top of page

A Very Critical View of Ron Chernow’s biography, Grant

There is no doubt that Ron Chernow tells a charming story in his recent biography of Ulysses S. Grant. He seems especially compelling in discussing the fight for Black civil rights during Reconstruction. But throughout, the author takes a highly partisan view of his subject in controversy after controversy when the evidence does not support it. And Chernow has a seriously deficient understanding of General and President Grant, of the American Civil War, and of military matters, in general. Despite a stellar reputation, the author has surprisingly not done his homework and relies far too heavily on biased sources, particularly works by Adam Badeau, Horace Porter, and John Russell Young, and both Ulysses and Julia Grant’s respective Personal Memoirs. Although the extensive citing of the authoritative Papers of U.S. Grant (PUSG) makes up for some of the deficiency, there seems to be just one reference to the indispensable Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. It takes years and years of research and a finely critical eye to establish what really happened in those tumultuous times, especially given the multitude of oft-conflicting sources. Repeating, however elegantly, the standard—inaccurate—version is not a good way to present history.

The opening line in Chernow’s biography—“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”—is positively wrong-headed. In reality, Professor Henry Coppée’s 1866 Grant biography was “published under General Grant’s sanction.” At the same time, Grant approved a military history of himself, but it did not come to fruition. In 1868, Albert Richardson’s “authorized” biography came out, as did one by the General’s staunch defenders, James H. Wilson and Charles Dana, “designed mainly to promote Grant’s election to the presidency.” These latter two works and Henry Deming’s of the same year were all “carefully guarded against any expression which could be used against him by the politicians” in the upcoming election. A further “campaign biography” was penned in 1868 by another Grant acolyte, James G. Wilson. And a fifth adoring biography also appeared that year; the first volume of a military trilogy by staffer Adam Badeau, who began working on it in 1865, offered up the most distorted flattery of its subject. But in a later argument with Badeau over the Personal Memoirs, Grant admitted his deep—and rather unethical—involvement:

“Your first volume was prepared in my office, while you occupied the position [of] of an officer on my staff, with the temporary rank of Col. This gave you [pay three grades beyond your actual rank] access to papers and documents that other writers at the time could not have convenient access to. You also had the assistance of several very intelligent staff officers to aid you in hunting up data, relating insidents, furnishing military terms with which you were not then familia[r] &c. Your second and third volumnes, were prepared abroad while you were holding office under the government. A great deal of time was spent by my staff officers in furnishing you information that you called for from time to time, and in some instances in sending you books and papers from the Archives in Washington at the risk of their being lost. You had possession of a copy of the records of my headquarters,—my work really—kept for my special use, until you were through with your work. I also read every chapter of your book before the latter appeared before the public. I knew what care had been taken to get the facts of history correct.”

In other words, Grant paid Badeau a U.S. government salary and supplied him with free governmental resources in return for a self-serving biography. Grant was also finely interested in others who praised him, no matter how falsely. Throughout the war and after, Ulysses S. Grant rewarded journalists and befriended authors who proffered unqualified praise. And in his own Personal Memoirs, Grant unduly lauded himself and his friends, while unjustly disparaging those he didn’t like (including Generals John McClernand, Lew Wallace, Don Carlos Buell, William Rosecrans, George Thomas, Gordon Granger, George Meade, and Gouverneur Warren, among others). Very often, he stole war-time laurels to place on his own brow. All of this, and more, belies Chernow’s claim of modesty.

Horace Porter may have been the most resolute of Grant’s multitudinous defenders, and Chernow unhesitatingly utilizes Porter’s book, Campaigning with Grant, to excuse Grant’s blundering Overland Campaign. Porter, in the book’s preface, maintained that, “While serving as a personal aid to the general-in-chief the author early acquired the habit of making careful and elaborate notes of everything of interest which came under his observation, and these reminiscences are simply a transcript of memoranda jotted down at the time.” The implication that he actually transcribed these supposed notes is ridiculous. Among the many unbelievable renderings, Porter remembered verbatim a pair of four-sentence comments and then a speech lasting more than two pages, during a six-mile horseback ride with the General. In another instance, where Porter seemingly lied, an ordnance boat had blown up during the stalemate at Petersburg—right below Grant’s headquarters; Porter described it as a spectator (“On rushing to the edge of the bluff, we found that the cause of the explosion was the blowing up of a boat”), yet he had written at the time to his wife, “We had a great blow up near our head quarters while I was away.” But what apparently proves the comprehensiveness of Porter’s fabrications is an 1868 letter wherein he acknowledged that “I kept no notes in the field ….” Despite the various episodes in which Porter obviously falsified history, Chernow relies on him for numerous Grant-friendly anecdotes.

