“Grant” by Ron Chernow Review



Author:  Ron Chernow

Released:  2017

Grant has been vilified as an incompetent president for the scandals on his watch. Attacking him on that issue became a convenient tool for Reconstruction opponents who sensationalized his failings through congressional hearings and a strident press. But corruption had flourished in American politics since the heyday of Andrew Jackson. Page 854

It’s difficult to look objectively at modern politicians without the context of an historical overview. One gets the impression that living through Grant’s two terms as president was a daily barrage of scandals that would seriously damage the credibility of the man holding office. In addition, his actions that are most favorable historically were severely opposed by half of the country, and only moderately supported by the other half. With over 100 years of hindsight, Grant stands as one of the great presidents due to his accomplishments and policies in office; the numerous scandals appear much more minor in significance.

Certainly there are other factors as to why Grant stands so well regarded. His meteoric rise to General of the Northern army during the Civil War would guarantee him a prominent place in American History even had he never taken office. If there’s one take away I got from reading Chernow’s book however, it’s that flawed men (or even deeply flawed administrations) can still be the right individuals for the job.

Born into – Born Hiram Ulysses Grant in southern Ohio, the man famously known as U.S. Grant actually had a different name. Not until a clerical mistake in his enrollment at West Pointe did he become Ulysses S. Grant, with no middle name attached to it. Grant’s father Jesse ran a tannery (Grant had zero interest in this, hating both the smell and the wanton slaughter of animals), and had habit of moving to bigger cities every few years. Jesse was eventually even successful enough to be elected mayor. The Grant family was original democrat, but switched to the Whig party (and strong abolitionist) around the time of William Henry Harrison’s presidential election.

Early stories of Grant are very reminiscent of George Washington. Grant was very a honest child. Instead of a cherry tree, the best anecdote that has been passed down about Grant was when he was tasked with negotiating to buy his dad a horse. “I’m to offer you $20 first, but to go up to $25 if that’s what it takes” he told the seller. Grant purportedly didn’t flinch at hearing gun shots at the age of 2, and could ride a wild horse on one foot by age 5 (this one seems more likely as stories of his horseback riding prowess occur throughout his military career).

Grant’s Early education was modest, but his father was able to pull strings to get Grant sent to West Point. This involved getting a sponsor that was a Congressman. Grant didn’t want to go as he didn’t believe he could succeed there. Once enrolled it gave him a strong sense of loyalty to the United States government and the concept of the Union. 2.5 out of 5.

Pre-President – Grant graduated from West Point as a private in the middle of his class; however looking at the number of candidates who began in class with him and then dropped out, he was in better than top 25% of candidates overall. From West Point he was then dispatched to St. Louis before getting involved in the Mexican American War conflict. Grant began the war as a Lieutenant and was successful across the board during the war. Eventually he was promoted to Quartermaster, which although was much less flashy than some roles during the war, certainly prepared him for the complicated logistics of running the entire military later on in his career. Grant served first under Zachary Taylor, who Grant respected and emulated. As a soldier, there were no allegations that Grant was anything but brave and willing in battle, and one incident where he raced a horse through enemy territory was regaled for years afterward. When Winfield Scott took over, Grant praised his military mind but little else about the man. After the Mexican American War, Grant was involved in the Temperance movement and swore off alcohol. There were the beginnings of signs that he had a drinking problem and was aware of it. When he was stationed in California without his wife and (at that time) two children he resumed drinking.

