Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

War and Reconstruction: Ron Chernow’s marvelous new biography of U.S. Grant

In the years following the Civil War, the American south descended into chaos.

Ulysses S. Grant. (Wikimedia Commons)
Ulysses S. Grant. (Wikimedia Commons)


By Col. Bob Killebrew, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense office of Civil War affairs



By Col. Bob Killebrew, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense office of Civil War affairs


In the years following the Civil War, the American south descended into chaos.  Returning southern soldiers, facing newly enfranchised former slaves and their northern allies, began a reign of murder, intimidation and brutality against newly enfranchised African Americans and white Republicans that threatened, as one federal official said, “a second civil war.” Thousands of blacks were murdered. Many more thousands who dared to raise their voices were beaten, threatened and driven from their homes. Often, their only hope was the United States army’s garrisons in the south, placed there for their protection and for enforcing federal laws by the president of the United States, Ulysses Simpson Grant.

Reconstruction was the great challenge of U.S. Grant’s two terms as president, and the story fills the second half of Ron Chernow’s new and consequential biography of Grant, easily the most enigmatic and underrated of all U.S. presidents. Anyone with a blushing acquaintance of history knows the story of his life. West Point graduate.  The greatest general of the American Civil War. Two-term president of the United States.  Author of the Memoirs, the only work of literary genius by any American military man. But he was also a binge drinker and a business failure in civilian life, whose presidency was scarred by betrayal and scandals, though he himself remained scrupulously honest. An Everyman of the mid-19th century America, whose two terms as president remain sadly opaque to many Americans.

War rescued him from a life of obscurity and disappointment.  In 1860 he was a business failure reduced to selling firewood on the streets of St Louis. Then after Sumter there was a humiliating scramble for a colonelcy of Illinois volunteers, a meteoric but controversial rise in the western theater of war, finally full command of all the Union armies and the grand theater of the surrender at Appomattox.

But Chernow is not writing a civil war history; in fact, civil war buffs that want the usual battlefield details will be vaguely dissatisfied. This is not about the war but about Grant, about his steady growth in military command and, above all, his instinctive grasp of the politics behind the war when most Union commanders hadn’t a clue. A frustrated Lincoln sensed Grant’s potential through the fog of war and the petty jealousies of the Union high command, and resisted efforts to sideline him. Chernow deals factually with Grant’s occasional bender, despite the efforts of his faithful aide at times when the general was inactive or frustrated. Through it all Lincoln was steadfast.  Find out what brand of whiskey he drinks, the president said, so I can give my other generals a barrel.

Grant’s early life and the war occupy less than half of Chernow’s 1074 pages. After the gauzy glow of Appomattox, and after Lincoln’s assassination, Grant remained General of the army for the remaining years of Andrew Johnson’s unstable presidency, supervising the occupation of the southern states, fighting the collapse of civil order there and the army’s complicated role in supporting civil order in the south and with the restive Indian tribes of the expanding western frontier. He grew increasingly alienated from the racist, vengeful Johnson and, though careful to remain a military man, he was drawn inevitably into politics by his support for Reconstruction and his personal popularity. By 1868, riding a tide of public adulation, he was elected to the highest office himself, and entered the White House eight years after his embarrassing failures in Illinois. No other story in American history can match it.

Chernow’s more intimate biography of Grant as politician is by far more fascinating than the better-known story of Grant as soldier.  Grant’s presidential years were enormously consequential for the Republic he saved. He was generally successful in foreign affairs — the settlement of the Alabama claims was a dazzling achievement — and a reformer at home. His dogged defense of African-Americans made him their greatest supporter since Lincoln; he possibly did concretely more for black equality than anyone before or since, though that history is unrecognized even in today’s black community. He broke the power of the Ku Klux Klan through legislation, military force and prosecution — in an ironic twist, considering present politics, Grant established the U.S. Justice Department in 1870 to prosecute the KKK and support the civil rights (and voting rights) of African-Americans. So many Klansmen were prosecuted and jailed that the Klan was broken as a force in the south and did not rise again until the 1920s.

After his presidency, Grant remained enormously popular.  Many suggested he could have stood successfully for a third term (including Julia) but he refused, tired of office. He made a triumphal world tour, at one point the U.S. navy provided a warship for his use. He was received everywhere with honor. Returning home, ruined by unwise investments — his greatest weakness was trusting unscrupulous friends — and dying of throat cancer, he wrote the Memoirs of U.S. Grant to insure an income for Julia and his family. In pain, he died within days of finishing the final page. His literary mentor, Mark Twain, saw to their publication.

Grant was a greater and more successful president than history allows. One can only assume that the same southern historians who deified southern generals also influenced the perception that Grant’s generalship was flawed — in fact, he was the war’s most brilliant tactician and strategist — and that his administration was fatally corrupt, another fallacy. Few could have done better in those expansionist, unregulated times.

In our ahistorical nation, Grant’s role in Reconstruction — in fact, the whole Reconstruction period — has faded away. After Democrats won the midterm elections of 1874, northern liberal support for Reconstruction and for supporting civil rights in the south faded away. U.S. troops were withdrawn in 1877, paving the way for the return of white supremacy; the repression of black voting rights, the imposition of “Jim Crow” laws that persisted into the 1960s and, incidentally, the further glorification of the “lost cause” myth with its statues and memorials that stand today. Understanding the South’s troubled history after the civil war — understanding the hatred, violence and repression that made up the “southern heritage” that so many Southerners look fondly back on today — is essential to understanding the complex history of the south, of the nation, and especially of U.S. Grant’s wartime service and presidency. One can hope the historic correction has begun. Although other Grant histories like Ronald White’s American Ulysses are beginning to hit the bookstands, Chernow’s biography gives us a deep look into this complicated but straightforward man, and into a troubled time in our history that still echoes today.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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