Book Review

The Strangest Story: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of Ulysses S. Grant

David McCullough is still America’s favorite biographer, but Ron Chernow has been gaining on him in recent years. It’s not just because of his improbable success as author of the work that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. It’s that in both Alexander Hamilton and his newest subject, Ulysses S. Grant, Chernow has picked men whose life trajectories were so dramatic as to be hardly credible.[1] Hamilton’s rags-to-riches story was exceptional enough; Grant’s is even more so. A place in the rising middle class, then a descent to poverty and utter debasement, then, in just a few years, an apotheosis of the kind that only happens to a few men in a century; then back to rags again, then, miraculously, a final redemption. It is one of the most unlikely tales in history, well worth the retelling, particularly in the kind of scholarly detail Chernow provides, and with his particular brand of intelligent engagement.

A couple of generations ago this sensational tale was still well known to the American public. Military heroes were still heroes in the popular imagination, and few possessed more lustre than Grant. And then there were his own memoirs, published posthumously in two volumes, a classic that resided on the bookshelves in many homes, at least the homes of Union sympathizers. The story needs telling again for the twenty-first century. Ronald C. White produced an excellent life of Grant as recently as 2016,[2] but only a biographer of Chernow’s fame, perhaps, could bring the subject the popular attention it deserves. Both books do justice to the great man. At 659 pages of text, White’s is more digestible if lighter-weight. Chernow’s, at 965 pages of smaller print, is somewhat overstuffed; as in Hamilton, the author is a bit too repetitive, and one feels that 150 pages or so could be shaved off the volume without doing it much damage. But in the biographer’s eternal quest to produce The Definitive Life of a subject, Chernow has undoubtedly emerged the victor this time.

If Grant had been born in our era, his pushy, ambitious father Jesse would no doubt have made him take the Johnson O’Connor aptitude test or something of that sort, and he might have avoided some humiliating debacles. He was undoubtedly a genuine military genius, the real thing. His closest peer in the Civil War, William Tecumseh Sherman, called him “the greatest soldier of our time if not all time,” and Grant’s management of the Vicksburg campaign alone places him on the level of Napoleon Bonaparte. But in other areas he was practically an idiot, especially in business: “the con artist and the scoundrel always found a ready target in U. S. Grant,” writes Chernow: crooks “studied Grant, some of them, as the shoe-maker measures the foot of his customer.” The disparity between the two sides of Grant is tragic, but occasionally it’s comic as well.

The young Ulysses Grant did not appear particularly promising even in the military arts for which he would later be so distinguished. Jesse wangled a place for him at West Point without consulting his son’s ideas on the matter. When Ulysses said he would not go, Jesse insisted that he would—and, as Ulysses later confessed, “I thought so too, if he did.” His father would dominate him throughout his life, even when he became president of the United States. “I remember about the time I entered the academy,” Grant would recall, “there were debates in Congress over a proposal to abolish West Point. I . . . read the Congress reports with eagerness . . . hoping to hear that the school had been abolished, and that I could go home to my father without being in disgrace.” Once ensconced at the academy, he got by but did not distinguish himself except in mathematics—he cherished the modest ambition of being a math instructor in “some college”—and in horsemanship: even for that time, when all members of the officer class rode well, he was an exceptional equestrian. He graduated 21st in a class of 39, doing poorly in specifically military subjects and gaining a commission only in the infantry—the lowest of the four areas into which graduates were sorted. (Engineering was the top, followed by artillery, cavalry, and infantry. The nonpareil Robert E. Lee had naturally been an engineer.)

In his memoirs, Grant rated the day of his graduation from West Point the second happiest of his life, right after his last day as president. And perhaps he didn’t get as much out of the education on offer as others did. But in one area, at least, it prepared him extraordinarily well for his work in the Civil War, for at West Point he got to know many young men who would be key players in that war, on both the Union and Confederate sides. It was a remarkable cohort that included his future right hand, Sherman; Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson; George McClellan, the brilliant young general whom the unassuming Grant would surprisingly leave in the dust during the Civil War; George H. Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga”; George Pickett, he of the famous charge at Gettysburg. Special friends of Grant’s included Rufus Ingalls, who would serve as quartermaster general of the United States Army, and the Southerner James Longstreet, who would be best man at Grant’s wedding to Julia Dent.

