reviewed by Marc Schulman
Its been many years since General/President Grant received biographical attention. Ron Chernow has written what will be in the future considered the definitive biography of Grant. Hi capture of Grant the soldiers covers well-worn territory, but from a slightly different perspective. What comes across in the book is not just the traditional view of Grant the general who was tenacious who did not know when to quit, but instead Grant the strategist the General who saw the big picture and developed a strategy that addressed it. What we also see in the book is the steady transformation of Grant who was initially cautious when it came to free slaves, to slowly becoming one of their greatest champions. For me, the most significant contribution the book gives is the story of Grant after the war both as General of the Army and later as President. In
One of the least understood events in American history is the impeachment of President Johnson. Chernow gives color to the circumstances surrounding it. He shows how Grant did his best not to show his hand, but when he realized that Johnson was willing to undo much of the rights given to the freed slaves, he sided with the radical Republicans against Johnson. Chernow also highlights many of the forgotten aspects of the Grant presidency. A presidency that if you asked the average person with decent knowledge of American history what it was known for they would probably say scandal. And while Chernow describes in detail all of the scandals that took part round Grant, none of which involved Grant directly, but does reflect on an almost naiveté that Grant had towards hiring people around him.
Chernow also gives a much larger vista to his accomplishments. First and foremost until the last year of his Presidency his dedication to reconstruction. Chernow describes the forgotten terror directed at Southern Black during the period, primarily as white men saw Blacks being elected and felt that they were being replaced ( sound familiar). Grant forced through legislation that became known as the anti-Klan act. Using it, he broke the Ku Klux Klan that was operating in the south. In a letter written by Senator Adelbert Ames of Mississippi in a letter, he wrote six months after the act passed “Had it not been for the Ku Klux law . . . We would not have had any showing at this election. At one time, just previous to the passage of that law, the K.K. organizations were being perfected in every county in the state. It is believed by our friends that had the law not been passed, not one of them would have been safe outside of a few of the larger cities. As it is, the K.K.’s, cowards as they are, have for a time at least suspended their operations in all but the eastern parts of the state. Recent convictions in North Carolina and the President’s action in putting a part of South Carolina under martial law has had a very subdued effect all over the South. It is perceptible here
The, of course, did not end racism and violence against Blacks but at least for a while it made a big difference.”
Grant fought hard for African American rights and appointed Blacks to many posts including two as Ambassadors. Grant’s administration successfully negotiated an agreement with Great Britain which gave the US $15 million in reparations for its selling the Confederates the raider Alabama, and at the same time settled other outstanding claims. Possibly to make up for his infamous general order 70 during the war which had expelled all the Jews from his military zone, he had close relations with the Jewish community, both appointing Jews to essential positions, having the US intervene with the Russian Tzar on the treatment of Jews and even attending a three-hour dedication of the first Orthodox Synagogue in Washington. A relatively forgotten moment in American history was when the United States almost purchased the Island of Santa Domingo- something that Grant vigorously supported, but
Grant came into the Presidency with no other experience than that of a war general. He was beloved by the North for winning the war, and respected by the south for the generous terms he offered Lee at Appamatox. Despite his lack of experience he took on some of the most challenging tasks and attacked them with the same vigor he pursued the war. His Presidency is under appreciated today.