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Ron Chernow’s GRANT appears in bookstores at an interesting time in American life. 2017 became the year our nation decided to relitigate the Civil War. In community after community, efforts were launched to rename buildings and take down monuments that honored Confederate participants. Defenders praised many Civil War figures for their loyalty to their culture and their states; some even sought to reargue the causes of the war. Certainly, Chernow was not thinking that his thoroughly researched biography of Ulysses S. Grant, a hero of the Civil War and President of the United States, would be a response to Civil War revisionists.

Whether intended or not, GRANT serves as a reminder to all of the causes and devastation of America’s second revolutionary war. Grant felt strongly about the Civil War and worked diligently to remedy its evils during Reconstruction. Regrettably, national debates presently underway seemed to have opened up old wounds from the Civil War.

GRANT is a fresh look at a man who many historians have viewed with disdain. The common view of Grant is that he was a brooding alcoholic and scandal-plagued President. Even his success as a military leader is minimized by those who suggest that he relied upon the overwhelming numerical superiority of his troops to attain victory.

"Chernow has painted a vivid and engrossing portrait of Grant. Regardless of how one views his portrayal, his skill as a biographer cannot be denied.... GRANT may be an opening salvo in taking a new view on the life of this iconic American."

Grant grew up in a family that was active with political commentary. His father, Jesse, loved politics and was a regular contributor to the political debate of the era with his polemical essays to local publications. His parents were Jackson Democrats who would eventually leave the party over the issue of slavery. In 1839, Grant signed enlistment papers to attend West Point; he strongly believed in his service. After the Civil War began, he would remind people that he had vowed to serve his country in exchange for being educated in military strategy. He also fervently believed that Robert E. Lee and other Confederate generals who had attended West Point had violated their sworn oaths.

There is no denying that Grant’s troops endured considerable losses during the Civil War. In fact, in May and June 1864, his army suffered 60,000 casualties, which was approximately 45% of the troops involved. As a result, many would refer to Grant as a “butcher,” an epithet he could never cast off. But Chernow disagrees. He describes Grant as a strategic genius who set clear goals, communicated them to his officers and instilled them in his men. On many occasions, however, Grant made impulsive decisions that would be harmful to his troops.

After the war, Grant would remain in Washington as part of Andrew Johnson’s administration. While hostilities were concluded, the political arguments that caused the Civil War continued. Grant had to vigorously battle with Democrats who argued that members of the Confederate power structure needed to be severely punished and that General Lee should be prosecuted for treason. Grant had stated at Appomattox that no such action would be taken, and now he demanded that his promises be honored. As his political battles with Democrats became more heated, Republicans seized upon him as their candidate for President in 1868. Grant would accept the nomination, win the election and promise America that as a non-politician he would be a different kind of leader.

Historians debate the Grant presidency for several scandals and for his indifference to those events. But Chernow points out that Grant was a vigorous advocate for defending the civil rights of the newly freed Americans and led efforts for federal involvement in Reconstruction. His Attorney General convicted more than a thousand members of the Ku Klux Klan, earning the praise of Frederick Douglass, who observed that while Abraham Lincoln made the negro a freeman, “General Ulysses S. Grant made him a citizen.” But Grant’s tenure in office suffered from some of the same difficulties as his military record. He was often impulsive, too trusting of his appointees, and too quick to both hire and fire members of his administration.

Chernow has painted a vivid and engrossing portrait of Grant. Regardless of how one views his portrayal, his skill as a biographer cannot be denied. As ongoing debates over certain historical events remind us, history is often subject to revision. GRANT may be an opening salvo in taking a new view on the life of this iconic American.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on December 1, 2017

by Ron Chernow

  • Publication Date: September 25, 2018
  • Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction, Politics
  • Paperback: 1104 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0143110632
  • ISBN-13: 9780143110637