BY MATTHEW HERBERT
Ron Chernow, it seems, has never met a cliché he didn’t like.
I open randomly to any of the 960 pages of Chernow’s 2017 biography of Ulysses S. Grant, and the dull, timeworn phrases turn out in squads, companies, and whole regiments. On page 561, we read that President Grant “toiled under heavy burdens,” while his longtime aide John Rawlins “felt duty bound to assist him.” (Rawlins was Grant’s Secretary of War–how else was he supposed to feel?)
We learn of a photograph of Grant taken during the Vicksburg campaign. There is, Chernow tells us, “an indescribable look of suffering” on Grant’s face. How does Chernow limn Grant’s supposedly indescribable pain? The general, he writes, has “sad, woebegone eyes.”
When we learn that President Woodrow Wilson, a native Georgian, dismissed Grant’s efforts at postwar reconstruction, it is with this lapidary phrasework: Wilson “consigned President Grant to the dustbin of history . . . .”
As the Battle for Chattanooga came to a successful culmination, “Grant hoped Sherman would reap the lion’s share of glory.” We are touched, later, to know that Sherman stood “ramrod straight” at Grant’s funeral.
Grant “had to show the velvet glove and iron fist at once” while dealing with Indians in the West.
Drearily, there is much, much more. I enjoyed Grant for the most part, but Chernow’s lack of literary seriousness became a distraction. Sometimes I couldn’t help tallying the number of clichés and clumsy phrases on a given page.
Which is too bad. Chernow’s massive biography is largely a success. It corrects a number of misconceptions about Grant and reveals little-known details of his life. Overall, Chernow makes a convincing argument that Grant is both greater and more complex than most of us have imagined him to be.
First, there is the matter of Grant’s drinking. While he certainly had a complicated relationship with booze, Grant was no drunk, at least not in the usual sense. The impression one gets from some Civil War histories (Shelby Foote’s magnificent The Civil War: A Narrative comes to mind) is that Grant spent long stretches of time drinking while on duty and even did so while encamped outside Vicksburg before his breakthrough victory there in July 1863. Marshalling a meticulous string of reports–and winnowing out a substantial amount of character attacks by Grant’s political foes–Chernow develops a very plausible, and different, profile of Grant’s drinking problem.
Grant was a distinctly episodic drinker who knew he had a problem with alcohol and never indulged when his family was nearby to provide emotional support. The early sprees that formed the foundation of later slurs and innuendoes all took place in the 1850s while Grant was a junior Army officer stationed far away from his young family, in remote Oregon and California. His isolated slips later in life all followed the same pattern: when Grant fell off the wagon, it was always one night, away from home, and not on duty. If any other patterns marked Grant’s drinking, they were: how he managed to maintain temperance for months, even years at a time, and how near he came to defeating alcoholism entirely. On a two and a half-year world tour after his second presidency–precisely the time to let down his guard and live a little–Grant steadfastly kept his wine glass overturned even as he was celebrated in palaces, ballrooms, and salons everywhere he went.
Grant’s dogged pursuit of sobriety reflected a broader American struggle to tame its wild side. In 1822, when Grant was born, Americans consumed the equivalent of 90 bottles of whisky each year on average. By the time Grant died in 1885, refusing a brandy-laced dose of morphine because as he told his doctor, alcohol didn’t “agree with him,” Americans drank less than half the amount they had at their peak earlier in the century.
The military genius Grant showed in the Civil War was so central to wartime victory, it has overshadowed how hard Grant fought as president to defeat the United States’ largest, most lethal terrorist group–the Ku Klux Klan. As someone who has worked with soldiers for most of my life, it is no surprise how bitterly they take it when their battlefield sacrifices are compromised by politicians who abandon the aims they fought for. Grant often felt the same way. But he enjoyed a rare historical opportunity: he was a former soldier who found himself empowered to follow through as a politician to try to secure what his troops had bled for.
Chernow’s retelling of the founding of the KKK and Grant’s determination to destroy it puts this episode where it needs to be–front and center in the history of Reconstruction. Grant is justly praised for creating the “spirit of Appomattox” when he accepted Robert E. Lee’s surrender in April 1865. Grant’s generous terms, allowing Lee’s troops to return home with their guns and horses, was meant to mark a definitive end, not just to hostilities, but to feelings of hostility. And while many southerners accepted this gesture with dignified thanks, many more did not. Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, as the first Grand Wizard of the KKK, led thousands of former Confederate soldiers in the South on a campaign of killing Republicans and recently emancipated Blacks, smashing voter registration sites, burning churches, and resisting all efforts to implement the constitutional amendments ending slavery and ensuring voting rights in the South (the 13th and 14th).
