Ulysses Simpson Grant is probably the most recognisable army officer in the pantheon of American history. He is, at the same time, most likely the least understood and most under-appreciated person. This marvellous work by Ron Chernow should do much to resolve that conundrum.
Born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, in 1827 to jesse and Hannah Grant, Hiram Ulysses Grant was the first of six children. An active youngster, he was a superb horseman but objected strenuously to working in his father’s tannery (the sight and smell of blood repulsed him) and thus was given the job of transporting people and supplies.
Not attracted to a military life, he was surprised to find that his father had applied to his political contacts to obtain for Ulysses an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
The young man went reluctantly and hoped to leave as soon as possible. A mistake at the registrar’s changed his name from Hiram Ulysses Grant to Ulysses Simpson Grant, much to his relief. Thereafter, rather than being referred to as ‘Hug’, he acquired the nickname of ‘Uncle Sam’ or simply ‘Sam’.
Fortunately for the country, his ambition to abandon military studies was also thwarted. Although a middling student, he did excel at mathematics and horsemanship. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1842, and assigned to the 4th Infantry at jefferson Barracks near St Louis, Missouri.
It was here that Grant met and courted his future wife, Julia Dent. Oddly enough, while Grant’s father Jesse was an ardent abolitionist, Julia’s father owned a plantation and was an unapologetic slave-owner.
It was a situation that was to generate much familial friction in the ensuing years. Grant’s father, in particular, was what today we might refer to as a ‘wheeler-dealer’. Avaricious and self-absorbed, he was forever plotting shrewd business moves and, as his son’s reputation rose, attempting to exploit it to his own benefit.
Grant’s own reputation was slow to develop, and marked by highs and lows along the way. A brilliant young officer in the war against Mexico, he was, as Chernow points out, conflicted about the war. Grant thought it a struggle motivated by gross political designs which he personally abhorred, saying later, ‘I am always ashamed of my countrywhen I think of that invasion.’
Whatever his personal views, they did not diminish his soldierly skills or enthusiasm for combat. It was an environment wherein he found he was remarkably calm and composed, even detached. His personal élan was such that he participated with valour and initiative in virtually every major battle during the war, and was cited for his courage under fire.
But, in the aftermath of the conflict, Grant would find himself beleaguered by the vicissitudes of the peacetime army. Separated from his wife and growing family, the young officer found himself assigned to the West Coast of the United States.
After a gruelling passage across the Isthmus of Panama and up the Pacific Coast, Lieutenant Grant was thrust into a world transfixed by the Gold Rush and the lure of opportunity, while subsisting on the starvation wages of army pay and yearning for his young family.
He unwisely engaged in several ill-fated business ventures in the hope of garnering funds enough to bring his family out to join him. Hard-working and scrupulously honest, the young Grant was frequently taken advantage of by feckless business partners and all his efforts came to naught.
Subject to bouts of melancholy, Grant in essence self-medicated with alcohol and began to unravel.
Facing disciplinary action for his drinking, and put upon by his local commanding officer, Grant resigned his commission and returned to the Midwest to join his wife and family.
Julia recognised that Grant was susceptible to the ill-effects of alcohol and ensured that the Grant household remained temperate, much to his betterment.
Over a period of several years, he turned his hand unsuccessfully to farming, real estate, and cutting and selling firewood. His situation was so diminished that he was finally obliged to take a position under his younger brothers in his father’s tanning business in Galena, Illinois. It was at this low point that fate intervened in a most unexpected way, when a Confederacy of Southern states seceded from the Union and fired on Fort Sumter.
THE CIVIL WAR
With his West Point education and his service in the Mexican War, Grant found himself called on to provide guidance and advice to the thousands of young men who volunteered for service in the Union Army.
As Chernow points out repeatedly throughout this superb work, Grant was not one to seek his own advancement. When others solicited his assistance, however, he did not shirk but rather stepped forward to lend a hand. Thus he found himself appointed a colonel of volunteers and, as the war progressed, thrust repeatedly into positions of increasingly challenging responsibility.
