"Pulitzer Prize-winner and biographer of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and John D. Rockefeller, Ron Chernow returns with a sweeping and dramatic portrait of one of our most complicated 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 inept businessman, fond of drinking to excess; or as the triumphant but brutal Union general of the Civil War; or as a credulous and hapless president whose tenure came to symbolize the worst excesses of the Gilded Age. These stereotypes don't come close to capturing adequately his spirit and the sheer magnitude of his monumental accomplishments. A biographer at the height of his powers, Chernow has produced a portrait of Grant that is a masterpiece, the first to provide a complete understanding of the general and president whose fortunes rose and fell with dizzying speed and frequency"-- "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. 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 Grant's 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."--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.
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.
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.