Book review: Ron Chernow’s ‘Grant’ depicts general’s shortcomings, strengths

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

The story of Ulysses Grant is one of failure and success. As a businessman, he left much to be desired, attempting and failing at several careers. It was in the military that he found success; the discipline served him well, although he tended to test the rules. Serving in the Mexican War, a war he felt unjust, he began to distinguish himself.

Though Grant was married to a Missouri woman whose father was a slaveholding plantation owner, he was very opposed to slavery. This, along with his pledge to uphold the Constitution of the United States, put him solidly on the Union side of the Civil War. After Lincoln had tried several failed generals to lead the Union effort, Grant’s aggressive pursuit of victory earned him the role, despite rivals who constantly tried to undermine him. Though his aggressive approach resulted in the deaths of many soldiers, it proved to be what was needed. As the war progressed and finally ended, he was revered by the soldiers and public alike for his successes.

Grant fought a lifetime battle against alcoholism. With the help of his wife Julia and aide John Rawlins, he was able to keep the urge away enough to be the most successful general in the Civil War. He would disappear to a neighboring town after a success, however, and indulge. The problem was always there, though by the time he was elected the 18th President (1869–1877), he could keep it at bay. His critics did their best to keep the rumors of excessive alcohol use alive throughout his public life.

After the largely failed administration of Andrew Johnson, Grant was elected president. Unlike Johnson, he was a strong supporter of former slaves getting U.S. citizenship. President Grant helped pass the 15th amendment (African American Voting Rights), took on the Southern paramilitary units, including the Ku Klux Klan, and introduced the Civil Rights Acts of 1870 and 1875 (equal rights for African Americans). TheCivil Rights Act of 1875 was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1883, and a Civil Rights Act was not to appear again until 1957.

During his presidential terms, Grant was challenged with white on black violence in the South because of resistance to Reconstruction efforts, the Panic of 1873 brought on largely by the money management problems following the Civil War, and the Anti-Indian sentiment that followed Custer’s Last Stand. As with presidents before him, he attempted to institute a Civil Service System.

Through it all, he remained a stalwart, honest leader. Though he was relatively successful in dealing with all these endeavors, his approach bred enemies. But in the end, it was not his enemies that were to detract from his efforts, but his friends and the political spoils system. Throughout his administration and its successes, he was bedeviled by the financial scandals of his cabinet (largely friends and “spoils” political appointees).

If you want to review Grant’s life, involvement in the Civil War and his presidency, this may well be the book for you. If you want just a description of his presidency, begin on page 634 of this 959-page book. Written in an accessible style, it is quite readable.



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