Assigned to the western theatre of operations along the Mississippi River, in 1862 Grant devised a joint army-navy operation to capture Forts Donelson and Henry, providing the Union with its first clear-cut victories.
Promoted to major-general of volunteers, he achieved more success at the Battle of Shiloh later that year, and then at the Siege of Vicksburg in 1863, successfully cutting the Confederacy in two.
Suffering from intense migraine headaches, likely induced by stress, he was repeatedly incapacitated for brief periods. While his detractors would insist this was a result of his recourse to the bottle, those who served with him denied these rumours, insisting that Grant had put the alcoholic demons behind him.
His success in the field was such that Abraham Lincoln, frequently urged to relieve Grant, famously replied, ‘I can’t spare this man: he fights.’ Promoted to lieutenant-general, Grant went on to lead the Union forces to victory at Appomattox.
THE YOUNGEST PRESIDENT
One might well imagine that this is ample material for a biographical work, but Chernow takes us on an in-depth tour of Grant’s post-war endeavours too. Appalled by the recidivist tendencies of President Andrew Johnson, successor to the assassinated Lincoln, Grant found himself drawn inexorably into the political sphere, becoming, in 1868, the youngest president to-date.
Chernow delves into a treasure trove of documents, a great many hitherto unplumbed, to paint an extraordinary portrait of an upright and steadfastly honest man thrust into a position he had not envisioned.
Unaccustomed to the demands of political office, Grant strove mightily always to do what he felt was right and just. A stalwart defender of the rights of the black man and Native Americans, he worked ceaselessly to better their lot in American society.
He also waged a determined campaign against the lawless depredations of the Ku Klux Klan. As Frederick Douglas was to remark with reference to the black man, ‘Abraham Lincoln made him a freedman and General Ulysses S Grant made him a citizen.’
Despite the fact that Grant served two terms as president (the first to do so since Andrew Jackson), he would remain forever, as Chernow describes him, ‘a political naif’.
Surrounded by politicians and cabinet members whose greed and ambition would taint his administration, Grant characteristically wished to believe no evil of those he had entrusted with the government’s inner workings. The result has been that Grant’s administration is often decried as venal and corrupt.
While this was probably a fair assessment of many government servants, Chernow demonstrates that Grant himself remained an incorruptible force throughout. His fault was in being far too trusting of his intimates.
After his two terms as president, Grant, ever curious about the world at large, embarked with his family on an extended overseas tour that took them to Great Britain, where he was hosted by Queen Victoria and befriended by Gladstone. Then on they went through Europe, North Africa, India, China, and Japan. Welcomed warmly wherever he went, Grant frequently broke away to wander incognito through strange cities, learning and absorbing as much as he could.
On his return to the United States, he found that the fortune he had built up had been squandered by his unscrupulous partner in an early version of a Ponzi scheme. Once again, his personal savings were looted by those in whom he believed. Lacking a pension from either his two terms as president or his time as a general officer, he found himself deeply in debt.
Soon thereafter he was diagnosed with incurable throat cancer, probably the result of the many cigars he had smoked habitually, and he feared for the future welfare of his family.
It was at this point that he was approached by his old friend, humorist Mark Twain, and urged to write his memoirs. It was not something that Grant had intended to do. As Chernow puts it, ‘He disliked talking about himself and professed that he lacked the literary ability and industry to hazard such a venture.’
But he was on the horns of a dilemma. Bankrupt and dying, he felt he had no other recourse. With Twain’s kindly urging, he set himself to work, penning his Personal Memoirs, considered to this day to be one of the best-written autobiographies extant. Still sold and read today, Grant never saw it published, dying only days after submitting the final manuscript to the publisher.
While there have been numerous biographies of Grant, ranging from those of William McFeely to those of Jean Edward Smith and Ron White, this is perhaps the best-researched and well-written volume of all. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Chernow is perhaps better known for his biography of Hamilton, which was transformed into the popular musical, but this work, in my view, is far more revelatory and riveting.