Grant by Ron Chernow

The photograph in black and white, by Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, shows Grant standing, wearing the frock coat of his Union uniform.
Ulysses S. Grant, circa 1864, photographed by Matthew Brady

Review by Jean B.

Biographies, especially those by Ron Chernow, can be a heavy lift – literally. At more than 900 pages, Chernow’s acclaimed 2017 book examining the life of Ulysses S. Grant can be exhausting to hold for more than 30 minutes of reading. So now is a perfect time to tackle this large but highly satisfying tome, when you can read or listen to it electronically on a lightweight device and maybe have extra reading time in your day! Available through OverDrive in both ebook and eaudiobook formats, Grant offers a fascinating, detailed look at both the man and his era.  

I love to read history, biography, and historical fiction, but I’m always discovering how many episodes in history I really know nothing about. The Civil War era has been recorded in myriad ways, and yet, with Grant I gained new perspective on the war — learning details of the Western front that, as a Pennsylvanian whose education focused on Gettysburg, I hadn’t appreciated. More startling, I discovered how little I understood about the Reconstruction Era and the immense challenges that faced President Grant in securing the rights of newly freed slaves to work, vote, and be full citizens in the re-established Union.  

Ron Chernow sets out to correct the one-dimensional and largely negative portraits of Grant by earlier historians which portrayed him as an ineffective political leader tainted by scandals, corruption, and a chronic drinking problem. Though Chernow clearly admires his subject and goes above and beyond to compile contemporary opinions and statements to bolster his case in Grant’s favor, Chernow’s portrait has such depth, complexity, and humanity that I was persuaded, too, by the end, of Grant’s impressive leadership, moral courage, and devoted service to the ideals of a united nation and racial equality.  

And along the way, I enjoyed getting to know so many of the supporting (and often traitorous!) characters in Grant’s life, from his overbearing father, to his society-loving wife, to the infamous General William Tecumseh Sherman, to conniving Gilded Age businessman Jay Gould. It’s all here — family intrigue, dramatic changes of fortune, battles and blood, comradeship and bitter betrayal. Download and dig in!

Jean is a Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at the HCLS Central Branch who enjoys participating in book clubs with both kids and adults.

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