These friendships and acquaintances deepened during the Mexican War, which broke out only three years after Grant’s graduation from West Point. Grant went as a member of the Party of Observation under Zachary Taylor, though he professed disgust at his country’s military adventurism. “For myself, I was bitterly opposed to [the annexation of Texas], and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” “Texas had no claim beyond the Nueces River, 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.” Still, he distinguished himself in the war, serving as regimental adjutant and quartermaster. He accompanied General Winfield Scott on his dramatic march from Veracruz to Mexico City, serving under McClellan and the older Robert E. Lee. Other officers he encountered in Mexico whom he would later serve with and do battle against in the Civil War included Joseph Johnston, Winfield Scott Hancock, Albert Sidney Johnston, Joseph Hooker, Braxton Bragg, George Gordon Meade, and P. G. T. Beauregard. Again, the intimate knowledge he would gain of these men’s characters and habits was supremely useful in the later conflict. Having seen Lee in action, at close range, he was impatient when his fellow Union men endowed the great Virginian with an almost mystic aura of invincibility. “I had known [Lee] personally, and knew that he was mortal; and it was just as well that I felt this,” Grant commented drily. It might have behooved Lee to pay a bit more attention to his insignificant-looking junior: surrendering to Grant at Appomattox in 1865, he admitted to the younger man that he did not remember him. “I know that I met you [during the Mexican War], and I have often thought of it, and tried to recollect how you looked, but I have never been able to recall a single feature.”

The young Grant was unremarkable, then, and the years between the Mexican and Civil Wars made him even less consequential, largely through his own failings and weaknesses. First and most destructive among these was his alcoholism. Chernow describes him, accurately, as the sort of alcoholic who can keep sober for weeks or months at a time but then can’t stop drinking once he begins—and drinking quickly made him “stupid,” an adjective used by more than one witness to this behavior. There were various stories about how he came to leave the army in 1854, but Chernow produces overwhelming evidence that his resignation was due to drinking, though his commanding officer declined to pursue a court-martial or other punitive action and allowed him to resign honorably. Grant’s own version of the story, for the rest of his life, was the time-honored one of wishing to spend more time with his family—as indeed he did. Nevertheless, the “story of Grant’s resigna­tion echoed down through the years into the Civil War . . . Starting in April 1854, Grant’s bibulous nature became a part of army folklore and, rightly or wrongly, he was never again entirely free from charges of being a ‘drunkard.’”

Out of the army, Grant’s downward drift began in earnest. Hopelessly impractical, he failed first at farming and then at every business venture he applied himself to. “He was the perfect soul of honor and truth,” said a friend, “and believed everyone as artless as himself,” as much a sucker for small-time hustlers during these years as he would be for big-time swindlers later on. It was harder and harder to support his beloved wife and their growing family, and he grew so down-at-heel that acquaintances would cross the street when they saw him coming, afraid that he would ask for a loan. As the final humiliation, this former officer and West Point graduate was reduced to working as a clerk in his father’s store back in Galena, Illinois, under the authority of his two younger brothers. Even at this lowly task he did not excel: Ely Parker, the Seneca attorney who later became Grant’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs, wrote that “Selling goods from behind a counter did not seem to be his forte, for if he was near the front door when a customer entered, he did not hesitate to make a pretty rapid retreat to the counting room.”

Grant was thirty-nine years old, apparently a hopeless failure, when Confederate troops fired the first shots on Fort Sumter. In the meantime, his political ideas had been slowly developing. While Jesse Grant was an avid abolitionist, Ulysses was no such thing; he opposed slavery in theory, but also feared, like many Northerners, that “outright abolitionism might lead to bloody sectional conflict.” He had even cast his one vote in a presidential election for James Buchanan, a Democrat—a fact that would embarrass him in later years. His father-in-law Fred Dent (a man as bossy and controlling as his own father) was a Missouri slaveowner of reactionary leanings, and his own wife, Julia, owned slaves while she was married to Grant, not divesting herself of this property until the Emancipation Proclamation. Grant himself quickly freed the slave who was given him by Fred, William Jones, but he was no abolitionist, dismissing John Brown’s raid as the act of a fanatic. But Chernow provides evidence that Grant became increasingly anti-slavery, a Free-Soil Democrat, in the years leading up to the war.

