Ulysses S. Grant

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American History

Nathan Newman wrote a lovely post recognizing Ulysses S. Grant as one of our great presidents.

Grant, Newman writes, “went on to be the President who would oversee the ratification of the 15th Amendment and enactment of the civil rights enforcement laws that — after the interregnum of disuse under Jim Crow — to this day are a backbone of civil rights in this nation.”

Even as Grant was being elected in 1868, he faced Klan-based racial terrorism fighting to manipulate the vote throughout the South. The first result was the 15th Amendment to protect the right to vote but as importantly was the creation under Grant of the Department of Justice in 1871 and a series of “Enforcement Acts” to eliminate Klan violence. The language was sweeping in its defense of black voting rights:

    Congress made it a crime for “two or more persons [to] band or conspire together, or go in disguise upon the public highway, or upon the premises of another, with the intent…to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any citizen with intent to prevent his free exercise and enjoyment of any right or privilege granted or secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States.”

Grant used his new authority to crack down on Klan terrorism in nine South Carolina counties in 1871 and essentially destroyed the Klan there and then throughout the South. Hundreds of Klansmen were convicted between 1870 and 1873 of violating the voting and other civil rights of the new freedmen in the South.

The result was the election of 1872, the only election not undermined by racial terrorism until the late 1960s. In his second inaugural address, President Grant declared that racial segregation was unacceptable and called for federal legislation to assure equal rights in access to transportation and public schools. Following Grant’s lead, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, banning segregation in public accommodations, transportation, and entertainment facilities. Majorities in both houses of Congress even voted to make school segregation illegal throughout the country, but filibusters blocked enactment of those later amendments, but it is a testament to Grant’s dogged pursuit of civil rights that so encompassing a legislative and administrative agenda of racial justice was pursued.

The one thing most people think they know about Grant was that he was an alcoholic. Except that he probably wasn’t. His military and political rivals spread many uncorroborated stories of Grant’s public drunkenness, most of which have been dismissed as fabrications by historians. His biographers uniformly write that his marriage to Julia Dent Grant was sublimely happy — happy marriages do not go hand in hand with drinking problems — and that, rumors aside, he was never drunk “on the job” as a general in the Civil War.

He was one of the most admired public figures in America until his death in 1885. He even won some grudging respect in the South. His Personal Memoirs earned praise as a masterpiece of literature by Gertrude Stein and Edmund Wilson, among others. Yet historians of the late 19th and a large part of the 20th centuries dismissed him as a drunken, stupid brute whose administration was mostly famous for corruption.

The reason for the trashing of Grant’s reputation was, I think, twofold. A large part of the old popular histories of the Civil War were written by southerners who elevated Robert E. Lee to a position of sainthood. The notion that Lee might have been out-generaled by Grant just would not do; according to moonlight-and-magnolias revisionist history, Grant won because he had more men, or more equipment, or more ruthlessness, or more plain dumb luck. Historians who have revisited the historical record more recently, however, have come away saying that Grant beat Lee because Grant was the better general. See, for example, Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President by Geoffrey Perret (Modern Library, 1997). An older work by a British historian, The Generalship Of Ulysses S. Grant by J.F.C. Fuller, compares Grant and Lee and makes Lee seem downright substandard.

But I think the larger reason is that Grant’s support of civil rights became, during the long years of Jim Crow, reason to dismiss him as a fool. When white society, from the top down, was determined to persuade itself that racial discrimination was justified, something had to be done about Grant. Thus, he was trashed. Newman writes,

The sad reality is that if Grant had been able to continue his anti-Klan policies into his second term, there is little question that the elections of 1876 would have been a decisive victory for the Republicans and we would not have seen the end of Reconstruction. And American history would have been completely different.

But with the end of Reconstruction, we have seen history written to bury most memories of the period and assassinate the reputations of those who led it– including Grant. There were real accusations of corruption among Grant’s cabinet, although no one believes Grant himself was corrupt, but those charges of corruption appear relatively minor in light of far worse corruption in many administrations to come. But saying Grant was “corrupt” became an easy offhand way to dismiss his Presidency and Reconstruction at the same time. Even today, there are NO great films honoring reconstruction, just racist anti-Reconstruction films like Gone With the Wind and even modern documentaries like Ken Burns’ Civil War only mentions accusations of corruption In Grant’s administration — without a single mention of his vigorous fight against Klan Violence. …

…as corporate American sought new alliances with Southern Bourbons, the legacy of Ulysses Grant and Radical Republicans became an inconvenience, so a new consensus emerged that it had all been a mistake overseen by a corrupt and incompetent man best forgotten by history.

