The Stately Manor Reading Circle is currently engrossed in Ron Chernow’s biography of U.S. Grant, soon to be a smash-hit Broadway play. Well, why not?
Our admiration for this general and under-estimated president and truly decent human being has only grown. Leave aside his military brilliance — and he was a military genius. Somewhat amusingly, he deprecated Robert E. Lee, smarting that even in their lifetime the Confederate general was compared more favorably. Grant, it was thought, succeeded only because of the North’s superior manufacturing capacity. Never mind that the war was largely fought on soil familiar to the South, with congenial lines of supply and a helpful populace, and only after six previous commanding generals had spun their wheels.
The Civil War is endlessly recounted and remains fascinating. Chernow gives Grant the usual credit for his generous peace terms given at Appomattox, terms intended to heal the nation. But few books recount the Reconstruction Period that followed, as Chernow’s Grant does. (The Reading Circle has sampled Richard White’s newly published The Republic for which It Stands, another worthy book.) Grant, of course, was the singular player in Reconstruction for the next 12 years.
After Appomattox, the South almost immediately turned against the newly freed slave — the very refutation of everything they had fought against. A society that had prospered with the liberal use of whip and chain now engaged in wholesale butchery in places like Memphis and New Orleans. In the latter place in 1867, the police and mayor conspired with white citizenry to kill 34 and injure 160 (some of them white Republicans). Grant was at this time what amounts to Chief of Staff of the armed forces, although that position would not be formally created for another 80 years. It was Grant who ordered his generals, including Philip Sheridan, to arrest the domestic terrorists “and hold the parties in confinement.”
He championed the education of former slaves. Grant, in these years, had to overcome the execrable Andrew Johnson. “No American president has every held such openly racist views,” Chernow pronounces. The historian also finds that Robert E. Lee was a champion of slavery to the last.
“In the face of a recalcitrant president, Grant was rapidly emerging is the foremost protector of persecuted southern blacks,” Chernow records. Grant would not become president until 1869 and Reconstruction ended with his presidency eight years after that.
A close call with a dark but pale man
It is well known that Grant declined to attend Ford’s Theater with the Lincolns. But we learn from Chernow that the Grants declined because of Mrs. Grant’s loathing of Mary Lincoln. “Julia elected not to subject herself to [Mary’s] sharp temper again.” That was an opinion shared by the secretary of war’s wife.
Mrs. Stanton called on Julia and told her that “unless you accept the invitation, I shall refuse. I will not sit without you in the box with Mrs. Lincoln.”
Poor Mary Lincoln. Here, the plot thickens. Julia and U.S. Grant had already refused the Lincolns, with the excuse that they had a train to catch for Philadelphia.
Around midday, a messenger tapped at Julia’s door at the Willard Hotel … “Mrs. Lincolns sends me … to say she will call for you at exactly 8 o’clock to go to the theater.” Once again, Julia Grant declined.
Julia found something disquieting about the man … Only later did she suspect the man hadn’t been dispatched by Mary Lincoln at all.
That wasn’t the end of the intrigue. Julia and son were lunching with two women when, “across the dining room Julia saw four shifty-looking characters and thought one was the queer messenger who had rapped on her door.” One of them was “a dark, pale man” who appeared to be eavesdropping on the Grant party. She encouraged her dining companions to say little.
Now the Grants are riding a carriage down Pennsylvania Avenue on the way to the train depot.
“A man on horseback overtook us, drew alongside, and, leaning down, peered into our carriage. Then he wheeled his horse and rode furiously away.” Julia recognized the rider as the same dark, pale man who had menacingly toyed with his spoon at lunch. ..
[U.S.] Grant was likewise disturbed by this stranger. “I do not care for such glances,” he remarked. “These are not friendly at least.” Grant later learned the glowering horseman was John Wilkes Booth, who had been conferring on the sidewalk with his actor friend John Mathews when the Grant carriage sped by and he set off in pursuit of it.
“It seems I was to have been attacked,” Grant stated, “and Mrs. Grant’s sudden resolve to leave deranged the plan.”
Attempted murder on the Philadelphia express
That was STILL not the end of it. On the train north, the conductor locked their private railroad car. “Somewhere in northeast Maryland, a man attempted without success to barge into the car. A few days later, Grant said, “I received an anonymous letter from a man, saying he had been detailed to kill me, that … as my car was locked he could not get in.”
Once in Philadelphia, Grant was handed a telegram informing him that President Lincoln had been shot and was not expected to live.
Grant would long wonder if his presence at Ford’s Theater might have altered things and whether Julia’s dislike of Mary Lincoln had inadvertently modified the direction of American history. Would Grant, with his acute battlefield instincts, have sensed the assassin’s tread? Would he have been more attentive to security concerns and brought his own security guard? …
At 10 o’clock on the morning of April 19, a solitary Grant took up his position by Lincoln’s catafalque in the East Room of the White House and with the ramrod-straight posture of a solider stood guard as tears coursed freely down his cheeks, a highly unusual show of emotion for him.
The general’s greatest battle
Another contribution of Chernow’s book is to detail Grant’s lifelong and largely successful struggle against alcoholism. We learn that a trusted aide named Rawlins was tasked with helping Grant stay away from the bottle.
Leaving Julia behind in Philadelphia, Grant shared a bottle of champagne with his brother-in-law. “Perhaps he needed to calm his shaken nerves after the shock of Lincoln’s death.”
After Grant completed his well received (critically and commercially) Memoirs and subsequent death, his champion Mark Twain regretted that he had not encouraged the first-time author to recount his struggles with alcohol.
“It was a contest, Twain reckoned, as huge as any of the titanic battles he had fought and won.”