Jun 09

Grant, by Ron Chernow ★★★★★

Having just finished a biography of WT Sherman (see recent previous review), I had waiting on the bookshelf the biography of Ulysses S. Grant by Ron Chernow. As mentioned in my book review on Sherman, Sherman stands as one of the greatest of all the American generals to have lived and possessed an unsurpassed brilliance at tactical strategy on the battlefront. Working in close cooperation with US Grant, Sherman was able to achieve battlefield victories with remarkable skill. Grant and Sherman remained very close friends throughout the war and shared very similar strategies toward warfare. They also shared very similar opinions on the nature of war itself, both being very reluctant to have anything to do with war. This story now focuses on US Grant. Chernow weaves a spell-binding account of Grant’s life from birth through to his death.

Ulysses was the first of several siblings, born in the backwoods of Ohio, near to Cincinnati. He was a quiet kid like his mother, and did not like the aggressive boistrous egotistical personality of his father. Because his father was mostly self-educated later in life, he insisted that his son get a good education. His father Jesse, using the influence of political friends, was able to land Ulysses a spot at West Point, a bit to Grant’s chagrin. Grant had a very mediocre performance at West Point, excelling mostly at horsemanship, but not doing so well at most other subjects. He had gotten to know a number of other officers at that time, many of whom became lifelong friends, even though some of them ended up as confederate officers that he eventually needed to confront in battle. After West Point, Grant was stationed just south of St. Louis, where he met his wife-to-be. Grant was soon to be deployed in the war against Mexico where he served with distinction and began honing his skills as an army officer. After the war, he was deployed to Fort Vancouver (WA), and eventually to Fort Humboldt on the northern coast of California by Eureka. Out west, Grant tried a number of business ventures, all of which he did very poorly. In addition, the weather and minimal activity led him to drink heavily, Grant being a person who could not hold his alcohol, which made him behave quite drunkenly. This led him back to St. Louis and discharge from the military, where he and his wife tried out several businesses, again resulting in dismal failure. Finally, Grant moved to Galena, Illinois to work in a family leather store, where he was able to pay off past debts, but was bored silly. At this time, the civil war broke out, and through family connections, Grant was able to move up quickly in the western campaign, starting as a brigadier general. The biggest struggles were against incompetent superiors and a malignant press who continually harped on Grant’s incompetence and addiction to alcohol. Grant was able to win a major battle at Fort Donelson, leading him to be promoted to major general, and then turned a near-disastrous encounter with the enemy at Shiloh into a rout. In further battles heading south, Grant finally achieved fame through his victory at Vicksburg, a challenging campaign that pitted the offense at an extreme disadvantage against the enemy. Turning east, Grant then achieved a challenging but decisive victory at Chattanooga, leaving him as the most talked-about General of the Northern army. Lincoln decided to pull him off of the Western campaign and assigned him as commander-in-chief of all forces, but stationed in the east, which was plagued by incompetent, indecisive, timid generals. Grant assigned his friend General Sherman to be the General in charge of the western army, a story told elsewhere. In 13 months, Grant was finally able to encounter his foe, General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox where surrender occurred. Because of Grant’s very lenient, fair handed deal with Lee, Grant later in life remained deeply respected in the south.