Grant’s first exit from the military is an amazing story of what somebody can bounce back from. When he was transferred to a different commanding officer in California, Grant was put on notice for his drinking problem. Essentially, he was made to write a resignation and leave it undated, with the understanding that if he had another drunken episode he would have to resign. Grant had another drunken episode, and resigned (as a Captain). He tried to get back home to his family including one child he had never met and was nearly two years old. Everybody that Grant did business with or had invested money with ended up being a crook and Grant was penniless and stranded on the wrong side of the country. Eventually he got a free ride to New York, where he stayed until being rescued by his family (there is some historical evidence he was even jailed for drunken behavior at this time). Once he got back to his wife, his options were limited and his best one was to farm the 60 acres her parents had given for their wedding and sell wood in the winter time. His financial troubles continued for years, until he went back to Illinois to work for one of his dad’s companies (and below his two younger brothers) as a clerk. The timing on this was fortuitous however, as it placed him an area where he could rapidly advance in the military as the Civil War began.

Given the initial rank of Colonel in Illinois army, Grant was quickly promoted to Brigadier General before any conflicts even took place. Grant was fast tracked because of friends from Illinois (primarily Elihu Washburne) advocating for him and Lincoln giving his home state more generals than any other. Grant was well aware of what caused his previous fall from grace and enforced alcohol use/abuse strictly in his command. In addition he made his Chief advisor John Rawlins take an oath to prevent him from Grant from drinking. Unlike many of his northern contemporaries Grant was successful in his first three conflicts, capturing a city before Rebels could reinforce it, then capturing 2 forts, one of which was fairly heavily defended. The success gained Grant national acclaim as the most successful Northern General from the very beginning of the war as well as a promotion to Major General. Those above him (Halleck and McClellan) were both overly cautious and ambitious, and as a result resented Grant for his success and even wanted him jailed for failure to send daily updates afterwards. It took Lincoln stepping in and telling them the red tape wasn’t the most important thing at this time.

Grant’s first major fight was the Battle of Shiloh, at the time the bloodiest of the Civil War with more deaths than the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Mexican American War combined. There is some evidence Grant’s army was surprised and unprepared when they were attacked by Rebels, which led to many casualties, but Grant’s resolution kept Union forces from surrendering territory. Grant was also unique in his willingness to pursue the Confederates instead of taking time to regroup, correctly understanding that defeating the opposing army would be the key to winning the war. Although the Battle was basically a draw, the Union claimed victory for keeping the territory. When Halleck was momentarily promoted to McClellan’s role of head of the army, Grant became the military general for most of the Western war front.

The single action that looks the worst historically in Grant’s career was his military order removing all Jewish merchants from the area. Spurred on by a few bad apples in the area and his dad’s work bringing in merchants attempting to scam the Union Army, Grant took his frustrations out on the entire Jewish population in his area. Although repealed within 30 days and included among his life’s greatest regrets, the action did have terrible outcomes for many individuals removed from their homes and ostracized by the military.

Grant’s campaign to capture Vicksburg is still recognized as one of the greatest military campaigns in American history and on its own should be sufficient to rebuke his inferiority as a General to Robert E. Lee. Chernow compared the two men, stating Lee would fight you on your front porch, while Grant would fight you in the kitchen and bedroom (meaning Lee was great head to head in a battle, but Grant had a better view for choking off resources and winning a war.) Unfortunately, it was followed up by possibly the worst display of public drunkenness in his career as he fell off a horse in New Orleans in between the Vicksburg and Chattanooga campaigns. Reports vary as to how drunk he was, but Grant’s superb horsemanship underlies the fact supports the allegation as he fell of broke his leg and was sidelining him for 2 months. Most of Grant’s alcohol episodes occurred in private, at non-critical times and out of sight of all but those closest to him during war.

Grant strongly supported the Emancipation Proclamation and was an early adopter of utilizing “Colored troops regiments.” He believed not only they could be useful with manual labor but could also serve and fight bravely in battle, something he bonded with Lincoln over following his success in Vicksburg. The Chattanooga campaign was nearly as impressive as Vicksburg, with Grant’s arrival when the existing troops were less than two weeks away from surrendering due to starvation. Grant fixed the supply infrastructure, and reversed positions securing the city and chasing out the Rebel threat. Following this campaign, Grant was made only the third Lieutenant General in U.S. History, following Washington and Winfield Scott. His delegation style leadership not surprisingly worked well with competent generals but not effective with poor generals. Grant gave great leeway to Sherman and Sheridan and was rewarded for it. Coordinating the attack on multiple fronts, Grant did what no other general before him could do and took the will out of the Rebels at great casualties to both sides

