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Grant Rising: A Book Review

Grant by Ron Chernow. Penguin Press, 2017, 1074p. $40

In the brief history of the United States, few stories of personal accomplishment have rivaled that of Ulysses Grant. Grant’s hardscrabble rise from obscurity, his inglorious fall, recovery, rise and eventual fall, have been chronicled by many eminent biographers from Bruce Catton to William S. McFeely, and now, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Ron Chernow.

What is it that makes Grant’s story worth the retelling? In a tome numbering more than 950 pages of text that is no easy traveling companion given its heft, Chernow answers the question by diving into the Grant story in a way that no others have explored. In his pages, we experienced the shiftless and youthful Grant who enters West Point largely to escape small town life in his father’s tannery. Grant had no driving ambition to become a soldier but the natural horseman impressed many and he acquired much attention for his service during the Mexican War. The years following the Mexican War were not kind, however. Posted to obscure forts in far distant places, Grant took to drink and was ultimately compelled to resign his army commission.

Lodged back in the tannery under his father’s discipline and eye, Grant suffered in business. Alcohol continued to frustrate his promise. In the months prior to the outbreak of Civil War, Grant was reduced to selling firewood on the streets of Galena. It was a humiliation that he would never forget. The broken man continued to try to secure a military appointment and ultimately succeeded. Wherever he went, whispers about his drinking and controversial resignation from the old army followed. It was only the drought of experienced officers that provided Grant with the chance to serve; and serve he did.

Grant’s initial rise occurred in the west, at Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee. His victories came at a time when success was rare for the Union cause. Elevated to fame that was beyond his actual military achievement, Grant became the darling of the Eastern press, and gained the attention of President Lincoln. The influential Harper’s Weekly illustrated newspaper scrambled to publish a cover engraving featuring Grant’s visage and obtained a copy of a portrait taken by an Illinois photographer. Grant was so mysterious and unknown, that the image used by the newspaper for their engraving was actually based on the photo of a government meat inspector named William Grant. Such was Grant’s fast and furious rise in the heady days of 1862.

Engraved portrait of government meat inspector William Grant that was based on a portrait believed to be General U.S. Grant (Author's Collection)

Ron Chernow is a master of documenting Grant’s ascension. In a book of so many pages, it is remarkable how economic Chernow’s prose reads. Chernow’s Grant will stand for many years as the most readable and definitive biography of the great general. Hemingway famously wrote that “every true story ends in death.” Few deaths redeemed life as much as General Grant’s. Returning from a world tour after the end of his two-term presidency, Grant was stricken with a painful and terminal bout of throat cancer. Having suffered the indignity of having his accumulated wealth wiped out by the con-man, Ferdinand Ward (the Bernie Madoff of his day) Grant bravely pulled himself together for a final effort to author a book of memoirs that would stand as one of the great pieces of American literature. He did not struggle for history, his struggle was for the financial well-being of his family.

The book was sponsored by Grant’s friend, Mark Twain, and Chernow does much to demolish the time-worn rumor that Twain did much of the writing. In researching his book, Chernow examined the original manuscript of Grant’s memoir and found only minimal edits made by other hands. It was the jealousy of jilted associates of Grant’s, namely his secretary Adam Badeau, that fueled the suggestion of ghost-writers. Chernow convincingly argues that the Memoirs are all Grant.

Original CDV of General U.S. Grant (Author's Collection)

Chernow’s book well-serves Grant’s impressive legacy. Grant’s was the quintessential American success story, even if such stories are often overblown or imagined. Grant’s authentic tale from hardscrabble to the heights of military and political fame, is impressive, and Chernow recalls the highs and lows of Grant’s life in a book that can only inspire new appreciation of Grant. Grant’s military success is well known and has been well-covered, but where Chernow succeeds best is in documenting Grant’s presidency. Long dismissed as a corruption plagued Administration, Chernow presents a strong case in Grant’s defense. Grant was forward thinking in his policies toward racial relations, the rights of African-Americans and the recovery of a South devastated by war. While he may have stumbled on some points of foreign relations such as those related to U.S. efforts to acquire Santo Domingo, his negotiation of the Alabama claims issue with Great Britain may well have averted war in the post-Civil War years. Grant’s posture with Great Britain balanced the appearance of a hardline and penalizing approach against the reality of a slap-on-the-hand cash penalty against the Empire for its material support of the Confederate cause.

What is apparent in reading Grant’s story is the drive of one who so many times found himself in the position of dangling from his fingertips and yet persevered to prevail. Whether in battling the demons of drink, the Confederate army, financial ruin, or poor health, Grant pushed ever forward toward new challenge and ultimate redemption. Summarized succinctly, despite the bad tidings cast by life, Grant never gave up, never retraced his steps, and always moved forward. It is a remarkable tale of triumph over adversity.

Given the supreme accomplishment of Chernow’s book, it is difficult to overstate what a fine contribution to history this volume makes. If Chernow had not already earned enough honors for his previous work on Alexander Hamilton, his exhaustive research on Grant, will add much to his importance as one of the leading biographers of our time. Whenever a new biography appears concerning a figure that has already been well covered by numerous biographies it always begs the question of why another? Happily, that question is well resolved by this fine book. It is a book that will stand the test of time.

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