Book Review: Grant, by Ron Chernow

The eve of Martin Luther King Day seems an appropriate time to write a review of Ron Chernow’s new biography of US Grant, the commander of Union armies and two-term president. Chernow’s book shows that Grant’s life and posthumous reputation are tied up in the struggle for racial equality.

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During and after his life, Grant has been subject to a great deal of criticism. He has been portrayed as leader of a corrupt and ineffective presidency. He was also characterized as a military leader who clumsily overwhelmed his more skillful adversaries with massive force, generating massive casualties in the process.

Chernow’s lengthy but very readable biography provides a different portrait. He shows that the denigration of Grant, like the deification of Robert E. Lee, (and the associated statues), were both part of a political project to rehabilitate the Confederacy and justify the Jim Crow racial caste system that emerged in the latter part of the 19th Century.

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Grant was a man who seemed made for his historic moment. A mediocre student at West Point, he showed promise as a young officer during the Mexican War. In peacetime, though, he was forced out of the army on charges of excessive drinking. He then proceeded to fail miserably at a variety of businesses.

When the Civil War broke out, Grant was able to enlist as a Captain. Within three years he was made Lieutenant General (a rank not bestowed since George Washington) and commander of the entire Union army.

 

Chernow shows that Grant had certain qualities that facilitated this remarkable rise. He possessed great clarity of thought, even in high-pressure situations. He was aggressive and innovative, rarely allowing ego to cloud his strategic judgement. While he had an iron determination, his essential humility appealed greatly to the troops and to President Lincoln as well.

Grant’s struggle with alcoholism is an interesting part of his life story. He was able to overcome this addiction with help from his wife Julia and from John Rawlins, his aide-de-camp and close friend.

 

If Chernow’s book had concluded with the end of the Civil War, it would have been a story of personal and national triumph. However, the post-war years contain the more sobering lessons.

The story of Grant’s presidency is to a great extent the story of Reconstruction, the attempt to bring the South back into the Union on a foundation of racial equality. Grant was born into an abolitionist family, and from early on he strongly encouraged the recruitment of African American soldiers. He went on to become the country’s most important white advocate for the rights of freed slaves, though ultimately his efforts stumbled and failed.

After the Civil War, many Southern whites fought a campaign of violence, terror, and armed resistance to legal authority in order to reestablish, if not slavery, then something as close to it as possible. Grant used military force to contain what he saw as an attempt to undo the results of the Civil War. Under his watch, the Justice Department was created, and its initial focus was to successfully crush the first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan.

However, Northern white opposition to Reconstruction grew rapidly during Grant’s presidency. Partly it was war fatigue, partly racism. Most political attacks on Grant were motivated, directly or indirectly, by opposition to Reconstruction. Meanwhile, atrocities committed by Southern whites (and there were many) elicited little concern in the North.

Democrats, then the party of white supremacy, used discontent with Reconstruction to make electoral gains. And Republicans were shifting from being primarily an anti-slavery party to being primarily a pro-business party.

By the end of his second term, Grant himself was turning his back on the battle. His Republican successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, withdrew the last federal troops from the South, and Reconstruction came to an end.

Chernow argues that Reconstruction was doomed because it needed a large and long-term federal military presence in the South, and the North simply did not wish to maintain such a presence.

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Grant in retirement

I feel Chernow goes too easy on Grant, but it’s true that he was eventually hamstrung by an unsympathetic Congress and a racist U.S. Supreme Court, which issued a series of rulings eviscerating the newly passed 14th and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution. And the Southern resistance to Reconstruction was ferocious – the White House was flooded with death threats when Grant intervened to help Blacks in Louisiana.

Historians generally praise Lincoln and Grant for their magnanimous treatment of the defeated Confederacy, but I wonder if that magnanimity was what truly doomed any chance that Reconstruction had. The Confederate officers who were allowed to go home were, before long, leading the violent resistance to Reconstruction. And allowing the Southern aristocracy to keep their plantations gave them the economic means and motivation to support what amounted to a counterrevolution.

Lincoln and Grant must have thought that after the devastation of the Civil War, white Southerners would be chastened and reasonable. In truth, they were nothing of the sort. They remained implacable in their desire to establish a system of white supremacy.

Grant may have fallen short in the defense of racial equality, but African Americans at the time still saw him as their most valuable ally, and many urged him to run for a third term in 1876 or in 1880. One historian noted that Grant did more for civil rights than any President between Lincoln and LBJ.

Chernow’s book helps restore our appreciation for a pivotal figure in American history.

28 Comments on “Book Review: Grant, by Ron Chernow

  1. Sounds like it might be a good read. I had a totally different idea about Grant.

  2. Jason, this sounds like a fascination biography, and I think my husband would be very interested in this book, too. I lack knowledge about post civil war Reconstruction – I suppose many of us do – but it does seem that what happened then is having deep ramifications now. Thanks for this excellent review. One of the antidotes to fake news and ignorance is to keep reading – and talking about – fine books with excellent research such as this one. It also strikes me how our views of the past keep changing, and how difficult it is to discern the truth about what really happened.

    • I think Reconstruction has been downplayed in American history because it is so shocking, and because it destroys the pro-Southern Lost Cause narrative that dominated our view of the Civil War until pretty recently.

  3. I enjoyed this read, especially since I was just recently reading letters written by my ancestors and passed down to me about the Civil War and Reconstruction. I am from Alabama so you can imagine which side they fought on! Their perspective is quite interesting. Issues are always complicated, and retroactive history analysis has a way of simplifying matters and painting the situation in broad strokes. In fact, Reconstruction fueled the resistance that lead to the KuKlux Klan and exacerbated problems. As for Grant and Lee and most all leaders – they too are painted with strokes that often fail to capture the complexities of their personalities and their decisions and actions. We are blessed to live in a nation that survived a civil war and still strives to make things right, no matter how messy the process.

  4. Great review! Another book about the Grant years you might like is Congress and the King of Frauds, by Robert Mitchell.

  5. I’ve read a fair amount about Grant and keep thinking I should read Chernow’s book despite its size. I read his equally large bio of Washington and it was fabulous. A page turner despite all we know of him and the Am. Revolution. Thanks for a really instructive review.

  6. Yes, very appropriate for today. Although we have made progress—with President Obama being a shining example—we still have a virulent racism in this country. The past isn’t over, that’s for sure. I wonder if breaking up the plantations would have helped. And how long would there have had to have been a military presence in the South before Blacks were accorded true freedom? We’ll never know, but it certainly was a complicated matter with no quick resolution.

    • You’re right, the past is not over. We’re the same country that fought a war over slavery, and the underlying issue is still not fully addressed.

      • So true! Time to acknowledge this, time to stop turning away.

  7. I am reading it now. Chernow’s biographies of Washington and Hamilton were also good. Grant’s autobiography is a good read. He was in need of historical rehabilitation.

  8. What an excellent review! I have just re-read the Brooks Simpson biography, but your review makes me want to read this one as well. Thank you!

    • He tried to do the right thing. Not always successfully, but you have to wonder if the North could have won the Civil War without him.

  9. Wonderful review, Jason – since American history was not really covered in depth when I went to school, I didn’t know many of the details you touched on.

  10. Thanks for your excellent review of Chernow’s book on Grant. It should be on my TBR list, when I have time for a long read!

  11. Great review–I just ordered this from the library. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at the current state of affairs in this country, knowing how deeply racism is embedded in our history.

    • Exactly. I think the first step to understanding what’s going on around us is to get a grip on our history, especially as it relates to the Civil War and race relations.

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