-laws. Grant also endured political attacks from political generals, who viewed him as a threat to their positions. This, Chernow states, is probably where the story about Grant’s drinking began. It was a common slur against Grant when he was one of the few Union generals to rack up victories in the expanding civil war.

He was luckier with his staff, who generally rallied around him. (Sadly, the most capable of them died shortly into Grant’s Presidency. History might have been different if he’d lived to serve Grant throughout his years in office, as he had a cool-headed awareness of politics and people his boss lacked.)

Chernow agrees that Grant did have a problem with drinking, although he insists – as did many of Grant’s supporters – that it was firmly under control. Grant was clearly tempted by alcohol for his entire life, but it was never as bad as his enemies suggested. Cigars, on the other hand, may well have shortened Grant’s life. It is a sad irony that Julia would praise tobacco when it was steadily killing her husband.

It’s very difficult to draw comparisons between the Reconstruction Era and modern-day America (and the world), but I couldn’t help noticing some of the ways in which history rhymes. On a smaller scale, Grant was a man with an impeccable moral centre, like George W. Bush, but he made many bad decisions because he trusted the wrong people. Or, a little later on, Grant – like Trump – was attacked so harshly by his political and media enemies that he found it hard to do his job. On a wider scale, the US fought successful wars – the Civil War, the Iraq War – and then threw the victory away, twice. Johnston abandoned the blacks of the American South, allowing radical elements to take control of the region; Obama abandoned Iraq, allowing Islamic State to plant its poisonous seed in a region that had once thought it had a hope of peace. Trump, like Grant, must deal with the failures of a previous administration (Obama must have felt the same way), knowing that it will be hard to convince the locals to trust Americans … or, for that matter, to convince America to continue to support the war. Fundamentally, in both eras, America grew tired of war. It is an understandable feeling, but it resulted in abandoning innocent and helpless victims to evil.

Chernow does a good job of explaining the realities of Civil War and Reconstruction America, doing a reasonable job of placing Grant’s actions in context. He also tries hard to bring out Grant’s fundamental character, a man of determination and grit who rarely put on airs and graces even when he’d earned the right to a little pride. In this, he is contrasted with his wife, who felt socially inferior and saw their time in the White House as vindication. But Grant was also pig-headed and, although far from stupid, rarely tended to realise his own weaknesses. His instincts were good but he was at a disadvantage when dealing with more complex – and deceitful – people. A little more cynicism would probably have made his life easier.

The book’s greatest strength and weakness is its scope. This is no exploration of Grant’s wartime service, or his presidency, but an attempt to weave them – and Grant’s early and later life – into a single volume. It is interesting to read how Grant’s relationships with his subordinates went up and down – Sherman, for example – but it doesn’t go into the sort of detail I might wish. But then, there are plenty of more tightly-focused books on the market.

In conclusion, Grant was an American hero. He won a war that would have sundered the union – it is unlikely that any other general of his age could have won – and he fought the good fight against confederate revanchists and the KKK. There is a good chance that he might have prevented war with Britain. He was personally incorruptible and deeply wedded to his convictions. He was flawed, like every other hero in history, but he rose above his weaknesses. And Chernow does a good job of doing him justice.

We have been told, too often over the last couple of years, that a particular book or TV series is timely. And yet, most times, the claim doesn’t pass the smell test. Grant, on the other hand, is a genuinely timely book. We need to remember that our heroes can be flawed men, that they can have feed of clay … and do good deeds regardless. And that men can make mistakes, often very bad mistakes, without malice. And, perhaps, that savage attacks on a man’s character may have no more substance than a gossamer spider-web. It is easy to carp and criticise from a distance. Actually wielding power – and battling with the political realities – is far from easy.

Grant is a long book, but it is well worth a read.

8 Responses to “Review: Grant – Ron Chernow”

  1. Anarchymedes May 15, 2018 at 10:31 am #

    ‘His instincts were good but he was at a disadvantage when dealing with more complex – and deceitful – people.’
    Boy, do I understand that — and the resulting constant temptation to kill them all, and let God sort them out! :-;

    ‘Grant, on the other hand, is a genuinely timely book. We need to remember that our heroes can be flawed men, that they can have feed of clay’
    ‘And, perhaps, that savage attacks on a man’s character may have no more substance than a gossamer spider-web.’
    Yes, I get the drift—and no, Grant, a soldier and a true hero, is not Trump. The Donald will need a hundred lifetimes to grow to that size.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard May 15, 2018 at 1:46 pm #

      It’s amazing how some people let Trump “live rent free in their minds”.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard May 16, 2018 at 1:41 pm #

        Typical Liberal Bullshit.

      • Anarchymedes May 17, 2018 at 11:04 am #

        FYI, here in Australia Liberals are the conservative/Big Biz force (currently in power), and Labor are the Trade Unions (the progressive bad guys, currently in opposition).

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard May 17, 2018 at 3:23 pm #

        And what does that have to do with the book Chris reviewed?

      • Anarchymedes May 18, 2018 at 11:18 am #

        Nothing: that was mostly in response to ‘Typical Liberal Bullshit.’ But earlier, in the reviews’s language, particularly in the part I quoted about the ‘need to remember that our heroes can be flawed men,’ I saw—perhaps mistakingly—a suggestion to go gently on Trump: something I was not, and am not inclined to do, especially after watching the plain and simple personality cult developing in a country that’s supposed to be an example of liberty.

  2. Arjayh May 17, 2018 at 9:01 am #

    Sorry, but I disagree about Grant. He was very much a political general. He cultivated Sherman (his brother John was a US Senator and father-in-law a former US Senator) which gave him political coverage when his frontal assaults against entrenched Confederate positions cost so many men.
    He also ensured that the ‘Rock of Chickamauga’ General Thomas was pushed into the background and promoted Sherman over Thomas.
    Thomas, BTW, NEVER lost a battle throughout the entire Civil War. He was a far better general than Grant, but because he was a Virginian had no political coverage.

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