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HomeIllinois PoliticsBrinkman Review: Grant's humanity, decency shines in Ron Chernow's tome

Brinkman Review: Grant’s humanity, decency shines in Ron Chernow’s tome



UnknownGrant By Ron Chernow

Penguin – 2017 – 1104p

Reviewed by Daniel Brinkman - 

At a rally in Ohio a month ago, President Trump called upon the memory of Ulysses S. Grant to make a point about how the unlikeliest of people are sometimes called upon to change the course of history. Paraphrasing Lincoln, Trump said, “They said to Lincoln, you can’t use him anymore, he’s an alcoholic.’ and Lincoln said, ‘I don’t care if he’s an alcoholic, frankly give me six or seven more just like him.’ And he went in and knocked the hell out of everyone… and he’s finally being recognized as a great general.’”

That’s the Cliffs Notes version of Grant’s life. For the fuller and richer tale, you can do no better than Ron Chernow’s thick tome. There are maybe only one or two authors of American History that have so thoroughly and justifiably dominated the scene as has Chernow over the last two decades. From the financial titans of the gilded age to the founders of the American Republic, Chernow has cast an exacting lens over the lives of those whose names evoke legend: Rockefeller, Morgan, Washington, Hamilton, and now Grant.

I confess this brick of a volume sat on my nightstand quite a while before I summoned the will to begin. However, by its end, I was sorry to see it done. Its subject, Grant, so embodies the ordinary and exceptional. His life was so thoroughly American, and his decency as a man so evident on every page, that one cannot help but be given pause that our country has been given such quantity of great men, who were also good men; a crop unique among the pages of history.

Grant grappled with alcoholism, disappointment, poverty and failure in his early life. After being dismissed from the army for drinking, success continued to elude him. But grit, persistence, and decency defined him even then. War then intervened to shine light and give occasion for his quality. 

Early in the war Grant was commanding a group of men up a hill where they expected to encounter the enemy. As Grant described the scene, his heart “kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything to be back in Illinois, but I had not the moral courage to halt.” It was then he discovered the enemy had already fled! “[I]t occurred to me at once that Harris had been as afraid of me as I had been of him.” This formative event guided his bias toward action for the rest of the war. In the words of Chernow, “Henceforth he would project himself into opponents’ minds and comprehend their fears and anxieties instead of blowing them up into all-powerful bugaboos, giving him courage when others quailed.”

Grant dealt with war’s awfulness directly. By his honest appraisal of its evils he accepted its costs, always seeking to minimize casualties, but never deluding himself to avoid them and thus invite greater evil. He did not avoid battle as others did, he did not try and fail to maneuver his opponents into surrender as so many generals in the east had attempted. Grant and Sherman made the relentless pursuit of the enemy army their objective, not territory. They are today seen as the war’s true masters of grand strategy.

After the war, Chernow traces the lamentable presidency of Andrew Johnson and that of Grant with the triumph and then tragedy of reconstruction as their centerpiece. How they dealt with abolition’s aftermath would define what the war’s immense sacrifice truly meant. He details a fight between General Sherman and Andrew Johnson: Johnson ordering parcels of land Sherman had given to emancipated slaves to be returned to their previous owners. Grant sharing Sherman’s concern for African-Americans took a hard line against the forces of reaction. Chernow noted that, “Again and again, he had declared southern counties in a state of insurrection and sent federal troops to protect black citizens. His actions had been courageous, exemplary.”

This courage for so long makes their total abandonment towards the end of his presidency all the more striking and hard to fathom. The political will to fight to keep the fruits and purpose of victory eventually lost to a naked expediency. In the 1920s, a black former Republican Congressman from Mississippi, then living in Chicago, detailed a conversation from some decades before at the White House in November 1875. There Grant admitted that he thought it more important to “retain Ohio than to save Mississippi.” “I should not have yielded,” Grant told Lynch. “I believed at the time I was making a grave mistake. But as presented, it was duty on one side, and party obligation on the other. Between the two I hesitated, but finally yielded to what I believed was my party obligation. If a mistake was made, it was one of the head and not of the heart.” Chernow adds, “Grant’s personal tragedy was simultaneously an American tragedy.”

Grant’s humanity and decency shines through Chernow’s work. He had problems with drink, yet overcame them, and eventually quit. He was far too trusting of others, guileless and incapable of deceit. He was ill served by that in politics, in business before the war, and it ruined him financially in his final years. He was driven to exasperation during the war by a father that was trying to cash in on his son through military contracts and by a father-in-law whose sympathies lay with the rebels. He endured personal tragedy in his family, disappointment, and ruin.  Yet when faced with throat cancer, and financial ruin, he steeled himself in a final act of courage to make sure his memoirs were finished so he could provide for his beloved wife Julia. In that gift to her, he gifted the nation the story of how he came to save it from its dissolution.


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  1. Grant was criticized in his time for the high attrition rate troops suffered. But Grant, serving in the western campaigns, had learned that this war, with better weapons, was not like any previous one. This would be a war against entrenched enemies, not with Napoleonic ‘open-field’ battles of maneuver. Attack against fixed entrenched positions is always costly, but sometimes necessary.
    Several of Lincoln’s former commanders had plans to run for president and feared that heavy casualties would destroy their future election opportunities. Grant had no plans to be president, yet he was the one this nation chose for that office.

  2. Well-written critique of the book by Daniel Brinkman. I am currently reading this excellent book which does indeed weigh in at “a ton”. Grant comes across as a man of strong convictions who was strongly influenced by his mother (a Methodist) and her conservative religious and moral beliefs. He serves as an excellent example of how “every man” (and woman) can change the course of human history in a “positive way”– no matter what their former background happened to be. An inspirational story of a man who, as a youth, would most likely have been judged as “destined for mediocracy” at best. His life shows that you should never “pre-judge anyone” as to their future accomplishments or abilities. A man who lived his life by his own code of honor.

  3. The most encouraging thing I ever read about Grant, was that when his West Point classmate, William Tecumseh Sherman, had a nervous breakdown before the war, his classmate Ulysses Grant, stood up for him, and kept him from getting cashiered.
    And Sherman later said, “When I was crazy, Grant stood up for me. And when he was a drunk, I stood up for him.”
    It seemed to have worked out very well.
    I also remember the legend that when Lincoln was floating the idea of appointing Grant to become the Supreme Commander of the Union armies – the political Union Generals said, “Mr. President, you can’t appoint Grant – he drinks too much.”
    And President Lincoln is quoted as saying:
    “Well find out what brand of whiskey Grant drinks, and feed it to the rest of my Generals – because, at least, he fights.”