Author: Ron Chernow
Publisher: Penguin Press 2017; 959 pages of text, 16 pages of photos
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant died on July 23, 1885. On Aug. 8, “the 1.5 million people flooding the city would make it the grandest funeral in New York history .... Civil War veterans hoisted Grant’s coffin to a waiting catafalque .... Twenty-four black stallions, arranged in twelve pairs and attended by black grooms, stood ready to pull the hearse. Twenty generals preceded the horses ....The funeral was a vast, elaborate affair, befitting a monarch or head of state, in marked contrast to the essential simplicity of the man honored .... President Cleveland headed an eminent escort that included Vice President Thomas Hendricks, the entire cabinet and Supreme Court justices. Both surviving ex-presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester Arthur, attended. Congress and statehouses across the country emptied out to pay homage .... Predictably northern military units predominated, but the presence of Confederate soldiers touched onlookers. ‘It was quite a sight to see the Stonewall Brigade (march) up Fifth Avenue with their drums marked Staunton, Va.... There were several companies of Virginia and Southern troops.’ Contingents of black veterans were liberally represented among the sixty thousand soldiers, supplemented by eighteen thousand veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic .... The honor guard of mourners stretched for miles, taking five hours to reach the burial site.”
In "Grant," Ron Chernow writes of the events in Grant’s life and the life of the nation which brought about this enormous outpouring of emotion, love and respect. He quotes Frederick Douglass who wrote of Grant: “In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother and an imperiled nation a savior.”
Born on April 27, 1822, in rural southwestern Ohio, he weighed in at 10 and three-quarters pounds and was named Hiram Ulysses Grant, but by the time he graduated from West Point in June 1843, his name was Ulysses S. Grant. He was assigned to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, where he met Julia Dent, the daughter of a Missouri slave owner. During the Mexican War (1846-1848), Grant was brave and proved to have excellent horsemanship skills. In his maiden battle, Grant found “he was tranquil in warfare … preternaturally cool under fire.”
Grant and Julia were married on Aug. 22, 1848, and they had four children. Frequent separations from Julia lead him to drink and on April 11, 1854, he resigned from the Army as a captain who might have faced a court martial for alcohol problems. He was not a success in business or farming, but “the Civil War was about to rescue Grant from a dismal record of antebellum business failures.”
On June 16, 1861, Grant was appointed as “colonel of the 74th Congressional District Regiment.” He swiftly became a brigadier general leading the Army troops in Missouri, Tennessee and Mississippi in victories at Fort Donelson, Shiloh and Vicksburg. In the East, the generals commanding the Army of the Potomac were not able to defeat the Confederate Army led by Gen. Robert E. Lee. President Abraham Lincoln needed a general who would fight and win.
Grant was promoted to lieutenant general, the first to hold that rank since Gen. George Washington, and given command of the Union Army. Grant turned Major Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman loose to lead an army through the south and Atlanta, and he ordered Major Gen. Philip H. Sheridan to conquer the Shenandoah Valley. Though Major Gen. George G. Meade, the victor at Gettysburg, was in command of the Army of the Potomac, Grant was essentially by his side and in command.
In May 1864, Grant’s attack against Lee in the Wilderness of Virginia produced several days of heavy losses. When he broke off the attack, instead of retreating back across the Rapidan River, he moved the Army of the Potomac to the left. With that maneuver his soldiers knew they were going to win because Grant would not let go of Lee until he was beaten. Grant told a journalist: “If you see the president, tell him, from me, that, whatever happens, there will be no turning back.”
On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, effectively ending the war, “which claimed 750,000 live, more than the combined total losses in all the wars between the Revolutionary War and the Vietnam War.” In less than a week, Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, in a plot in which Grant was also to have been assassinated.
Grant was elected to the first of his two terms on 1868. His administration enforced reconstruction and “by 1872 … the Ku Klux Klan had been smashed in the South.” By 1874, control of Congress had shifted and the mood in much of the country was to end reconstruction. With the election of Rutherford B. Hayes as president in 1876, the gains made by blacks eroded under Jim Crow laws.
Throughout his life, Grant was easily duped by friends and con artists. In his retirement all of his money was lost in a Ponzi scheme. As Grant was dying of cancer, Mark Twain encouraged him to write his autobiography, which he published and marketed for him and his estate. Grant died shortly after completing the manuscript. His biography proved to be a popular best seller, bringing in $450,000 for Julia.
"Grant" is not an easy read. A large, heavy book, it is not one you can curl up with in bed. My one complaint is that Chernow repeatedly brought up Grant’s drinking. Certainly there is evidence he drank often, but he was never under the influence of alcohol nor did he drink when he was leading his army in battle. Thus, whatever he drank did not adversely affect the war or his presidency. This book should help to elevate Grant’s standing in the line of great presidents, at least in terms of civil rights.