Grant may have been president, but in 1870, as the KKK launched what Chernow rightly calls “a new civil war by clandestine means,” he reverted to thinking like a general. The KKK’s center of gravity, Grant reasoned, was its ability to intimidate anyone who might testify against them in court. So Grant went all in on destroying this center of gravity. Responding to southern governors’ requests for help, Grant sent federal troops to enforce the Ku Klux Klan Act (actually three “Enforcement Acts”), which empowered the government to jail KKK suspects without Habeas Corpus rights–critically depriving them knowledge of witnesses’ identities–and to use federal troops to directly suppress KKK activity, doing the job local sheriffs refused to do. By 1872, Grant smashed the KKK’s power. Forrest resigned as Grand Wizard and recanted his overtly racist political goals.
Of course even the most naïve student of American history knows that Grant (and the nation) did not succeed in achieving the broader aims of Reconstruction. Indeed Chernow does an admirable job of describing how the decline of Grant’s second term as president was more or less coextensive with the demise of Reconstruction. When Grant left office in 1876, the network of white supremacists that would maintain the racist power order of the South were still alive and well despite the defeat of the KKK. They would go on to create the legal structure of Jim Crow and resist civil rights for another 80 years. (Read Eric Foner’s entire body of work on the massive criminal enterprise that defeated Reconstruction and kept racism alive. If you only have time for one of Foner’s books, make it Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution – 1863-1877.)
We often hear how personal the Civil War was, dividing brother from brother and father from son. The most luminous thread woven throughout Chernow’s book, retold with fine, stoical understatement that makes up for some of Chernow’s general failures of style, is Grant’s friendship with John Longstreet, who would become an acclaimed Confederate general. Grant and Longstreet became friends at West Point, when each was a boy of 18. Depending on which source you believe, Longstreet was Grant’s best man at his wedding to Julia Dent, or was at least instrumental in pairing the two up. (The Dents were family friends of the Longstreets.)
Longstreet and Grant served together in the Mexican American War in 1846. The next time they would meet on the battlefield, Grant’s forces would nearly kill Longstreet, in the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864. Then, miraculously, Longstreet appears at Appomattox Courthouse, a senior commander under Lee. He is astonished when Grant treats him as a friend, and Longstreet is instrumental in persuading Lee that Grant will give, and honor, fair terms of surrender. After Grant’s death, Longstreet would call him “the truest as well as the bravest man that ever lived.”
Grant was a hard but idealistic man. He fought the Confederacy with death-dealing determination but then acted magnanimously in victory, hoping mercy would open the door to reconciliation. His genius as a general consisted in an intuitive understanding of a new kind of warfare he was helping to create, which is today called combined arms maneuver warfare. But he was no mere theorist. Grant won, Chernow tells us, because he never let up. His victories were often sealed on the day after a bout of grievous losses. Grant knew the other side would be reeling too, and he judged that that knife-edge moment was the opportunity to win–a victory of the smallest margin would give way to a larger one. And Grant was right. This was the path that he followed to defeat Lee and end the war, which earned him the undeserved label of “butcher.” Grant was not a butcher, but a fierce realist. He knew tomorrow’s peace would come faster the more violence he visited on the enemy today, and that was how he fought.
I have left out a handful of other themes that make Chernow’s book worth reading, especially his description of Grant’s habitual credulity and how it led to a string of corruption allegations. Grant’s surprising ability as a writer late in life becomes less surprising when we learn he wrote as many as 40 detailed orders a day as a general and later wrote all his presidential addresses without the aid of a committee of editors. As Grant was dying of cancer, he finally took on an editor he trusted, to help publish his memoirs so Julia would have a pension. The editor was Mark Twain, and Twain, who was not shy of cutting down idols no matter how large, called Grant a “flawless” writer.
A final theme that emerges from Chernow’s biography is how Grant constantly improved himself and constantly reinvented who he was. And he was seemingly afraid to leave nothing of his old self behind in the process. By the time late in life Grant had become, in turn, a driven civil rights activist, a calculating politician, a capable economist, an effusive public speaker, and a writer for the ages, he had completely shed his old identity as a warrior. His steadfast refusal to glorify war and to trade on his status as the general who saved the Union was the highest mark of his greatness.