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Ron Chernow, Grant (New York: Penguin, 2017), 1104pp.Ron Chernow, Grant (New York: Penguin, 2017), 1104pp.

A review by Brad Keister, former Deputy Division Director of the Physics Division for the National Science Foundation.

In his sprawling, new biography, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Ron Chernow explores the life of Ulysses S. Grant, victorious Civil War general and two-term president, whose reputation has waxed and waned for more than a century.  A common contemporary view is that Grant was an unimpressive general who sacrificed many lives to win the Civil War, an unrepentant drunkard whose judgment was frequently impaired, and an incompetent president surrounded by scandal.  Chernow intends to rectify this picture of a man who, in his view, deserves our respect and study.

Grant grew up in a family that was never far from poverty.  His father failed at one venture after another, and in later years grasped opportunities to use his son’s reputation to undertake even more risks.  His wife came from a Southern family that remained sympathetic to the South throughout the Civil War. Throughout his life, Grant was a man who played the hand he was dealt with dignity.  He lacked the sophistication of his counterpart Robert E. Lee.  On the field, he pursued the goal of defeating the Confederate army to end the war, yet he was gracious in victory.

In Chernow’s view, Grant stood out in his eventual full endorsement of Emancipation as a cause he truly believed in rather than an expedient justification for going to war.  This was most evident after the war, as many Republicans tired of the continuing strife and simply wanted the South to have whatever it wanted to leave everyone else in peace.  Thus, many of the freedoms attained for African-Americans during Reconstruction simply disappeared after Grant left office as president, not to be restored until the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  But Grant gained the enduring respect of Frederick Douglass for his tireless advocacy.

Grant struggled with alcohol his entire adult life, long before alcoholism was understood like it is today.  He knew he had a problem, and resolved to have at least one person by his side who would keep him from drink.  This scheme worked day and night through his time as general and as president, except for a few lapses when his aide or his family was not present (typically he was traveling), which incidences gained him negative publicity that he could not shake.

Grant was also loyal to a fault, and his life was filled with unscrupulous individuals who took advantage of him financially and politically.  While he was clearly shocked to discover a deception (sometimes bringing him close to bankruptcy), he somehow didn’t learn from experience for the next situation that came along.  His role on the field of battle was a different story.  He was a shrewd judge of military ability, and he spent years purging his officer staff of incompetent political appointees, which sometimes earned him bitter enemies, but with the admiration of his president, Abraham Lincoln.

Grant’s time, which included the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, was bitter and chaotic after the Civil War. Chernow's biography offers many lessons for our own day.

Dan Clendenin:

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