Ron Chernow

Penguin Press, New York, 2017, 1,104 pages

Book Review published on: September 1, 2017

It is difficult to imagine that on the eve of the Civil War Ulysses S. Grant had bottomed out as a complete failure. The one-time captain who won recognition in the Mexican War was now penniless and relegated to selling firewood on the streets of St. Louis. By autumn 1858, after four frustrating years, Grant’s farming ambitions had failed, and he was forced to auction off his stock, crops, and farming equipment. This was just one of many failures Grant experienced after being forced out of the Army for drunkenness. Ron Chernow, acclaimed biographer of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and John D. Rockefeller, provides an in-depth examination of Grant’s transformation from failure to the eighteenth president of the United States. According to Chernow, it was Grant’s strength, vision, and understanding of operational warfare that enable the Union army to decisively defeat Confederate forces after previous Union commanders failed.

Grant’s formative years growing up in Ohio and serving as a captain in the Mexican War was critical in honing his skills as an administrator, manager, strategist, and visionary. Grant developed an unusual ability ride, control, and work with horses during his childhood, and it was his riding abilities that received recognition while leading a cavalry charge at the Battle of Resaca de la Palma and at Monterrey. Grant’s duty as regimental quartermaster in the Mexican War provided for a deep understanding of logistics, which enabled Grant to successfully defeat the Confederate forces by focusing on their lines of communications while operating deep within enemy territory. The Mexican War also provided him an opportunity to gain an understanding of contemporaries in action who would later serve as Confederate commanders.

The book is strongest in its analysis of Grant’s drinking and the corruption that occurred during his administration. Chernow acknowledges Grant’s battle with alcohol, but the actual extent and severity are clouded by unsubstantiated claims and personal attacks. Professional jealousy of Grant’s contemporaries, most notably Gens. George McClellan, Henry Halleck, Benjamin Butler, and John McClernand, were responsible for spurious reports of Grant’s drunkenness later found baseless by several investigating officers sent by the White House and War Department on different occasions. These same charges would reappear during the election of 1868 when the Temperance Movement supported Democrat nominee Horace Greeley.

It is ironic that Grant’s presidency is remembered for corruption. Chernow’s examination reflects a man who was considered by contemporaries as impeccably honest. He attributes the corruption label to Grant’s inability to see fault in others and describes it as the paradox of Grant’s ability to view the battlefield with complete clarity and yet not see the unscrupulous activities of those around him. Grant viewed others as he viewed himself. He was often unjustly associated with corruption by critics of others as in the case of the Credit Mobilier scandal that occurred during Andrew Johnson’s administration. Chernow describes Grant’s vision for Reconstruction, civil rights, and national parks as truly progressive.

Chernow challenges the historic narrative of historians and contemporary critics that Grant was marginal as a field commander and a butcher by demonstrating his adroit quick operational maneuver that enabled Grant to defeat Robert E. Lee on terrain that favored the defense. Chernow reminds us that Grant’s casualties were lowered, in many cases, compared to the Confederate commanders he faced. He also recounts a telling moment of how a cheer went up throughout the Union army when soldiers realized that Grant, unlike previous Union generals, was not retreating after the Wilderness but moving south toward Spotsylvania Court House. Union soldiers realized Grant would not waste their lives in vain. Grant’s audacity and strategic sense are reflected in his victories at Vicksburg, Chickamauga, and the Wilderness. Chernow’s states Grant’s strong will and belief in the cause of the Union enabled him to stay the course where previous commanders lost nerve and retreated. He further credits Grant’s calm during tensions with Great Britain over the CSS Alabama whose claims prevented war and established international arbitration as a means to resolve international disputes.

The strength of Grant is Chernow’s exhaustive research of primary and secondary sources including intimate contemporaries of Grant coupled with a writing style that breathes life into a man larger than myth. Grant is more than his transformation as a leader, it is a story of perseverance and of America during a pivotal period in its history. This book is a must for military professionals and historians, and would be a great addition to any professional leadership reading list.

Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas