At nearly 1000 pages, Grant is a real Ron Chernow production. But the time required to climb this Himalayan peak of a book is worthwhile. Chernow offers just the right amount of detail for the reader who really to learn about one of the most underrated leaders in American history.
Largely due to southern Lost Cause propagandists, Grant has long been dismissed as a nothing-special general who beat the brilliant Robert E. Lee only through superior numbers of men and materiel. Grant has also been tarred as president who presided over one of the most corrupt administrations in history.
Neither could be further from the truth. Grant was a brilliant war strategist, who had a much bigger vision than any general on either side, including Lee. And as a president, Grant fought hard to keep the gains of the Civil War in terms of emancipation and Black citizenship in the South from being clawed back by unreconstructed Confederates who wanted to push freed Black southerners back down into a subjection that was just slavery by another name.
A lot of Grant’s reputation boils down to what you think about Reconstruction, and Chernow’s biography complements recent scholarship by Eric Foner and other historians who’ve returned to this era to provide a story that’s pretty much the opposite of what you were taught in school. Reconstruction was a tragic era, but not because vengeful Yankees put unprepared Black people along with greedy carpetbaggers and scalawags in charge of southern state governments. Reconstruction was tragic because it offered so much promise and ended with so much disappointment.
The promise was real. During Reconstruction southern states enjoyed more healthy multiracial democracies than most countries on earth at the time and more than most parts of America would see until the Civil Rights movement 90 years later. Reconstruction was truly a time of hope for a better America, and the tragedy was that the North lost interest in defending Reconstruction against old Confederates who were just waiting to return the South to white supremacist rule.
Grant’s story illuminates much about the history of this fascinating and misunderstood period, which also sharing the biography of an intelligent and compassionate leader who fought not only for what he knew was right, but also for what people today know is right — racial equality, fairness, and the rule of law.
A thoroughly likable character whose warmth and humor balanced out a modesty bordering on the socially awkward, Grant also turns out to have been a lion for justice and civil rights, an American figure uniquely suited to the contemporary era. In the words of Frederick Douglass, Grant was “a man too broad for prejudice, too humane to despise the humblest, too great to be small at any point. In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.”
Even more relevant for today, Grant’s success in putting down the domestic terrorists of the post-Civil War South, from the KKK to the White Leagues, offer an example for our country to defend itself against the latter-day domestic terrorism of the 1/6 insurrection and the whole MAGA movement with its Proud Boys, Boogaloo Bois, Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, and other domestic terrorist groups, each with a strong white supremacist tinge.
It seems that the KKK has returned in another form, and today, we need the kind of leadership shown by Ulysses S. Grant more than ever to save our democracy. “Let us have peace,” was the slogan of his presidential campaign in 1868, and at the time, Americans understood that without justice, there could be no lasting peace.
Grant gave Lee generous terms at Appomattox and he labored valiantly to bring the South back into the Union in a way that was fair to white and Black southerners alike.
But Grant knew that white people could not have peace while Black Americans faced racist violence. Grant fought hard for that kind of lasting peace whether as one of the most admired generals in history or as a president beloved by Black citizens and old Confederates alike.