I suppose there is irony that as the reputation of Robert E. Lee is being torn down in some quarters, the reputation of Ulysses S. Grant is being resurrected in a new biography.
The scrupulously researched book, “Grant,” by Ron Chernow, catalogs the long-understood genius of Grant’s military skills, then sets the record straight regarding the much-less-understood two terms he served as president – years too often viewed as corrupt and incompetent, led by a chronic loser and an alcoholic to boot.
Chernow, whose previous biographies were the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Washington: A Life” and “Hamilton” (the inspiration for the Broadway musical), offers compelling evidence that refutes most such charges.
“Dismissed as a philistine, a boor, a drunk and an incompetent … He is portrayed as a rube in Washington, way out of his league,” writes Chernow.
“But Grant was an adept politician, the only president to serve two terms between Johnson and Woodrow Wilson.”
I’ve known for a long time how Grant seemed in awe of his counterpart, Lee, and his generous terms of surrender at Appomattox – for instance, letting Southern officers wear their sidearms home and allowing Confederate soldiers keep their horses and mules, which they would need for planting the next year’s crops.
He was not seeking to punish the South, but to allow Southerners to maintain dignity in defeat. Such actions, said Lee, “will do much toward conciliating our people.”
A little-known – or perhaps long forgotten – aspect of the Grant presidency was his support for blacks and other minorities.
As Reconstruction got underway, Grant became an advocate for black Americans and worked to crush the newly formed Ku Klux Klan.
Indeed, he oversaw the creation of a new Justice Department in 1870, whose first duty was to bring thousands of anti-Klan indictments.
Little wonder Frederick Douglas called Grant “the vigilant, firm, impartial and wise protector of my race.”
So effective was he as a politician that he was easily reelected by giving patronage jobs to “a prodigious number of blacks, Jews, native Americans and women.” One “Grant” reviewer called his campaign theme “positively Clintonian.”
Grant’s alcoholism is well known, but it might have actually served him well during the war, helping blunt the horrors and the loneliness of the battlefield.
Alcohol was an “ever-present ghost he could not shake,” Chernow writes, but it never interfered with his official duties as a general or a president.
“Grant managed to attain mastery over alcohol in the long haul, a feat as impressive as any of his wartime victories.”
Grant’s later years were, in the eyes of one reviewer, “first famously pathetic and then famously heroic.”
After leaving office, he was bankrupted by a Wall Street swindler, then contracted throat cancer.
Lest he leave his family destitute, he began writing his memoir, toiling daily through the pain and calling on Mark Twain to help get them published.
His memoir, with its brutal honesty, brevity and passion, are still recognized as a masterpiece of the genre. The same might be said for Chernow’s “Grant.”
Contact Bob Bestler at firstname.lastname@example.org.