Misstatements of fact abound. Just in the section on the battle of Shiloh, Chernow recirculates the falsehood that William T. Sherman commanded two divisions (his own and John A. McClernand’s); he has Grant expecting Lew Wallace to have marched at up to six miles per hour on April 6th over a partially mud-filled route; he has Grant thinking that Wallace was insubordinate and believing that Wallace had planned to get in the Confederate rear (that was only Wallace’s thought upon the arrival of Grant’s aide, not his plan); and he has Grant ordering Wallace to Pittsburg Landing, which contradicts a mountain of evidence that Wallace was ordered to the right of the army. The whole chapter ignores Grant’s deficient intelligence-gathering, which led to his being surprised, and his almost complete lack of preparations before the battle. It is creditable that Chernow acknowledges both the surprise and lack of preparations, yet he still asserts that, “[d]espite his punctilious regard for accuracy” Grant merely “shaded the truth.” The author writes how, “Perhaps no other Union general at this stage of the war would have dared such a counteroffensive” on April 7th, the second day of battle. Yet Don Carlos Buell counterattacked that day, and Chernow contradicts himself by stating that Grant couldn’t order Buell and the Army of the Ohio, meaning that Buell must have “dared such a counteroffensive.” Chernow insults every other Union general by intimating that they also would not have counterattacked, despite the 20,000 soldiers who had just arrived on the field, doubling the effective Union force.

Furthermore, Chernow has trouble with basic military facts and concepts. He writes that losses for the two opponents at Shiloh totaled 24,000 killed or wounded (but almost 4,000 of these were missing or captured), and then he goes on to contend that this dwarfed those at the Battle of Waterloo, where the participants really suffered twice as many casualties or more. He finishes this section with a misreading of Grant’s Personal Memoirs by stating that “Grant believed Corinth could have been taken two days after Shiloh.” Grant had actually written that, “For myself I am satisfied that Corinth could have been captured in a two days’ campaign commenced promptly on the arrival of reinforcements after the battle of Shiloh.” The book is rife with similar errors.

In an example of atrocious scholarship, Chernow’s first full paragraph on Page 323, describing the November 25, 1863 assault by General George H. Thomas’ troops on Missionary Ridge, contains four quotations. Each of the four, however, pertains to a completely different action:

· Chernow has Grant mentioning how the “troops moved under fire with all the precision of veterans on parade,” citing PUSG 9:434, but this reference is dated November 23rd (even in Chernow’s endnotes) and concerns the capture of Orchard Knob by the Army of the Cumberland on the 23rd, making it impossible to have anything to do with the assault on Missionary Ridge two days later.

· Chernow then writes that, “Many Confederate defenders stood in poor condition, one observer describing them as ‘rough and ragged men with no vestige of a uniform,’” citing Page 563 of Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire, where it’s clear that this also concerns the capture of Orchard Knob on November 23rd.

· Chernow next quotes Grant’s description as to how the “assaulting column advanced to the very rifle pits of the enemy and held their position firmly without wavering,” citing PUSG 9:561. But this concerns William Sherman’s assault with the Army of the Tennessee against Tunnel Hill earlier on November 25th, so the quote does not refer in any way to Thomas’ attack a mile or two south.

· The last utterly impossible quote in this paragraph, “‘He seems perfectly cool,’ wrote William Wrenshall Smith, ‘and one could be with him for hours, and not know that any great movements were going on,’” cites Smith’s “Holocaust Holiday” article, in which his diary entry is dated November 23, 1863. This again concerns the capture of Orchard Knob.

The author’s mis-description of Chattanooga did not end with these four errors in four consecutive quotations. Phil Sheridan straddled a cannon atop Missionary Ridge, not at Chickamauga Station, and he did not even reach that location in any event. Grant’s lifting his hat to despairing Confederate prisoners occurred a month before (and the source was misquoted). Grant did not regret “not having captured the opposing army,” but instead stated that “I could have marched to Atlanta or any other place in the Confederacy,” a significant difference. But worst of all, Chernow accepts Grant’s unfounded argument that “he had expected his men to pause at the first trenches, regroup, then climb up the mountain in orderly stages.” In actuality, Grant had sent George Thomas’ men to an untenable position at the base of Missionary Ridge (where death or retreat would be the likely result), and only their courageous ascent under the command of subordinate officers led to serendipitous success.

Some readers have objected to the author’s fixation on Grant’s drinking, but Chernow is to be commended for mentioning many incidents, which other biographers choose to ignore. This book, however, touches all too lightly on several of the most flagrant episodes. Mr. Chernow omits Grant’s flag-of-truce drinking with the enemy after the Battle of Belmont; butchers the evidence about Grant’s binging on the Yazoo River during the siege of Vicksburg; and blames stories of Grant’s New Orleans drinking and ensuing horse accident on “generals hostile to Grant,” despite one being friendly and the other being a positive friend of Grant’s. Even Grant’s friends and family (e.g., Daniel Ammen, Horace Porter, J. Russell Jones, and son Fred) contradicted the author’s contention that “no alcohol was served when he dined in private at the Executive Mansion.”

