Book Review: Ron Chernow’s Biography of Ulysses S. Grant

I read 900 pages about Ulysses S. Grant in Ron Chernow’s authoritative biography. It was extraordinary. It’s hard not to agree with Chernow claims that Grant is the most underrated president in U.S. history.

I knew little to nothing about Grant going in, and hadn’t read a full length book about the Civil War before. So I got a superb education in the three areas I look for when reading a biography:

  1. A person of consequence
  2. The time period in which the person lived, in this case, Civil War-era America
  3. The ideas that defined their life’s work — in this case, fighting to free slaves and to maintain that freedom afterwards

I highlighted 163 sentences on my Kindle. I’ve pasted many of them below and bolded the sentences that stand out.

A few of my high level takeaways first:

  1. Grant was a common man who for much of his life lacked grand ambition: “Unlike many great historical figures, Grant brooded on no vast dreams, harbored no spacious vision for his future, and would have settled for a contented, small-town life.”
  2. Grant was and is to this day rather misunderstood as a drunkard who got lucky in war. He battled an inclination to alcohol his whole life but his reputation in this regard, Chrenow argues, is undeserved.
  3. The truly bloody horror of the Civil War. The image of thousands of bodies rotting in the battlefield and there having to be a mutually called-for truce for a couple hours because the stench overwhelmed the olfactory senses of both sides — that image is seared in my memory. 
  4. The degree to which black people in America were massacred after the abolition of slavery. “Americans today know little about the terrorism that engulfed the South during Grant’s presidency. It has been suppressed by a strange national amnesia. The Klan’s ruthless reign is a dark, buried chapter in American history. The Civil War is far better known than its brutal aftermath.”
  5. Reconstruction was a failure. “Once Reconstruction collapsed, it left southern blacks for eighty years at the mercy of Jim Crow segregation, lynchings, poll taxes, literacy tests, and other tactics designed to segregate them from whites and deny them the vote.”
  6. The Mexico war and how America acquired/stole/fought for what is now California, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, Arizona — an imperialist move, at Mexico’s expense, that deeply troubled Grant.

Kindle highlights now pasted below — all Chernow’s words:

Grant never grew vainglorious from military fame, never gloated over enemy defeats, never engaged in victory celebrations. He has been derided as a plodding, dim-witted commander who enjoyed superior manpower and matériel and whose crude idea of strategy was to launch large, brutal assaults upon the enemy.

The relentless focus on Grant’s last battles against Robert E. Lee in Virginia has obscured his stellar record of winning battles in the western war long before taking charge of Union forces in early 1864.

While scandals unquestionably sullied his presidency, they eclipsed a far more notable achievement—safeguarding the civil rights of African Americans.

Frederick Douglass paired Grant with Lincoln as the two people who had done most to secure African American advances:

The imperishable story of Grant’s presidency was his campaign to crush the Ku Klux Klan.

Perhaps the most explosively persistent myth about Grant is that he was a “drunkard,” with all that implies about self-indulgence and moral laxity.

what they saw as the overweening executive power of “King” Andrew Jackson, selecting the “Whig” name to liken their struggle to that against King George III. Abraham Lincoln ventured into politics as an ardent Whig, characterizing the party as one founded to depose that “‘detestable, ignorant, reckless, vain and malignant tyrant,’ Andrew Jackson.”

The Whig ideology featured a strong moralistic component that doubtless resonated in the straitlaced, church-going Grant household. To strengthen the country’s moral fiber, many Whigs wanted to expand the school system and favored Sabbath observance. They inveighed against the menace of alcohol, which was both a national problem—by 1830 each American drank, on average, seven gallons of pure alcohol per year—as well as a local scourge in Brown County, which had two dozen distilleries and many grape-growing sections.

He tamed even the most refractory horses through a fine sensitivity to their nature rather than by his physical prowess. “If people knew how much more they could get out of a horse by gentleness than by harshness,” Grant once observed, “they would save a great deal of trouble both to the horse and the man.”

“Boys enjoy the misery of their companions,” Grant concluded, “. . . and in later life I have found that all adults are not free from the peculiarity.”

Although Julia stood just five feet two inches tall and grew stout and homely with the years, she was a dainty adolescent with many attractive features.

