The conventional wisdom about Ulysses S. Grant is that he was a first-rate general and a fourth-rate president. Indeed, historians and political scientists have traditionally labeled his two terms in office as a “failure” or close to it. But that legacy is being reassessed.
In recent years, two historians – Jean Edward Smith and Ronald White – have authored well-received books which argued that Grant was, in fact, a great military leader and a better president than we realize. That argument has been vigorously and extensively expanded in Grant, a magnificent book by distinguished biographer Ron Chernow. Indeed, after reading this deeply researched and superbly written volume, the reader will understand why Walt Whitman put Grant, along with Washington, Lincoln, and Ralph Waldo Emerson in his personal pantheon of great Americans.
Grant’s life before the Civil War was, at best, unremarkable. He graduated from West Point with a “lackluster” record. He joined the Army but left the service in 1854 after an undistinguished career characterized by drinking and loneliness. He then took a series of unimpressive jobs and succeeded at none.
But when the Civil War began, a change came over the man: He became “energetic, alert, and self-confident, as if woken from a long slumber.” And, most important for American history, he won battles. In a series of engagements in the Mississippi River Valley – including Paducah, Belmont, Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Corinth, and Vicksburg – Grant, along with his former West Point friend, William Tecumseh Sherman, steadily and surely hammered the rebels.
This was an extraordinarily, and too easily overlooked, accomplishment. Grant cut the Confederacy in two along the Mississippi River and gave the Union a strong strategic advantage. Eventually, President Lincoln promoted Grant and gave him command of the underperforming Army of the Potomac. Unlike his predecessors in that role, Grant immediately and forcefully took the fight to the General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia – exactly what Lincoln wanted.
In popular memory, Grant’s years leading the Union armies in the East are best known for the blood-soaked Overland Campaign, the siege of Richmond, and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, which is widely regarded as the end of the conflict.
While discussing each of these in detail (his moving account of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox is worth the price of the book by itself), Chernow emphasizes that Grant did much more than win individual battles. Grant was “the strategic genius produced by the Civil War. He set clear goals, communicated them forcefully, and instilled them in his men.... Grant grasped the war in its totality, masterminding the movements of all Union armies.” Under Grant’s direction, Sherman and General Phil Sheridan “smashed up” other parts of the Confederate army while Grant took on Lee directly. In short, Grant devised and implemented the unified plan that ensured a Union victory.
Grant’s two terms as president lacked the clear and decisive success of his military career. To the contrary, Grant’s tenure was marked by scandals, such as the notorious “Whiskey Ring” affair, and his presidency “became synonymous with corruption.” Grant was extremely loyal – both on the battlefield and in the White House – to those who worked for him. It never seems to have occurred to him that those he trusted implicitly might abuse his faith in them. And, while Grant himself was “impeccably honest,” his administration is mostly remembered today for malfeasance.
Thanks to the ethical lapses, Chernow argues that Grant’s efforts to reunite the nation and protect the freed slaves get far less attention than they should. Throughout his presidency, Grant repeatedly intervened to block the worst outrages against African-Americans, vigorously opposed the Ku Klux Klan, and sought legislation – such as the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave black people the right to vote – to help the former slaves. But it was a losing fight. As the years passed, the Northern desire to maintain troops in the South faltered and waning faith in reconstruction among Republicans proved far less powerful than Southern resentment and opposition to the new order ushered in by the war.
This set the stage for the end of Reconstruction. After Grant declined to run for a third term, the disputed election of 1876 delivered the White House to Rutherford B. Hayes, who quickly removed federal troops from the South. This quickly created “a caste-ridden form of second class citizenship for southern blacks” which would be enshrined in law for most of the next century.
Grant’s “unqualified support” for black Americans is little-recognized today, but Chernow concludes that it is one of the enduring themes of his life. The author approvingly quotes Fredrick Douglass’s comment that Lincoln made “the negro ... a freeman and General Ulysses S. Grant made him a citizen.” Chernow’s own summary of Grant’s presidential legacy is simple: “Grant deserves an honored place in American history, second only to Lincoln for what he did for the freed slaves. He got the big issues right in his presidency, even if he bungled many of the small ones.”
Chernow’s special gift is to present a complete and compelling picture of his subjects. His biographies do not offer up marble deities on a pedestal; he gives us flesh and blood human beings and helps us understand what made them tick. Just as he did with George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, Chernow brings Ulysses S. Grant to life. At the end of the book, the reader feels as if he knows the man. This is richly rewarding and compelling reading.
One infrequently noted character trait is that Grant was always a “doting father, husband and son.” And it is his deep commitment to his beloved wife Julia, the plain, dowdy daughter of a Missouri slaveholder, that was on particular display at the end of his life. After leaving the White House, the Grants embarked on a multiyear world voyage before settling in New York. In 1884, Grant suddenly realized that the partnership he had entered into with a young financial wizard was nothing more than a “colossal fraud.” The Grants were financially ruined. Even worse, a few months later, the man who smoked 20 cigars a day for years was diagnosed with throat cancer.
Grant knew that his death would leave his wife destitute. So even though “pain was his constant companion,” Grant began to write his memoirs. "Seldom, if ever," notes Chernow, “has a literary masterpiece been composed under such horrific circumstances.” Eventually, writing became too much for him and he was forced to dictate. In less than a year, Grant produced 275,000 words of “superb prose.” His publisher, a man with his own writing credentials named Mark Twain, was thunderstruck by the effort and considered the work – as do many modern historians – a masterpiece. Just three days after he published it, Grant died. But the book was a huge bestseller and ensured Julia’s financial stability. Ulysses Grant had won his final battle.