Ron Chernow, acclaimed biographer of Presidents Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, has added his nuanced historical perspective to yet another American giant. Ulysses S. Grant—the tactical hero of the Civil War—was a man whose major accomplishments and failures often obfuscate the tremendous complexity that brought him to center stage of American political history. Importantly, Chernow’s study serves to show “Unconditional Surrender” Grant in new light, complicating previous conclusions about Grant’s military prowess, his social inadequacies, his alcoholic tendencies, his financial failures. Chernow has offered the most recent work to bring the eighteenth president into a 21st-century conversation. While much has been written about Grant, (Ronald C. White and Jean Edward Smith to name two such biographers), new consensus on the meaning of gender, race, citizenship, mental health, and of course, democracy, requires continued revisiting of such familiarly perplexing figures so that our perception of history speaks relevantly to our perception of self. Few historians so aptly make Grant and his time so legible to a 21st-century readership that continues to grapple with the political legacies of slavery and the Civil War.
Dividing the monograph into four parts, Chernow organizes a narrative of Grant’s life in a way that seems universally applicable to the human experience: A Life of Struggle, A Life of War, A Life of Peace, A Life of Reflection. It is the basic narrative arc of many a soldier and citizen alike. In a subtle way, this sort of typicality goes to embody Chernow’s most essential point about Ulysses S. Grant—that for all his successes and failures, the esteemed president was defined by his very human ability to endure adversity. Grant’s life, by Chernow’s account, cannot be framed by exceptional talents or flaws but by his aptitude for recovery and rebound.
Chernow’s study serves to show “Unconditional Surrender” Grant in new light, complicating previous conclusions about Grant’s military prowess, his social inadequacies, his alcoholic tendencies, his financial failures.
With this basic thesis in mind, Chernow begins the book with the quotidian story of Grant’s lineage, upbringing and education. “There seemed something forgettable and colorless about Ulysses S. Grant in his youth,” writes Chernow. (10) While his father pursued a career as an anti-slavery Whig politician, Grant hardly experienced the aristocratic upbringing of his future political peers. As a young student at West Point, Grant “was middling, not miserable—twenty-first in a class of thirty-nine.” Chernow also points to Grant’s early business mediocrity, writing of his failed farming venture that ended with “a rotting, worthless crop” and a young Ulysses all the poorer for it. Grant struggled with alcoholism from a young age, too, with rumors that followed him his entire career. Chernow importantly reads Grant’s alcoholism through a 21st-century lens, reconceiving the issue not as a personality flaw but as a medical predisposition inherited from his father and grandfather. Grant’s grandfather, Noah, “took to drink, depleting an ample inheritance … a fact worth flagging because of the hereditary component of alcoholism.” (5) Regardless of its source, though, drinking promised to pose serious limits to Grant’s military career. Without a teleological perspective on his life and future, these limitations seemed entirely damning to Grant’s future.
Consistent with Chernow’s thesis, Grant rebounded from the failures and shortcomings of his youth to become the Civil War’s greatest general. Chernow masterfully details the military battles and political conflicts of the Civil War, not only with events surrounding Grant but the broader scope of the war itself. This not only delivers to the reader a broader understanding of the Civil War’s complex trajectory but also illustrates the political landscape in which Grant operated. For example, Chernow tactfully shifts back and forth between the Western Theatre, where Grant dominated Confederate forces at Fort Donelson and Fort McHenry, and the Eastern Theatre where General George McClellan’s conservative and cautious tendencies lost important ground for Union forces during the Peninsula Campaign. This colorful and broad scope of the war, which reaches beyond Grant’s own experience, shows the reader the various factors that influenced Grant’s successes and eventual promotion to Commanding General. Despite the importance of Grant’s adept leadership, Chernow presents his fate as intertwined with political forces beyond his own control—Lincoln’s dissatisfaction with his eastern generals, the choice of thousands of enslaved people to join the Union effort, the Emancipation Proclamation. This inherent facet of life and war—unpredictable fortune and failure—goes to highlight the importance of Grant’s adaptability and perseverance through failure—his preparation for the winds beyond his control to turn in his favor.
