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It may not become the next biggest Broadway musical like Hamilton, but Ron Chernow’s latest work, Grant, is still a masterpiece. At under 1,000 pages of text, this biography spans Grant’s entire life, the Civil War and the presidency making up the majority of this outstanding volume. His early life gives us insight into an industrious, hard-working man who, while not greedy, worried about finances and eventually led to bad decision making.
While many critics have argued that Grant was a butcher and beat General Lee because of more men and superior weapons, Chernow points out that Grant was the seventh general to lead an army against Lee and prevail where the others had not. Obviously, there was more to Grant than just manpower and weapons as many suggest.
Fighting in the Western front, Grant, along with Generals Sherman and Sheridan, proved he was a competent commander and military strategist, winning several battles before taking command of the entire Union Army.
Grant’s opponents have also argued that he was a drunkard and dunce. Chernow continually shows that Grant was self-aware and took great pains to prevent drunkenness. Chernow shows this was not a recurring pattern, as many historians would lead us to believe.
Grant was also far ahead of his time in his views regarding African-Americans. Chernow points out that Grant did more for Civil Rights than any American president until the 1960s Civil Rights movement. Ironically, Grant’s wife, Julia, came from a slave-holding family. Numerous times Chernow reminds us that Julia’s father did not hide his views of African-Americans or dislike of Grant and his family, who advocated abolition.
Despite the positives, Grant was flawed. We read he was a sucker for frauds. Chernow points out that it was Grant’s mother, Hannah, who encouraged his trusting nature which caused him great financial headaches the last two years of his presidency. It was this blind spot that eventually led Grant to writing his memoir. Late in life, Grant invested with two shady characters that wiped him out in what basically amounted to a Ponzi scheme. Although Grant had no knowledge of the scheme and was exonerated on all counts and in the court of public opinion, he lost everything. Mark Twain saved Grant and his wife by taking an interest in the former president and eventually convincing him to write a memoir. Twain’s foresight and investment paid off as it eventually led to $400,000 in royalties to Grant and Julia, which took care of her after Grant’s passing. Grant passed away in 1885, succumbing to throat cancer. The Dana Point Library has a copy of this title.
Dan DeNeve is a 15-year employee of the Orange County Public Library. He currently works at the Dana Point Library as the Adult Services Librarian. He is an avid reader of history, biographies and sports.