Reviewed by Tracy Troxel
I have always been fascinated by history, and, in particular, American history. In college, I majored in history and my history professor used to say, quite frequently, “The only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.” Unfortunately, that is a tragic reality in many cases. But what if the history we are taught is largely inaccurate, which makes our attempts to learn even more difficult?
That’s why you should make a serious commitment to read Ron Chernow’s massive work (1,104 pages) on Ulysses S. Grant, Grant (Penguin Press, 2017). More than a few of my history teachers and professors diminished Grant’s accomplishments as the general who won the Civil War and as a two-term President of the United States. He was portrayed as a mediocre general who won simply because he had more manpower and equipment that overwhelmed the South. His presidency was also dismissed as eight years of continuous scandal and ineffective leadership. And in any of these historical presentations, a key emphasis was Grant’s struggle with alcohol.
As he did in presenting a radically new perspective on Alexander Hamilton, Chernow helps us to see Grant in a different light. The author rehabilitates Grant from the historical revisionism of both defeated Southern supporters of the Confederacy and apathetic Northerners, who allowed the gains that African-Americans made following the Civil War to deteriorate into worse conditions. Chernow doesn’t glorify Grant by any means, but clearly shows us that Ulysses Grant was a first-rate strategist as a general, a dogged defender of civil rights (no President comes close to matching his efforts until Lyndon Johnson), and, while he struggled with alcohol, largely overcame this battle.
It takes the author over a thousand pages to accomplish this task, but the effort is well worth it. One of Chernow’s critical contributions is his use of quotes from Confederate generals to show that Grant’s strategies, techniques, and bold actions struck fear into the heart of every Southern army that Grant faced. Chernow also honestly confronts Grant’s struggle with alcohol, but shows him achieving a growing sobriety through the years. And, most importantly, Chernow ably demonstrates that General Grant and President Grant implemented policies that produced appreciable strides towards equality for African-Americans. In fact, if the country had allowed President Grant to lead as he envisioned, the racism we continue to see today may have been largely avoided.
Yes, it’s a long book, but well worth the effort.
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