At this juncture, the section titled “A Life of War,” where Grant transforms from a shy lieutenant to the dominant Civil War General, is where Chernow’s writing reaches its most colorful and intriguing denouement. It is also where Chernow falls short of delivering a fascinating point about Grant that he only implicitly reveals. Chernow describes George McClellan as a polished young general hesitant to tarnish his public image with battlefield failure. McClellan is contrasted with Grant, whose lifelong struggle with alcoholism, coupled with a typically untidy appearance, left him little popularity regardless of his battlefield performance prior to Civil War. Grant had little reputation to risk, inclining him toward bolder calculated risk in pursuing his Confederate enemies, while men like George McClellan worked cautiously to hedge themselves against loss. This meant that Grant’s pre-war failures played an essential role in his most important successes later in life. This point, had it been more explicitly drawn out, would have brought Chernow’s first chapters about Grant’s early days into better harmony with Grant’s later life. Unfortunately, the reader is left to her/his own devices in drawing such conclusions, leaving too much chance for such important ideas to be left unconsidered at all.
Grant’s life, by Chernow’s account, cannot be framed by exceptional talents or flaws but by his aptitude for recovery and rebound.
Beyond Grant’s own personal life, Chernow’s book visits broader issues of race and slavery that so crucially shaped the president’s career. From Grant’s earliest days, he was inclined toward anti-slavery sentiments. His father staunchly opposed slavery and pursued aggressive political rhetoric to limit slaveholders’ political dominance. Furthermore, Ulysses clashed with his wife’s slaveholding father who, from his St. Louis estate, resented Grant’s Republican stance that only strengthened from their disagreements. From the antebellum era to the years following the Civil War, Chernow clearly articulates the omnipresence of slavery and race in American politics. Pointing to slavery’s centrality in Grant’s political career, Chernow writes that Grant’s growing “militance on abolition, coupled with his encouragement of black recruitment and devotion to ‘contraband’ warfare, established a political outlook that would govern the rest of his career, setting an agenda from which he never deviated.” By Chernow’s account, slavery would act as the essential cause of the Civil War; emancipation would ultimately lead to Union victory; and the unsettled issue of race would direct Grant’s career, and arguably every president’s career, for over a century to follow.
While Chernow nicely articulates the relationship between race, slavery and American politics during Grant’s lifetime, he fails at framing the issue through the lens of current historiography. For example, Chernow visits the Battle of the Crater, a pivotal battle that demonstrated the complexity of race on the Civil War battlefield, without ever mentioning the Union’s slaughtering of its own black troops, retold in Richard Slotkin’s 2009 book, No Quarter:The Battle of the Crater, 1864, (2009). He also fails to discuss the Union’s effort to coercively integrate freedmen into the post-war wage labor system, as argued in Willie Lee Rose’s 1999 work Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment, (1999).
Chernow masterfully details the military battles and political conflicts of the Civil War, not only with events surrounding Grant but the broader scope of the war itself. This not only delivers to the reader a broader understanding of the Civil War’s complex trajectory but also illustrates the political landscape in which Grant operated.
Enslaved people’s participation in the marketplace, as opposed to efforts at subsistence farming, became fundamental to access to full citizenship during the Reconstruction era. Chernow occupies himself with crediting Grant’s anti-slavery stance without interrogating the implications of the “contraband” term and Grant’s position on the black labor question after the Civil War’s end. Writing of Grant’s belief that freedmen could prove their worth through labor of the Union army, Chernow argues “Grant’s thinking and concern for the ex-slaves shows how the war had reshaped his views on fundamental issues.” (230) But Chernow ought to have fleshed out this position for his readers more. In effect, Grant developed a belief that citizenship was earned through participation in wage labor rather than endowed by constitutional principles. Largely ignoring such a relationship between race, citizenship, and capitalism in the post-war decades, (a topic visited by current historians like Manisha Sinha, Walter Johnson and Edward Baptist), Chernow fails to fully situate Grant in a contemporary discourse on the failures of emancipation and Reconstruction politics.
While his writing on race and capitalism can be somewhat anemic, Chernow’s effort to complicate Grant’s life with a new thesis on his ability to rebound from adversity leaves the reader both convinced and inspired. “Here was Grant’s matchless strength,” writes Chernow. “He did not crumble in adversity, which only hardened his determination, and knew that setbacks often contain the seeds of their own reversals.” (204) Such proverbial writing demonstrates Chernow’s appeal beyond the realm of history professionals. His work speaks to the human experience by conceiving of historical figures in ways that are familiar, complex, and astounding. Future scholarship on Ulysses S. Grant will surely require a serious engagement with Ron Chernow’s account, which is not just a biography of a man, but is a biography of a nation, and of a time.