US Grant – America’s Unlikely Hero – Part 1

A long time ago, my good friend Chuck asked me an interesting question. “Jon do you have a favorite author that writes like a fine wine or a three-star Michelin restaurant? I honestly had no answer to this detailed inquiry. At that time I was just starting on my journey of reading, and I couldn’t distinguish an average author from a great author. My palate was not entirely up to par, and my neural taste buds were still in an immature state. I finally have an answer for my friend after being exposed to so many different writing styles – the author Ron Chernow. Chernow writes biographies in such a detailed way that the reader feels like a fly on the wall of history. He is most famous for his book on Alexander Hamilton which became a hit Broadway play and his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography on George Washington.

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His books regularly make appearances on the New York Times bestseller list even though they are on antiquated topics and extremely large in breadth. I picked up his most recent book Grant, which is 1100 pages and a fascinating tale of 19th-century history. I would argue that any person who dislikes history would love this book and find newfound interests. Think of Chernow as a gourmet chef and Ulysses S. Grant as a prized but unknown ingredient. Through excellent writing, Grant’s powerful life hits you in the mouth like Emeril Lagasse throwing spice into a hot skillet.

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US Grant was born in Ohio on April 22, 1822. His father was a tanner and he grew up as a shy boy underneath an outspoken father and overly standoffish mother. Grant was described as silent, modest, respectful of women, and courageous against neighborhood bullies. From a young age, he stood up for the underdog and spoke few words of malice towards even his most ardent detractors. He was sent off to West Point by chance since a cadet was kicked out at the same time Grant’s father requested his son’s admittance. While at West Point, Grant excelled at horsemanship but was no star pupil. He did excel at mathematics, but his career in the military did not look promising. Upon graduation, he was stationed in Missouri where Grant met his future wife Julia Dent and his future Confederate father-in-law Colonel Dent.

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During this time, America entered into war with Mexico and Grant was jettisoned into combat – an environment he excelled in. He served as a logistics specialist and honed critical military strategies during this conflict. Grant also learned something even more indispensable while in Mexico: the characteristics of the future generals of the Confederacy. Upon the completion of hostilities, Grant was stationed in the burgeoning gold rush town of San Francisco and Northern California. This was a difficult time for Grant because he missed his new wife and his family. He took to drink and was reprimanded for drinking by a persnickety leader – eventually leading to resignation and a marred reputation for the rest of his life. Grant did have a drinking problem, but it never got in the way of his leadership. If it had, he would not have achieved his remarkable feats after leaving the military in 1854.

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Civilian life was hard for Grant and he struggled to find his place in society. At one point he was so economically distraught he had to pawn his watch for Christmas presents and take a job at his Dad’s tannery store as a simple clerk. He walked around Galena, Illinois with his old military jacket and an unkempt beard – most people astonished to see his state of poverty. Compounding his problems, both his Father and Father-in-Law saw him as a failure and regularly forced their views upon him as if he were a child. He was a beaten man during this time, and his woes continued to worsen after his former California business speculations soured; these speculations were undertaken because Grant overly trusted acquaintances and people in general.

1867 Chromolithograph of Ulysses Grant by Fabronius, Gurney & Son.

He had such high integrity for himself that he couldn’t understand how other people could be cruel in their business dealings. When all seemed lost in Grant’s life, the most significant conflict in American history broke out – the Civil War. As if awakened by a jolt of electricity, Grant felt it was his chance to use his former military talents and serve the Union. The only problem was that no one wanted him because of his previous drunkenness and his paltry political connections. Not receiving any worthy commissions, Grant decided he would bake bread for the soldiers. Just before applying for this culinary position, fate opened up her doors. To be continued…Part 2 next week.

The friend in my adversity I shall always cherish most. I can better trust those who helped to relieve the gloom of my dark hours than those who are so ready to enjoy with me the sunshine of my prosperity.
– Ulysses S. Grant

The Greeks of Wrath

Let’s flashback to your high school years when pimples were regularly popped and homework assignments were regularly turned in late. Everyone took an English class and I bet in that English class some sort of Greek Mythology was studied. I remember reading Greek poems in those huge textbooks and being assigned questions that went something like this, “Who are the main characters?…What did the God Apollo represent?…Why is this particular passage so boring?” I dreaded these questions and usually wrote BS answers with lists of adjectives to satisfy the teacher, “Apollo represents endurance, stamina, longevity, and perseverance.”

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Fast forward to today and I am reading one of the most celebrated pieces of Greek Mythology of all time – the Iliad by Homer. The Iliad is a poem that doesn’t rhyme and takes up over 550 pages of text – it is the furthest thing from Dr. Seuss or a Haiku. I cringed when I saw that I had to read this classic and I really only had one happy memory from when I read similar poems in the past – recalling a sexy illustration of Aphrodite with a healthy amount of nakedness. This time around there were no juicy pictures but I did finally grasp the importance of this 2700-year-old text.

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The Iliad is set in the 10th year of the war between the Greeks and the Trojans – Achilles is the great fighter for the Greeks and Hector is the great fighter for the Trojans. The gods – Zeus, Hera, Hermes, Apollo, Aphrodite, Athena, Ares, Poseidon, etc. – choose sides and constantly interfere with the happenings of the mortals. The main point of the plot is the journey of Achilles in his search for glory and his eventual victory over Hector – which is necessary for the final destruction of Troy.

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Achilles is really a jerk throughout the book; similar to a big man-child who is mad about not getting his way – refusing to fight with his fellow soldiers because of pride. There are many symbolic points to this poem but the most pronounced involve the role of “rage;” rage controls the mortals and immortals – sometimes facilitating and sometimes handicapping. Achilles more than anyone wields rage like one of those dancing air guys at a car dealership – you never know which direction he’ll swing next. In the end, he loses his best friend, Patroclus, to Hector’s spear because of his rage – and subsequently wields its force to destroy Troy.

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The question is, does rage hurt or hinder the greatest fighter? He looses Patroclus but gains all the glory for bringing down the great Troy. I think rage in our own lives, just like Achilles, is a force to be weary of. I know I have raged in the pursuit of being “right” to gain glory; that glory is important at the moment but what do we sacrifice – relationships, friendships, precious time? Pride, glory, and respect are a three-headed god which feeds on our selfish desires. Sure Achilles is remembered…but his rage and selfishness taint our view of his victories – his ultimate glory permanently smeared.