It is a striking feature of Grant’s early life that women spied his hidden potential and forecast great things for him, whereas men counted his gentleness against him and overlooked his virtues.

In his Memoirs, Grant blasted the Texas scheme as an imperialist adventure, pure and simple, designed to add slave states to the Union. “For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” He always said he never forgave himself for going into the Mexican War.

“Texas had no claim beyond the Nueces River,” Grant later noted, “and yet we pushed on to the Rio Grande and crossed it. I am always ashamed of my country when I think of that invasion.”

As the American army tarried near Monterrey, Grant savored his time there and was beguiled by Mexico—an attraction that lasted a lifetime, feeding a love of foreign travel. “The climate is excellent, the soil rich, and the scenery beautiful,” he informed Julia.

With Scott’s army poised to strike at Mexico City’s gates, President Polk had his emissary, Nicholas P. Trist, attempt on September 2 to negotiate a peace treaty by which Mexico would relinquish Texas to the Rio Grande and transfer New Mexico and California to the United States for a negotiated sum.

But in time Grant saw how a wise, charitable policy toward a conquered civilian population restored peaceful conditions with impressive speed. “Lawlessness was soon suppressed,” Grant wrote, “and the City of Mexico settled down into a quiet, law-abiding place.”91 Other accounts of the American occupation depicted atrocities raging on both sides.

The war culminated with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, a huge bonanza for the United States. It expanded American territory by nearly a quarter, forcing Mexico to shed half its territory. The United States gained Texas with the crucial Rio Grande boundary as well as New Mexico and California—territories encompassing the current states of California, Nevada, and Utah, most of Arizona and New Mexico, and part of Colorado. In exchange, the United States relinquished claims to Baja California, assumed $3.5 million in Mexican debts owed to American citizens, and handed over $15 million.

As the war’s rabid opponents—Senator Charles Sumner, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson among them—had predicted, the victory carved out a vast territory up for grabs between slave owners and abolitionists, possibly tipping the tenuous balance between North and South.

As a Whig opponent of slavery, Abraham Lincoln supported the Wilmot Proviso and denounced President Polk’s war in thunderous terms: “He is deeply conscious of being in the wrong . . . he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to Heaven against him.”

One impression superseded all others: that Grant was “just power and will and resolution,”

This episode makes clear that Grant, from an early age, acknowledged that he had a chronic drinking problem, was never cavalier about it, and was determined to resolve it. This overly controlled young man now wrestled with a disease that caused a total loss of control, which must have made it more tormenting and pestered his Methodist conscience.

It is unclear how closely Grant followed current affairs as the national debate over slavery broadened and intensified. Through the Compromise of 1850, California was admitted as a free state while other territories wrested from Mexico were left free to adopt slavery or not.

The Sackets Harbor idyll ended in May 1852 when the Fourth Infantry was ordered to the West Coast, triggering a slow-motion crisis in Grant’s life. The Gold Rush had drawn a stampede of settlers to California that demanded a strengthened military presence.

but he had no assurance of that as he journeyed to Governors Island in New York to prepare his regiment for the taxing journey to Panama, across the isthmus, then up the West Coast to San Francisco.

zone rife with cholera, but he was blandly reassured by army brass that the epidemic would be “quickly over.”51 In the end, his anxiety proved more than justified. From the outset, the ill-fated trip was an irremediable fiasco.

Altogether Grant estimated that one-third of the people under his care died at Cruces or Panama City as well as one-seventh of the Fourth Infantry group that had left New York Harbor. As the hellish story surfaced, it provoked fierce condemnation of War Department negligence, an indictment Grant endorsed, telling Julia darkly “there is a great accountability somewhere for the loss which we have sustained.”

The fort commanded a hundred-foot bluff with spacious views of Humboldt Bay and the sea beyond, and was hemmed in by deep stands of towering sequoia and other redwood trees, steeped in perpetual shadow.

Aside from recreational drinking and dancing, the only available pastimes were fishing and hunting elk, deer, and black bears, activities that awakened little interest in Grant.

Because local Indians posed no real threat, all the drills and discipline performed at the post seemed pointless and irksome.

