The Civil War had a moment of formal surrender between its generals at Appomattox in 1865, when the South’s Robert E. Lee yielded to the North’s Ulysses S. Grant.
But the war never really ended.
Ron Chernow, whose biography of Alexander Hamilton inspired a blockbuster Broadway musical, illustrates this in his latest book, “Grant.” The war chapters are riveting, but he also takes readers into the less familiar territory of Reconstruction.
What Chernow calls our “strange national amnesia” around the war’s aftermath was jarred into modern memory this summer when several monuments to the Confederacy were removed, igniting not only demonstrations, but a realization for many that the schisms of war and race and politics remain alive.
“It’s amazing that there are moments — and we’re living through one — when history erupts through the depths with a sudden vengeance,” he said. “Unless one knows the history of Reconstruction, we don’t know why the South has always been the ‘solid South,’ and why those 11 states to this day still function, with some exceptions, as a unit.”
Chernow speaks Oct. 31 as part of the Talking Volumes author series sponsored by the Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio.
He was drawn to the subject for reasons far beyond Grant’s well-known image as a drunkard; while acknowledging his alcoholism, Chernow writes movingly of how Grant confronted, struggled and often bested his addiction.
“This was in many ways the most touching family saga,” said Chernow, whose biography of George Washington won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011. “There’s a haunting quality to this story, a fundamentally decent, honest, hardworking man who is defeated by certain circumstances, and often his own naiveté.”
Grant’s personal life was miserable, shackled by a vainglorious and opportunistic father and a hostile father-in-law who resented his daughter’s choice in a husband, even after that husband moved into the White House. In fact, the deep love between Grant and Julia Dent provides the rare affirming moments in the 1,000-page book (Penguin, $40).
Chernow describes in what he allows as “perhaps excruciating detail” Grant’s many business failures, but it sets the stage for Grant’s rapid ascent in the military and meeting a challenge that mirrored his life.
“Grant was fighting his own private civil war long before the national Civil War broke out,” he said. “He grew up in a staunchly abolitionist house, then marries into a slave-owning family, one that owned up to 30 slaves at one time. Because of the slavery issues, there is such ill will between the Dents and the Grants he finds himself caught in the crossfire.”
Know a man, know history
Chernow devoted six years to the book — four years of research and two years of writing. To the question of adding yet another Grant biography to library shelves, he explained, with a low chuckle, that when he wrote “Washington: A Life,” “there’d been 900 biographies of him since his death. So this was nothing.”
He added, “I just feel, rightly or wrongly, that I do a certain narrative biography that differs from the way other people handle it.” Grant provided a “perfect prism” through which to view the Civil War and the Reconstruction, over which he presided.
That era, from 1863 to 1877, spawned the Ku Klux Klan and violent backlashes when the 14th and 15th Amendments granted citizenship to former slaves and prohibited the denial of the right to vote “based on race, color or previous condition of servitude.”
“When President Grant had to send in federal troops in order to safeguard blacks when state and local governments would not do so, a political culture sprang up that was very resentful of the federal government,” Chernow said. “In the years after the Civil War, the South in many ways accomplished in politics what it had failed to achieve on the battlefield.”
Chernow casts Grant as “the bridge” between the war, the Reconstruction and the rise of a South that may have had to stop enslaving black people, but was not ready to accept them as fellow Americans.
“I thought the personal drama was extraordinary,” he said. “Hamilton had transformations, but the transformation in Grant’s life, although it happened more slowly, was no less dreamlike in hitting bottom and then achieving great things.”
The past is never dead
This summer’s controversy about the motivations for erecting — or removing — monuments to heroes of the Confederate Army boiled down to two competing narratives: Do the statues honor brave secessionists, or do they memorialize traitors?
During his research, Chernow spent a lot of time among such monuments in Virginia, Mississippi and Tennessee, and particularly noticed where they were placed.
“I feel that when you have Confederate monuments in public places, and in many Southern towns they’re in front of City Hall or the courthouse, that implies a civic endorsement of them,” he said. “I think the monuments should be removed, but don’t think the best way to do it is to wake up one morning and all the monuments are gone,” as in August, when four monuments in Baltimore were taken down in the middle of the night.
“Let’s turn this into a teachable moment. Move them to a historical site and provide information and context. Then I think that this controversy will have served a very useful purpose.”
Similarly, he thinks that knowing of Grant’s life also can serve a useful purpose with its message of perseverance, whether confronting his alcohol addiction, his toxic family or a nation that would perhaps never fully recover from its rending.
“Many people who have felt beaten down and discouraged will see here an example of how someone can have their life turn around, and how Grant’s sterling qualities surged to the fore,” Chernow said. “They say that history is the stories we tell ourselves about the past.”
Or, he added, quoting Southern novelist William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”