Book R & R: Grant by Ron Chernow
Warning: I'm going to try to get you to read this book. Okay, I know that you know that my book review and recommendations are only for books I like. But I really liked this one. So much so that I'm going to try to convince you to take it on despite the 929 page length, not counting front and back matter.
Most of us know who Ulysses S. Grant was. However, most of us (including me before I read this book) know the details of his life and the service he provided to our country. U.S. Grant was a West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican-American War. Unsuccessful in civilian life with the exception of his marriage to Julia Dent, he returned to the army at the start of the Civil War. A very successful commander in the western theater of the war, Grant ascended to the post of commanding general of the Union armies, ultimately responsible for defeating Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy. He served as 18th President of the United States, elected to two terms spanning the years of Congressional Reconstruction.
Author Ron Chernow demonstrates that there is still an interest in bibliographies of the "great men" of American history. His previous works include Washington: A Life and Alexander Hamilton. This is the first work by Chernow that I have read and I truly wish I had picked up one of his books sooner. He is an excellent storyteller (as evidenced by over a thousand positive reviews on Amazon). Do not let the length of the book put you off! There is detail, but the facts hold your interest. Chernow is honest with both Grant's fine points and flaws. And besides, the author quickly moves to the Civil War years, which of course is one of my interest areas.
What made this book a real page-turner was actually the post-Civil War period. Grant held his post as General of the Army during President Andrew Johnson's term of office, following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Through the perspective of a biography of Grant we see the (at times) unbelievable actions and attitudes of the President and how Congress, the Cabinet, and Grant try to reign him in and accept the will of Congress. This political divergence eventually brought about impeachment proceedings for Andrew Johnson. Grant follows Johnson into the White House, winning the elections of 1868 and 1872. During this time Grant, an unflagging supporter of the Union and civil rights for freed slaves, led the country through the remainder of the Reconstruction era. At the end of his presidency, all of the states that had seceded were back in the Union. However, although the Constitution guaranteed rights of citizenship to freedmen, Reconstruction was not so successful in practical terms for former slaves. This was not only a contentious time politically, but also an incredibly violent period in American history. As Chernow puts it, "Americans today know little about the terrorism that engulfed the South during Grant's presidency. It has been suppressed by a strange national amnesia."(p.857)
I know you are going to enjoy this book. I also believe that you are going to learn a great deal and gain an appreciation for the turbulent times following the Civil War. After reading this book, you'll have to agree that if our country made it through that time, today's contentious political landscape is no big deal.