Ron Chernow’s Grant (New York: Penguin Press, 2017; ISBN 978-1-59420-407-6) ranks among one of the best biographies I have read. A sympathetic but not adulatory attitude to his subject, the book is obviously grounded in deep research. Military biographies often can be a bit harder to write than the standard sort simply because the author cannot assume that the reader has a deep background of military expertise and must set out the facts relating to this clearly and concisely. This Chernow does. I was most impressed by the way in which he kept the overall descriptive level on an even keel, never getting bogged down in excessive detail, but providing just enough information for the reader to grasp the gist.
The book is divided into four sections: one covering Grant’s early life, one on his Civil War experiences, one on his presidency, and the last on his final days, which must have been excruciating, and he faced this trial with magnificent courage. Chernow is an able, accomplished, and accurate writer. One of his particular gifts is to provide vivid sketches of almost everyone with whom Grant dealt in any significant way, so you understand their characters, backgrounds, and also their cast of mind. He clearly sees where bias and self-serving testimony is involved. While most people who are well-read on the USA Civil War probably will learn little new about that in this book, the section on Grant’s presidency is a real eye-opener. When we remark on slanted and vituperative media commentary on President Trump, comparing it to how the press sometimes treated Grant and his political contemporaries, the current atmosphere takes on something of the aspect of an afternoon tea party!
Each of the sections of the book highlights something interesting and valuable in Grant’s life—
His early years were permeated by his father and father-in-law, both men of outsize egos and a reach which far exceeded their grasp. Learning how to stand up to such men was essential for Grant’s development and also shaped his character — he wanted to be nothing like either of these men.
His Civil War years were marked by two traits which seem straightforward until you realize how few generals actually display either or both: a profound, instinctual understanding of the strategic situation, and the capacity for rapid decision-making, which Grant had in spades. One chestnut which gets a perennial cooking is whether a general is great on his own account, or is great because his opponents were so bad. Grant had the fortune to meet opponents like Pillow, Pemberton, and Bragg, and whipped them like cold cream, but even against first-rate opponents like Lee and Johnston, he prevailed.
His commitment to civil rights and the franchise for freed slaves [and indeed, Grant was generally enlightened about this whole spectrum of issues] stands out as a highlight of his presidential administration; Grant himself was the root of the matter in developing and implementing policy. Chernow particularly shines here in seeing past the ‘reconstruction myth’ to give an accurate account of what happened.
Not least of the factors in Grant’s life, which Chernow presents throughout the book, was his good fortune in marriage. Ulysses and Julia were perfectly matched and remained faithful supporters of each other throughout their entire lives; she was of cardinal importance to his well-being. It is altogether fitting then that she lies beside him in his monumental tomb in New York City.
The text is supported by effective maps, a judiciously-chosen set of pictures, and a well-honed index. Ultimately, this is a good book about a fundamentally good man, well worth reading for anyone interested in the force of character on events in a life filled with more accomplishments than any other ten men might have accomplished.
John Howard Oxley
John Howard Oxley was born right after WWII ended, which may account for his lifelong interest in military matters, with particular reference to technical naval history [he is a major battleship fan]. Apart from three years of service in the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve’s University Naval Training Division, where he completed service as a sub-lieutenant, he has had no connection with the military whatsoever, apart from a two-year stint in the early 1990s as Research Director for Crisis Simulations Inc., which developed computer-assisted simulators for the Canadian Army and for civilian disaster relief organizations. He retired from a 17-year career teaching IT at a private, for-profit university in Atlanta in 2014, relocating back to his native Canada in the following year.
Being single, with no responsibilities except for his cat, in retirement he indulges his passions for reading military and naval history along with lots of sci fi, board wargaming (including extensive re-design of existing naval war games), drinking good brandy, and smoking far too many cigars. For over three decades, he has published reviews, mostly on military books, for The American Reference Book Annual, and is currently the feature editor of the Ships’ Library for the International Naval Research Organization. He also has an abiding affection for bad puns.