Tuesday 25 September 2018

A vindication of Ulysses S Grant

Biography: Grant, Ron Chernow, Head of Zeus, ­hardback, 1,104 pages, €25

Grant by Ron Chernow
Grant by Ron Chernow
Ron Chernow

Frank MacGabhann

The life of the Civil War hero who went on to become US President has long been tarnished by revisionist historians, but this new tome should restore some shine to his place in history.

In 1861, Ulysses S Grant was a failure. Since leaving the US army in disgrace for drunkenness seven years before, business venture after business venture had failed. Within four years, however, Grant would be the most revered man in America. Three years later, he would be its President.

Ron Chernow, the author of this biography, has written what reads like a series of essays on Grant's extraordinary life. Having previously won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of George Washington, he went on to pen a biography of Founding Father Andrew Hamilton, upon which the hugely successful (there is a two-year wait for tickets) Broadway musical Hamilton is based, and which has recently opened in London's West End.

The biographer must be both writer and historian, and Chernow succeeds admirably on both counts. Grant is depicted from early home life, to his West Point days hoping that the attempts in Congress to shut the military academy will succeed, to young officer in the Mexican War, to drunkard drummed out of the army, to resurrection as general during the Civil War with a slave-owning wife, to election as President, to overseeing Reconstruction, to naïvely surrounding himself with corrupt appointees, to being swindled in a Ponzi scheme in private life and wiped out financially and finally, to his slow, painful death from cancer.

However, the book is largely taken up with Grant's actions during the Civil War and how he acted as president during the Reconstruction period, the rebuilding of the Union following the Civil War (ie, the measures taken to ensure that the freed slaves achieved equality, and to punish the former rebel states). A theme running through the book is Grant's addiction to alcohol and how he dealt with what was then considered a moral failing and not a physical addiction.

When Grant died in 1885, upwards of two million people watched his funeral cortège pass by in New York City. However, the author relates how his reputation had already begun to be damaged by proponents of the pro-southern 'Lost Cause' interpretation of the Civil War, that it wasn't a civil war at all, but a "war between the states", that it was a noble cause and that slavery was only a minor "incident", and that the South lost only because of the North's superior numbers and resources.

And lastly, because General Grant had been a "butcher" during the war and that southern generals, especially Robert E Lee, were far superior. This view gained even more currency after 1877 when the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, shamelessly did a deal with the Democrats to abandon Reconstruction in return for allowing Rutherford B Hayes to become President. Chernow refutes all these arguments, particularly that of Grant's actions as general, in line with some scholars recently vindicating his military decisions and criticising those of Lee.

President Grant ensured that federal troops in the South, now divided into military districts, time and time again enforced the law and protected newly enfranchised black citizens, crushing the Klu Klux Klan and resulting in largely fair elections and the election of many hundreds of black officials, including senators and congressmen during Reconstruction. While not breaking new ground, Chernow is superlative in recounting some of the thousands of instances of black citizens all over the South who were beaten, murdered and otherwise intimidated from voting by the KKK and other white groups who supported the Democrats.

To give but one example of the result of their terrorism, in the November 1875 election in Yazoo County in Mississippi, only seven Republican votes were cast out of a black population of more than 12,000. This election was the one time when Grant, for political considerations, failed to send federal troops to quell the KKK terrorism. The blacks lived through what was, as historian Eric Foner and Chernow have pointed out, the worst example of domestic terrorism in US history. Until recently, there has been a national collective amnesia about Reconstruction in the interest of national white reconciliation.

Grant was later tormented by this decision, taken because northern voters, particularly in Ohio, were beginning to tire of Reconstruction, according to the one Republican to be re-elected to Congress in that election from Mississippi, John Roy Lynch, who spoke to Grant later that month about that particular decision.

Grant went on to predict to Lynch that the South would become solidly Democratic, which it did, and that that would effectively reverse Reconstruction, which it also did. Chernow believes that Grant's torment derived from his realisation that the KKK's terrorism had "nullified the outcome" of the Civil War and that blacks, while not legally slaves, were now a "caste-ridden form of second-class citizens" - which meant that hundreds of thousands of his soldiers had died or been maimed in vain.

Surprisingly, the author fails to mention the revisionist interpretation of Reconstruction (that it was wrong!) that later found its way into even northern universities. This school of thought was known as the 'Dunning School' and effectively gave an intellectual justification for the "black codes" and "Jim Crow" laws in the South. This revisionism dovetailed conveniently with the rise of Social Darwinism and the psychobabble of eugenics.

Also somewhat surprisingly given the book's length, the Irish connection with Grant, who visited Ireland in 1879 and whose maternal grandfather was Irish, gets no mention in the book. On June 6, 1865 Grant himself ordered in code the arrest "by a discreet officer who will not let it get out that the arrest is to be made until he has his man" of John Mitchell, Young Irelander and virulent siren for the Confederacy.

He was released four months later through Fenian pressure on politicians. Interestingly, Congressman Lynch was the son of a Dublin man, Patrick Lynch, who was an overseer on a plantation, and a slave. They lived on the plantation as man and wife, marriage between a slave and a free person being illegal.

Although this book is unlikely to inspire a Broadway musical, it is superbly-written about a man labelled incompetent, a philistine, a boor and a drunkard, but who changed history.

Indo Review

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top