Among various misquotes, Chernow has William F. Smith ridiculing George G. Meade “as helpless as a child on the field of battle and as visionary as an opium eater in council”; it was Benjamin Butler to whom Smith referred. Sheridan seemed like “a hound in the leash,” not a “hound in the lash,” as Chernow put it. Misreading another document, the author wrote how, as Grant’s “cavalcade approached Chattanooga, torrential rains left the beleaguered party ‘dark, wet and hungry,’ as Dr. Kittoe told Julia Grant.” No; Edward Kittoe wrote, “a little after dark wet and hungry just as we got into Chattanooga the Generals horse fell.” Saying that rainfall left the General’s entourage “dark” doesn’t even make sense. And Chernow makes Roscoe Conkling the speaker and not the object of James Blaine’s “… supereminent, overpowering, turkey-gobbler strut.”

Easily verifiable information was often inaccurately rendered. Fred Grant supposedly “excelled at math” while attending West Point, but his class rankings of 21 out of 46 and 28 out of 45 for that subject wholly disprove that opinion. As to Fred’s invading “the rooms of three black cadets on the night of January 3, 1871, driving them into the cold,” those cadets were White. A post-war movement wanted to pay war bonds’ principal in greenbacks, and not just the interest (as the bonds were bought with greenbacks); this had nothing to do with any “restoration of American credit,” merely bestowing an unwarranted windfall on rich investors. The “salary grab” was Grant’s handiwork, as he had instigated it and then signed the resulting bill into law. George Custer’s accusations of corruption against Secretary of War Belknap were certainly not “groundless.” Chernow’s apologetics show plainly in the Gold Ring episode. On September 12, 1869, Grant again stopped (not the opposite) Treasury Secretary Boutwell from selling gold. Julia received $25,000 in profits speculating in it. The author evidently believes Grant “had no more to do with the late gold excitement” than “any other innocent party.” The worst charge members of the investigating committee could level at Grant was not “his lack of judgment in accepting the hospitality of Gould and Fisk,” but that, “[u]nconsciously, or consciously, the President in his letters to Mr. Boutwell worked in unison with the conspirators.”

Chernow’s book greatly contributes to the myth of Grant as the best general of the American Civil War (assuming Robert E Lee’s former exalted position) and even as one of the greatest military leaders ever, and stipulates his being “impeccably honest,” “impeccably polite,” “ethical and honorable,” and “an adept politician” who occupied “the presidential chair with distinction.” The book does contradict this almost incessant approbation in places, as when it notes that a court of claims pronounced the Grant administration’s Black Hills dealings with the Sioux probably the most “ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealing” in American history.”

Chernow, however, excuses Grant’s dismal presidency wholesale: “Partly Grant’s problem arose from poorly chosen appointees, but the main cause of the corruption under his aegis was the postwar expansion of the federal government with its myriad opportunities for graft”; outrage over the scandals was merely “manufactured” by “legislators eager to discredit Reconstruction and the moral underpinnings of the administration”; “Grant had not been personally involved in any scandal”; and he “never stopped prosecutions of guilty parties.” But the President personally involved himself in the Gold Ring, Whiskey Ring, and Safe Burglary scandals, among others, and used a strained defense to stop Belknap’s criminal prosecution, after helping derail impeachment proceedings. Grant permitted vast dishonesty to permeate his two administrations, which fully deserved their reputation for pervasive corruption. The President defended perpetrators and, at times, facilitated their misdeeds, even helping his brother, Orvil, skim monies from post traders in the West. Chernow ignores or downplays much other malfeasance, a one could go on and on with the book’s mistakes and special pleading.

One of the author’s main themes concerns Grant’s supposed support for the civil rights of Black Americans from an early period. Despite the numerous recollections and secondary sources cited, the fact that Grant wrote to his father that “My inclination is to whip the rebellion into submission, preserving all constitutional rights” (i.e., slavery) proves that he was still on the wrong side of this issue. As late as August 30, 1863, Grant informed Congressman Washburne that, “I never was an Abolitionest, [n]ot even what could be called anti slavery ....” That also puts into question the motives behind the manumission of Grant’s slave, William Jones. After the war, Grant was decidedly against giving voting rights to Black citizens in the nation’s capital. It can easily be argued that behind Grant’s and the Republican party’s push for Black suffrage was the desire to augment their own political power. In the Hayes-Tilden presidential contest, they sold out their Black followers in the South in exchange for the White House.

Given the almost unanimous acclaim Chernow’s Grant has received, it is apparent that the reviewers and the public do not care whether the “facts” about Ulysses S. Grant are actual or merely “alternative,” as long as their preconceived hero comes out on top.

Title: Grant

Author: Ron Chernow

Reviewer: Joseph A. Rose

Hardcover: 1104 pages

Publisher: Penguin Press; 1st edition (October 10, 2017)

ISBN-13: 978-1594204876

Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 2.1 x 9.6 inches

Shipping Weight: 3.2 pounds

Review published at:


bottom of page