"Grant," by Ron Chernow, read by Mark Bramhall. Unabridged, 48 hours. Random House Audio, $75.
If Ulysses S. Grant endures at all in the public mind today, it is as the punchline to a very old joke -- "Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?" -- and a pair of unflattering descriptions.
Grant? Wasn't he that drunk of a 19th-century president, the one whose administration is remembered only for its corruption?
But Chernow -- best known as the author of the book on which Lin-Manuel Miranda based his Broadway hit, "Hamilton" -- shows in this exhaustive biography that Grant was far more than that. In fact, he stakes Grant's claim to having been among the handful of greatest Americans.
Grant's life can be divided neatly into two parts: before and after. Before the Civil War, he was a failure, drummed out of the Army as, yes, a drunk, and incapable of seeing through the con men who left him penniless, reduced to begging on the streets of St. Louis to support his family.
Once the war came, though, he was transformed -- from slaveholder's husband to fierce abolitionist; from washout to reinstated officer to the Army's first four-star general since George Washington; and eventually, from apolitical soldier to savvy politician.
Grant, Chernow writes, became an outstanding military strategist, using his personal knowledge of Southern generals with whom he'd studied at West Point or served in the Mexican-American War to predict their reactions in battle after battle. And he became the nation's foremost protector of freed slaves, first assuring their rights in wartime, then using the levers of federal power as president to guarantee those rights until nearly the end of his second term in office.
That was when, with the national mood souring toward Northern intervention in Southern affairs, he faltered in sending federal troops to oversee a state election -- his biggest regret as president, he said later.
Grant was also the great reconciliator, his treatment of conquered Southern officers -- allowing them to keep horses and personal firearms -- a key to their willingness to stop fighting and return home, rather than melting into the countryside and carrying on an endless guerrilla war.
Chernow largely absolves Grant of the charges of drunkenness that would haunt him from the 1850s, when he had to leave the Army, until his death in 1885. While Grant would drink early in his career, Chernow writes, especially when away from the watchful eye of his wife, Julia, he learned to avoid it, often turning his glass upside down at dinner parties once he reentered the Army and all the while he was president. Chernow meticulously recounts many testimonies to his abstention, along with the relatively few later accusations of a fall from the wagon -- most of which he considers unfounded.
Grant was far less successful in learning to judge the character of those around him. Chernow portrays him as personally honest to a fault, but unable to see through the connivers who surrounded him both in the White House and afterward, as he tried to secure his family's financial future.
It's this last segment in which Grant performed perhaps his most heroic acts. After reaching financial ruin once again, and receiving a diagnosis of terminal mouth cancer -- the result of a decades-long cigar-smoking habit -- he fought to live another year and write his autobiography. Ultimately, it not only was hailed as the best narrative of its kind in the English language, but -- with the help of its publisher, Mark Twain -- became a bestseller and brought Julia the financial security Grant had craved all his life.
He died a week after its publication.
Bramhall, one of the best narrators of audiobooks, performs marvels with this one. He manages to take Grant, Abraham Lincoln and other historical figures and invest their voices with appropriate accents and emotions, so that there's no chance for interest to flag. His reading is the touch that makes this excellent audiobook truly superior.
Alan Rosenberg is The Journal's executive editor.
On Twitter: @AlanRosenbergPJ ___
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