Reviews: March/April 2018

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Ron Chernow ’70
Penguin Press, $40
Reviewed by James Ledbetter ’86

James Ledbetter ’86 is the editor of Inc. and author of One Nation Under Gold.

It is tough to think of a more enigmatic major figure in American history than Ulysses S. Grant. He possessed one of the great military minds of all time, yet his reputation was overshadowed for decades by a general he’d defeated (Robert E. Lee). And for all his battlefield brilliance, Grant was a gullible and often bumbling president.

In Ron Chernow’s masterful telling, Grant’s contradictions are not always resolved, but they do add up to a page-turning portrait. Grant was an unlikely national leader, having grown up in the Ohio hinterlands and muddled his way through West Point. Despite some early skill displayed in the Mexican War, Grant left the military in obscurity and, at the outbreak of the Civil War, was working as a store clerk in rural Illinois.

Through persistence and near-unfathomable luck, Grant rose quickly up the Union ranks, despite sabotage from the lesser generals who originally headed the war effort. It is testament to Abraham Lincoln’s insight that he promoted and stood by Grant—the two men did not meet until 1864—even through the unbearable carnage of the war’s worst battles. Chernow treats Grant’s alcoholism, certainly a factor in his being historically underestimated, as genuine but largely in check. Importantly, he refutes charges (usually made by political opponents) that Grant was drunk at critical points during the war.

Grant’s presidency was a disappointment of judgment and execution; he was at best indifferent to the unscrupulous men around him. Even more than in most administrations, corruption undermined the vital policies he envisioned, especially Reconstruction. In the end, Chernow portrays Grant as a brilliant but tragic figure, noting that his “personal tragedy was simultaneously an American tragedy.”

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