All leaders have critics, deserved or not. But Ulysses S. Grant faced a special campaign to destroy his reputation that uniquely targeted only two presidents: Grant himself and Abraham Lincoln. That campaign was the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.
As it sought to lift up the South after the Civil War, this propaganda effort aimed to denigrate the heroes of the North who had helped to end slavery and, in a particular insult to the manhood of the South, had defeated Robert E. Lee, the general who was supposed to be the South’s contribution to global military genius.
Lincoln has faired better in popular memory than Grant. Perhaps Lincoln’s early martyrdom helped preserve his later reputation. Killed only a few days after Lee’s surrender in April 1865, Lincoln never had to undertake the messy task of reuniting the defeated but still defiant South with the rest of the United States, an unprecedented challenge never before faced in American history — or anywhere else in the history of modern nations.
Reconstruction was never going to be easy. Lincoln would certainly have done a better job than Andrew Johnson did. But still, if Lincoln had lived, he would have faced political, economic and cultural challenges unimaginable during the war. Those challenges brought down Johnson. Grant was the leader who had to clean up the mess and try to save the legacy of Union victory in the war.
Based on white supremacy, the Lost Cause loathed Reconstruction because it was the first time in history that America tried to achieve political equality of the races. If unreconstructed white southerners hated the abolition of slavery, they really hated the effort to protect the freedom of Black southerners.
It was natural for southern elites who saw Reconstruction as a threat to their rule to attack the American leader most associated with Reconstruction, President Grant. From university history departments to movie theaters, agents of the Lost Cause convinced Americans in the early 20th century that Reconstruction was a dark time in American history, an oppressive military occupation of the prostrate South by vengeful Yankees who whipped up Black freedpeople and poor whites for profit or just for spite.
The truth was pretty much the opposite. Reconstruction must have been one of the most lenient treatments in history of defeated rebels who had raised their swords against their country. Instead of military tribunals, hangings for treason, land confiscations or absorption of rebellious states into loyal territories, all of which has happened in many other nations after suppression of an insurgency, the North merely asked old Confederates to take a loyalty oath and to respect the civil rights of freed Black people.
But that was too much for white southern elites used to the habit of command and convinced that God had placed them forever at the top of a pyramid of race and class. So, they fought back, refusing to accept the verdict of Appomattox. Defeated in open combat, they resorted to domestic terrorism and a war of words to reframe the story of the Civil War.
Isn’t history supposed to be written by the victors? Lost Cause advocates wanted to be the first ever to create history written by the losers.
Lost Cause champions including former Confederate Generals Jubal Early and Dabney Maury of the Southern Historical Society and journalist Edward A. Pollard, author of The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates (1866) and The Lost Cause Regained (1868), sought to spread a story of Reconstruction and the Civil War itself that would help unreconstructed Confederates win back through post-war politics what they had lost on the battlefield.
In the Lost Cause version of the war, the South was fighting for states rights and not slavery and their commander, Robert E. Lee, was a chivalric Christian gentleman who reluctantly agreed to apply his unmatched military genius in defense of his native land only when faced by an aggressive Yankee invader.
The North was fighting for big government and big profits and not to free slaves, so the story went. Its commander, Ulysses S. Grant, was an uncouth frontier drunk of inferior military ability who triumphed only through the brute power of superior northern numbers and materiel — and a willingness to spill blood without scruple.
Lost Cause propagandists spread this story so successfully that, by the twentieth century, even northerners began to believe it, and thus, to idolize Lee while they dismissed Grant. This helped unreconstructed Confederates and their descendants to fight against what Grant stood for — one united nation dedicated to free labor and equal rights, especially for Black Americans as enshrined in the three “Reconstruction Amendments” to the Constitution (13th, 14th and 15th Amendments) passed after the Civil War.
Attacking Grant turned out to be a way of justifying the KKK, Jim Crow, lynching, and other horrors of white supremacist rule by unreconstructed former Confederates in southern states.
If we care about the vision of America for which Grant fought in both war and peace, a nation both free and fair with equal treatment for all, then it’s easy to see the relevance of Grant’s story today.
For more, see The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory published by College of Charleston History Professor Adam H. Domby in 2020.