The #1 New York Times bestseller. New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Chernow returns with a sweeping and dramatic portrait of one of our most compelling generals and presidents, Ulysses S. Grant. Ulysses S. Grant's life has typically been misunderstood. All too often he is caricatured as a chronic loser and an 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 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. Before the Civil War, Grant was flailing. His business ventures had ended dismally, and despite distinguished service in the Mexican War he ended up resigning from the army in disgrace amid recurring accusations of drunkenness. But in war, Grant began to realize his remarkable potential, soaring through the ranks of the Union army, prevailing at the battle of Shiloh and in the Vicksburg campaign, and ultimately defeating the legendary Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Along the way, Grant endeared himself to President Lincoln and became his most trusted general and the strategic genius of the war effort. Grant's military fame translated into a two-term presidency, but one plagued by corruption scandals involving his closest staff members. More important, he sought freedom and justice for black Americans, working to crush the Ku Klux Klan and earning the admiration of Frederick Douglass, who called him "the vigilant, firm, impartial, and wise protector of my race." After his presidency, he was again brought low by a dashing young swindler on Wall Street, only to resuscitate his image by working with Mark Twain to publish his memoirs, which are recognized as a masterpiece of the genre. With lucidity, breadth, and meticulousness, Chernow finds the threads that bind these disparate stories together, shedding new light on the man whom Walt Whitman described as "nothing heroic... and yet the greatest hero." Chernow's probing portrait of Grant's lifelong struggle with alcoholism transforms our understanding of the man at the deepest level. This is America's greatest biographer, bringing movingly to life one of our finest but most underappreciated presidents. The definitive biography, Grant is a grand synthesis of painstaking research and literary brilliance that makes sense of all sides of Grant's life, explaining how this simple Midwesterner could at once be so ordinary and so extraordinary. Named one of the best books of the year by Goodreads - Amazon - The New York Times - Newsday - BookPage - Barnes and Noble - Wall Street Journal
Less well remembered was his role as a champion of civil rights during the Reconstruction. He was also at the forefront of reconciliation between North and South. The post-Civil War era of the United States issue one that has been obscured by the so-called "lost cause" rewriting of history and this aspect of Grant's life gets good attention here.
This biography attempts to encompass the whole man, but except for the chapters covering his military career, Grant remains an enigma. As President, he often seems to be more driven by his fellow politicians than a shaper of policy, but his terms in office are shown to be more successful than is generally believed.
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 has produced a magnificent book, destined to be the gold standard, if not the last word, in general histories of this man.
Chernow approaches Grant’s life in a traditional way, starting with his birth, ending with his death and following him in a strictly chronological way in between. He rarely digresses to discuss the context of Grant’s actions, keeping the focus very tightly on what he did, where he went and why. This is a stroke of genius because we get to know Grant very intimately and begin to experience the ups and downs of his life with him and become very sympathetic to his way of thinking and acting.
Grant emerged from a not very spectacular start to become the military architect of the Union victory in the American Civil War where other, at the time, starrier names had failed. He was magnanimous in victory, refusing to punish or humiliate Confederate forces and often personally ensuring that troops were fed, clothed and allowed to return home with dignity. Less well known is his personal commitment to the abolition of slavery, never losing sight of this as the real goal of the war. As the conflict progressed and more and more freed slaves were appearing in Union territory Grant was quick to recruit black soldiers and to employ freed slaves to help with the war effort.
As President, Grant was the key driver of Reconstruction and the integration of freed slaves into American life resulting in many black appointments and electoral victories to political posts across the country. The four million freed slaves became the backbone of the electoral support for Grant’s Republican Party.
After his second term in office Grant spent two years travelling the world, initially on holiday, but increasingly as a semi-official ambassador helping to settle international disputes and spread American soft power.
Grant introduced many innovations into American politics, the Presidency and national governance, all covered by Chernow. In many respects Grant is the key figure in the transition from the Founding Fathers’ view of the role of the President and the modern Presidency we see today.
Chernow’s book is very long, but very readable. His narrative approach, his language, his focus on character and the rollercoaster life that was Grant make this more like a thriller than a dry biography.
Very highly recommended, especially for those who think that dead white presidents are all beyond the pale.
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.
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.
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.
As with many biographers, Chernow goes into generations of Grant’s family history—including alcoholism—as well as the personalities of his parents Jesse and Hannah who each shaped Grant for both good and ill. Much the biography covers Grant’s service in the Civil War and his Presidency, yet in the little over 100 pages that Chernow covers Grant’s life from his youth through West Point and career in the military including the Mexican War then his interwar civilian life. Chernow not only used these pages to chronicle the young Grant’s life, but also how the struggle of alcohol and his business naivete that would cause issues throughout the rest of his life. With the start of the Civil War, Chernow goes in-depth into how Grant his first command and then how he slowly progressed up the chain of command while dealing with the rebel soldiers but army politics. Then upon Grant’s ascent into the high councils of Washington, Chernow shows how he reassured Lincoln that he was his man and fully embraced his agenda. It was this adherence to Lincoln’s vision that ultimately led Grant to accept the Republican nomination in 1868 and his policy in the South throughout his presidency. Throughout the pages dedicated to Grant’s time in office while the scandals surrounding those individuals that he naively appointed and supported were covered but Chernow balanced it out with achievements of Grant and many of his outstanding cabinet members did during the eight years. Though devoting a little more space to the later years of Grant’s life than those prior to 1860, Chernow focused on Grant’s battle with cancer as he raced to write his memoirs then his legacy.
