Magazine | October 30, 2017, Issue

An Innocent at Home

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 1,104 pp., $40)

In addition to the other windmills New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has been tilting at, Gotham’s Don Quixote has commissioned a review of all the city’s statues, monuments, and memorials that fevered activists have in some way found “offensive.” Urgent voices have called, for example, for the replacement of a statue of Thomas Jefferson — “a slaveholding pedophile” — with a bust of Malcolm X. The latest accession to the thought-police line-up is Ulysses Simpson Grant.

In August, de Blasio was urged to wipe the blot of Grant from the city’s escutcheon, for Grant’s crime of issuing in 1862 a general order banning “Jews and other unprincipled traders” from dealing in contraband cotton. “This is complicated stuff,” de Blasio replied, since Grant is an example of how, “for a lot of people in this city and in this country, they feel that their history has been ignored or affronts to their history have been tolerated.”

I do not envy the task Hizzoner has set for himself. While it might not cost much to give the heave-ho to the bust of Grant in the Bronx Community College’s Hall of Fame for Great Americans, or the Grant bas-relief on the Grand Army Plaza Soldiers and Sailors Arch, or the Grant statue in Crown Heights, de Blasio and the Sancho Panzas of the City Council might need to reconsider demolishing a structure as architecturally epic as Grant’s Tomb in Morningside Heights — unless, of course, they propose exhuming Grant and his wife from their Napoleonic sarcophagi and replacing them with, say, Malcolm X.

Still, the mayor can scarcely do more damage to Grant’s reputation than Grant did himself. General evaluations of Grant’s two terms as president (1869–77) have been decidedly unfavorable. In rankings of the presidents, he runs ahead of Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan but behind Millard Fillmore and Herbert Hoover. His much more successful career as the commanding general who compelled the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the main Confederate field army at Appomattox in 1865, and thereby effectively ended the Civil War, has also been clouded by charges that his campaigns amounted to nothing more intelligent than attrition. “His talent and strategy,” wrote an unappreciative Lee, “consists in accumulating overwhelming numbers.” Grant, according to that noted military expert Mary Todd Lincoln, was “a butcher” and “not fit to be at the head of an army.”

Phlegmatic and uncommunicative by nature, Grant never responded to these attacks during his life. But he could easily have pointed to his campaigns at Vicksburg and Chattanooga, which were models of swiftness, organization, and grace. Even the bloody Overland Campaign (which was forced on him by the politicians) displayed a quickness that repeatedly caught Robert E. Lee napping and resulted in proportionately fewer casualties for his own army than for the Confederates.

Nonetheless, the conviction prevails that, whatever genius he displayed as a soldier, Grant was a dimwitted failure as a politician. The presidency was his first elected office, and it showed. His cabinet choices were announced to a chorus of incredulity from Washington insiders. When Grant left office in 1877, his eight years were overshadowed by a string of high-visibility scandals: Crédit Mobilier, the “Whiskey Ring,” contract fraud in the War Department, and indictments of members of his closest circle of advisers.

His reputation suffered blows even after he left office. As naïve in business as in politics, Grant allowed himself and his family to be suckered into investing in a gigantic Wall Street Ponzi scheme. When it collapsed in 1884, Grant was worth exactly $80. (He did some impressive salvage work in his final days, writing his Memoirs before dying in 1885.)

Curiously in the context of the PC disapproval of Grant, this image of Grant-the-failure has been energetically challenged by most of his modern biographers. Still more curiously, Grant has not been wanting in modern biographers: There have been seven colossal biographies of Grant in the past 35 years, dwarfing the number devoted to all the major figures of the Civil War era except Lincoln. Of these, only William McFeely’s (in 1981) portrayed Grant according to the dark legend of the butcher; the others are defenders of Grant’s reputation, sometimes to the point of aggressiveness.

To this crowded field comes now the reigning king of popular American biographers, Ron Chernow, fresh from his repeated and dazzling successes in delivering up the lives of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John D. Rockefeller. Do not, however, expect a hip-hop musical to emerge from this one. Chernow’s Grant is the bulkiest of the increasingly bulky Grants. McFeely’s, which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography, consumed 608 pages; Chernow presents us with 1,104. But Chernow is also the least likely entrant into the Grant field. Of the recent major biographers, he is the least familiar with Grant’s milieu as a 19th-century American soldier and Gilded Age politico, and, at his worst, he possesses no ear at all for the niceties of Civil War military history. He is frequently content to repeat silly clichés about Grant’s being the author of “a stark new brand of modern warfare” or of “a theory of total warfare.” How any war fought with single-shot muzzle-loading weapons, supported logistically by mule-drawn wagon trains, could be construed as “modern,” or how a conflict in which Grant repeatedly paroled the enemy troops he captured could be considered “total,” is never examined.

