What an incredibly comprehensive Presidential biography! Grant, by Ron Chernow, tips the scales at 1074 pages (I read the audiobook version), and details the entirety of Grant’s life. Unlike Grant’s own memoirs, Chernow explores his marriage and family as well as his professional life.
Grant was a complex man. He was born to a middle class stable family that was strongly religious and emotionally distant. Grant excelled as an equestrian and ended up getting an appointment to West Point though his father’s connections. He was a mediocre student, getting good grades in courses he liked and not doing well where he wasn’t interested. He graduated in the middle of his class.
He married Julia Dent, the daughter of a slave-owning Missouri farmer, after courting her for years while working to get his future father-in-law to accept him. It was during that time that he served in the Mexican American War, and began to display his skill in combat operations.
Grant floundered for a while after marrying Julia. His military career took him away from her for long periods, and he didn’t do well on his own. He began drinking heavily, and there is some evidence that a drinking episode led to his resignation from the Army in the 1850s. He puttered away unsuccessfully as a farmer, selling firewood, trying to get a civil appointment as an engineer, and finally went to work in his father’s tannery – which he absolutely despised. It wasn’t until the Civil War began and he went back to the Army that he found his way. And boy did he ever.
This is likely the part of the story that you know. Grant rose though the ranks of the Western theater, capturing Fort Donelson and later implementing a successful siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Having caught the eye of President Lincoln, Grant was appointed as the Lieutenant General of all Union Armies. Rumors of drinking binges continued to haunt Grant from time to time, and multiple people sent stories to Lincoln, leading to one of Lincoln’s now famous quotes, “I cannot spare this man. He fights.” Ulysses S. Grant brought the war to a close, accepting the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.
Grant continued as commander of the Army after the war ended, leading the Army’s role in reconstruction in the South. Reconstruction failed for many reasons, but Grant did everything he could to advance peace and the rights of the former slaves. He believe more than most at the time that blacks deserved equal rights and the opportunity to vote in the post-war era.
Riding on the coattails of his wartime fame, Grant was elected to two terms as President. Most believe that his Presidency was mediocre; he ended up being caught in a number of political scandals as a result of his trust in his friends who were participating in a variety of nefarious activities.
Chernow documents Grant’s life thoroughly and he tries to speak of Grant’s strengths and failings in equal measures. He is clearly biased towards Grant though, always willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, preferring to think of Grant as an innocent soul who was duped by dishonest friends and political appointments rather than being complicit in their activities. We will probably never know how much Grant knew.
The only real annoyance for me was Chernow’s obsessive focus on Grant’s drinking. By all accounts, Grant had largely gained control of his alcohol problem by the time he went back to the Army, and no one ever alleged that Grant’s drinking got in the way of his ability to command his Army. Yet Chernow seemingly explores every single allegation, acknowledging that they all sounded similar before dismissing most of them. Whether Grant fell off the wagon or not seems largely irrelevant in the context of his later career and life.
Chernow clearly did extensive research on Grant, reading his letters, military orders and Presidential papers, in addition to researching many of Grant’s contemporaries and what they had to say about him. He quotes President Lincoln, General Lee, General Sherman, General James Longstreet and many others to round out his descriptions of this great man.
Spoiler alert – as with most biographies, Grant dies at the end… I cried. Well done and worth the read.