Nathan Newman also writes about Grant’s policies toward native Americans, which were better intended than executed. White society had been shocked when Grant named a Seneca, Ely Parker, as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and most of Washington conspired to make Parker’s job difficult until he resigned. Grant’s policies were specifically meant to end massacres of native Americans, but the generals sent West to carry out the policies were less enlightened.

Some years ago I read about a question asked of a panel of Civil War historians — what one event might have changed the outcome of the Civil War? And as I remember, they all came up with the same answer — eliminate General Grant, especially early in the war, and the Confederacy might have won its severance from the Union.

Before President Lincoln put him in command of all Union armies in 1864, Grant’s initiative and determination had put most of the western theater of war in Union hands. The Vicksburg campaign, which gave the Union complete control of the Mississippi River, in particular is remembered as one of the great military campaigns in all of American military history. And in 1864, Grant was brought east to finish off Lee’s army after a succession of other generals had failed. His accomplishments as a general alone — he saved his country’s butt — should have made him one of the great men of American history. That racism has buried his memory is one of the great injustices of American history.

See also: Jonathan Yardley, review of Ulysses S. Grant by Josiah Bunting, Washington Post, September 19, 2004.

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27 Comments

  1. JudyL  •  Jul 4, 2006 @8:37 pm

    Interesting. When General Wesley Clark was asked who his favorite general was he replied General Grant. I guess I’ll have to read about him. Thanks for this post.

  2. maha  •  Jul 4, 2006 @8:47 pm

    The Geoffrey Perret biography is a good one; also Jean Edward Smith’s Grant is very readable. I haven’t read Josiah Bunting’s book yet, but it was well reviewed. I don’t think as much of the older McFeely biography even though it won a Pulitzer Prize. I think McFeely went off on some weird tangents.

  3. Lynne  •  Jul 4, 2006 @9:39 pm

    I was ignorant of all of this. Time to read more history. Thanks, Barbara.

  4. justme  •  Jul 4, 2006 @10:13 pm

    I caught the Ken Burns series on PBS over the weekend . I enjoyed the old photographs .I agree the series glosses over many important facts about Grant and his efforts , but I still liked it . I look at the piece as a starting place…If it were shown , to students , as say a introduction to a larger conversation about the civil war I think it would be useful..I really found myself sucked in to it and even though I knew from history what happened next I felt myself on the edge of my seat saying”then what happened!?”

    On a related note, PBS also has a series I LOVE called History Detectives,on the last show(shown here last night) A man had a battle map believed to be carried by his Great Grandfather during the battle of Vicksburg. The history det. proved the map was indeed real …any Civil war buffs would have FREAKED out to have seen it…The family member who now has it did not say what he intended to do with the map, upon learning it is a national treasure…but my hope is someday he will give it to the Library of Congress so that we all might share the history that his great grandfather was a part of. If you can somehow get a copy of the show it would be worth it whatever the cost , to have a copy of that map, which sent shivers down my spine to see.And in such outstanding shape for a document on linen based paper…WOW.
    My eyes are wide open anytime I have a chance to read about the civil war…to be honest I have gotten a much clearer picture from civil war buffs(for lack of a better word) then from historians…so anytime you wanna drop more Civil war knowledge on us I am SO there! Too bad rightie blogs lack substance like this!!!!

  5. Armadillo Joe  •  Jul 4, 2006 @10:35 pm

    Maha -

    I have been mostly a lurker on your site for a couple of years now. I have only posted a few times, the last was during a discussion of 9/11-related art. If you remember, I was the stagehand who worked on an off-Broadway show that recreated the crash and dustcloud of the WTC collapse.

    Anyway, I am writing to you now because I have launched my own blog and though I am just now getting started (I think I’m up to 15 posts) my stated purpose for now is to explore the history and ultimate nature of American conservatism as it affects our lives today. I’m a bit of a history buff and my favorite discoveries are when I read things that explain the connections between the way things were and the way they are now, like your post today. Today’s post and posts over the last week or so have been simply marvelous and exactly the subtle and incisive kind of historical analysis this armchair social critic strives for.

    I always look forward to reading what you have to say (you are, afterall, part of my daily blogroll), and thank you for saying it so well. If you have the time and the inclination, please feel free to click over to my corner of the blogosphere.

    Thanks again for the substance and insight.

