“Grant” by Ron Chernow – A Review

Emerging Civil War welcomes guest author James F. Epperson

Many compelling tales come out of the history of the American Civil War. One of the most interesting is the story of the slouchy Ohio-born tanner’s son who progressed from leather-goods store clerk to Lieutenant General and commander of the Union armies and who began the war having trouble getting any position at all in the Federal war effort, yet ended up accepting the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in Wilmer McLean’s parlor. There have been many biographies of Grant in recent years, and Chernow’s, while suffering from some flaws, is perhaps the best.

Grant was a complex man, and efforts to reduce him to a simplistic caricature—stolid, taciturn, drunk, butcher, stupid—simply do not stand up to much scrutiny. As Chernow shows, Grant lived with fundamentally honesty, yet was tragically susceptible to being conned by unscrupulous men. Loyal to a fault (literally), he could yet (and did) admit fault regarding men he had tangled with. (He was also quite capable of nursing a grudge.)   Whatever his issues with alcohol – and this is a large and important focus of Chernow’s book – he kept them mostly, if imperfectly, in check. He remained absolutely devoted to his wife and just as devoted to the cause of civil rights for the men freed by the war he won.  And when faced with an opponent he could not defeat – cancer – he managed a moral and literary victory of epic proportions.

Grant’s life story has been written many times since the 1860s, and the basic outline is generally well-known: First-born child of an Ohio tanner and his pious, near-silent wife; enrolls at West Point in the class of 1843 (graduates 21st out of 39); distinguished service in the Mexican War; difficult period on the west coast leads to his resignation in 1854; struggles to provide for his family in civilian life; re-enters military service as the colonel of an Illinois infantry regiment in 1861; rises to the rank of Lieutenant General, accepting the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House in 1865; is elected to two terms as President of the United States; left destitute by a Wall Street swindler, and confronted by a terminal cancer diagnosis, he writes a magnificent memoir of 336,000 words in less than a year, dying literally days after declaring the job done.

That is the bare-bones version, of course, and there are a lot of details needed to flesh that out. Chernow’s biography ranks near the top of the list of Grant biographies that I’ve read.  The first task of a biographer is to understand their subject, warts and all, and I think the author does this.

I have read numerous complaining predictions (on various blogs, mostly) that Chernow’s book is uncritical, but this does not hold up to an actual reading of the text. Chernow’s Grant has an alcohol problem, can be over-confident as a military commander, was clearly not expecting the Confederate attack at Shiloh, does not perceive the ethical issues in accepting gifts from wealthy benefactors, and is consistently unable to avoid being “conned” by public or private associates. If that is not being critical, then I guess I don’t know what the word means.

Ulysses S. Grant

There are three specific issues I’d like to address in some detail.

While Chernow’s treatment of Grant’s Civil War campaigns is far superior to that in Ronald White’s American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, the absence of any campaign studies from the bibliography troubled me. Considering Chernow was not coming to this project as a “Civil War historian,” I think it is reasonable to expect him to spend some time with the many fine works that exist on Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, the 1864 campaign in Virginia, etc. He does list a number of “standard” histories of the Civil War, including outstanding works by Catton, Foote, and McPherson.

One cannot review this book without some discussion of Chernow’s treatment of Grant’s drinking. My personal view concludes it is both a strength and a weakness of the book.  Chernow offers more detail on the subject than most Grant biographers, much of it drawn from the Hamlin Garland Papers, copies of which have apparently been archived at the Grant Library at Mississippi State University (Garland wrote perhaps the first scholarly biography of Grant in 1898 and conducted many interviews with people who had known him). While Chernow occasionally presents fresh perspectives on well-known incidents, he usually provides very little evaluation of the evidence. Essentially – and this is a bit of an over-simplification, but I think it is essentially correct – he presents nearly every story, anecdote, or rumor that he can find, putting them all on equal footing. His basic thesis presents Grant as a binge-drinker, someone who, once started, could not help going downhill into full intoxication. In this regard, Chernow follows James McPherson, who put forward essentially the same thesis in his highly regarded Battle Cry of Freedom (page 589), drawing heavily on an article by Lyle Dorsett (“The Problem of Grant’s Drinking During the Civil War,” Hayes Historical Journal vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 37–48, 1983). Neither Chernow nor McPherson spend much time assessing the evidence that exists, and while McPherson – who was writing a single-volume survey of the entire Civil War – can perhaps be forgiven, Chernow should have done more critical analysis. In particular, Chernow should have paid more attention to the many dogs that did not bark.

There are several anecdotes showing Grant was able, on occasion, to take a drink without going on a “binge.” There are also indications that those close to Grant knew they could offer him a drink without risking anything. For example, there is an oft-cited story in which Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson, one of Grant’s corps commanders during the Vicksburg campaign, suggests Grant should take a break from studying how to crack the Confederate citadel, “join with us in a few toasts, and throw this burden off your mind”  (page 253). There are several other, similar stories, including bottles of alcohol being sent to Grant by his own family. My point is not that Chernow has misrepresented anything.  My point is that the full story is more complex than Chernow presents. Did Grant drink?  Certainly. Did he sometimes drink too much? Almost surely. But between the uncontrollable binge-drinker and ordinary social drinker, there lies a wide range of alternative realities in which I think the truth lies, and the author should have mined this vein.

Some of the best parts of the book are the several chapters devoted to Grant’s political career, including his two terms as President (and his effort at a third term in 1880). The traditional view of Grant as a politician generally ranges from corrupt to inept, and there certainly is much to criticize here – which Chernow does. But he also points out that Grant’s over-riding motivation for getting in to politics was to secure what had been purchased with blood during the war: the freedom of the former slaves, not only theoretically, but as a practical matter. Frederick Douglas, an appropriate authority on this, said, “That sturdy old Roman, Benjamin Butler, made the negro a contraband, Abraham Lincoln made him a freeman, and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant made him a citizen” (page 858). Grant’s embrace of the ethically-challenged Stalwart wing of the Republican Party was driven by the very valid fear that the more reform-minded wing of the party was willing to sell out the Republicans in the South, who were mostly freed slaves. The entire reason for toying with a third term in 1880 was the fear of what a Democratic victory might mean for the freedmen.

This biography, although very well-written, is not for a casual reader – at 1,200 pages, it is not a weekend read – but it rewards those who reach the final page, when William T. Sherman and Mark Twain sit down with cigars and whiskey to talk about their friend, after his funeral.

James F. Epperson is a 60-something child of the 60s (both 19th and 20th Centuries) who taught university mathematics for 21 years before moving to Ann Arbor, MI to take a position in academic publishing. He is a frequent speaker at CWRTs, maintains a number of Civil War-related websites and lives modestly in Ann Arbor with his wife of 35 years and their elderly Border Collie. Check-out his websites Civil War Causes, Petersburg Siege, and JFEpperson.org