by Ron Chernow
Paperback: 1,104 pages
Reviewed by Jeffry Babb
Some books require such a commitment of time and attention – and also on account of their sheer length – that they become life changing. Who could not read Tolstoy’s War and Peace without absorbing the grandeur of the Russian worldview?
Ron Chernow’s Grant is 1,000 pages long. Reading at a moderate pace, it takes at least a month to finish. What do we find out about U.S. Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant for this effort?
One thing most people know about Grant is that he was a drunk. He also won battles when other generals did not. An old story goes that a cabinet member rushes into the cabinet room and says to President Abraham Lincoln: “Grant is a drunk!” Lincoln says: “Find out what brand he drinks and send the other generals a case.” Lincoln denied that he ever said this, but the story has stuck.
In the late 19th century, alcohol was everywhere yet a terrible stigma attached to alcoholism. The temperance movement was associated with the burgeoning feminist movement.
Despite Chernow’s tendency to downplay the fact, it is obvious that Grant was a drunk. He was, however, a binge rather than a chronic drinker and he almost always kept his alcohol consumption under control, through the support of his wife and friends, plus with a great effort of will.
Grant was commander of the Union forces in the American Civil War. He defeated the forces commanded by Robert E. Lee when no other general could. The Civil War (1861–65) resulted in 750,000 deaths – more than all of America’s foreign involvements combined. It was the first industrial war. Tens of thousands of men were often killed in a single encounter.
It is said that Grant would take causalities that other generals would not contemplate. This is only partially true. Take, for instance, the Army of the Potomac, founded by Major General George B. McClellan, who was taken to be a cautious commander. The Army fought and lost the War’s first major battle, the First Battle of Bull Run. The Army of the Potomac became the main Army in the eastern sphere of the Civil War and was involved in the Battle of Gettysburg, where it took terrible losses.
In the contest between the Union and the Confederacy, Grant was underrated as a battlefield commander and also as a strategist. Yet, in the end, the Confederacy was beaten by strategy as well as on the field of battle.
Ulysses S. Grant had a second life, as 18th President of the United States from 1869 to 1877. His great presidential achievement was the imposition of Reconstruction in the South.
Some four million former slaves lived in the South. Most Southern whites refused to accept the result of the War. The Ku Klux Klan was rampant. The black population was so intimidated by unlawful killings and terror that democracy could not function. By legislative action and the commitment of troops, Grant put the South on the road to peace.
Amendments to the Constitution strengthened the hand of the federal government in Reconstruction of the South. Grant could act as a commander who took his people with him. Grant’s first term as president was commendable. He helped heal social wounds in a manner not repeated until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
Grant’s second term coincided with the so-called Gilded Age. The American economy, propelled by the opening up of the West and new technologies like the railways, telegraph and heavy industry, was creating wealth on a scale unknown in history.
Corruption was blatant and prodigiously profitable. Grant, though, was oblivious to this chicanery; he was incapable of thinking bad things about a friend. Eventually the entire Grant family was defrauded in what we would today call a Ponzi scheme.
Grant, though dying of throat cancer, was determined to pay off his debts. He wrote his memoirs, viewed as “probably the foremost military memoirs in the English language”. The book made a huge sum in royalties for his family. But by that time, Grant was dead.
Grant was a rather simple fellow. He had no head for business and found it impossible to have bad feelings about anyone he had contact with, no matter how blatant their transgressions. He accepted gifts of money and property without thought of any return of favours. However, in an age when the lines between public and private were blurred, many wealthy men were prepared to help him out for the services he had done the country.
Grant is a leader from another age. No one as credulous could succeed in politics today.
A man who could go from being a small town drunk to president of the United States in 10 years must have had a touch of grandeur, even if it was not always obvious.