Despite his grim stint at Fort Humboldt, Grant had fallen in love with the natural beauty of northern California and grown so attached to the place that he had visions of making it his permanent home in future years.

In May, Republicans met in Chicago at a huge, barnlike wooden structure known as the Wigwam where Abraham Lincoln emerged as the presidential standard-bearer. While his opposition to extending slavery was well known, he ducked many controversial issues. A comparative unknown, a dark horse who could juggle conflicting constituencies, he became the nominee less because he appealed to the most people than because he offended the fewest.

Despite pro-Union sentiment thinly scattered through the South, many southern officers felt that loyalty to their states outweighed attachment to the federal government. The decision of Robert E. Lee, who rebuffed an offer to command the U.S. Army and rushed to Virginia’s defense, was typical of southern officers who opposed secession but stuck with their native states.

“The air fresh and invigorating, without being cold.”

They were both haunted men, tough and manly on the outside, but hypersensitive to criticism,

Shiloh was a free-for-all of death in which brute force trumped tactical subtleties. “It was a case of Southern dash against Northern pluck and endurance,” Grant wrote.

The ground was slick with blood and carpeted with torn limbs and decapitated heads. Wild pigs rooted among putrefying bodies, their snorts audible to the dying soldiers.

Grant was never one to mourn the dead openly or describe the grotesque butchery about him; such thoughts remained locked up inside him. But beneath his self-protective silence, he was far from insensible to suffering. He had planned to spend the night sleeping under an oak tree, on a bed of hay, a few hundred yards from the river. All day long, distracted by battle, he had ignored his injured leg,

He had already told Sherman that when both sides seem defeated in battle, the first to assume the offensive would surely win.

Everyone was stunned by the scale of carnage at Shiloh, which posted a new benchmark for mass slaughter. Deeming it the war’s bloodiest battle, Grant commented “that the Fort Donelson fight was, as compared to this, as the morning dew to a heavy rain.”53 Men who survived it could never scrub its harrowing imagery from their memories.

Of more than one hundred thousand soldiers who pitched into the fray, twenty-four thousand had been killed or wounded. Shiloh’s casualties eclipsed the total of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War combined.

While feigning indifference to the journalistic onslaught, Grant was terribly agitated, nothing in his life having prepared him for such strident criticism or the harsh glare of publicity. Earnest by nature, a stickler for truth, he was unaccustomed to people playing fast and loose with facts.

“There were men, women, and children in every stage of disease or decrepitude, often nearly naked, with flesh torn by the terrible experiences of their escapes,” wrote John Eaton, who saw slaves dropping by the wayside. “Sometimes they were intelligent and eager to help themselves; often they were bewildered or stupid or possessed by the wildest notions of what liberty might mean

In the fall elections, Lincoln paid a fearful price for that impending proclamation. Berating Republicans as “Nigger Worshippers,” Democrats conjured up fantastic “scenes of lust and rapine” in the South and “a swarthy inundation of negro laborers and paupers” in the North as the likely consequences of emancipation.

“The trouble with many of our generals in the beginning was that they did not believe in the war . . . They had views about slavery, protecting rebel property, State rights—political views that interfered with their judgments.” It was Grant’s stalwart faith in Lincoln’s war aims, coupled with his military acumen, that made him the ideal commander.

At a time of rampant anti-Semitism, “Jews” ended up as a shorthand for unscrupulous traders.

On December 17, he issued the most egregious decision of his career. “General Orders No. 11” stipulated that “the Jews, as a class, violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department, and also Department orders, are hereby expelled from the Department. Within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order by Post Commanders, they will see that all of this class of people are furnished with passes and required to leave.” It was the most sweeping anti-Semitic action undertaken in American history.

He recorded a lovely vignette of Grant’s conviviality: “A social, friendly man, too, fond of a pleasant joke and also ready with one; but liking above all a long chat of an evening, and ready to sit up with you all night, talking in the cool breeze in front of his tent.”

It was Pemberton on May 25 who suggested a two-and-a-half-hour cease-fire—his soldiers had begun to gag on the stench of corpses—and Grant agreed, doubtless with relief.

