Ron Chernow, the author of prize-winning biographies of George Washington, John D. Rockefeller, and Alexander Hamilton, has written an expansive new life of Grant. It is a work of striking anecdotes, skillful pacing, and poignant judgments. Chernow’s primary subject—and that of numerous previous Grant biographies—is the nature of Grant’s character. We see him survive an odyssey during which many enemies tried to destroy him, including formidable demons within himself.
Grant never mentioned his drinking problem in his Memoirs, but Chernow makes it a leitmotif of his book. After a distinguished if bracing experience in the Mexican War, a conflict he thought “unjust,” Grant served in a series of frontier postings, first in the Midwest, and then in lonely, sometimes meaningless duty on the West Coast. He usually took to drinking when he had idle time, lived without his wife and children, or fell into one of his depressions and went on a bender. Stationed at Fort Humboldt on the coast of California in 1853, he received a promotion to captain, but he could no longer bear the loneliness and resigned from the army. Grant would always either deny or lie about his alcoholism, although, as Chernow shows, he conquered it in the presidency and beyond. We hear of many banquets at which the guest of honor turned his glass over as wine was poured.
In 1854, with borrowed funds, the “guileless” Grant made it to New York, where he was cheated out of his money on the streets and managed to be jailed for drunkenness. By the time the hapless soldier borrowed more money from his West Point friends James Longstreet and Simon Buckner—later to become Confederate foes—and made it to Ohio, he was broke, a failure, and at odds with his domineering father. In the next five years Grant, with his wife, Julia, and his growing family of four children, tried farming and real estate in her native Missouri. He failed miserably at those as well and then sold firewood on the streets of St. Louis in an old faded army coat, prompting Chernow to call him “a bleak defeated little man with a mysterious aura of solitude.”
Here Chernow falls into one of the traps of Grant biography: presenting his years as a down-and-out as a kind of inevitable prelude to his later greatness. Grant’s “momentary disgrace,” he writes, “can be seen in retrospect as his salvation, preserving him for the starring role in the Civil War.” Walking around with a “stoop” in 1859, he hardly looked fit for anything so lofty. Historians should resist the teleology of destiny, no matter how good the story.