"Ulysses S. Grant's life has typically been misunderstood. All too often he is caricatured as a chronic loser and inept businessman, or as the triumphant but brutal Union general of the Civil War. But these stereotypes don't come close to capturing him, as Ron Chernow shows in his masterful biography, the first to provide a complete understanding of the general and president whose fortunes rose and fell with dizzying speed and frequency."--Book jacket.
Sometimes I questioned some of Chernow's choices -- he'd go into little asides giving minor biographies of some of the bit players in Grant's life, when I would have preferred more info on those closest to him instead -- or later, when Grant is president, there are mentions of so many Senators and other political players, and I was constantly wondering: Tyler, Polk, Garfield? Had they been presidents already or would be presidents later? Were they actually just relatives of presidents? But these almost familiar appearances were rarely explained.
Overall, though, I appreciated the relatively even-handed way Chernow approached Grant's controversies -- the drinking, the Whiskey Ring corruption, etc. As much as Grant's memoirs have been praised (which I may someday still read), I appreciated the perspective of a third party here.
I'm no Grant scholar, but I expect that's why I liked this book so much -- as a reintroduction to a man whose reputation has changed wildly over the ages -- largely inversely with the Lost Cause theory of the Civil War. It's good to have him back -- faults included -- but with a new understanding of all he did and tried to do to make the promise of America true for all Americans.
I knew little about Grant and so everything was new. Chernow's descriptions of the Civil War in the West helped solidify that complex theater, as well as the Overland campaign, a single running battle of attrition. I was amazed how close the South came to re-enacting slavery after the war, and how crucial Grant was to stopping it. Also the amount of violence that continued for years afterwards, I'd like to learn more. Grant was certainly the most important person of the era, after Lincoln.
This is a fine book, very readable. Chernow is sympathetic to his subject and reader.
Chernow is a Grant defender, and makes a good case that many of the criticisms of the man- his alcoholism, his brutal military tactics, his ineffectiveness in stopping the South from initiating Jim Crow, the corruption of his administration- are unfair.
For starters, he paints Grant as a man who was prone to alcoholism, but who was able to abstain from drink most of the time; I was struck by his understanding of the nature of alcoholism well before there was any science on this. He employed a staff officer during the Civil War whose job was at least partially to keep alcohol away from him. By the post-Civil War era, he had largely conquered it, and would be characterized today as someone fully "in recovery", though without any of the supports a similar person would have today.
His military exploits are grippingly described, and a great case is made for him as a really good general with a strong grasp of strategy that his northern predecessors and contemporaries did not possess. Mainly, he understood that when you have the larger army and the greater resources, the strategy is to attack and stay on the offensive, whereas other generals in the north were too timid and kept allowing the South to resupply and reorganize when they were ripe for the picking.
As for Reconstruction, this is tougher. The book does a great job laying out the challenges of protecting ex-slaves in an unrepentant South, and I realized that this part of US history is really poorly taught in schools (at least to me, and I was a History major in college!). On one hand, Chernow believes that Grant's heart was in the right place and that he had very progressive views on rights for African-Americans. On the other hand, though, he didn't really do enough to keep southern mobs from killing lots of innocent people and dis-enfranchising Black people. At the same time, the north was exhausted and there wasn't much support for continuing to occupy the south. It was a tough situation, but I think one can make the argument that Grant cared more about being magnanimous toward white southerners than about protecting black southerners.
Also interesting, Grant was amazingly naive in his personal/business life, and trusted a long string of charlatans and thieves during his presidency (leading to lots of corruption scandals during his presidency, of which he was apparently unaware until each one broke), and throughout his life- he was repeatedly swindled by confidence men, and never seemed to learn and be less trusting.
Good read, if you've got the time.
With that said, I still enjoyed the book tremendously and learned a lot from it. I learned the most from Chernow's description of Grant's presidency, when he was trying to manage Reconstruction, and the period immediately afterward. It was intriguing to ponder the challenges Grant faced, and how things could have gone differently.