This brings a few comments to mind. Grant was a very taciturn, quiet, humble man. At no point in his life did he promote himself. He was not ostentatious, and when he would drift into towns, he usually was confused as an aide to someone in his vicinity. His problem with alcohol was endured by having his chief aide Gen. John Rawlins tenaciously guard him against the bottle. It was mostly effective, save for brief lapses when battles seemed to be dragging out. Grant was quite a religious man, regularly attending the church of his youth, the Methodist church. Much is often made of Grant doing well at war only because he had unlimited resources at his disposal. That is most untrue. Firstly, the witness of the numerous failed generals that preceded Grant attest to Grant’s superior ability to lead an army into battle. Secondly, the confederates had a massive home-field advantage, which most military strategists admit requires 2-5 times the attacking force to overcome. A look at Grant’s and Sherman’s field strategies attest they truly were the greater generals. One distinction of note for the confederate generals was their superior air, best seen at Appomattox. General Lee arrived with a freshly laundered uniform and freshened appearance, while Grant slogged in coated with mud and grime. Grant attempted friendly small talk but was rebuffed by Lee desiring a terse exchange and communication of the terms of surrender. This difference was seen not only with the folk of the north vs. south but also noted when Grant visited Europe, where he would generally show up for a state engagement on foot, while the royal host expected Grant to show up in a coach surrounded by servants and great flair.

Abe Lincoln was assassinated 6 days after the end of the war, and replaced by Andrew Johnson. Johnson was a southern democrat from Tennessee, and most reluctant to engage in the reconstruction of the south. During his tenure, the 13, 14, and 15th amendments to the constitution were enacted by congress, giving the freed negroes the right to vote on an equal basis with whites. Grant grew increasingly disenchanted by Johnson, who went through an impeachment trial that nearly removed him from office. At the end of Johnson’s term, Grant was easily ushered into the office of the presidency without applying for the office or campaigning. Grant did not have a problem with alcohol in the presidency or afterwards though he was occasionally accused of drunken flings. A summary of the main issues that Grant as president had to contend with were as follows.

Corruption was a continual issue with President Grant. It wasn’t that Grant was corrupt, in that he was known throughout his life to be impeccably honest and forthright with people, even when it served to his disadvantage. Grant had a horrible time choosing people that did not mislead or bamboozle the president. His numerous failed business ventures attested to Grant’s total inability to sort out and manage people in peacetime. Though the presidency of Grant is often referred to even to this day as a corrupt presidency, close analysis shows that there was not a presidency starting with Washington that was free from corruption. It was just more apparent during the Grant years.

Foreign policy: Grant realized that the USA was emerging on the international scene as a power to be reckoned with. Among his triumphs was the ability to negotiate a fair treaty with England regarding the Alabama, a Confederate warship that England harbored and costly to American shipping during the Civil war. This event nearly led to war with England. Grant fought hard to annex the Dominican Republic, which proved to be a failed venture that Congress would have nothing to do with.

Reconstruction and Indian problems: Grant’s most vexing problems related to restoring the south to a situation where blacks were not considered second class citizens and treated equally under the law. This also applied to the western Indian populations, who were not ready to give up their nomadic lifestyle and settle down. Regarding the south, blacks seemed to be tipping the vote in favor of Republicans and the southern response was to threaten blacks that went to the polls to vote. Blacks were harassed by the Ku Klux Klan, and later by white Rifle Clubs, and essentially rendered to a subservient status. The Ku Klux Klan was subdued, but other southern vigilante elements worked without end to undo Reconstructive efforts of the south. The North became increasingly dominated by Democratic elements and Liberal Republicans, who wished to undo all aspects of Reconstruction, a move that Grant felt would undo the Civil War and return blacks to a new form of slavery. This state of quasi-slavery was not essentially dealt with until the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and beyond.

The Lost Cause movement in the south started immediately after the end of the Civil war. Its’ basic thesis is that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but about state rights. I would have thought that this discussion would have silenced over time, but it hasn’t, and still has its’ adherents vociferous that the Civil was about state rights, economics, and a host of other things. Regarding state rights, what was the chief “right” that the South contended that they lost after the Civil War? It was the right to own slaves. Did the South really care for those slaves? A lot is made out of how slaves were treated as family and loved by their owners. The slave owner’s love lasted only as long as they could still maintain possession of black-skinned people as chattel. When the ability to own another person was lost, the love of slave and owner was immediately lost. Sadly, the North was not as loving toward ex-slaves as they pretended to be before and during the war, and a deep-set prejudice towards blacks had set in that remains a problem to this day. Those who boast moral superiority of the south, who fly confederate flags or boast of a lost virtue, the virtue of their generals and southern gentry, are living in a fictitious world that doesn’t offer true remedies to solve racial issues. Sadly, when one looks at established Democrat and Republican politicians then and even today, I see an air about them that views me as a less knowledgeable, hoi polloi, a serf of their system. Grant and Sherman were among the few men that had insight into the race problems that would be so problematic in years to come.

