Tag Archives: civil war

Grant by Ron Chernow

I’ve read a few biographies of ex-presidents, about Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Lincoln — the big ones, the founders and the man that, arguably saved the nation from splitting. Arguably, because one could make a case that Ulysses S. Grant did as much or more to keep the nation together, both as military commander during the Civil War and as the president that, primarily, oversaw Reconstruction and tried to implement the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation and other laws that were passed to eliminate slavery and give rights to black Americans.

Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Grant, beyond the fact that he was a Civil War general, a president, and that he is on the $50 dollar bill. Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant, entitled, simply, Grant, is a wonderful introduction into this man that almost passed through life as an abysmal failure, until the Civil War happened.

As described by Chernow, Grant was the most unassuming man. Never pursuing glory or power or promotion on his own behalf, he still rose to be supreme commander of the Union Army. Before the Civil War, he was a disgraced soldier, having been discharged from the Army for drunkenness. However, the Civil War brought out his strengths, and he shown, being one of the few generals that brought the fight to the South, as Lincoln had constantly admonished his previous generals. Grant wasn’t just fighting a war, he was fighting it to win.

After the war, he became president, not so much because he sought the office, but because he was by far the most famous and well liked American at the time. The terms he gave Lee at Appomattox upon Lee’s surrender were gracious and, while the South certainly didn’t spare any love for Grant, at least they felt he had not made them suffer unduly. This was in an era when candidates didn’t actively campaign for the office, they were nominated at the convention and either accepted or not. Grant accepted his nomination and was elected to two terms, where he primarily oversaw Reconstruction and the fight against the newly formed Ku Klux Klan. He and his administration and generals squashed that incarnation of the KKK. However, it wasn’t enough, and white resentment about the War and the newly enfranchised former slaves led to great violence against those same black Americans, with the goal of making them terrified to vote. The first years after the War saw blacks vote, obtain office, and political power. But, soon, the retaliation of whites led to a dominance of the Democratic party, which was aligned with the previous slave owners.

Grant wasn’t elected to a third term (back then, there was no limit), but was nearly nominated three years later, again on the strength of his fame.

In Chernow’s telling, Grant comes across as an unflappable figure, who never lets his emotions show. He simply does his job, as best as he is able, and, as a soldier and general, he did it better than anyone else. (In other pursuits, he was miserable, such as in business.) Grant let power come to him rather than chase it directly. And power did come, along with responsibilities and headaches. Grant’s one fatal flaw is that he could not see the flaws in his friends, and that weakness led to multiple disappointments and betrayals.

Grant is an excellent biography, possibly one of the best I’ve read, both because of Chernow’s masterful telling and the new-found understanding of what, after reading this book I believe to be, is one of our most underrated presidents. I would now rate Grant as one of the top five, maybe even top three, presidents in my personal list, maybe after Washington and Lincoln (and ahead of my boyhood hero Jefferson).

Maybe one of the reasons that Grant’s story resonates with me is that I see a little bit of my dad in him. My dad was also trusting to a fault, and that led to some of his business woes. He was a generally reserved man, but came alive when around his friends (though, granted, he had a language barrier that Grant did not). He worked hard and let his work speak for itself.

Grant led a life that one can respect and, possibly, even strive for. Not in being a soldier, necessarily, but in how to live life, how to treat others, how to receive praise, how to simply be. Maybe, though, with an added bit of skepticism about the motives of people around you.

I highly recommend this book. This is one I may tap into again in the future. I can’t say enough good things about it. It makes me want to see some of the memorials to Grant, such as Grant’s Tomb in New York City. Next time I’m there!

Draw by James Reasoner

draw-reasonerThe Wild West is one of those times and places that pulls strongly on our imagination, with images of danger, adventures, and freedom. Daring bank robberies, shoot outs, posses chasing outlaws through the wilderness, saloons and gambling. Men such as Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickock, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday. These are the icons of the Wild West. Typically, however, we have next to no real inkling of the real Wild West, with most of our knowledge informed more by Hollywood than history. In his book Draw, James Reasoner explores the truth behind the stories of these men and their exploits, truths that are often as exciting and interesting as anything Hollywood could ever invent.

Reasoner focuses on gun fights, the violence that characterized the lives of these men. Some of these men were out-right sociopaths, killing with no emotion nor remorse, over things as trivial as snoring too loudly (ok, that was an accident, but there was still no remorse). Often motivated by the desire for wealth, many of these men started off on gangs that robbed stage coaches, trains, and banks, but soon events got beyond their control, with posses in chase and life on the run. Some were able to escape justice for a while, settling in another territory or moving back east, but often, the bullet eventually found its target.

Draw looks at some of the lesser known gun battles of the Old West, sometimes skipping the more well known ones almost altogether. For example, the shootout at the O. K. Corral is only briefly touched on as part of the context of the death of the one Earp brother who wasn’t there. Not much is made of the two most notorious outlaws, Billy the Kid and Jessie James, except in how their deaths were part of the narrative of other men. Maybe that’s because these more famous events and men have so much more written about them that Reasoner figured there wasn’t a need for even more, focusing instead on the lesser known battles. In any case, the events and men he has chosen are compelling.

There are a couple of things I found very interesting. Reasoner tries to emphasize is that the Old West image of two men facing each other on Main Street in a showdown, an image that some historians have said is pure Hollywood fiction, did occur at least a few times. He gives a couple examples of exactly this kind of shootout. Also very interesting is how much New Mexico plays in the history of the Wild West. When we hear of the exploits of Billy the Kid and so on, we don’t have much context for the where of it, just a generic western setting. However, many of these men lived and worked and robbed in New Mexico, as well as Kansas, Colorado, Texas, and California. It makes me want to find some of these places in New Mexico and see what there might be to see. Finally, Reasoner describes some truly remarkable men — on both sides of the law — who, facing a barrage of bullets, kept their cool to gun down their enemies. They let the others wildly shoot away while they steadied their aim and let loose a deadly shot. Fast wasn’t always the most important factor in who won the day.

Probably the most interesting aspect of all of this is when these events occurred. These stories involve men who span the worlds of the Civil War to World War I. Many were either Confederate or Union soldiers who moved West to find their fortune. But the last few events described occurred around 1917, near the end of WWI. To me, this was a near epiphany as WWI, having occurred in the 1900s, feels like the modern era, while the Old West seems to be another time. But they overlap. And, indeed, there was less time between the Civil War and WWI than there is now between WWII and our own time. Thus, the backdrop of the Civil War was likely very important context for most of these men, regardless of what side they were on. That, while in Europe men were dug into trenches and airplanes were engaged in aerial combat, men in the US were still robbing banks by horseback is just a bit amazing to think about.

I only found one aspect of Reasoner’s writing a bit annoying. In setting up each story, he gives some context to the time and place and more than once uses a phrase such as “The bustling town grew up around the miners who dug their wealth from the ground and the saloon keepers and soiled doves who came to extract that wealth from the miners.” This type of phrase — though probably very accurate — got a bit repetitive, but maybe that shows how similar all of these western settlements were at the beginning.

Draw is a very entertaining read and has me looking for more about the Old West.