Joan Waugh’s fascinating assessment of General Grant’s reputation during his lifetime and afterwards, U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth, is a timely read before the Grant Bicentennial in 2022. Though Waugh’s book came out in 2009, it starts from a perspective that’s still very contemporary. In a country where many of the issues of Grant’s career in the Civil War and Reconstruction are more relevant than ever — race, civil rights, power of the wealthy, and even domestic political violence — Grant’s true story deserves to be better known.
For decades ranked as one of the three worst presidents, along with James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson, Grant’s reputation has started to rise again in recent years, at least among historians. Evidence for that comes in three big revisionist biographies published in the last few years, including one by Ron Chernow of Hamilton fame.
But in the popular mind, Grant is mostly still forgotten. And if he’s remembered at all, it’s for they myths, many spread by pro-Confederate historians who promoted the Lost Cause and its mascot, Robert E. Lee, at Grant’s expense.
The myth goes like this: Grant was a “drunkard” (not merely an alcoholic) who only prevailed on the battlefields of the Civil War because he could call on the superior resources of the North in men and materiel, and because he was “butcher” enough to spill massive quantities of his own men’s blood without conscience. Then, as president, Grant was an inexperienced politician, naive at best and greedy at worst, who presided over the most corrupt administration in White House history.
Such stories were spread during the war by southerners and northern Copperheads who opposed Union victory. After the war, negative myths about Grant were ginned up by old Confederates who promoted the Lost Cause like General Jubal Early.
This brutal white supremacist led a propaganda effort that would let the losers write the history of the war and Reconstruction, all in an attempt to let the white southern elite return the South as close as possible to slavery days without interference from the North. Early thought that Black Americans were an inferior race who should always be ruled by southern whites, and he hated civil rights as much as he hated the general who helped end slavery and the first president to promote civil rights, Ulysses Grant.
Waugh shows how Early and other pro-Confederate historians, especially the so-called Dunning School, wound up rewriting history and turning Grant from an American hero venerated on par with Washington and Lincoln into a failure. Waugh unearths the truth that Lost Cause myths obscured, providing enough detail to show the realty of Grant’s massive success in the war and his creditable performance under difficult circumstances to unite the country and protect Black civil rights during Reconstruction.
As a symbol of unity, Grant earned the thanks and praise of old Confederates. But in order for white Americans both North and South to unite, they had to forget what divided them, the issues of slavery and race. So Grant’s role in winning a war that became about emancipation and then advancing a Reconstruction intended to integrate Black Americans into the political system as equal citizens had to be forgotten. Much of the observance of Grant’s funeral and then his massive tomb in New York City became about celebrating the merciful conquerer who gave Lee lenient terms at Appomattox.
But Grant remained popular with African Americans for fighting against slavery and for equal citizenship in war and in peace. Grant was also as popular abroad for his leadership on international arbitration as for helping to end slavery in the United States.
From the 1920s to the 1960s, Grant’s reputation declined, as that of Robert E. Lee rose. Historians have long since revised Grant’s story up and revised Lee’s story down. Now, it just remains for the public to catch up.
With statues of Lee and other Confederates coming down in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, empty pedestals like tree stumps can now be found across the South and beyond. What if some of those empty plinths would be graced with new statues of Ulysses S. Grant?
Today is an anti-heroic age where we are hesitant to honor any leaders of the past, especially dead white men. As Waugh explains,
Today, many are hard pressed to articulate what exactly the northern side was fighting for beyond emancipation. Preserving the Union to keep democracy alive in the world does not resonate in a time when American exceptionalism is in poor repute. Today, the revolutionary, progressive impact of the Union army’s role in bringing a victory that kept the country whole and brought freedom to millions of slaves is often brushed aside or ignored, specially in light of Reconstruction’s failures. Today, scholars emphasize what divides, not what unites, Americans. The stance is appropriate for skeptical times. Grant and Americans who lived through the Civil War did not, as a rule, embrace either skepticism or moral relativism. This is what, for them, made the stakes so high and so meaningful in the effort to control the historical memory of the war for future generations.
War is hell, and Grant was a master of modern total war that made organized armed conflict even more deadly. But the Civil War was not a morally neutral conflict between two sides of oligarchs who were both equally greedy and willing to sacrifice poor men in a rich men’s fight. Grant’s generation of northerners, along with Black Americans across the South, knew that there was a difference between what each side fought for. There was valor on both sides. But not moral equivalence.
Significantly, Waugh concludes her book with this famous assessment from Grant himself. He shows the same compassion towards white southerners that he showed towards Lee at Appomattox. But he makes no bones about which side was right, and which was wrong:
“I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”
Grant is one of the few leaders from the American past, though flawed like any man, who could be most useful to build unity between white and Black citizens to push for a new civil rights movement, a Third Reconstruction in the words of Rev. William J. Barber.
Waugh’s book makes a good case that Grant’s reputation deserves to rise much further. As we question the negative myths of Grant spread by white supremacist propagandists like Jubal Early, we should consider the words of Grant supporters like Frederick Douglass, whose eulogy for Grant concluded that Grant was a leader whose compassion transcended section as it transcended race:
“A man too broad for prejudice, too humane to despise the humblest, too great to be small at any point. In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.”