Grant was at his wits’ end toward the end of his presidency, and though his wife Julia wished for a third term, Grant had more than enough. Retirement for Grant entailed a two year tour of the world, starting in Europe, then going to India, China, Japan, and then back to the west coast of America. His visits to foreign capitals proved Grant to be a master statesman, though soft-spoken and always humble in his approach, as he had been throughout his life.

Finally returning to the east coast, the Grants ultimately decided to settle down in Manhattan, and was able to afford this through the generosity and appreciation of many of his wealthy friends, like the Vanderbilts. Grant entered into a banking deal with a friend that ended up being a total unmitigated failure, costing Grant and his children nearly every penny of their wealth. Left destitute, Grant then discovered that he had an oral cavity cancer that was incurable. In the face of excruciating pain, Grant sought to earn some revenue to provide for his wife, and was coaxed by Mark Twain and others to write his memoirs. Soon after completing this masterpiece, Grant quickly deteriorated in health, passing away at a resort provided by loving admirers in upstate New York. He was buried in Manhattan, only to have President McKinley authorize and fund a giant memorial at the site where he and his wife Julia are now buried.

Grant truly was an honorable man. He was admired by both the North and the South, beloved by negroes, and the chief friend of western Indian populations. In life, he had many enemies and many folks that took advantage of Grant and cheated him out of great wealth. Yet, Grant always maintained a composed posture, and even in the heat of battle or at his most stressful moments, did not flinch or cower. He is a statement of what is great about America, a person that could arise from an obscure family, gain prominence solely on merit alone, could be great at some things, and yet a disaster in so many other things. He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth like his opponent Generals in the civil war, or his political opponents. He maintained a solid integrity throughout his life. He acknowledged his problem with alcohol, eventually overcoming alcoholism. Indeed, it is people like Ulysses S. Grant that certainly made the USA a great nation. Sadly, there are few people like him today.

Finally, some comments are in order about the book and its author. This book is a wonderful read. Though it is lengthy, at 959 pages, much of it is written in a suspenseful fashion that compels the reader to not put the book down. It is very detailed. It offers a character sketch of US Grant that is intimate in its details. It truly is a masterpiece worth reading.

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2 Responses to “Grant”

  1. Bruder Dennis says:

    Ken,

    Good summary of U. S. Grant.

    I would look at the cause for the Second American Revolution (which is what most Southerners called it) not in the slavery issue but as a trade war with the North with the UK.

    Few Southerners owned black slaves; they were too expensive. Only a few large plantations had them, and Cyrus McCormick’s cotton gin was making manual labor uneconomical. Lincoln was not against slavery; read his stump speeches debating Douglas. He is ambivalent about the issue. You really ought to get and read a copy of

    Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War, by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Open Court Press, 1996.

    The UK had a textile industry and needed cotton. The South produced it and had a lively trade with Britain, which cut the North out of trade advantages. Having the political clout, the North (U.S.) passed laws pressuring the South from selling to the UK and not to the North instead. It goes from there.

    The UK could have come into the War supporting the South and had troops in Canada to do so. The French had troops in Mexico. The U.S. was weak and vulnerable to predators. But that didn’t happen. Why? Because for the second time in U.S. history, it was saved by … the Russian navy!

  2. Bruder Dennis says:

    Correction:

    Cyrus McCormick’s reaper and Eli Whitney’s cotton gin: both technology advances changed the economics of the 19th century, just as the Internet and robotics are changing it today.

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