Chernow knowing the general view of Grant as an alcoholic that defeated Lee through manpower and resources then presiding over a scandalous presidency took his time to address during the biography via themes throughout. Grant’s battle with alcohol was a constant theme until the latter end of his presidency and post-presidency when it appears the presence of his wife Julia and Grant’s own determination essentially conquered the problem. Throughout the Civil War portion of the text Chernow examines Grant’s tactical and strategic thinking especially when he was facing off with Robert E. Lee in Virginia or more accurately tying down Lee’s army while the rest of Union forces crushed the armies opposing them and the will of rebel civilians. Chernow’s chronicling of the scandals of Grant’s presidency was firmly tied to Grant’s naivete with people and always supporting people who he believed to be his friends, something that made him a huge mark for flim-flam men of the Gilded Age. While Chernow’s biography could be seen as “revisionism” by today’s historical readers, it could also be seen as reversing the ‘Lost Cause revisionism’ that occurred during Grant’s own lifetime.
Grant is a fantastic addition to Ron Chernow’s chronicle of great American lives like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Chernow shows that while Grant was flawed like everyone else, his status today is beginning to return to where it was after he militarily reunited the country after being diminished by those who wanted to pretend the American Civil War didn’t happen.
In a bitter reaction to Northern victory, generations of Southern historians have tried to play up Confederate military expertise and put down Grant’s skill. Grant had struggles with alcohol early in his life, yes, but he admiringly avoided alcohol for most of his later life so that he prove more useful. Grant’s victories, such as those at Chattanooga and Vicksburg, required expertise that made him one of the world’s all-time greatest generals. His memoirs, written on his death-bed, only reaffirm this view as Grant’s ingenuity shines through.
I would have liked for Chernow to put in a chapter on Grant’s legacy. How can this successful two-term US President be so forgotten in contemporary culture? That explanatory narrative deserves to see the light of day, and I would have liked to have Chernow write it. Overall, this biography is extremely well-researched, well-argued, and well-executed, but that glaring omission stands as a weakness.
As Chernow and contemporary Walt Whitman acknowledge, America’s greatness can be seen in the ascent of plain but brilliant individuals like Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant to the highest places. These stories must not be forgotten or revised in light of face-saving by future generations. Lincoln and Grant together freed the black slave. They saved the Union and preserved the hope of democracy for the world. Chernow does a good job of making this case and persuading the reader of Grant’s nobility.
I learned so much not only about Grant, but about Lincoln, other politicians, the Civil War and others of that time period. Although a lengthy read, it was one of those where I wish I could have spent more time to have finished it sooner. Chernow has authored another wonderful biography.
For most of my life, Robert E. Lee has been considered the brilliant military leader, and Ulysses Grant is a drunken butcher. Consider, however, Lee fought most of his battles in Virginia and his two incursions into the North were failures. Grant, on the other hand, in his campaign to reduce Vicksburg crossed the Mississippi below Vicksburg into rebel country and cut himself off from his supplies, winning major battles at Jackson and Edwards Station before finally starving Vicksburg. The two biggest failures of these generals, Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg and Shiloh are revealing. Lee must have taken leave of his senses to order Pickett’s charge while Grant recovered everything lost during the first day in the second day at Shiloh.
Grand Strategy enabled Grant to oversee the campaigns of Sherman in the South and Sheridan in the west and administer the entire Union army, while he directly supervised Meade in Virginia. What did Grant do that the previous leaders of the Army of the Potomac did not do? They fought battles, he fought the war. Lee was not a grand strategist while Grant was a master. The clearest indication of this fact is that following the bloody and awful battle of the Wilderness, the Army of the Potomac came to a fork in the road: the left would take them back to the Potomac and safety while the right led to the South. The Army took the right fork. Proof of the Grand Strategist is found in the general acclaim Grant received as he toured the world after his presidency.
The period after the war, called Reconstruction, was strongly supported by the North with heretofore condemned Carpetbaggers and Scalawags who actually struggled to implement the 13th Amendment. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox but the South continued the war under different means. It took the Civil Rights Act of the mid 20th century by Lyndon Johnson to finally impose the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments of the Constitution on the South. Sadly, through no fault of General and later President Grant, the North went soft on Reconstruction, and the United States paid dearly for it.
Grant’s presidency is commonly thought to have been a failure. Why? He believed in the goodness of people. His judgment in elevating Sherman and Sheridan demonstrated he could evaluate military folks. His willingness to believe the best in people led to a remarkable number of failures by the people he trusted both during his presidency and afterward. Nevertheless, his presidency had some excellent successes.
His drinking is something we will never really know this side of eternity. Chernow suggests that he had a peculiar failing in that one drink could transform him into an apparent heavy drinker. One thing to note: one way or another he accomplished great things.
Clearly, I’ve adopted much of Chernow’s thinking. His work reveals a meticulous researcher who is not afraid to offer thoughts he does not share. He also is frank in speaking of Grant’s shortcomings as a person who trusted too much. He also suggests ways in which General Grant slipped into facets of the political President Grant.
Do not think this book can be read in just a few settings. It is far too detailed for that and it is long. I am very grateful for the gift of this book.