So, I recently finished reading Ron Chernow's biography of Ulysses S. Grant (Grant). It's a great biography of a great man, and it's also very long. I got it in e-book format and found myself a bit deflated when I had been reading it for several weeks and noticed that my progress was at only 25%. I felt a bit better when I realized that the book itself ended at about 65%, with the rest being end notes. Still, I thought I to myself, I'm only like a third done? I knew I was in for a long read.
It was certainly worth the time to push through to the end. Grant is a fascinating, and vastly underestimated, figure. Aside from Lincoln, he's probably the man most responsible for the Union victory in the Civil War.
So here are ten take-aways/observations:
1. His name wasn't Ulysses S. Grant. He was born Hiram Ulysses Grant. He did go by Ulysses before entering West Point, but it was when he enrolled there that he became "Ulysses S." There was a clerical mistake, but the Army in its infinite wisdom decided that the mistake would not be corrected, and Grant apparently didn't protest. Ergo, he became Ulysses S. Grant instead of Hiram Ulysses. The S doesn't actually stand for anything.
2. He was not a drunk. Although there are still rumors lingering about his drunkenness, he was never drunk at crucial points (and was not drunk nearly as often as some people seem to think), and in the end he did manage to control his tendency to alcoholism--he abstained almost entirely later in his life.
3. He did not win by "overwhelming numbers." The "more guns and men" dogma of the Lost Cause is pure bullshit (sorry, folks). The Union army was perpetually ahead in terms of men, manufacturing capacity, financial resources, etc. And YET, you'll notice that for three long years, no other general managed any kind of success. The trouble was that McClellan, Pope, Burnside, etc., didn't understand what to do with these advantages. Grant understood two very important things: that the object was not Richmond (or any territory) but the army; and that the object of war is to kill the other men until they lose the will the fight. Grant understood this at a fundamental level. He didn't particularly enjoy the long casualty lists but knew that it was necessary to grind down his enemies. He knew that there was no advantage to having more men and munitions if you didn't use them, and that the South would never capitulate unless it was ground down mercilessly to its last men.
4. The Reconstruction era SUCKED. It was brutal, boys and girls. The antebellum period was no picnic, but the Reconstruction era was marked by large-scale violence against newly freed blacks who were trying to exercise their newly won rights, especially voting. It's particularly brutal and upsetting because it feels like the late war ought to have put an end to this sort of thing. But it didn't. And what makes it all infinitely more difficult to stomach is that it got worse. While Grant was president, federal troops often intervened to stop the blatant, widespread violence against blacks. By the end of his term, though, he was politically hamstrung and couldn't intervene as he wished to, because the public in general had lost interest in intervening. Therefore, the whites were left to attack their black neighbors in horrid, gory, violent ways that really defy belief. Perhaps the very worst part is that almost no one ever got in the least bit of trouble for the ugly murders and massacres that were perpetrated.
5. Andrew Johnson SUCKED. He became president only through an act of fate--or, rather, of John Wilkes Booth. He was pretty terrible, and extremely racist. He'd only been put on the ticket as vice-president because he, as a Senator from Tennessee, was the only member of Congress from a seceded state to remain loyal. He helped bring in border-state votes and became military governor of Tennessee. But once Lincoln died and the war was over, he seemed to block any possible progress for African-Americans and endorsed the reinstatement of Southern whites in their previous places. After he fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton--a dispute in which he tried to get Grant embroiled--he was impeached by Congress but was not (by a small margin) removed from office. Reading about him, I was outraged and disgusted, and kind of wished Congress had kicked him out on his rear.
6. The Gilded Age SUCKED. The economy and the country as a whole boomed in the post-war years. But there was no structure or restraint. The government was hands-off, leading to, for instance, the Panic of 1873, which was known as the Great Depression until the one that came 'round in the 1930s. Grift and graft were rife, and everyone was scrambling for money with very little pretense towards honorable dealings. The more and the better you could swindle, the, uh, better.
7. Swindlers [I'm looking at you, Ferdinand Ward] SUCKED. Oof. By the end of reading this book, I wanted to drag Ferdinand Ward from the land of the dead and strangle him myself. Who is Ward? Well, he's the man who swindled Grant (and most of Grant's family) out of massive amounts of money. See, Grant had given up his pension as a general in order to be president, but as president he did not receive any pension (they received no pension in this era). He was on his own, but he had no particular skills, had no money saved to rely on, and was still relatively young (though aging). But Grant had a great lot of very wealthy admirers, who provided him with sizable sums in gratitude for his service during the war. It seemed he would live out his life in relative comfort thanks to them. Then Ward convinced him to become part of his business dealings. It turns out it was nothing more than what's now called a Ponzi scheme. Grant had no idea of this and got family members and friends to invest. Then it went bust, and Grant was utterly wiped out; his sons and other family members were hit hard, too. But poor Grant had nothing at all and was reduced to begging loans from Cornelius Vanderbilt. And by this time, he was getting older and his health was failing. I was hurt on Grant's behalf, to see how far he had risen in the world only to be brought low again.
But it didn't end all badly. By act of Congress, Grant did receive a pension as a general, and, much to my delight (though I knew it was coming; there are no spoilers in history) Mark Twain swooped in to rescue Grant. Twain found that Grant was about to write his memoirs under a less-than-favorable contract, and he offered a better deal. He championed Grant as Grant wrote his memoirs in the last few months of his life. He was a kind of literary guardian angel.
8. Cancer SUCKS. About the time Grant was ruined by Ward's thievery, he was diagnosed with cancer of the throat/mouth. Of course, Grant was famous for his smoking habit, which was almost certainly the cause of the cancer. He declined pretty precipitously and was very ill at the end. But he wrote furiously in his last days at his memoirs [The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant], which is hailed as one of the finest military memoirs ever written. He died just a few days after finishing the manuscript. Grant's wife Julia was provided for after his death by the proceeds of the memoir. It was a huge success commercially as well as critically.
9. "War is all hell." Sigh. Ain't it the truth? It was William T. Sherman who actually said this, but it rings true. Grant and Sherman were friends through the war, though I was a little surprised that they weren't actually better friends--I'd had the impression that they were closer than they were in reality. Even so, I think they shared a particular bond that couldn't be broken and that neither could really share with other men.
10. I like Grant. Grant was an essentially decent man. So many great or important men are not. He was devoted to his family, and he was always concerned about the difficulties faced by enslaved and then newly-freed African-Americans. He cared about the exploitation of the Indians, as well. Unfortunately, even as President, his power weren't absolute, and he could not necessarily make the rest of the country go along with his views. Politically, he couldn't save Reconstruction or stop the foul treatment of the Native Americans. And, equally unfortunately for him, his trusting nature got him into trouble. He ended up trusting his friends too much and being blind to the fact that they were actually betraying him. It (literally) cost him dearly. But which is better, to be a good man taken advantage of, or to be (or become) hardened and uncaring?