 

Everyone noticed Grant’s strangely nonchalant demeanor in a war zone. One day he strolled about in full view of Confederate marksmen as enemy bullets raised the dust around him. A newspaper reporter who did not recognize him shouted: “Stoop down, down, damn you, down!” Grant didn’t flinch.

His military sagacity was a triumph of native intelligence and supreme willpower.

the judgment was decisive . . . the whole man became intense as it were with a white heat.”

Lee had no real plan to end the war other than to prolong it and make the cost bloody enough that the North would weary of the effort.

In his Memoirs, Grant expressed special remorse for what had happened: “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made.”

Although Grant would do everything in his power to make it happen, the promised era of postwar forgiveness and tranquillity never truly came to fruition. For the South surrendering was one thing, but acceptance of postwar African American citizenship and voting rights would be quite another.

The Civil War had been a contest of incomparable ferocity, dwarfing anything in American history. It claimed 750,000 lives, more than the combined total losses in all other wars between the Revolutionary War and the Vietnam War. The historian James M. McPherson has calculated that, as a portion of the total population, the Civil War killed seven times as many American soldiers as World War II.

Grant was sobered by the horrifying roster of casualties, saying future generations would look back at the Civil War “with almost incredulity that such events could have occurred in a Christian country and in a civilized age.” For the rest of his life, Grant had to deal with the charge that he had merely been the lucky beneficiary of superiority in men and resources.

Perhaps the person who best explained Grant’s strategic superiority was Sherman, who stated that while Lee attacked the front porch, Grant would attack the kitchen and bedroom. In his earthy way, Sherman expressed the view that Grant engaged in total warfare that eroded enemy supply lines and infrastructure, while Lee remained tightly focused on the battle at hand, without a long-term strategy for winning the war.

For Grant, the war had validated the basic soundness of American institutions. Before, he noted, “monarchical Europe generally believed that our republic was a rope of sand that would part the moment the slightest strain was brought upon it. Now it has shown itself capable of dealing with one of the greatest wars that was ever made, and our people have proven themselves to be the most formidable in war of any nationality.”

This saddest day of his life would be etched in black in Grant’s memory. Aside from losing the greatest leader he had ever known, he had lost a dear friend of the past thirteen months:

What pretty much guaranteed that Johnson would side with white supremacists was his benighted view of black people. No American president has ever held such openly racist views. “This is a country for white men,” he declared unashamedly, “and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.”

In June, Radical Republicans enacted the centerpiece of their legislative efforts to defend freed blacks, passing the Fourteenth Amendment, which engraved in the Constitution the principle of equal citizenship before the law regardless of race. It declared that all persons born or naturalized in the United States enjoyed both federal and state citizenship and prevented states from denying freedoms mandated by the Bill of Rights. Seeking to scotch the Black Codes, it denied states the right to deprive “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” and guaranteed all citizens “equal protection of the laws.” Andrew Johnson, who now gloried in taunting Congress, not only opposed the amendment but urged southern states to reject it, which they did. Nevertheless, the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified on July 9, 1868.

To hide their identities, Klansmen donned outlandish hoods to terrorize their former slaves into believing they represented the ghosts of dead Confederate soldiers. They carried out murders and mutilations in a grotesque spirit of sadistic mockery. Despite these disguises, the freedmen

When the Senate impeachment trial began on March 5, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase officiated in his judicial robes, while Grant’s bête noire, Benjamin F. Butler, acted as a snarling chief prosecutor. Everybody recognized the historic nature of the occasion: this was the first time the House had impeached and the Senate tried a sitting president.

As a West Point graduate, Grant had enjoyed an insider’s knowledge of military personnel during the war, but as a Washington outsider, he needed the valuable advice of seasoned professionals about appointments. So far had the pendulum swung in Grant’s life that the insecure man of the pre–Civil War era now radiated a confidence that could verge on complacency. He wrongly assumed that the skills that had made him successful in one sphere of life would translate intact into another.

In the White House, by contrast, he was too quick to hire people, then too quick to fire them. If this style served Grant well in the fog of war, where improvisation was vital, it led to some rough clashes and bruised feelings in the political sphere. Instead of seeming simple and direct, he could come across as brusque and even insensitive. Where he should have deliberated and calculated, he sometimes rushed into headlong action, as if storming an enemy fort.

