Book Review- Chernow’s Grant

Chernow, Ron, Grant, Penguin Press; 1st edition (October 10, 2017)

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     A hefty, yet easily digestible biography  continues the author’s attempts at re-imagining supposedly misunderstood figures.  The actual result is consensus history masquerading as newly discovered insight. 

 

The success of his biography of Alexander Hamilton… and the subsequent musical it inspired, brought about unprecedented anticipation for his latest work.  Chernow has tapped into the millennial generation’s need for easily digestible, episodic history.  His style is to illustrate personal relationships, conflicts, and controversies and explain how the collective memory has misunderstood the stories.  This is best illustrated as he discusses Grant’s well documented drinking problem- never really that drunk, always alert, and kept in line by his dutiful wife, Julia.  Chernow’s gift is his effortless storytelling blended with an authoritative tone.  Trouble is, this analysis is not revelatory, and has been well covered in the work of previous historians.

 

Chernow combs through and pieces together observations from previous Grant scholarship… and artfully weaves it into his own narrative.  His assertion that Grant’s reputation as a poor general is undeserved  was well covered in Bruce Catton’s three volume study from 1960.  Brooks D. Simpson’s 1991 evaluation of the Grant presidency put to rest the many accusations of incompetence and corruption and established Grant’s indispensable role in Reconstruction; points that Chernow meticulously recounts in the final one third of his 1,074 page study.

 

Reviewers have already deemed this biography as “definitive”… despite the fact that Chernow breaks little, if any new ground.  Chernow wants you to believe that Grant has been widely misunderstood and underappreciated.  The casual history reader, unfamiliar with previous Grant scholarship, is best served by Chernow’s efforts.` The popularity of his previous work all but guarantees his place on the bestseller list.

Cold Harbor Reconsidered

“I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made.”  – US Grant

 

With that observation in his best-selling memoir… Grant started the historical firestorm around the second-to-last battle of the Overland Campaign.  Through the years and volumes documenting every facet of the war, Cold Harbor has come to symbolize the carnage and suffering endured by the fighting men.  Writers have elevated the battle to the conclusive example of obsolete tactics brutishly utilized during an ill-conceived campaign.   Images of doomed soldiers pinning name tags to their uniforms and ranks of men mowed down in place haunt students of the Civil War.     But does the Battle of Cold Harbor truly measure up to the perception of needless slaughter?

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Battlefield historian Gordon Rhea… takes this and other misconceptions to task in his multi-volume study of the Overland campaign.  The facts simply do not support the popular reputation of June 3, 1864 being a day of unspeakable slaughter.  Grant’s forces suffered between 5,500-6,000 casualties- making it only the 5th bloodiest day of that Summer.  Every day of the Wilderness battle saw more casualties- Spotsylvania stands as one of the bloodiest battles of the war.  Rhea smartly points out that there were bloodier days in the two years preceding the Overland Campaign.   What happened to our Remembrance?

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*NPS Richmond

The Summer of relentless combat… that marked the Overland Campaign took a drastic toll on the Army of the Potomac.  The soldiers remembering June 3, 1864 were tired and weary of combat- particularly massed frontal assaults against entrenched Confederates.  “Fog of War” is a concept bordering on cliche, but clearly, the judgement of many of the battle’s participants was clouded.  Grant’s own recollection of the day only solidified the  misapprehensions and flawed narrative.

June 3, 1864

Three days of indecisive movements by Union forces… allowed Robert E. Lee’s army to strengthen its positions near Bethesda Church and New Cold Harbor.  The delay muted the Federal assaults of June 1-2.   The troops in blue knew exactly what awaited them the following day.  The carnage of Grant’s Overland campaign had taken its toll.

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Jefferson Truitt was one of the Union soldiers… who knew exactly what was going to happen on June 3rd.  The all-to-familiar pattern could again be seen; Confederates controlled the thoroughfares to Richmond, and Union troops would try bludgeon them open.  War-weary troops began pinning names to their uniform coats for easier identification; many penned one final diary entry- “Killed at Cold Harbor.”   Jefferson Truitt, and his regiment, the 62nd PA. were due to leave the service on July 1.  He had survived the bloodiest conflicts of the war: Malvern Hill, Antietam, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania…  now, with just weeks to serve, he would meet his end near the intersection of Old Church and Walnut Grove roads.

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