Chernow is at his best in his valiant struggle to redeem Grant’s character, which even he admits to finding “emotionally blocked” and “colorless.” Among the qualities that endear Grant to Chernow — and that endeared Grant to those who knew him — are his unfussy informality, his “extraordinary grasp of military detail,” “his indifference to personal danger,” and “his quiet self-confidence.”

Chernow does not believe that his subject was a saint: “Grant never declined invitations to honor him and glowed before worshipful crowds.” And he concedes that Grant was primarily a reactive personality who could often seem torpid and inactive — until the descent of a crisis pushed him into a flurry of intelligent and irresistible activity. As a husband to Julia Dent Grant, he was loyal beyond fault, despite the lifelong contempt of his slave-owning Dent in-laws; he was a doting father even when his grown children embarrassed him.

Chernow successfully recruits our sympathy for Ulysses Grant, the man in private, even as he refuses to dismiss (as the great Bruce Catton did in his multi-volume Grant biography) the single greatest problem with which Grant struggled — alcohol. Chernow accepts that Grant was an alcoholic and that he could not hold anything beyond the smallest dose of liquor without becoming silly and unsteady. But Grant understood this weakness, fought it all his life, and fought it successfully when he had Julia and his faithful chief of staff John Rawlins to keep him on the wagon. Chernow is right to insist that none of Grant’s frequent falls from temperance ever influenced a decision that involved the lives of his soldiers or the fate of his country.

Chernow is also determined to sponge away the damage Grant did to himself with the notorious order banning Jews from his military department in Mississippi. Grant issued the order in a fit of pique caused by his father’s blowhard attempts to trade on his son’s reputation and become a middleman for illegal trade in captured cotton with Jewish brokers. Grant struck out wildly, and lived to regret it. Lincoln swiftly directed him to revoke the order and Grant spent the rest of his life apologizing for it as “inflicting a wrong.”

Chernow bends over backward to make Grant as much a friend of African Americans as the 19th century was likely to yield. Grant’s family were Methodist and abolitionist by persuasion. By marrying into the slave-owning Dents, he tolerated the use of slaves by his wife in the 1850s, and even owned one slave, William Jones. But in 1859, without consulting the Dents, he unilaterally emancipated Jones, and from 1862 onwards he embraced both emancipation and the recruitment of black soldiers for the Union armies.

As president, no one before Lyndon Johnson was a more forthright defender of black civil rights than Grant. He hailed the 15th Amendment as “a measure of grander importance than any other one act of the kind from the foundation of our free government to the present day.” He took a hard hand to the Ku Klux Klan through the three Enforcement Acts of 1870–71, and his reelection in 1872 was in large measure a vote of gratitude from southern blacks who saw Grant as their champion.

What Chernow cannot drive away, however, is the disappointment of Grant’s missed chances. Grant responded vigorously to the Klan, but he sketched out no grand, positive plan for Reconstruction. He clashed needlessly with the Washington power structure, especially with Charles Sumner, only to find his own allies undependable or corrupt. He pursued the chimera of annexing Santo Domingo long past the point of reason or viability. But some of those missed chances were probably beyond his grasp anyway. What little political leverage he retained after fighting with Sumner was wrecked by the Panic of 1873, which brought a Democratic majority back to the House of Representatives in the following year’s elections and spelled the de facto end of black voting rights.

Grant was an innocent: a decent man who, fundamentally, disliked military life and paled at the sight of blood, who trusted shysters and con men and was ruined by them, and who then was killed by throat cancer triggered by his 20-cigar-a-day habit. But let those who too readily express contempt of Grant remember two sterling moments in the man’s life: the generosity at Appomattox, which headed off a nightmare future of Confederate insurgency, and the singular assurance he sent to Abraham Lincoln after the battle of the Wilderness: “If you see the President, tell him, from me, that, whatever happens, there will be no turning back.” Mayor de Blasio might think twice before trifling with such a man.

– Mr. Guelzo is the William Garwood Visiting Professor in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.

Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College. 

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