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The biographer Ron Chernow at the General Grant National Memorial in New York on April 27, 2017. (Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan)

Ron Chernow’s new biography, Grant (Penguin Press, 2017, $40) upsets a century and half of historiography, illuminating Ulysses S. Grant as a flawed but just man who, despite his drinking problem, won the Civil War and, though scandals marred his presidency, should be remembered as one of our major chief executives.

You presented conclusive evidence, far more than previous biographers, that Ulysses S. Grant was an alcoholic.

I didn’t expect to come to that conclusion. I expected to follow previous authors in saying that Grant’s political enemies and rivals were almost the sole source of malicious drinking charges. Letters contained in the 32 volumes of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, edited by John Y. Simon, are remarkably consistent in how Grant’s drinking is portrayed, even though the letters were written by different people in different places and at different times. These people could not have coordinated their statements with one another. A fascinating pattern emerged: Grant was in fact not a daily drinker, he had a certain degree of control. But he went on drinking sprees every two to three months. It was almost as though he could plan them.

Did Grant’s drinking affect his ability to command?

The sprees never occurred during moments of responsibility—much less in the middle of a battle—so they did not impair his functioning as a general in any way. He would seem to schedule these binges for after battles or after moments of tremendous stress and responsibility. He would go someplace his men and his officers couldn’t see him. He had this remarkable ability to shake it off and snap back to this very serious general’s personality. Descriptions of Grant’s drinking were so numerous and similar that I’d like to think I’ve settled this issue once and for all.

Talk about the role of John Rawlins, Grant’s chief of staff.

Grant met Rawlins in Galena, Ill., before the war. He was a lawyer who did work for the Grant family business and the two men became close friends. When Grant was appointed brigadier general in August 1861, he added Rawlins to his staff as adjutant—he effectively acted as chief of staff for the rest of the war. Rawlins was a passionate temperance man and exacted a promise from Grant to stay on only if Grant promised not to touch a drop of liquor. If the general had a lapse, Rawlins warned he’d call Grant on it and quit.

Grant got drunk many times, but instead of quitting, Rawlins—an intensely patriotic man—decided the fate of the Union cause rested on the shoulders of Ulysses S. Grant. He ended up playing a strange double game in which he castigated Grant severely for drinking while defending him to the outside world—that is, Lincoln, Stanton, and others in Washington who wanted reassurance that Grant didn’t have a problem. Rawlins did a tremendous service to the Union by helping Grant continue to function. By the time Grant became general-in-chief, Rawlins’ special role was an open secret. Rawlins was rewarded with a brigadier generalship, and even though he had no military experience before the war he became an excellent strategist. Grant was better; I don’t agree with those who say Rawlins was the Union Army’s hidden genius.

Grant’s trusting nature worked against him as president.

Grant was a naïve and credulous person who wanted to think well of people. During the war he was a shrewd judge of character, but as president many people abused his trust and were disloyal or two-faced toward him. I think it stems back to before the war when he struggled to make a living and felt that people had lost faith in him. It gave Grant sympathy toward the underdog. Absolute scoundrels often took advantage of that and he didn’t see it. He didn’t want to lose faith in people.

How should history remember Grant?

Very favorably. His importance far transcends his success as a general. He didn’t start the war as an abolitionist and it’s amazing to watch as he commits to training and using black soldiers, and helping fugitive slaves start a new life. That carries beyond the war. He was the single most important president in terms of civil rights between Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson and that, unfortunately, is an overlooked story. The scandals that occurred during his administration obscured his infinitely more important effort to reintegrate the South into the Union while protecting black people.