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Ron Chernow's book shows there's much more to Ulysses S. Grant than meets the eye

| Friday, Oct. 27, 2017, 8:57 p.m.
Ron Chernow
Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures
Ron Chernow

Ulysses S. Grant is acknowledged as one of the greatest U.S. generals for guiding the Union Army to victory over Confederate forces during the Civil War. His subsequent two-term presidency is often remembered for scandals perpetrated by members of his administration. And his reputation for heavy drinking was earned, not a fabrication by his enemies.

But early in Ron Chernow's new biography, “Grant” (Penguin Press, $40), there's an anecdote that speaks to the 18th president's character: Grant built a house for his family in Missouri, doing most of the work himself.

Was Grant the last president to build a home by hand?

“I can't say with certainty,” says Chernow, who appears Oct. 30 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland as guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Ten Evenings series. “But that log cabin that he built, Hardscrabble, was certainly emblematic of the depressed circumstances of his life in the years before the Civil War. Grant was a hard-working and fundamentally decent man who persisted and never despaired.”

Telling an in-depth story

As he did with “Washington: A Life” (winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for biography) and “Hamilton” (which became the smash Broadway hit), Chernow examines his subject in depth. Starting with Grant's childhood in southwestern Ohio, to his heroic final days in which he finishes his autobiography, then dies a few days later, Chernow attempts to redefine a man who is often cast in the light of his shortcomings.

Grant, unlike other historical figures Chernow has studied, is singular in his motivations.

“Whether it was J.P. Morgan or John D. Rockefeller, whether it was George Washington or Alexander Hamilton, they all felt they were destined for success from an early age,” Chernow says. “That there was a drive and a focus and ambition about them. Grant's is a very different kind of story because he required a very particular set of historical circumstances for all of these hidden talents to surface. And they surfaced in a very spectacular fashion. He's almost 40 by the time he breaks out. At that point, it looks like he's fated to have this very obscure and regrettable life.”

Instead Grant becomes a war hero and a two-term president. “I don't know if there's any more improbable story of an American president,” Chernow says. “And certainly there's not an American president who touched bottom so many times in his early years.”

Grant's early failures are numerous. In 1854, at the age of 22, he was forced to resign from the Army because of his drinking. He returns to his wife and family in Missouri and flounders at farming, real estate and other business ventures.

Civil War success

When the Civil War breaks out and Grant re-enlists, his trajectory soars. His brilliant strategies and tactics rescue the Union when its fate was very much uncertain.

One of the reasons Grant was so successful stems from his tenure as a quartermaster during the Mexican-American War. That position — requiring the marshaling of supplies to troops — is necessary but unglamorous. For Grant, who voluntarily saw combat despite being entitled to stay behind lines, being a quartermaster gave him a base knowledge applicable during the Civil War.

“He became the master of the bureaucratic side of the Army,” Chernow says “There's a wonderful line from William Tecumseh Sherman: ‘Grant's strategy embraced a continent; (Robert E.) Lee's only a small state.' Grant really did have to have to manage and coordinate, operating in different theaters of war, over an area that could be as long as 1,500 miles across. I think the fact that he becomes a master of both the railroads and the telegraph enabled him to coordinate the various armies.”

During his presidency, Grant bore the responsibility of rebuilding the South and ensuring the rights of the freed slaves were protected. There was great resistance to granting blacks their civil rights, and Grant wrestled with preserving rights with his “desire for harmony between the North and South,” Chernow writes.

Grant's advocacy didn't go unnoticed. Frederick Douglas said, “To Grant more than any other man the Negro owes his enfranchisement,” a reference to the 15th Amendment.

“(Grant) said the enactment of the 15th Amendment was the most importance occurrence in American history since the founding of the nation,” Chernow says. “And he thought the 15th amendment was the realization of the Declaration of Independence. I'm sure he was referring to ‘all men are created equal.' ”

When thousands of blacks were murdered in the South “without a single prosecution,” Chernow says, Grant felt obligated to send troops to restore order.

“He was amazingly courageous on this whole issue,” Chernow says. “It's been a buried chapter in American history. The scandals were real and a blemish on his administration, but I think a far more important story in terms of its effect on American history is what he does to protect those 4 million slaves who are now full-fledged American citizens with the right to vote.”

‘Hamilton' fervor won't die

While it's been 12 years since “Hamilton” was published, Lin-Manuel Miranda's stage production has given the biography new life. Chernow laughs when asked if he still gets questions about the book.

“I have to keep reminding myself the ‘Hamilton' phenomenon is just beginning because I'll be going to London in December for the opening there,” he says. “It's gone national and international, and I just think it's going to run for a very, very long time.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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