  6. Donna  •  Jul 5, 2006 @1:32 am

    Ulysses S. Grant, Galena, Illinois. Thanks for the post, and the history.
    I have spent this 4th of July working to compile a history of my town [for a planning committee report]…..and I found a most wonderful 1773 explorer’s account: ‘Mr. Patrick Kennedy’s Journal of an Expedition undertaken by himfelf and feveral Coureurs de Bois in the year 1773,–from Kafkafkian Village in the Illinois Country, to the Head Waters of the Illinois River’—-the original report was etched in copper, but so darn interesting that I didn’t even mind each ‘s’ being formed like an ‘f’ [except at the end of a word, an 's' is actually an 's'....go figure]

    Gosh, I did not realize that pre-settler Illinois had buffalo, and elk as well as deer, nor did I realize that, until the prairie sod was all turned over that prairie chickens were totally abundant, and could be ‘shipped by the barrelful’.

  7. Td Raicer  •  Jul 5, 2006 @2:09 am

    Grant was undoubtedly a great general, and his Presidency, as you indicate, was hardly the disaster usually depicted by historians under the influence of the Lost Cause.

    But on the question of generalship I wouldn’t side with Fuller (a tremendous, if often brilliant, eccentric) in his view of Lee. Grant DID after all outnumber Lee by more than 2-1, and yet Lee fought him to a bloody stalemate that might well have cost Lincoln the 1864 election if Sherman hadn’t won in the West. On the whole Grant was perhaps the better strategist (though it is hard to compare as Lee wasn’t given Grant’s type of authority until 1865, much too late to matter). Lee was probably the better operational commander, and both were uneven tacticians. In modern terms I’d say Grant was Ike to Lee’s Rommel.

  8. maha  •  Jul 5, 2006 @6:26 am

    Grant DID after all outnumber Lee by more than 2-1, and yet Lee fought him to a bloody stalemate that might well have cost Lincoln the 1864 election if Sherman hadn’t won in the West.

    Lee was nearly always on defense and Grant on offense, however. Most of the time Grant’s advantage was leveled by the fact that Lee was defending a series of fortified positions. That actually gave an advantage to Lee.

    The real “Rommel” in the CW was probably Stonewall Jackson. After Jackson died in the spring of 1863 Lee’s generalship seriously deteriorated, which has caused some to speculate that much of Lee’s earlier success ought to be credited to Jackson. Like Rommel’s, Jackson’s troops were famous for moving and striking quickly and unexpectedly even though they were infantry. And I disagree strongly that Lee was a better operational commander than Grant. I just don’t see that.

    No CW general stands out as a great tactician, but especially after the Vicksburg campaign you have to say that Grant was by far the superior strategist. Until Grant showed up Lee won battles — often as a result of the blazing incompetence of Union commanders like McClellan and Burnside — but Lee never seemed to have an overall plan. His two moves into Union territory didn’t turn out well for him.

  9. Rob  •  Jul 5, 2006 @8:04 am

    Sadly, if JFC Fuller is on one side of a military history question, sensible, right thinking people should probably be on the other side. On this particular question, though, I have to agree with Maha and Fuller; Grant’s campaigns were better put together and executed than Lee’s. Barbara is absolutely correct in her assessment of Vicksburg.

  10. maha  •  Jul 5, 2006 @8:12 am

    I think most of Fuller’s arguments in the “Generalship” book still stand up, but if you don’t want to go by Fuller, then I recommend the Perret book on Grant’s military capabilities.

    I also like the Grant chapter in The Mask of Command by John Keegan, in spite of the fact that people keep telling me Keegan is overrated. Oh, well.

  11. Theo  •  Jul 5, 2006 @9:45 am

    Grant’s memoirs are a work of literature! I never got very far into Sherman’s memoirs, though – he was not a writer. (Years-old memories; perhaps I should try Sherman again.)

  12. emel  •  Jul 5, 2006 @12:17 pm

    there is good article on grant in the summer 2006 quarterly journal of military history.

  13. Td Raicer  •  Jul 5, 2006 @12:49 pm

    Well arguing relative generalship is one of the great unending hobbies of those with an interest in military history. But as someone who writes it and designs wargames for a living I’m comfortable on my side of the Lee/Grant debate: both were great generals, but Grant always had the advantage of numbers.

    >Lee was nearly always on defense and Grant on offense, however.

    Yes, being outnumbered 2-1 tends to produce that.

    >Most of the time Grant’s advantage was leveled by the fact that Lee was defending a series of fortified positions. That actually gave an advantage to Lee.

    No, what gave the advantage to Lee was that until Grant made the one brilliant move of the campaign (when he switched his base of operations below the James) Lee anticipated each of his moves and got his army where it needed to be to block Grant. (He blocked Grant at the Petersburg too, but just barely.)

    >The real “Rommel” in the CW was probably Stonewall Jackson. After Jackson died in the spring of 1863 Lee’s generalship seriously deteriorated, which has caused some to speculate that much of Lee’s earlier success ought to be credited to Jackson.