 

Boasting fifty-three thousand employees, the federal government ranked as the nation’s foremost employer. Before the war, it had touched citizens’ lives mostly through the postal system. Now it taxed citizens directly, conscripted them into the army, oversaw a national currency, and managed a giant national debt.

In the nineteenth century, Congress was infinitely more powerful than in the twentieth and senators ruled as headstrong barons whose power often rivaled that of presidents.

It was an extraordinary achievement that Grant, despite the almost unbearable tensions of his presidency and undoubted temptations to drink, largely conquered an alcohol problem that had beset him through much of his adult life.

Though the portrait was overdrawn—Grant clearly thought a great deal about many matters—he did pick up ideas by a strange process of osmosis and made them fully his own. Many people said they could not follow the steps of his mental development because they were often secretive, interior, and hidden from view, the result of a powerfully intuitive process. Grant didn’t have a systematic mind, nor did he arrange his ideas inside a larger theoretical scaffolding, and he was therefore a mystery to himself and others. When Henry Adams probed people about Grant’s extraordinary success, they all seemed dumbfounded: “‘We do not know why the President is successful; we only know that he succeeds.’”

Once again a president accustomed to the automatic obedience of huge armies had to brook the vagaries of petty politics and wayward personalities.

The strong new measure laid down criminal penalties for depriving citizens of their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, including holding office, sitting on a jury, or casting a vote. The federal government could prosecute such cases when state governments refused to act. The law also endowed Grant with extraordinary powers to suspend habeas corpus, declare martial law, and send in troops.

“Peace has come to many places as never before,” wrote Frederick Douglass. “The scourging and slaughter of our people have so far ceased.” It was a startling triumph for Grant, who had dared to flout what southern states considered their sacred rights to enforce the law within their borders.

It was still a novel idea to hire civil servants based on pure merit in lieu of party affiliation.

White Democrats had demonstrated that without the protection of federal troops, they could resurrect the prewar power structure.

One of the last hurrahs of Reconstruction was passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875,

“This bill is a simple declaration of the equality of the citizens of the United States,” declared Harper’s Weekly.101 Democratic governors never bothered to enforce it. Nonetheless, however toothless, it struck fear into those opposed to interracial justice, as evidenced by a new wave of death threats that Grant promptly received from the Klan. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1883. Not until 1957 would Congress dare to pass another civil rights bill, and it was only with the long-overdue Civil Rights Act of 1964 that many of the 1875 legislation’s protections for blacks became the enduring law of the land.

Students should be taught that “while loving the home State, they should love the country more. Hard sectional feelings should give way to brotherly love for the whole American family.”

His darkly prophetic letter previewed the nearly century-long Jim Crow system that would cast blacks back into a state of involuntary servitude to southern whites.

Still, there was little doubt that the Democrats had won by crushing black turnout. In Yazoo County, only seven Republican votes were cast in a black population that exceeded twelve thousand.

It requires no prophet to foresee that the national government will soon be at a great disadvantage and that the results of the war of the rebellion will have been in a large measure lost . . . What you have just passed through in the state of Mississippi is only the beginning of what is sure to follow. I do not wish to create unnecessary alarm, nor to be looked upon as a prophet of evil, but it is impossible for me to close my eyes in the face of things that are as plain to me as the noonday sun.” This wasn’t a minor statement: the victorious Union general of the Civil War was saying that terror tactics perpetrated by southern whites had nullified the outcome of the rebellion. All those hundreds of thousands dead, the millions maimed and wounded, the mourning of widows and orphans—all that suffering, all that tumult, on some level, had been for naught. Slavery had been abolished, but it had been replaced by a caste-ridden form of second-class citizenship for southern blacks, and that counted as a national shame.

About a thousand federal troops had shown up in South Carolina by Election Day, not sufficient to avert all violence, but enough to provide a modicum of safety to defenseless Republicans. As one grateful white Republican reassured Grant, without federal troops “any man white or colored who would have dared to cheer Hayes . . . would have had his head taken off.”

“By backing Radical Reconstruction as best he could, he made a greater effort to secure the constitutional rights of blacks than did any other President between Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson.”

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