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TOPIC: General Grant / Ron Chernow / Excellent Review

General Grant / Ron Chernow / Excellent Review 2 weeks 6 hours ago #262981

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A Hero in Spite of Himself

Ulysses S. Grant won the war, won the presidency and won the battle against his own worst tendencies. Geoffrey C. Ward reviews ‘Grant’ by Ron Chernow.

By Geoffrey C. Ward

Oct. 6, 2017

Ulysses S. Grant was a modest man, famously magnanimous toward his defeated enemies, but the myth of the Lost Cause irritated him. “The Southern generals were [seen as] models of chivalry and valor,” he once complained, while “our generals were venal, incompetent, coarse. . . . Everything that our opponents did was perfect. [Robert E.] Lee was a demigod, [Stonewall] Jackson was a demigod, while our generals were brutal butchers.”

Grant’s annoyance was understandable—and prescient. In the century that followed, no one’s reputation would suffer more at the hands of historians sympathetic to the defeated South than his. He was caricatured as a callous, plodding, sometimes drunken commander whose victories were due exclusively to Union advantages in men and materiel, a lucky general who became a politically clueless president, blind to corruption and bent on exacting revenge against the white citizens of the former Confederacy.

By Ron Chernow

Penguin Press, 1,074 pages, $40

Over the past 20 years or so, scholars have done a great deal to rehabilitate Grant’s standing. A year ago, Ronald C. White, the author of the widely praised “A. Lincoln: A Biography” (2009), published his “American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant,” hailed in these pages by Harold Holzer as “like Grant himself” likely to “have staying power.” It demonstrated that Grant was not only the architect of Union victory but a two-term president with substantive achievements—among them, the virtual destruction of the Ku Klux Klan, restored relations with Great Britain, and soldiers sent south to protect the rights of at least some of the African-Americans he had helped to free. Too often, these have been overshadowed by the scandals that beset his second term.

If Mr. White’s book is Large, at 826 pages, Ron Chernow’s new biography, “Grant,” is Extra Large, at well over 1,000. Not one of those pages is boring. As readers of Mr. Chernow’s best-selling lives of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and others know, he is a compelling storyteller. Much of the story he sets out to tell here may by now seem familiar, but he adds rich detail and brings to vivid life the reticent, unprepossessing but resolute man whom Walt Whitman called “nothing heroic . . . and yet the greatest hero.”

Every biographer has had to deal with the question of Grant’s drinking. Did he really drink too much? If so, did it interfere with his duties as soldier or statesman? Mr. Chernow is unequivocal: “Grant was an alcoholic,” he writes. For him, “alcohol was not a recreation selfishly indulged, but a forbidden impulse against which he struggled for most of his life. . . . The drinking issue . . . so permeated Grant’s career that a thoroughgoing account is needed to settle the matter.” Mr. Chernow does his best to provide one.

There is no question that drinking helped destroy Grant’s early career. Trained at West Point, calm and courageous in combat during the Mexican War, he drank only after the fighting ended, establishing the pattern he would follow for years.

He was a binge drinker. He could go for months without a drink, but as he himself once confessed to a friend who tried to fill his champagne glass: “If I begin to drink I must keep on drinking.” He actually consumed less alcohol than many of his fellow soldiers, but thanks to what one remembered as his “peculiar organization”: “a little did the fatal [work] of a great deal. . . . He had very poor brains for drinking.”

He knew he did and tried to stop, even joining the Sons of Temperance in 1851. But within a year he was drinking again. Three years later, stationed at a remote garrison on the California coast—bored, depressed and longing for his wife, Julia, and the children whom he hadn’t seen in two years—he suddenly resigned from the Army. No contemporaneous document survives to explain his reason, but Mr. Chernow makes a convincing case, based on a wealth of testimony elicited by biographers in later years, that his commanding officer had confronted him with a stark choice: resign or face the humiliation of a trial for drunkenness.

In that era, when excessive drinking was seen as evidence of moral failure rather than chronic disease, once the word “drunkard” was attached to a man’s name it was almost impossible to shake. When Grant rejoined the Army in 1861, whispers about his drinking haunted every step of his astonishing climb from captain of a company of Illinois volunteers to lieutenant general in command of all the Northern armies in just four years.

Allegations of drunkenness followed the battles of Belmont and Fort Henry; Fort Donelson; during the siege of Vicksburg; and after Cold Harbor. Mr. Chernow does his best to assess the evidence for and against each. Some of the alleged episodes, like an overnight bender aboard a steamboat on the Yazoo River above Vicksburg in June 1863, he finds plausible—though wildly exaggerated in accounts published decades after the event. Others were honest misunderstandings of the migraines that sometimes drove Grant to his tent. And still others were conjured up by Grant’s enemies in and out of uniform.

