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:
- A person of consequence
- The time period in which the person lived, in this case, Civil War-era America
- 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:
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.