In Ron Chernow’s ‘Grant,’ Ulysses S. Grant Finally Gets His Due

In Ron Chernow’s ‘Grant,’ Ulysses S. Grant Finally Gets His Due

Historians have not been kind to the Civil War hero and 18th president, but a new biography by Pulitzer Prize-winner Ron Chernow seeks to restore Grant to his rightful place in the pantheon of American leaders.
Kyle Sammin
By

Ulysses S. Grant’s reputation, both as a president and a general, has seen greater ups and downs than any major American historical figure has. A century ago, he was reviled as a drunkard and a mediocrity, a butcher in battle, a bumbler in office. Over the course of many years since Grant’s historical standing reached its nadir, he has risen in the eyes of his biographers and their readers.

Now, in “Grant” by Ron Chernow, he rises still more and may be at last recognized for his great contributions to American history. If this book gains the widespread readership of Chernow’s previous biographies, the author responsible for reintroducing the masses to Alexander Hamilton may do an even greater service to history in restoring Grant to his proper place in the American pantheon.

Fathers and Sons

Chernow focuses, as other biographers have done, on the relationship between Grant and his father. Grant’s parents, Jesse and Hannah Grant, were among that generation of Americans who went beyond the edge of settled lands and dragged that line a little farther west. Grant’s father, like Abraham Lincoln’s and many others of that generation, were boisterous, overconfident men who thought they could do anything. They were living the American Dream, and woe betide any man or government who stood in their way.

The difference between father and son in temperament was vast. Jesse was a braggart, mercurial, and an opinionated boor. Ulysses was phlegmatic, quiet, and humble—traits Chernow associates with Grant’s mother. Jesse was a restless man who grabbed every opportunity for advancement. A shameless self-promoter, he dominated his children well into their adult lives. Grant would be under his father’s thumb until he made something of himself and earned the confidence to go his own way. The contrast is not unique to Grant, but repeated in many of the fathers and sons of the old Midwest. The fathers captured the west; their sons civilized it.

While the outspoken Jesse Grant was an open book, Ulysses was harder to pin down, both to historians and even to his closest friends. As William T. Sherman later said of Grant, “He is a strange character. Nothing like it is portrayed by Plutarch or the many who have striven to portray the great men of ancient or modern times.” On another occasion, Sherman said of Grant that “to me he is a mystery, and I believe he is a mystery to himself.”

As Jesse Grant’s business prospered, it became apparent that Ulysses would not follow him in his commercial ambitions. He hated even the sight of his father’s operation—a tannery—and both father and son acknowledged that Ulysses had no head for business. When the chance for Ulysses to attend West Point became available, Jesse jumped on that, too, and started his son on the career that, with some twists and turns, would eventually lead him to triumph and adulation.

A Born Soldier

Ulysses was at first reluctant to join the military, but as a dutiful son he adhered to his father’s wishes. He soon found a home in West Point, discovered a talent for strategy, and further developed his expertise at horsemanship. Despite that skill, Grant was assigned to the infantry and stationed in St. Louis, where the largest concentration of troops in the west was gathered. He found peacetime service tedious, and spent as much time as possible off base, usually visiting at the nearby home of the family of his classmate, Frederick Dent. He would later marry Dent’s sister, Julia, who replaced Jesse as the guiding influence in Grant’s life.

Before that, however, Grant and his unit were sent to Mexico to fight in the war that would result in the conquest of the southwest. Grant abhorred the reasons for the war, which he saw as an unjust attack on a weaker nation that served to seize land where slavery could be expanded. Nevertheless, he did his duty and fought bravely, relishing the chance to be in combat and fighting in nearly every battle of the war.

Many Civil War officers had their first taste of war in Mexico, and several of the men Grant fought alongside would be arrayed against him in 15 years. In the meantime, they served together again in peacetime as Grant dragged his bride and growing family to several bases in the east. In 1852, he was ordered to a base on the Pacific Coast to safeguard the nation’s new possessions. The cost of living on the west coast, even then, was not enough to afford on an officer’s salary, and Grant was forced to part from Julia.

Demon Rum

The split proved dangerous to Grant, as his wife’s absence led to the emergence of his greatest flaw: a fondness for alcohol. This is the other main theme of the book, in which Chernow diverts from existing scholarship. He focuses on Grant’s alcoholism and discusses it in modern terms, as a disease, differentiating Grant from a casual drinker. In Chernow’s telling, Grant’s alcohol consumption was that of a problem drinker, one who cannot indulge safely without imbibing until drunk. It is a theme previous biographers touched on, but Chernow is the first to make it a central theme of his narrative.

Depressed by his family’s absence, bored in his tedious peacetime career, and without the guidance of his wife, Grant drank often in his western posting, and to excess. His indulgence led him to run afoul of his commanding officer, who eventually offered to let him resign in order to avoid a court-martial. Grant did, and returned to his family and civilian life.

If he found himself ill-suited for the peacetime army, he was even more ill-equipped to make a living as a civilian. Farming land he received as a gift from his father-in-law (and working alongside a slave who was also the former property of the Dents), Grant survived as a farmer, but did not prosper. He freed his slave and tried several civilian vocations in St. Louis, none of which could provide enough income to achieve true independence. By 1860, Grant was forced to turn back to the protection of his father, working as a clerk in Jesse’s leather goods store in Illinois.

