Grant, p.1Ron Chernow
ALSO BY RON CHERNOW
Washington: A Life
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The Death of the Banker: The Decline and Fall of the Great Financial Dynasties and the Triumph of the Small Investor
The Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family
The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance
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Copyright © 2017 by Ron Chernow
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Names: Chernow, Ron, author.
Title: Grant / Ron Chernow.
Description: New York : Penguin Press, 2017.
Identifiers: LCCN 2017025263 (print) | LCCN 2017027493 (ebook) | ISBN 9780525521952 (ebook) | ISBN 9781594204876 (hardback)
Subjects: LCSH: Grant, Ulysses S. (Ulysses Simpson), 1822–1885. | Presidents—United States—Biography. | Generals—United States—Biography. | United States. Army—Biography . | BISAC: BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Presidents & Heads of State. | HISTORY / United States / Civil War Period (1850–1877). | BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Military.
Classification: LCC E672 (ebook) | LCC E672 .C47 2017 (print) | DDC 973.8/2092 [B]—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017025263
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate Internet addresses and other contact information at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.
To my loyal readers,
who have soldiered on through my lengthy sagas
What a man he is! what a history! what an illustration—his life—of the capacities of that American individuality common to us all. Cynical critics are wondering “what the people can see in Grant” to make such a hubbub about. They aver . . . that he has hardly the average of our day’s literary and scholastic culture, and absolutely no pronounc’d genius or conventional eminence of any sort. Correct: but he proves how an average western farmer, mechanic, boatman, carried by tides of circumstances, perhaps caprices, into a position of incredible military or civil responsibilities . . . may steer his way fitly and steadily through them all, carrying the country and himself with credit year after year—command over a million armed men—fight more than fifty pitch’d battles—rule for eight years a land larger than all the kingdoms of Europe combined—and then, retiring, quietly (with a cigar in his mouth) make the promenade of the whole world, through its courts and coteries, and kings and czars and mikados . . . as phlegmatically as he ever walk’d the portico of a Missouri hotel after dinner . . . Seems to me it transcends Plutarch. How those old Greeks, indeed, would have seized on him! A mere plain man—no art, no poetry . . . A common trader, money-maker, tanner, farmer of Illinois—general for the republic . . . in the war of attempted secession—President following, (a task of peace, more difficult than the war itself)—nothing heroic, as the authorities put it—and yet the greatest hero. The gods, the destinies, seem to have concentrated upon him.
WALT WHITMAN, Specimen Days
ALSO BY RON CHERNOW
INTRODUCTION: THE SPHINX TALKS
PART ONE: A LIFE OF STRUGGLE
ONE: Country Bumpkin
TWO: The Darling Young Lieutenant
THREE: Rough and Ready
FOUR: The Son of Temperance
PART TWO: A LIFE OF WAR
SIX: The Store Clerk
SEVEN: The Quiet Man
EIGHT: Twin Forts
TEN: A Glittering Lie
TWELVE: Man of Iron
FIFTEEN: Above the Clouds
SIXTEEN: Idol of the Hour
SEVENTEEN: Ulysses the Silent
EIGHTEEN: Raging Storm
NINETEEN: Heavens Hung in Black
TWENTY: Caldron of Hell
TWENTY-ONE: Chew & Choke
TWENTY-TWO: Her Satanic Majesty
TWENTY-THREE: Dirty Boots
TWENTY-FOUR: A Singular, Indescribable Vessel
PART THREE: A LIFE OF PEACE
TWENTY-FIVE: Soldierly Good Faith
TWENTY-SIX: Swing Around the Circle
TWENTY-SEVEN: Volcanic Passion
TWENTY-EIGHT: Trading Places
TWENTY-NINE: Spoils of War
THIRTY: We Are All Americans
THIRTY-ONE: Sin Against Humanity
THIRTY-TWO: The Darkest Blot
THIRTY-THREE: A Dance of Blood
THIRTY-FIVE: A Butchery of Citizens
THIRTY-SIX: The Bravest Battle
THIRTY-SEVEN: Let No Guilty Man Escape
THIRTY-EIGHT: Saddest of the Falls
PART FOUR: A LIFE OF REFLECTION
FORTY: The Wanderer
FORTY-ONE: Master Spirit
FORTY-TWO: A Miserable Dirty Reptile
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Since Ulysses S. Grant’s spelling could border on the eccentric, I have taken the liberty of correcting that and his punctuation and capitalization throughout the book for the sake of smoother reading and easier comprehension. I have done the same with private letters of other figures in the book, except in those cases where I think that defective writing tells a significant tale about the author.