    Jackson would certainly not have agreed. As for Lee’s generalship seriously declining after Jackson’s death, I would say it was more his health than his generalship that declined. (Lee’s heart disease began to affect him in the winter/spring of 1863.)

    > Like Rommel’s, Jackson’s troops were famous for moving and striking quickly and unexpectedly even though they were infantry.

    Jackson’s reputation as an independent commander rests pretty much on the brilliant Valley campaign (which strategically was Lee’s concept).

    >And I disagree strongly that Lee was a better operational commander than Grant. I just don’t see that.

    Well admittedly it is hard to compare. But Grant always had an edge in numbers, Lee was often outnumbered 2-1; and Lee had to defend a fixed point (Richmond) where Grant, failing to advance on one route, could choose another. It is a pure mind game to imagine Lee in charge of the Union army and Grant in charge of the southern, but in my opinion, a Lee in Grant’s shoes would have won the war considerably sooner.

    >No CW general stands out as a great tactician, but especially after the Vicksburg campaign you have to say that Grant was by far the superior strategist.

    Well, no, you don’t. Grant wasn’t handicapped by Lincoln as Lee was with Davis, Grant had far greater resources to draw on, and Grant was given the top command in the Union while Lee was, until the last few weeks of the war, just an army commander. Lee’s real strategic abilities were revealed when he was still just an advisor to Jeff Davis, and they were considerable.

    > Until Grant showed up Lee won battles — often as a result of the blazing incompetence of Union commanders like McClellan and Burnside —

    And likewise Grant won most of his victories in the West against some of the most incompetent CSA generals.

    > but Lee never seemed to have an overall plan.

    Actually Lee had a vision of the war from the start. He believed that the greater numbers of the North must tell in the end unless Northern morale could be broken. Those who have argued that Lee should have adopted the defensive tactics of 1864 from the start miss what Lee always understood-that once his army was pinned down in defensive works it could only be a question of time. That knowledge compelled him to take chances at long odds. If in the end he failed, it is difficult to think of anyone who could have done better in his shoes (Grant included).

    >His two moves into Union territory didn’t turn out well for him.

    In the first the famous “lost orders” played a major role; in the second, Gettysburg was one of Lee’s worst fought battles, but it still remained (to borrow from a different war) “a near run thing.”

    As for Fuller, I could counter with Lidell Hart, but I’m not sure turning to the Brits is required to argue the relative merits of generalship in our Civil War; there are plenty of Americans to quote on either side. As I said, this is a debate with no ending, so I’ll leave it here.

    But to be clear-I’m no fan of the Lost Cause or the CSA. Admiring Lee’s abilities is not in my case admiration for his cause, and looking at the US today I sometimes regret we didn’t have a more Carthaginian peace at the end of the Civil War.

  14. western otto  •  Jul 5, 2006 @1:03 pm

    Whatever the truth is about Grant, this discussion points up how vulnerable we all are to forming opinions based upon questionable sources, and consequently how truly important a free press, populated by journalists of integrity, is to a democracy. I am constantly having to revise my own opinions which have inadvertantly formed using misinformation which has simply leaked into my consciousness via the unavoidable and insidious MSM. Long live the blogosphere!

  15. maha  •  Jul 5, 2006 @1:37 pm

    Yes, being outnumbered 2-1 tends to produce that.

    You’ve got it backwards, IMO. It wasn’t just the difference in numbers that put Lee on the defensive. However, being on the defensive and fighting from fortified positions somewhat evened the score. Also, Lee had home field advantage; Grant had never spent much time in Virginia.

    Re the British historians — I think they may be more objective than American historians, who grew up reading all those fanciful popular histories that made Lee out to be second in command only to Jesus. I never read Liddell Hart, though.

    I’m sorry I don’t have time to defend Grant point by point. My understanding is that current military historical scholarship leans heavily in favor of Grant being the best general of the CW if not of all of American history, and Lee being very good, especially on a battlefield, but not in the same league as Grant.

  16. Td Raicer  •  Jul 5, 2006 @3:10 pm

    >I’m sorry I don’t have time to defend Grant point by point.

    Do you need to? I really wasn’t attacking Grant, who was a Great Captain by any measure.

    > My understanding is that current military historical scholarship leans heavily in favor of Grant being the best general of the CW if not of all of American history, and Lee being very good, especially on a battlefield, but not in the same league as Grant.

    I wouldn’t say “heavily” but current scholarship does lean that way. OTOH nothing changes so much with current fashion as the ratings of generals, and just as many of the attacks on Grant were founded on the Lost Cause, so much of the current view of Lee is based on a reaction against the Lost Cause.