Grant’s handling of Lee’s surrender was in accordance with Lincoln’s wishes. Chernow praised how Grant allowed Eastern generals to get victories and Southerners to surrender gracefully in laying groundwork for easier reunification. Likewise, he helped clean up Sherman’s blunder in granting special terms to Johnston’s surrendering army, but still allowed Sherman to take credit for the surrender. Throughout the end of the war, Grant formed a friendship with Lincoln communicating with him in person and over telegraph frequently.

Grant’s initial trip to the south after the Civil War had him optimistic at southerners willingness to accept the new status quo. However, the actual situation (and Johnson’s handling of it) made it clear that was not the case and Grant needed to use Federal troops to enforce laws to protect free blacks. In addition, Grant passed orders such as “No law can be enforced against blacks which is not also being enforced against the rest of the population.” Under his direction, armies removed elected individuals from office who did not prosecute white criminals, and even threatened to shut down public transportation if it didn’t provide for blacks as well as whites. In doing so, he became the most powerful person in protecting Freedmen in the country. This was despite having a president who was doing everything he could to thwart Republican reconstruction, including removing Grant’s generals who were must successful at making a difference. Grant was tangentially involved in Johnson’s impeachment drama, as Johnson had attempted to name Grant Secretary of War in violation of the Tenure of Office Act. 5 out of 5.

Presidential Career – Grant stayed away from campaigning for the presidency, instead letting the position come to him. Grant won in a landslide electoral vote, though popular vote was much narrower. He definitely benefitted from the African American vote, which was substantial prior to the obstruction that would take place soon after. One of biggest powers of the President during that era was patronage. Grant was as bad as anybody with nepotism, giving jobs to just about anybody who had helped him out or was related to him. On the positive side, Grant gave hundreds of positions to blacks and Jewish people, including the first Ambassador positions to the former and Governorship to the latter. Grant came in with strong preference to assimilate Indians into Christian culture, and appointed various religious figures to assist with this. Although it would not be politically correct now, it was a more humane approach than many of his contemporaries who preferred relocation or genocide for the natives.

Grant also favored annexing the Dominican Republic if possible, however it was thwarted by opposition in Congress. Some of the only support for this plan came from individuals who would benefit monetarily in a direct manner. Along with the first Black Friday scandal (where gold was bought up artificially inflating the prices prior to the treasury then correcting the market) it appeared that individuals that surrounded Grant were unscrupulous and attempting to benefit from government decisions while Grant was ignorant of the conflicted parties until after the fact. While in office, the 15th Amendment was passed giving all men right to vote. His participation was the opposite of Andrew Johnson, in that he supported it and lobbied for its passage.

The size and power of Federal government grew considerably during Civil War and continue to do so under Grant. The Departments of Education and Agriculture were created during his first term. The Department of the Interior established the first ever National Park during Grant’s presidency. Most importantly, the Justice Department gave the Attorney General much more power, and Grant’s Attorney Generals filed thousands of indictments against Ku Klux Klan members while state governments did little or nothing. Mass murders of blacks and republicans in Louisiana and Mississippi during Grant’s reconstruction era have largely been forgotten by the general public but were unique emergencies that he had to deal with despite great opposition by Congress and Northerners fatigued with the “black problem” in the south. Grant stayed firm in his decision to keep federal armies present to enforce existing laws and arrest lawbreakers. Grant also signed into law the first Civil Rights Act, which although weak in enforcement provisions was the first of its kind. It was overturned by the Supreme Court several years later and another was not passed until the landmark act of the 1960’s.