In any case, Southern secession gave him the sense of mission he had lacked since his departure from the army. “Whatever may have been my political opinions before I have but one sentiment now. That is we have a Government, and laws and a flag and they must all be sustained. There are but two parties now, Traitors & Patriots and I want hereafter to be ranked with the latter.” He applied for a commission, and though he was brushed off—by George McClellan, among others—he eventually succeeded through the support of Illinois Congressman Elihu Washburne, who would tirelessly promote his career throughout the war and beyond.

“Once he took command, a remarkable change overcame Grant, mirrored in his letters. He now sounded energized, alert, and self-confident, as if shaken from a long slumber.” By August he was a brigadier general, and he had begun to develop a strategy to exploit the river system that led into the heart of the Confederacy. The famous victories began with the capitulation of Fort Henry in February 1862 and shortly thereafter of Fort Donelson, the first major Union victory, galvanizing Northern spirits which had become defeatist after the initial spurt of Confederate wins.

The key to Grant’s military success lay in his character, in what Chernow calls a “split metabolism. Grant came alive in emergencies, drawing upon a fund of strength that often lay dormant in more tranquil times.” He was above all a man of action who “rated speed and timing as more important than having every soldier in perfect position,” and in this his contrast to the dawdling McClellan, the dilatory Benjamin Butler, and far too many other Union generals was striking. As Grant later pointed out in his memoirs, “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.” (McClellan, for example, was an anti-abolitionist who later challenged Lincoln for the presidency on the Democratic ticket.) Grant’s politics, on the contrary, swiftly developed in accordance with the Union war aims as established by Lincoln: he became an abolitionist committed not only to the reunification of the country but to the liberation of the slaves and the eventual establishment of some sort of reconstruction program along Lincolnian lines. This new moral certainty infused his style of leadership and led, possibly, to the sort of ends-justifying-the-means single-mindedness that made his many critics on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line call him a butcher, careless of casualties so long as ultimate victory could be attained. But “what I want,” insisted Lincoln, who was heartily fed up with the so-called “political generals” he had been compelled to appoint in order to retain electoral support for his Republican party, “. . . is generals who will fight battles and win victories. Grant has done this, and I propose to stand by him.” Lincoln never had cause to regret the decision. “He isn’t shrieking for reinforcements all the time. He takes what troops we can safely give him, and does the best he can with what he has got.”

Grant’s natural courtesy, his modesty and utter unpretentiousness, were as important as his moral vision in leading the Union army. His masterful control of the previously contentious Union armies when he took over as lieutenant general in March of 1864 was effected, claimed Charles Francis Adams, Jr., “simply by the exercise of tact and good taste.” In the thick of battle he exhibited a preternatural calm that proved infectious to his troops. The ability to judge other men, a talent that had eluded him in the business world, was infallible on the battlefield: during the course of the war, he helped Lincoln weed out the useless generals, and he invariably promoted and supported the two men who did the most to help him win the war, Sherman and Philip Sheridan.

Grant’s greatest moment, perhaps, was at Appomattox. Edmund Wilson likened the long anticipated meeting with the ever-elusive Lee to Captain Ahab’s encounter with the white whale. The courtesy and generosity Grant accorded Lee, in compliance with Lincoln’s endorse­ment of “malice toward none,” enhanced Grant’s standing in the South as well as the North, and he attempted to infuse what came to be called “the spirit of Appomattox” into his two terms as president. With Lincoln dead, Grant “became the foremost symbol of the Union and the political agenda ratified by the war, most notably justice for the freed slaves.” His upright behavior throughout the chaotic, acrimonious presidency of Andrew Johnson burnished this image, and in 1868 he emerged as the natural, the only possible Republican candidate.

But was it ever possible to maintain the spirit of Appomattox? Could the national wound ever be healed, and would Washington ever have been able to impose Reconstruction on the South without military force? Chernow’s most significant work, in this book, is his reexamination of Grant’s presidency. For many years, Grant was seen as a failed president, a poor manager who allowed greedy and unscrupulous men free rein in his administration. And this is to a certain extent true. The Crédit Mobilier affair, the gold conspiracy of Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, the Whiskey Ring: the perpetrators of such scams flourished in Grant’s Washington and sullied his administration and his memory. As Chernow shows us, Grant “brought to the job no deep knowledge of statecraft and had a special need for experienced advisers. Instead he adopted the secretive, intuitive decision-making style of a general who feared his war plans might leak out.” It was a failing Grant himself took measure of, in retrospect: “I thought I could run the government of the United States, as I did the staff of my army. It was my mistake, and it led me into other mistakes.”