Grant did not drink when Julia was present, which accounted in part for her many visits to the front. When she was not there, responsibility for her husband’s sobriety belonged to his adjutant, John A. Rawlins, a fierce teetotaler whose unique job description included assuring emissaries from Washington that his chief was uniformly sober, keeping alcohol out of Grant’s hands and lecturing him on his duty to remain faithful to his oath of abstinence. Grant accepted his minder’s exhortations with good grace; Rawlins, he once said, is “the nearest being indispensable to me of any officer in the service.”

After the war, when the Grants moved into a new, furnished home in Philadelphia, Julia was distressed to discover that it included a fully stocked wine cellar. According to one source, she consulted Rawlins as to what to do. “Send for some responsible broker,” he is said to have answered, and “have him dispose of the entire stock at once and put the money in your pocket.” Whatever the truth of that tale, except for a single apparent lapse in the summer of 1865 (when he was away from Julia), there is not a single documented instance of alcohol adversely affecting Grant during the two decades of life left to him. Mr. Chernow credits his wife and his willpower for the change: “As with so many problems in his life,” he writes, “Grant managed to attain mastery over alcohol in the long haul, a feat as impressive as any of his wartime victories.”

By then that mastery seemed to involve moderation, not total abstinence, according to two contemporary sources. “Like many another man, [Grant] liked an occasional nip,” Harrison Terrell, his longtime valet, recalled, but his employer was careful always to confine himself to “two drinks of a couple of small swallows each” for fear of slurring his speech. And Ferdinand Ward, the general’s partner in an investment firm and a regular at the weekly poker games held in the Grants’ parlor after they settled in New York in 1881, remembered that while his host avoided hard liquor he did drink ale, though “sparingly.”

In the spring of 1884, Grant would be ruined by that same poker player, who proved to be a Wall Street scam artist. (Full disclosure: Ferdinand Ward was my great-grandfather.) Just weeks after that, he would be stricken with fatal throat cancer, the apparent result of his second little-discussed addiction, a 10-to-20-cigar-a-day habit. He spent the last year of his life frantically trying to complete a memoir that he hoped would recoup his family’s fortunes before the disease killed him. Somehow, Grant’s deadpan humor survived this last campaign intact. When the pain in his throat made speech impossible, he penciled notes to those around him: “I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun,” he wrote to his doctor. “A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three.”

Ulysses Grant died on July 23, 1885, just one week after finishing the manuscript of his memoirs. As Mr. Chernow notes, the “Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant” remains “probably the foremost military memoir in the English language, written in a clear, supple style that transcends the torment of its composition. . . . Scrupulously honest, Grant confessed to doubts and fears on the battlefield and presented the extraordinary spectacle of a self-effacing military man, a hero in spite of himself.” (A fully annotated version of the memoir, edited by John F. Marszalek with David S. Nolen and Louie P. Gallo, is being published this month by Harvard University Press.)

Despite everything, Grant remained an optimist about the country he had done so much to save. He called again and again for reconciliation of North and South—but always on Northern terms. “I would not have the anniversaries of our victories celebrated, nor those of our defeats made fast days and spent in humiliation and prayer,” he wrote, “but I would like to see truthful history written. . . . The justice of the cause which in the end prevailed, will, I doubt not, come to be acknowledged by every citizen of the land. . . . As time passes, people, even of the South, will begin to wonder how it was possible that their ancestors ever fought for or justified institutions which acknowledged the right of property in man.” As recent events in Charlottesville, Va., and elsewhere attest, the bizarre nostalgia for the Confederacy that so angered Grant stubbornly endures, and, sadly, 132 years after his death, we’re still not where he hoped we’d be.

—Mr. Ward is the author of “A Disposition to be Rich: Ferdinand Ward, the Greatest Swindler of the Gilded Age” and (with Ken Burns) “The Vietnam War: An Intimate History.”
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General Grant / Ron Chernow / Excellent Review 2 weeks 5 hours ago #262983

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Fabulous review. Love USG's "I am a verb" quote. I'm getting all three books! Thanks for posting.
Last Edit: 2 weeks 5 hours ago by Chicago Days. Reason: adding comments...
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General Grant / Ron Chernow / Excellent Review 2 weeks 2 hours ago #262987

What can I say but thanks!

On ferryboat and didn't read your entire post yet. Not sure if you mentioned Mark Twain supported Grant in his dying days to insure Grant's family was not to be living in poverty. His last days were at Mount McGregor in NYS now in the middle of a federal prison complex. I had the fortune of visiting his cabin there. Sat where he sat on a rocker home s final days of pain. Scribbling his notes.
A great man from very humble circumstances.
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