America’s relationship with Britain was strained at the start of Grant’s presidency, as many Northerners held Britain accountable for the war lasting as long as it did based on aid given to the Confederates through ships and shipyards. Grant’s cabinet (in particular highly regarded Secretary of State Hamilton Fish) accomplished successful mediation with Britain via a five person committee that signaled the beginning of our long standing position as allies.

The Whiskey Ring scandal was the biggest scandal of Grant’s Presidency, even causing him to have to give a deposition while he was in office. It centered on Orville Babcock (a member of his cabinet) working with Whiskey producers to avoid paying taxes on their product in exchange for a cut of the profits. As with all of the scandals (and there were plenty of others, including one involving his brother Orvil and Indian trader posts), all evidence pointed to Grant being unaware of it and just trusting the wrong people in power.

Grant did have one final instance when Federal troops were needed in Mississippi to safeguard black and Republican voters and chose not to assis. Letters and from the time show he was willing to send them in but was convinced by his Attorney General and members of the Ohio government that the Mississippi Governor hadn’t done everything needed to require federal intervention, and that additional government interference in the south would alienate voters in the Ohio elections, costing power for the only party willing to support or protect Freedmen. It was another of Grant’s regrets late in his life.

Although Grant’s general policy with Native Americans was more peaceful than his predecessors, it was unfortunately marred by the Black Hills incidents and massacre of Custer’s troops at Little Big Horn. Ultimately it boiled down to either honoring treaties with Native Americans granting them the Black Hills, or using Federal troops to fight off prospectors which Grant believed his troops would not do.

The final controversy for Grant to deal with was the election of his successor. Three southern states had dueling factions claiming victory for both the Republican and Democrat candidates. The biggest fraud was certainly in the Democrat side who terrorized republicans from voting, but subsequent moves by both sides jeopardized the counting process. Grant appointed a bipartisan group (8 republicans, 7 Democrats) to decide on the winner of each state which ended up going 3-0 Republican and giving Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency. Despite the scandals, Grant stood firm on protecting the rights of blacks in the south, and even with a financial crash mixed in left the economy stronger on the global scale than it had been before through both an increased government size while still being backup up by the gold standard. 4.5 out of 5.

Vice President – Grant’s first Vice President was Schuyler Colfax from Indiana, also known as “Smiler” Colfax. Seemed to be well liked by everybody and had bright future ahead of him as of election. Colfax accepted stock in Credit Mobilier, which got lumped into another scandal of Grant’s presidency, declined a bid for reelection.

Henry Wilson of Massachusetts was a radical republican who operated a shoe factory and was the individual elected vice president for the second term. Neither man was again referenced in this biography and it was not uncommon at that time for Vice Presidents to not work with the sitting president outside of a campaigning capacity. 2 out of 5.

First Lady – With Julia Dent, Grant love at first sight. This was surprising to some, as Ms. Dent’s most prominent feature was a lazy/crossed eye. Dent came from a wealthy slaveholder family. Her father did not approve of Grant, and delayed their engagement for years. Grant’s only allegation of infidelity with Dent is an unsubstantiated/dubious claim that he fathered a baby with a Native American woman while out in California prior to the Civil War. During those early years of Grant’s marriage (particularly when he was sent to California) it appears Grant was very worried and jealous about his wife’s life away from him; he would frequently send her letters and she was much more sporadic in her responses, even in telling him she had given birth.

Grant was in a situation where although he opposed slavery, his wife supported it and her family even gave them their own slaves at times that they lived in Missouri. True to his word, when title to a slave was transferred to him for the first time, he went to the courthouse and gave the 35 year old man his freedom. This was even despite Grant being poor and obviously able to benefit financially from selling the man.

