Friday, December 08, 2017

Ron Chernow's Grant

I greatly enjoyed Ron Chernow's Grant. I knew only the basics about him and the combination of strengths (esp. military genius and commitment to African American rights) and weaknesses (esp. misplaced trust and alcohol) make for good reading. I had not known what an abject failure he was when the civil war broke out (and that part of the book is much less interesting and therefore slower) nor the magnitude of his global image after he left the presidency. He died young, only 62, but that can happen when you smoke 20 cigars a day.

I am not that into military history but Chernow does a nice job of going through Grant's rapid rise through the ranks and the successful battlefield strategies that compelled Lincoln to trust him. The two developed a strong bond. Grant understood Robert E. Lee and outmaneuvered him time and again. Chernow brings out the emotion and stress he (and of course Lincoln as well) were under.

Reconstruction is heartbreaking to read, as Grant supported African Americans enjoying their rights and entering politics, which they did in large numbers. He sent troops to the South numerous times to counter brutal white violence, but his own party and the North in general tired of it, and after he left office whites quickly established apartheid.

Latin America note: Grant fought in the Mexican War and fell in love with the country, even going back later. Chernow is clearly a sympathetic biographer but Grant's own words suggest someone who tried to overcome racism and appreciate the people and culture.


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