    But again, much of the comparison is apples and oranges as the situations they faced and the responsbilities they held were quite different. Lee, for example, held his army together in the last months of the war by sheer force of personality that had no counterpart on the Union side. How does one rate that on a scale of generalship? It is perhaps enough to say that both generals were way above average. (Personally I’d say the greatest general in American history would be Washington.)

  17. maha  •  Jul 5, 2006 @3:20 pm

    so much of the current view of Lee is based on a reaction against the Lost Cause.

    I don’t think that’s true at all. I think the current view is based on scholarship, which is finally finding its way toward some approximation of objectivity.

    (Personally I’d say the greatest general in American history would be Washington.)

    OK, so you’re not really into military history, huh?

  18. Td Raicer  •  Jul 5, 2006 @3:43 pm

    >OK, so you’re not really into military history, huh?

    Well apart from having read more than a 1000 books on military history, publishing a score of lengthy articles, being an editor at a military history magazine, designing 15 published war games (many of them award-winners) and having a book about to come out on WWI, not much, no.

  19. maha  •  Jul 5, 2006 @3:59 pm

    Well apart from having read more than a 1000 books on military history, publishing a score of lengthy articles, being an editor at a military history magazine, designing 15 published war games (many of them award-winners) and having a book about to come out on WWI, not much, no.

    If you say so, but I cannot take anyone seriously as a military historian who says stuff like “I’d say the greatest general in American history would be Washington.” He was a great leader, yes, but a great general? Not so much. He was a good enough general, I’d say.

    So whatever you say your credentials are, you just blew your credibility with me.

  20. Buddy Toledo  •  Jul 6, 2006 @8:00 am

    I know far too many drunks in happy marriages to let an assertion like that slide.

  21. maha  •  Jul 6, 2006 @8:30 am

    I know far too many drunks in happy marriages to let an assertion like that slide.

    I doubt the drunks’ spouses and children are all that happy.

  22. G Stephens  •  Dec 26, 2006 @6:43 pm

    For what little it is worth, I think that Sherman was a better general than Grant or Lee. There is a chapter on his exploits in Liddel-Hart’s classic book “Strategy” that started me in thinking that way– since then, I’ve just become more convinced. Sherman’s maneuvers after his March to the Sea brought him so close to Richmond that Lee was forced to abandon Petersburg, with the resultant capture of his army at Appomattox.

  23. 3catsdad  •  Dec 27, 2006 @1:07 pm

    Please go and read Bruce Catton’s “Grant Takes Command”, in which he demolished the myth of Grant the butcher who just used numbers to beat down Lee- in short, not until the very end of the war could Grant get his orders carried out in the speedy, determined fashion that would allow them to work out; between political generals (Sigel, Butler etc.) and a command structure in the Army of the Potomac that never did anything at full speed or full strength, plus an army demoralized by 3-year enlistments ending and bounty-jumpers and conscripts for replacements, it was

  24. 3catsdad  •  Dec 27, 2006 @1:17 pm

    a tribute to his resolution (and Lincoln’s) that he finally brought the war to a victorious conclusion. Remember, too, that he both promoted Sherman and Sheridan, and approved Sherman’s incredibly bold plan to cut loose from his supply lines and Hood’s crippled army and march to the sea, trashing what was left of the Confederacy’s war economy and morale. Grant did what Lincoln had tried to do from day one- get the whole armed forces of the nation moving offensively all at once, never letting up, and the South couldn’t stand that.

  25. ET  •  Dec 28, 2006 @11:18 am

    I remember reading and article about revitalizing Gettysburg as a national park, and they talked about how the South seems to have generally won the post-war PR war even if the North won the actual war. I think Grant was a victim of this PR war that tried to make the south the more noble participant in the Civil War (War or Northern Agression, War Between the States, The Recent Unpleasantness).

  26. a517dogg  •  May 29, 2007 @10:14 pm

    Lexington Green of the blog “Chicagoboyz” agrees with you re: Grant. It’s probably the only thing you two would agree on.

    http://chicagoboyz.net/archives/002743.html

  27. Joe Handelmahr  •  Jul 21, 2008 @5:33 pm

    Grant and Lee both spent many months together working in different companies during the Mexican/American War. Its very probably that these two great generals of latter days would have met and known one another. Imagine fighting the battle of all ages, over the fate of you’re country (Civil War), and your opponent being a guy you had once fought side-by-side with!!

    History is never necessarily correct. Or I guess some of the pertinent facts just get eliminated. P.S. I also read on some other blog that Grant and Lee were in California early 1850′s and could of met each other then, too. Thanks for the great blog site.

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