The Sphinx Talks
EVEN AS OTHER CIVIL WAR generals rushed to publish their memoirs, flaunting their conquests and cashing in on their celebrity, Ulysses S. Grant refused to trumpet his accomplishments in print. The son of an incorrigible small-town braggart, the unassuming general and two-time president harbored a lifelong aversion to boasting. He was content to march to his grave in dignified silence, letting his extraordinary wartime record speak for itself.
Then, at the close of 1883, fate dealt him a series of progressively more savage blows that shattered this high-minded resolve. Returning to his Manhattan town house on Christmas Eve, Grant, sixty-one, pivoted to hand the driver a holiday tip when he slipped on the icy pavement and crashed to the ground, tearing a thigh muscle and possibly fracturing his hip. Until then a robust man, he crum
Still worse lay in store. Several years earlier, Grant had entered into a promising partnership, christened Grant & Ward, with twenty-nine-year-old Ferdinand Ward, touted as the “Young Napoleon of Finance.” Thanks to his colleague’s financial wizardry, Grant seemed to coast on a tide of easy riches, fancying himself a newly minted millionaire. Then, one morning in early May 1884, he awoke to discover that Ward had manufactured the profits from thin air, the whole scheme was a colossal fraud, and he was ruined along with friends and family members who had entrusted their life savings to the firm. Abruptly Grant was thrust back into his early years of hardship at lonely frontier garrisons, on his unprofitable farm in St. Louis, and at his father’s leather goods emporium in Galena, Illinois—places where he was branded an economic failure. Now, to scrape by and pay household bills, he had to endure the degradation of accepting money sent by total strangers as acts of charity.
At this point, Grant was seized by more than a desperate need to earn ready cash: he had to cast off the stigma of failure and reclaim his stature before the public and posterity. As his longtime friend William Tecumseh Sherman observed, he had “lost everything, and more in reputation.”1 To a friend, Grant confided, “I could bear all the pecuniary loss if that was all, but that I could be so long deceived by a man who I had such opportunity to know is humiliating.”2 So Grant proved receptive when editors of the prestigious Century Magazine solicited a series of articles about his foremost Civil War victories. “I consented for the money it gave me,” Grant admitted, “for at that moment I was living upon borrowed money.”3
That June, at his rambling seaside cottage in Long Branch, New Jersey, Grant experienced a strange sensation that foreshadowed another grave problem. His wife, Julia, served him “a plate of delicious peaches on the table,” but as he swallowed one, he stopped and winced. “Oh my,” he said, “I think something has stung me from that peach.” He sprang from his chair, strode the porch in distress, then rinsed out his throat, to no avail. “He was in great pain and said water hurt like fire,” Julia recalled.4 Throughout the summer, Grant, who had once smoked twenty cigars a day, was vexed by a baffling sore throat that never faded. Although Julia begged him to see a physician, he procrastinated for months; this man who was so intrepid on the battlefield seemed to dread the looming diagnosis. When at last he consulted his Manhattan doctor in October, he received grim tidings: a mass on his throat and tongue was “epithelial” in character—code language for cancer. To worsen matters, he was afflicted by painful neuralgia and had three large teeth extracted. All the while, he limped about from the Christmas Eve mishap.
Terrified that if he died he would leave Julia destitute, Grant agreed to pen his memoirs and relive his glory days of battle. As seen in his wartime orders, he had patented a lean, supple writing style, and a crisp narrative now flowed in polished sentences, honed by the habits of a lifetime. Words poured from this supposedly taciturn man, showing how much thought and pent-up feeling lay beneath his tightly buttoned facade. He wrote in an overstuffed leather armchair, his outstretched legs swaddled by blankets, resting on a facing chair. He wore a wool cap over thick brown hair now streaked with gray, a shawl draped over his shoulders, and a muffler around his neck concealing a tumor the size of a baseball.
Seldom, if ever, has a literary masterpiece been composed under such horrific circumstances. Whenever he swallowed anything, Grant was stricken with pain and had to resort to opiates that clouded his brain. As a result, he endured extended periods of thirst and hunger as he labored over his manuscript. The torment of the inflamed throat never ceased. When the pain grew too great, his black valet, Harrison Terrell, sprayed his throat with “cocaine water,” temporarily numbing the area, or applied hot compresses to his head. Despite his fear of morphine addiction, Grant could not dispense entirely with such powerful medication. “I suffer pain all the time, except when asleep,” he told his doctor.5 Although bolstered by analgesics, Grant experienced only partial relief, informing a reporter that “when the suffering was so intense . . . he only wished for the one great relief to all human pain.”6
Summoning his last reserves of strength, through a stupendous act of willpower, Grant toiled four to six hours a day, adding more time on sleepless nights. For family and friends his obsessive labor was wondrous to behold: the soldier so famously reticent that someone quipped he “could be silent in several languages” pumped out 336,000 words of superb prose in a year.7 By May 1885, just two months before his death, Grant was forced to dictate, and, when his voice failed, he scribbled messages on thin strips of paper. Always cool in a crisis, Grant exhibited the prodigious stamina and granite resolve of his wartime effort.
Nobody was more thunderstruck than Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, who had recently formed a publishing house with his nephew-in-law Charles Webster. To snare Grant’s memoirs, sure to be a literary sensation, Twain boosted the royalty promised by the Century’s publishers and won the rights. Twain had never seen a writer with Grant’s gritty determination. When this man “under sentence of death with that cancer” produced an astonishing ten thousand words in one day, Twain exclaimed, “It kills me these days to write half of that.”8 He was agog when Grant dictated at one sitting a nine-thousand-word portrait of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox “never pausing, never hesitating for a word, never repeating—and in the written-out copy he made hardly a correction.”9 Twain, who considered the final product a masterwork, scoffed at scuttlebutt he had ghostwritten it. “There is no higher literature than these modern, simple Memoirs,” he insisted. “Their style is flawless . . . no man can improve upon it.”10
For Twain, the revelation of Grant’s character was as startling as his storytelling. Eager to spare his family, Grant was every inch the stoic gentleman. Only at night, when he was asleep, did his face grimace with pain. “The sick-room brought out the points of General Grant’s character,” Twain wrote. “His exceeding gentleness, kindness, forbearance, lovingness, charity. . . . He was the most lovable great child in the world.”11 For one observer, it was wrenching to watch Grant “with a bandage about his aching head, and a horrible and mortal disease clutching his throat.” He felt “a great ache when I look at him who had saved us all when we were bankrupt in treasure and in leaders, and see him thus beset by woes and wants.”12 In a magnificent finale, Grant finished the manuscript on July 16, 1885, one week before his death in upstate New York. He had steeled himself to stay alive until the last sentence was done and he could surrender his pen.
The triumph of the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, which sold a record-breaking three hundred thousand copies in two-volume sets, was vintage Grant. Repeatedly he had bounced back from adversity, his career marked by surprising comebacks and stunning reversals. He had endured many scenes, constantly growing and changing in the process. Like Twain, Walt Whitman was mesmerized by Grant and grouped him with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the quartet of greatest Americans. “In all Homer and Shakespeare there is no fortune or personality really more picturesque or rapidly changing, more full of heroism, pathos, contrast,” he wrote.13 The plain unadorned Grant had nothing stylish about him, leading sophisticated people to underrate his talents. He was a nondescript face in the crowd, the common man from the heartland raised to a higher power, who proved a simple westerner could lead a mighty army to victory and occupy the presidential chair with distinction.
Dismissed as a philistine, a boor, a drunk, and an incompetent, Grant has been subjected to pernicious stereotypes that grossly impede our understanding of the man. As a contemporary newspaper sniffed, Grant was “an ignorant soldier, coarse in his taste
The caricature of Grant as a filthy “butcher” is ironic for a man who couldn’t stomach the sight of blood, studiously refrained from romanticizing warfare, and shied away from a military career. “I never went into a battle willingly or with enthusiasm,” he remarked. “I was always glad when a battle was over.”15 Invariably he deprecated war. “It is at all times a sad and cruel business. I hate war with all my heart, and nothing but imperative duty could induce me to engage in its work or witness its horrors.”16 Grant never grew vainglorious from military fame, never gloated over enemy defeats, never engaged in victory celebrations. He has been derided as a plodding, dim-witted commander who enjoyed superior manpower and matériel and whose crude idea of strategy was to launch large, brutal assaults upon the enemy. In fact, close students of the war have shown that the percentage of casualties in Grant’s armies was often lower than those of many Confederate generals. If Grant never shrank from sending masses of soldiers into bloody battles, it had nothing to do with a heartless disregard for human life and everything to do with bringing the war to a speedy conclusion.
The relentless focus on Grant’s last battles against Robert E. Lee in Virginia has obscured his stellar record of winning battles in the western war long before taking charge of Union forces in early 1864. After that, he did not simply direct the Army of the Potomac, but masterminded the coordinated movements of all federal forces. A far-seeing general, he adopted a comprehensive policy for all theaters of war, treating them as an interrelated whole. However brilliant Lee was as a tactician, Grant surpassed him in grand strategy, crafting the plan that defeated the Confederacy. The military historian John Keegan paid homage to Grant as “the towering military genius of the Civil War” and noted the modernity of his methods as he mobilized railroads and telegraphs to set his armies in motion.17 Grant, he concluded, “was the greatest general of the war, one who would have excelled at any time in any army.”18
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