Recommended Reading for History Buffs #2
I’ve been struggling to find time to review a set of old history books and biographies for this blog for a while but this became top-of-mind again as I work on a new self-paced course, coming soon, so here we are: a review of a deeply relevant, and substantial work of history by the guy who brought you Alexander Hamilton (or, brought Lin Manuel Miranda Hamilton who then brought you Hamilton), Ron Chernow.
In my studies, something about the Civil War always made me reluctant to dive in too deep. Probably the fact that it was Americans killing Americans and, according to popular culture, there wasn’t really a winner, per se. Slavery was ended, yes, but at the cost of about 750,000 American lives. Everyone everywhere has always seemed at best ambivalent about the outcome and actively embarrassed about Reconstruction, the era in which the U.S. government bumbled the preservation of the liberties of newly freed peoples.
For the last two years, I’ve been noodling around with building a class using Ken Burns’ The Civil War documentary as a source, but even that great work I find problematic as it pays lip service, at least to some extent, to Lost Cause claptrap. If you’ve ever heard someone call the Civil War the “War of Northern Aggression” or spent a few minutes pondering why there are statues of Confederate Generals outside the boundaries of the actual Confederacy, you’ve encountered the ways in which the realities of the Civil War have been obfuscated to the benefit of the losing side of the war. Perhaps you’ve heard that Robert E. Lee was the greatest general to ever live and Grant only defeated him by throwing lives into a meat grinder. If your foremost General still gets credit for being the greatest tactician, rather than being remembered for losing a war he might have won if he’d studied his George Washington, did you really lose?
This is to say that even the exceptional Ken Burns relied on historians who had been trained in a tradition that supposed the southerners who fought against the Union were just good men fighting for “State’s Rights”. The only state right they were fighting for was slavery. Look at the Confederacy’s founding documents. There’s only one thing they all mention.
Then there’s Reconstruction. Who can forget that Reconstruction was just a bunch of Northern opportunists trying to make a quick buck from the poor, oppressed South? Who hasn’t heard that helpless blacks, when given the power to vote, inevitably created corrupt southern state governments and needed to be saved from themselves? We’re not taught that the Ku Klux Klan and successor gangs waged a regional war of terror and murder to ultimately swing the southern states back to the Democratic party. Remember, the Republican Party was anti-slavery and the Democrats pro-slavery back then.
This brings us to Grant. Not long ago I read an excellent biography of William Techumseh Sherman and that had put me in the mood to learn more about the greatest Union general of the war, Hiram Ulysses Grant. Primarily, I was interested in Grant’s illustrious military career. I wasn’t looking forward much to slogging through the eight years of his Presidency, because he was a bad President who sleepwalked through two full terms rife with corruption. Or so the story goes after decades of propaganda that elevated Lee and set Grant’s faults in concrete.
So here’s the upshot of reading Grant: much of what we learn as kids about Grant? It’s wrong. Grant inferior to Lee? Wrong. Grant a bad President? Not, in essence, true. Reconstruction as a corrupt usurpation of Southern white power? Propaganda.
The true wonder of this biography, though, is its documentation of Reconstruction through Grant’s time in office. If you have not spent much time learning about Reconstruction, the real, horrible truth of white supremacy hacking away at the gains of emancipation until nothing is left and Jim Crow can tragically begin, Ron Chernow’s book cube is the place to turn. Yes, Grant’s military career is covered in excellent depth. But it’s actually the chapters on Grant’s long presidency that do proper service to true historical understanding of the years after the Civil War and the eventual, shameful abandonment of freedmen in the South.
OK, yes. That part is depressing. So, what if I also told you that, once Grant leaves office, he becomes an early prototype for Anthony Bourdain, touring the world, endeavoring to understand more about the cultures and peoples he encountered and the food they ate. Grant’s post-Presidency transformation into a confident world traveler and diplomat is legitimately delightful.
So, there are ups and downs in the narrative is what I am saying. All of it is incredibly valuable for learners interested in the mid-19th century and one of its greatest figures. Grant’s life is equal parts sky-high success and stunning failure. He is a truly unique American.
I can’t recommend Grant enough. Yes, it’s 1100 pages. They’re worth it.
Benjamin Smith is also known as Headmaster Galahad at OnlineG3.com. He teaches history, science, computer science, and social science at G3.