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Ulysses S. Grant Made America Whole Again
Thursday, October 18, 2018 -- While President Trump blithely lionizes Robert E. Lee and speculates about the drinking habits of Ulysses S. Grant, the historian and biographer Ron Chernow has produced a masterful epic that revisits Grant, a man who made America whole again.
Chernow, who wrote the book that served as the historical underpinning of the mega-hit rap musical Hamilton, poses an existential question: Can a shy, honest, unassuming man who struggled with alcoholism and who failed in all his civilian endeavors nevertheless become a public figure whose contributions literally change the course of a nation?
In Grant, an exhaustive work that comes in at more than 1,000 pages, Chernow empathetically but fairly recounts Grant's shortcomings and failures. But he clearly set out to give this remarkable American his due.
As always with Chernow, the writing is brilliant; the research mind-boggling, and, ultimately awesome. Chernow's work is also fortuitous since, even in his own time, Grant's intelligence and skills were often overlooked and underestimated because of his unremarkable demeanor and often disheveled appearance.
Chernow reveals Grant as a man who, despite humble and harrowing beginnings and without a formal education, was intuitive and innately intelligent. He was a master military strategist who plotted entire campaigns and always looked beyond individual battles and the current skirmishes. With no training as a writer or orator, he becomes a successful author, a compelling speaker and "riveting storyteller."
Chernow's sprawling story is divided into four chronological sections. In Life of Struggle, he follows Grant from his birth in 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio, through his childhood in Galena, Illinois. We also meet him as a West Point graduate and a highly regarded junior officer in the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848.
Grant's time in Mexico reveals important personality traits. In battle, he is cool, unflappable, logical and courageous. We're also introduced to an ongoing problem in Grant's life: the curse of alcoholism. Chernow does not absolve Grant from his behavior. His drinking threatened his military career and he was forced to resign his commission in 1854. But Chernow points out Grant didn't drink during military campaigns. This was due in no small part to the watchfulness of John Rawlins, a loyal and protective friend, an important member of his military entourage, and, later, President Grant's secretary of war.
The decade after the Mexican conflict is a deeply troubling time for Lieutenant Grant: isolated military postings in the West; bouts of alcoholism; depression; and the migraines to which he would be subjected most of his life. He's lonely, too, and deeply misses his wife, Julia Dent, and their growing family. Yet for all his personal struggles, Chernow details what appears to be a stable and generally happy married life. Julia was incredibly supportive and ambitious on her husband's behalf.
Life of War, Chernow's second section, finds Grant rejoining the military in 1861 when he accepts a commission from the governor of Illinois. His success preparing Union recruits results in the field assignment he craves. He's made a colonel in the Illinois militia and, a month later, is appointed a brigadier general in the United States Volunteers by President Lincoln.
Grant's meteoric rise begins when he wins several key Civil War battles along the strategically crucial Mississippi River. Lincoln takes notice because his senior commanders refuse to engage Confederate forces. Grant soon becomes a four-star general in the Union Army. In March, 1864, Lincoln grants him command of all the Union military. He wins the war in 13 months.
Grant is known for his total commitment to battle and for vigorous, and bloody, campaigns. His singular focus earns him a reputation as a "butcher" because of the high casualties suffered by his soldiers. Yet Chernow writes that he preferred peace and was popular with his troops.
Grant also refrained from merciless punishment of those he conquered. Events after winning the final battle at Appomattox are particularly significant. Grant is not vindictive and is courteous to the defeated General Lee. He permits Confederate soldiers to keep their horses and go free rather than be held as prisoners of war. There are no overt victory celebrations and Grant delivers about 25,000 meals to starving Confederates.
For all his benevolence during the war, however, Grant made at least one notable mistake: the issuance of General Order No. 11. On December 17, 1862, he ordered all Jews expelled from his military districts in Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky. Amid protests and pressure from the press and Congress, Lincoln revoked the order on January 4, 1863. Grant himself never defended his decision and later makes sincere efforts to heal the rift it spawned with the Jewish community. And as Chernow notes, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed more Jews to public office than all his predecessors combined.
After he takes the oath of office in March, 1869, Grant works decisively to bring justice to the black community in the South, including temporarily suppressing the Ku Klux Klan. Recognizing his efforts, the great black statesman Frederick Douglass writes "to Grant, more than any other man, the Negro owes his enfranchisement."
Chernow explains that Grant is clear on his primary presidential objective: "to settle unfinished business from the war by preserving the Union and safeguarding the free slaves." Yet Grant is a political novice. Both his friends and his enemies cuckold him, not with his wife, but his wallet. His eight-year presidency is filled with scandal and corruption although the evidence suggests that Grant himself never profited.
After leaving the White House, he and Julia travel the world for two and a half years, a journey that saw them wined, dined and feted by the world's leaders. Even without the mantle of the presidency or a military title, everyone who meets him is impressed.
Grant eventually starts a business in New York in partnership with his son and Ferdinand Ward, the Bernie Madoff of his time. Ward uses what will eventually be known as a Ponzi scheme to swindle Grant, his extended family and friends. Ward will ultimately serve a long jail sentence, but Grant is left impoverished during what was often referred to as the Gilded Age.
To support his family, he writes a series of articles. Encouraged by his editors and the good reviews, he begins work on his memoirs. He didn't want to write them, but he needs the money and they rescue him from poverty.
At around 336,000 words, The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant would have been a grueling undertaking at any time. It's especially challenging since Grant is wracked with pain and dying from throat cancer. It is Mark Twain who drives Grant to complete the work. Twain becomes a close personal friend and advisor, he builds Grant's self-confidence and gives him courage. He becomes Grant's publisher and inspires him to finish what some consider the greatest military biography ever written.
Grant died in 1885, at the age of 63, just five days after finishing the two-volume memoir. It focuses primarily on his military career and omits important aspects of his life including his struggles with alcohol; his childhood and unhappy family life; General Order No. 11 and, surprisingly, his presidency. Praised by the general public, critics and military historians, The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant becomes a best-seller.
Much of that success was due to Twain's inventive marketing. In what may be one of the earliest forms of pre-sale publicity, Twain deployed thousands of agents, including veterans dressed in their uniforms, to bring the book to the patriotic public even as the country mourned Grant's passing. Armed with a sales pitch Twain wrote to target veterans, the two-volume set sells about 350,000 copies.
"No previous book had ever sold so many copies in such a short period of time," Chernow notes.
Grant's death was mourned with numerous services across the country. In New York, 1.5 million people, including leading members of the government as well as Union and Confederate generals and troops, marched in a seven-mile procession that ended with entombment at what would later be called Grant's Tomb. Honorary pallbearers included Generals Sherman and Sheridan and Rabbi E. B. M. Browne, whose presence was a testament to Grant's successful atonement for Order No. 11.
As you read Chernow's biography, you can't help but be amazed by the life story of this self-deprecating, depressive man. He could barely get a commission at the beginning of the Civil War, yet ends it as the victorious supreme commander. Just four years later, he is elected president at age 46, the youngest ever at the time. Then he writes a best-seller on his deathbed.
Grant, a best-seller when it was released last year, is a terrific journey into the life of an intriguing personage, one of the most consequential figures in American history. It's also a long journey. It consumed about 48 hours of my time when I "read" it as an audiobook. Be thankful that Kindle makes carrying this 1,100-page saga on your next few flights a painless endeavor.
This column is Copyright © 2018 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.