Mary Lincoln’s poor treatment toward Grant’s wife was a main factor for why Grants didn’t also go to Ford Theater with the president, where he was also an assassination target along with Lincoln.  Dent loved being First Lady, and took to hosting social events and even having ambassadors wives over in semi-official capacities.  Grant hid his decision not to run for a third term (basing it on all of the scandals towards the end of his 2nd term, as well as the appearance that he would not be a unanimous choice for the Republican Party for the first time) from his wife.  Julia took it as an affront to her, as she was accustomed to her role and still believed Grant was the only suitable choice for president.  Grant, knowing this would be the case, waited until he had mailed off his official statement that he would not seek a third term before telling her.  Perhaps her greatest attribute was that she always believed in the greatness of her husband, even when he was working as a clerk in Illinois and apparently no prospects for advancement.  3.5 out of 5.

Post Presidency – Once Grant was out of office, he took a trip around the world.  Starting in England and proceeding through France, Prussia and even becoming the first (former) president to visit Jerusalem.  Before coming home he moderated a dispute between Japan and China, becoming the first ex-president to take such a role in foreign affairs.  When Grant returned he campaigned openly for Garfield to win the following presidential election, once again something that was not done by prior presidents.

Unfortunately, Grant had another major scandal after leaving office.  Along with his sons, the group formed an investment firm called Grant & Ward based on the investing of Ferdinand Ward.  Ward seemed to be a miracle worker who would make massive returns on all investments.  The method to his success was what is now known as a Ponzi scheme.  Grant, always trusting, never reviewed any of the statements or looked into what was happening.  When the bubble burst, Grant and his kids were all broke and Ward ended up doing time in prison.

Desperate for money,  Grant accepted an offer to write a series of articles about various battles during the Civil War.  After some initial struggles with his style, Grant settled in and delivered very compelling work.  The publisher then requested an autobiography, which Grant began on.  He was later convinced by Mark Twain to have Twain publish the book, in return for a better financial return.  The book, which does not even go into his presidency, family or alcohol problems, was a massive success.  Selling over 300,000 copies (600,000 if you count each volume of it), it rivaled <i>Uncle Tom’s Cabin</i> for most successful book of the century.

Grant’s lifetime habit of smoking cigars led to throat cancer at the end of his life.  In the end, he gave up smoking, alcohol, and focused on finishing his book.  When he died he had slimmed down below 100 lbs, but had also been given back his pension as a general via an act passed by Congress.  He was buried in the impressive memorial now known as Grant’s tomb, along with his wife (who survived him by several years).  Although much of what he accomplished is common place now, for the era he was a trendsetter in his role as ex president.  4 out of 5.

Book Itself – Chernow is definitely the best biographer I’ve read so far, delivering a wonderful book on Washington and another now about Grant.  Perhaps he has benefited by selecting such interesting subjects, getting to write about compelling topics such as war and its aftermath.  Even in the quieter moments of Grant’s life however, Chernow creates a well rounded picture of a human being.  One impression I had of Grant in reading this book was that outside of the military he was a pushover.  Besides allowing himself to go by the wrong name for his entire career, he had a habit of not collecting debts from people who owed him money, and allowing those closest to him to take advantage of him with no consequences afterward.

Overall though, I came away really liking Grant and loving this book.  Grant was well liked by his troops and fellow officers that he served with, mainly due to his willingness to live under the same conditions and do the same work he asked of his soldiers, as well as his willingness to treat people with dignity regardless of who they were.  He seemed aware of his flaws and did what he could to prevent them from derailing him a 2nd time in his life.  Beyond the author connection, Grant seemed so much like Washington.  Both had anecdotes about their inherent strength as children, both were soldiers thrust into roles that seemed impossible and ended up victorious.  While Washington was the only founding father to free his slaves upon his death, Grant is the only politician I’ve read about to actual free his slaves prior to death or being legally obligated to.  America after the Civil War was nearly as blank a slate as America after the Revolutionary War.  While Washington set precedents we still follow today and held the office with incredible grace, we can directly compare how other presidents handled Reconstruction in Johnson and Hayes, and see how Grant’s methods were far more just, and necessary, than any of his peers.  Underrated as a General, and as a president, this was one of the best presidential biographies I’ve read.  5 out of 5.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: