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This author is challenging what we know about Ulysses Grant and the Civil War

Ulysses S. Grant led the Union’s victory in the civil war before serving two terms as president. Was he a brutal general and incompetent president — or a brilliant strategist who should be praised for his foresight? Ron Chernow, who authored the book that inspired the musical “Hamilton,” talks to correspondent Jeffrey Brown about taking on that complicated legacy in his new book, “Grant.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now a new look at the American army general who became president in the aftermath of the Civil War.

    Jeffrey Brown has this addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    He was a lumbering, brutal general, an incompetent president, or he was a brilliant strategist and a far-sighted political leader who belongs in the American pantheon.

    Ulysses S. Grant, who led Union forces to victory in the Civil War and then served two terms as president, has stirred a range of responses from his own time to ours. He wrote his own acclaimed memoir, and has been the subject of numerous biographies.

    Now comes “Grant” by Ron Chernow, who’s made a specialty of writing of big historical figures, including George Washington, J.P. Morgan, and Alexander Hamilton. That biography was the inspiration for the hit Broadway musical.

    Welcome to you.

  • Ron Chernow:

    Pleasure to be here. Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, no doubt everyone starts by asking you, are we expecting Ulysses S. Grant the musical?

  • Ron Chernow:

    Well, I decided that Ulysses S. Grant’s life doesn’t move to a hip-hop beat.

    You know, the problem is, since the Hamilton musical, people expect me to, at appearances, start snapping my fingers and singing in rhymed couplets. So, I’m trying to get beyond the image of the hip-hop historian.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, so you — but you provide the research for these things.

    It is interesting to think, though, about changing reputations and views of people. That happened with Hamilton. I wonder, if somebody came to you and said, Ulysses S. Grant, how do I capture him?

  • Ron Chernow:

    This man has suffered from more misleading stereotypes than perhaps any other figure in American history.

    Far from being this brutal and clumsy general, he was a strategic mastermind of the war. And it’s always said that Robert E. Lee was the superior general. Lee was a brilliant tactician who had kind of an uncanny ability in individual battles to anticipate his opponent’s moves, but it was really Grant who had a master plan, a comprehensive plan for ending the war by coordinating the movements of all of these various armies.

    So, he was an extremely sophisticated military strategist. It’s just one of kind of many misunderstandings that I tried to correct in the book.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    He was an outsider, right, from what was called the West at that time, not a sophisticate, not part of the elite.

  • Ron Chernow:

    Well, also, before the war, he had suffered one business failure after another.

    When the war started, he was working as a clerk, junior to his two younger brothers, in his father’s leather goods store in Galena, Illinois. The war breaks out. Grant has been at West Point. He’d fought in the Mexican War.

    Two months later, he’s colonel. Four months later, he’s brigadier general. Ten months later, he’s major general. By the end of the war, he has a million men under his command, this man who had been an impoverished clerk in a leather goods store.

    And I think that, because of his pre-war business failures, he had everything to gain and nothing to lose. It gave him a certain daring.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Part of the reputation, the caricature is the drinking, right?

  • Ron Chernow:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Was he a drunk or not?

    This is something that you have looked at quite a bit, the effect of his drinking on his personality.

  • Ron Chernow: 

    Absolutely.

    I decided that this controversy, which has hung over Grant for 150 years, has to — had to be settled once and for all.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    To use a phrase, hung over, huh?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Ron Chernow:

    Right. I’m sorry.

    But what’s happened historically is that Grant’s opponents derided him as a drunkard. People who have written admiring biographies have tended to completely minimize the drinking problem.

    What I discovered, in fact, was Grant was an alcoholic, but rather than using that term drunkard, which implies a moral failing, that he was indulging this in some kind of cavalier fashion, I tried to treat alcoholism as a chronic disease, that this was something that he struggled with his entire life.

    He joined a temperance lodge from the time that he was in his 20s. And it was a problem that he finally conquered by the end of his life.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You’re focusing more on a lot of accomplishment, especially his work in Reconstruction to try to make it work.

  • Ron Chernow:

    Yes, his presidency has been unfairly caricatured as one of scandals and nepotism. Those things occurred. I devote a lot of time to them in the book.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Ron Chernow:

    But I argue that this was really the minor story of his presidency.

    The major story was that he was the foremost president protecting the four million African-Americans who had been enslaved prior to the war, who, under the 14th Amendment, became full-fledged American citizens, and under the 15th Amendment, had the right to vote.

    This provoked the most violent backlash in the South. The Ku Klux Klan conducted a reign of terror throughout the South. Grant repeatedly sent federal troops into the South in order to rein in the Klan, and then finally brought 3,000 indictments against the Klan to crush them.

    So, as Frederick Douglass said, Ulysses S. Grant was “the vigilant, firm, impartial, and wise protector of our race.”

    I feel it’s a great unknown story about Grant.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Before we started this, we were talking about the continuing divisiveness in this country over the Confederate monuments, some of them from that period, right?

  • Ron Chernow: 

    Yes, absolutely.

    This is an open wound in our society. We have been left with two competing narratives of what happened during and after the Civil War. And they started building the monuments really towards the end of Grant’s second term. And these Confederate monuments were built as — in the spirit of defiance, as a way of rebuking Reconstruction and reasserting Southern white supremacy in the South, and rolling back all of the gains of Reconstruction.

    You know, it’s fascinating. People who know all about the civil rights movement between the 1950s and 1960s have no idea that we had a civil rights movement in this country in the late 1860s and 1870s.

    This is a black hole in American memory. There’s such amnesia about what happened in terms of that civil rights movement, and also the violent backlash that unfortunately followed it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You write these, as I have said, big histories right?

  • Ron Chernow:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Men, they have all been, who are — who have played big roles in shaping history. And they’re big books. This is another big book, right?

  • Ron Chernow:

    I apologize. I can’t seem to write a short book.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But why? Why the focus on these kind of big figures?

  • Ron Chernow:

    Well, you know, I decided to write about Grant because I had always wanted to do a book about the Civil War and Reconstruction.

    Grant’s life is the perfect prism for seeing those two periods. And, in fact, they’re two acts of the same drama. So many Americans know about the Civil War in minute detail. They know nothing about Reconstruction. It’s kind of like walking out in the middle of the drama. You don’t know how the play ends.

    So, I kind of look for figures who embody big moments in American history, who are part of kind of building the structure of the country. And so it’s not simply telling an interesting yarn, that these were people who represented major movements in American life, hence the size of the book.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right.

    The book is “Grant.”

    Ron Chernow, thank you very much.

  • Ron Chernow: 

    My pleasure. Thank you.

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