Grant by Ron Chernow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“Grant” by Ron Chernow is a thoroughly researched and insightful biography of Ulysses S. Grant, one of the true giants of American history. The book does not shy away from some of the Grant failures, including his many unsuccessful attempts to find his way in business. Grant’s contribution to history was not in business, but rather as a dynamic military man whose leadership likely saved the Union. It took a bit of time, but when Lincoln finally turned to Grant the war with the Confederacy was not going well, and Grant turned that around.
One of the book’s strengths is its ability to dispel many of the myths and misconceptions that have surrounded Grant for decades. Chernow portrays him as a complex and multifaceted figure, one who was both a brilliant military strategist and a flawed individual with a complicated personal life. Chernow does not shy away from the issue of Grant’s drinking, which comes up repeatedly. Without question Grant, despite many pledges, drank to excess on occasion. What is clear, at least to me, is that his drinking did not impair him or his military decision making at key moments. Lincoln reportedly said that if he knew what brand of whiskey Grant drank he would send a barrel of it to his other Generals. Lincoln had seen the results before Grant assumed command, and after his assumption of command of the Union armies. Lincoln preferred the results that Grant brought.
Chernow’s book is not a detailed military history, but there is, by necessity, a good look at Grant the military man. After the Civil War was over the defeated Confederacy simply managed to do a better job of creating legends around their military leaders. (See Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson amongst many others) Lee, for many years, has received absolute veneration as a military genius. Grant, despite the record, for many years simply did not receive the credit he was due for his military prowess. This book is fair, but helps to correct that record.
Grant started his Civil War career in the Western Theatre, and while the Army of the Potomac was performing dismally Grant was on the attack, winning key Union victories and catching the eye of President Lincoln. Grant absolutely had a resource advantage, and he pressed that advantage hard, putting relentless pressure on the Confederate armies he found in front of him. He was criticized for some of the high casualty counts in the battles he was involved in, but victory, even in the face of initial setbacks, always seemed to follow. (See Battle of Shiloh) Grant’s belief was that offensive operations were the key to victory. He never wavered from that view, even when under heavy criticism. When Lincoln made him the overall commander of Union forces he used the same tactics on Lee, driving forward, and chasing Lee’s Army across the map. Yes, he had greater resources than Lee, but so did General McClellan, who continually failed to win victories against Lee. Grant, in my view, simply out-generaled Robert Lee.
Grant’s essential decency was shown in his relationship with Lincoln. Grant was a major figure before the Union victory, and Lincoln had to worry that Grant might be persuaded to run against him for the Presidency. But Lincoln soon realized that Grant had a loyalty to him, and that loyalty, and agreement on the Lincoln goals and objectives, precluded Grant from doing anything but supporting his President. Grant’s record on race was in sync with Lincoln, and his record in this area was strong. Grant rejected a prisoner exchange with the Confederacy where black union soldiers, under Confederate terms, would not be released if they had been slaves. In this and in his post-war record Grant, like Lincoln, sought to heal the wounds of the bitter divide.
Grant’s record as President was a revelation to me. Some very interesting, and new to me, material on Grant. Grant’s trusting personality, so fatal to his business career, hurt him in the Presidency as well. But his record, once again, was not as abysmal as I had believed before the book.
Chernow’s prose is lively and engaging, and he has a talent for bringing Grant’s contemporaries, like William Tecumseh Sherman, to life, and offers a detailed look at the social and political climate of the times.
At over 1,000 pages, “Grant” is a substantial read, but Chernow’s storytelling skills keep the reader engaged throughout. He balances historical detail with compelling narrative, and the result is a biography that brings us a true giant of the United States. Grant, along with President Lincoln, saved the Union, and brought the Confederacy, and slavery with it, crashing down.
Overall, “Grant” is a masterful work of historical biography, one that sheds new light on a complicated and often misunderstood figure in American history. Whether you are a fan of Civil War history or simply enjoy well-written biographies, this book is well worth your time.
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