But Chernow’s admiration for Grant, however qualified, never truly wavers. If Grant enabled greed and plunder, he did so unwittingly, and he did not participate in it. His work with Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, his finest cabinet choice, to restore good relations with the British Empire was fruitful and long-lasting. He argued passionately for the importance of an educated public to the exercise of a democracy. Most of all, his efforts to impose racial equality, doomed though they clearly were, were heroic.

The received view of Reconstruction has been shifting and evolving ever since the 1860s. Not so very long ago, it was perfectly acceptable to describe Reconstruction as a humiliation and exploitation of the South, imposed by greedy Northern business interests. Eric Foner’s landmark study[3] communicated the idea of Reconstruction as a failed—or unfin­ished—social revolution imposed from above on an unwilling populace. Chernow subscribes to that view and demonstrates how, again, and again and again, Grant used his power and his prestige to enforce the rights declared in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amend­ments in the face of hostility not only from white Southerners, but from white Northerners as well—from all, that is, except the Radical Repub­licans. And by the mid-1870s “race exhaustion” had set in even in those exalted circles. Here is Chernow’s take:

When Reconstruction was pilloried as a byword for political abuse, Grant was accused of going too far in advancing black civil rights and foisting “bayonet rule” on the South. Recent revisionist historians have sometimes swung to the other extreme, criticizing him for backtracking on Reconstruction during the last two years of his presidency . . . The true wonder is not that Grant finally retreated from robust federal intervention, but that he had the courage to persist for so long in his outspoken concern for black safety and civil rights as he faced a ferocious backlash from Democrats and even his own party.

In the opinion of Frederick Douglass, “To Grant more than any other man the Negro owes his enfranchisement.”

After the end of his presidency, Grant made the most disastrous investment of his entire inept business career, putting his trust in a huckster named Ferdinand Ward with whom his son had gone into business. Grant himself was persuaded to join the Wall Street brokerage firm of Grant and Ward, investing $100,000 of his own money, and he innocently signed whatever documents came his way, assured that he was making money hand over fist. By the time it was revealed that Ward was operating a gigantic Ponzi scheme, Grant’s fortune had dropped from two-and-a-half million on paper to $180 in pocket.

The story of how Grant managed to restore his family’s prosperity, even as he himself was dying of throat cancer, by signing a book contract with Mark Twain and writing his memoirs for Twain’s publishing house is now legendary, and visitors to Saratoga Springs can visit the cottage in which he completed the work. Writing turned out to be another of Grant’s talents, one he was surprised to discover. “I never thought of acquiring rank in the profession I was educated for; yet it came with two grades higher prefixed to the rank of General officer for me. I certainly never had either ambition or taste for political life; yet I was twice President of the United States. If anyone had suggested the idea of my becoming an author, as they frequently did, I was not sure whether they were making sport of me or not. I have now written a book which is in the hands of the manufacturers.”

The book was completed only a week before Grant’s death on July 23, 1885. It would have been a bestseller no matter what the writing was like; but the quality of his prose was a revelation. Twain thought the memoirs would stand alongside Julius Caesar’s Commentaries. Matthew Arnold, reading in England, was equally impressed. “I found shown in them a man, strong, resolute and business-like, as Grant had appeared to me when I first saw him; a man with no magical personality, touched by no divine light and giving out none. . . . But at the same time I found a man of sterling good-sense as well as of the firmest resolution; a man, withal, humane, simple, modest.” The volumes still stand as the man’s finest monument, despite the lavish tomb in New York’s Riverside Park. But it omits much—the drinking, the financial woes, the happy marriage to Julia Dent, the Ward debacle. Chernow rectifies all that and more, and his rich, detailed assessment of Grant’s role in Reconstruction and the history of race relations is invaluable.
[1] GRANT, by Ron Chernow. Penguin Press. $40.00.

[2] Ronald C. White, American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant (New York, 2016).

[3] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863–1877 (New York, 1988).