Finding His Calling

The outbreak of war delivered Grant from a lifetime of mediocrity. Thrust back into a military role by the country’s desperate need for trained soldiers, Grant fought some minor battles before taking forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee, the first major victories for the Union. The success was badly needed against a backdrop of Confederate triumphs. Grant earned his famous nickname “Unconditional Surrender” by the simple and effective terms he offered to the army he captured at Donelson.

If the victory propelled Grant to stardom in the Northern public’s eyes, it also revitalized the legend of the drinking that caused him to leave the army in the first place. Rivals for promotion and power circulated rumors that Grant was often drunk. Lincoln ignored them for the most part, valuing Grant’s success more than his sobriety, but Secretary of War Edwin Stanton also sent Charles Dana to live with Grant’s army and keep an eye on the situation. Dana soon became a fervent supporter of Grant, but the tales of his drinking dogged him throughout the war.

Chernow dissects the drinking rumors one by one, and finds most to be the work of jealous subordinates or scandal-hungry newspapermen. But they do fit a pattern, he admits, and the evidence suggests that occasionally the stories were true. Grant never drank before a battle or other important occasion but sometimes, when he was bored and lonely, he would let his discipline slip and go on a bender.

After Grant’s victory at Shiloh, these binges were few and far between. He knew he had a problem and to avoid the traps that had laid him low before, he tried to have Julia in camp as much as possible. Whenever she was present, Chernow notes, the rumors stopped almost immediately. Grant’s staff officer, John Rawlins, also tried to keep his boss temperate, mostly successfully, but only the general’s wife had the influence to curb his drinking completely.

Activity helped. After the fall of Vicksburg, Grant was constantly on the move, lifting the siege that trapped a Union army in Chattanooga, defeating the army that had held it there, and finally moving East as general-in-chief of all Union Armies. His campaign against Robert E. Lee in the spring and summer of 1864 was brilliantly executed, but failed to deliver the immediate victory for which Grant and Lincoln had hoped. Instead, it took a prolonged siege of Petersburg to grind Lee’s army down. When they attempted to break out and head south, Grant captured Richmond and defeated Lee in short order, ending the war.

Critics attacked Grant’s skill as a general after his death, putting forth the idea that he won only through the weight of numbers, not because of any particular skill. The myth of the Lost Cause required the belief that Grant and the Union won by brute force. Southern generals, in that telling, were vastly superior to their enemies, facing defeat only because the South was less populous. The widespread belief in that fable made a casualty of Grant’s military reputation.

Chernow joins many recent authors in showing the falsehood of this claim. All the Union generals’ forces outnumbered Lee’s, but only Grant could figure out the proper objective—Lee’s army, not the city of Richmond—and the way to achieve it, which was simultaneous attacks on multiple fronts and persistence in pursuit of the enemy despite casualties. Grant’s tactics throughout the war were innovative, especially in the Vicksburg campaign, and Chernow is the latest to work toward Grant’s military prowess being given proper respect.

Grant At Peace

Chernow spends more time than most biographers on Grant’s presidency, part of what makes this volume more comprehensive than other biographers’ recent efforts. The only president between Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson to serve two consecutive full terms in office, Grant played the preeminent political role in the post-war country.

Here, too, Grant’s reputation is on the rise, though the change is longer in coming. The continuing rehabilitation of Grant is the flip side of the denigration of the Confederates he faced on the battlefield. His actions in reconstructing the vanquished South, once the object of historians’ ire, now put him in good stead with the academy.

The tone of this section is more argumentative than others, likely because Grant’s rank as a politician is still in dispute, while his military reputation is more assured. Grant saw Reconstruction as essential in preserving the fruits of the Union victory. At first, most of the North agreed with him, but as memories faded their ardor for Reconstruction waned. As we have seen in modern wars, victory in the field is difficult to achieve and maintain, but keeping the nation focused on post-war occupation is harder still. Union victory in the Civil War was no simple task, and Reconstruction would prove far more complicated.

Grant tried to govern as he imagined Lincoln would have. He did not wish to punish the South so long as they accepted the post-war order and the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution. When they failed to do so, Grant entrenched, becoming more committed than ever to equal justice for black Americans. The rest of the party had the opposite reaction, seeing the work of the war as having ended and wishing to spend less time and treasure on the freed slaves. By his second term Grant was, in the words of an earlier biographer, William McFeely, the only prominent politician “who gave a damn about the black people.”

Grant’s attachment to Reconstruction drove a wedge between him and liberals in the Republican Party, who split from the GOP in the 1872, running a fusion candidate with the Democrats for president that year. Chernow reserves special disdain for liberal Republican Sen. Charles Sumner, an interesting twist from earlier biographies. Although both men believed that the federal government should ensure equal treatment under law when the states would not, Sumner saw Grant as a clownish amateur.

When Grant refused to be ruled by Sumner, especially in foreign policy, the two became foes. The enmity was personal, based more on pride and jealousy than ideological differences; as Chernow writes, “[o]ne wonders whether Sumner thought Grant had done too little or feared that the president had upstaged him as the foremost protector of African American rights.”

The recent explosion in Grant scholarship has shed new light on and created new appreciation for our eighteenth president. The quality of Chernow’s book, in addition to the fame of its Pulitzer Prize-winning author, should continue the popularizing trend. Of the books on Grant written in the past few decades, Chernow’s “Grant” is the best and comes closest to presenting a full picture of a man historians have found difficult to decipher.

Kyle Sammin is a lawyer and writer from Pennsylvania. Read some of his other writing at kylesammin.com, or follow him on Twitter @KyleSammin.

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