From the end of the Civil War and through the rest of the 19th century, U.S. Grant was one of the most popular and respected figures in American life and history. According to many accounts, his death in 1885 threw the nation into the same depth of grief as had the death of Abraham Lincoln. People around the country donated money to build him a grand memorial tomb, and when it was dedicated in 1897 there was a huge parade and vast crowds of people turned out to pay their respects once again.
On the other hand, R. E. Lee’s generalship was more flawed than confederate apologists will ever admit. Some time back the British military historian J.F.C. Fuller wrote an analysis of the generalship of Grant and Lee, and Fuller found Lee highly overrated. In Fuller’s view Lee was second-rate in most regards. (Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship is still in print and is very readable. If you’re into military history I recommend it highly. See also Fuller’s The Generalship Of Ulysses S. Grant.)
But a few generations later, people remembered Grant as a stupid, drunken brute and Lee as nearly a saint. Bouie explains why and how that happened. Much of it has to do with Grant’s policies as President during Reconstruction, namely that he took equal rights for the freed people seriously and tried to protect them. Bouie writes,
As best as possible, President Grant was a firm leader of Reconstruction America. Faced with the titanic challenge of integrating freedmen into American politics, he attacked the problem with characteristic clarity and flexibility. He proposed civil rights legislation (and would be the last president to do so until Dwight D. Eisenhower, nearly a century later) and deployed troops to hot spots across the South, to defend black Americans from white supremacist violence.* And while there were failures—at times he was too passive in the face of white violence, too paralyzed by petty politics—there were real victories too. After Congress passed the Enforcement Acts—criminal codes that protected blacks’ 14thand 15th Amendment rights to vote, hold office, serve on juries, and receive equal protection of laws—Grant authorized federal troops to confront the Ku Klux Klan and other groups of anti-black terrorists. Declaring them “insurgents … in rebellion against the authority of the United States,” Grant and his subordinates—most notably Attorney General Amos Ackerman and the newly formed Department of Justice—broke the Klan and restored some peace to the Republican South.
In using federal power to prosecute white supremacists and support Reconstruction governments, Grant had tied his fortunes to those of freedmen and their allies. They were grateful. Grant won re-election in 1872 with the vast backing of black voters in the South, as well as former Union soldiers in the North. Appalled by his use of force in the South, his enemies dogged him as an enemy of liberty. Indeed, for as much as scandal plagued his administration, it’s also true that many cries of corruption came from angry and aggrieved Democrats, who attacked military intervention in the South as “corrupt” and “unjust.” Opponents in the North and South reviled Grant as a “tyrant” who imposed so-called “black domination” on an innocent South.
Unfortunately, in the early 20th century some confederate sympathizing historians got themselves into leading positions in American academia and saw to it that history as cranked out by scholars of the day reflected their biases. In the latter part of the 20th century some historians began to turn this around and correct the record, but much of the correction hasn’t trickled down to primary and secondary education or undergraduate history classes.
The Gone With the Wind version of Reconstruction history, in which poor destitute Scarlett O’Hara was reduced to eating raw radishes (from the garden she still owned next to the mansion she still occupied), apparently because the “servants” had run away and she had never learned to cook, is still being foisted on schoolchildren around the country. I have found young people who still believe that Reconstruction was “punishment” for the South because of the Civil War or because Lincoln was assassinated, or some such thing.
The truth is that the freed people were being terrorized and slaughtered wholesale by white mobs, sometimes by the hundreds. Freedmen frequently were shot for trying to vote. In one particularly horrible massacre in New Orleans, 1866, whites — including police and city officials — stormed a peaceful political convention of people who wanted to end the black codes, killing 238 people, mostly African American.
General Grant, who in 1866 was something like the Joint Chiefs of Staff in one person, had stationed Phil Sheridan in that district to keep the peace. Fake reports of violence in Texas drew Sheridan out of New Orleans, allowing the massacre to take place. By all accounts, Grant was furious and suspected Andrew Johnson’s administration of being complicit in the fake reports.
And that’s why President Grant ordered troops into the South. It had nothing to do with “punishing” anybody for Lincoln’s Assassination.
The best history of Reconstruction is Eric Foner‘s, but recently when I recommended Foner to some young folks on the Web they dismissed him as a “socialist.” So, because they don’t like his politics — which they probably don’t understand — they assume his history is bunk. Never mind that other historians regard him as the preeminent historian of the Reconstruction era of his generation. Thus are the ignorant kept ignorant.
Lee was a complicated guy whose choice to fight with the Confederacy was possibly more motivated by restoring family honor than defending slavery. The Lees of Virginia had been patrician and prominent for generations. But Lee’s father, Revolutionary War hero Light-Horse Harry Lee, somehow spent the fortunes of two wealthy wives — gambling and other vices are hinted at — and when Harry was in debtor’s prison Lee’s mother took toddler Robert and his baby sister to live with her wealthy family near Arlington. So he was raised in the plantation class but wasn’t entirely of it, since he had no inheritance or property of his own. At the same time, an older half-brother, a son of Light-Horse Harry by his first wife, got into some sort of big, splashy sex scandal, I believe with his wife’s sister. I suspect that what really motivated Lee was a need to prove he belonged in the patrician class he had been born into. Note also that R.E. Lee married into the Custis family, descendants of Martha Washington by her first husband.
Confederate apologists like to point out that Lee never owned slaves, but the fact is Lee never owned much of anything except through his marriage. But he married into a slave-owning family and appears to have not minded that.
Let it not be forgotten that when African American troops were captured by his army, saintly Robert E. put them to work building fortifications where they were within range of Union fire. White troops, on the other hand, were traded for Confederates in prisoner exchanges. Grant and Lincoln both felt that soldiers were soldiers and should be treated alike, and when Lee refused to exchange black prisoners the prisoner exchanges stopped, causing much human misery for which Grant and Lincoln, but not Lee, have been blamed.
One more note about Grant’s alleged drinking — that’s the one thing people know about Grant, was that he was a drunk. But these days historians say otherwise. There are some credible accounts of binge-drinking when he was a young officer stuck on the Pacific Coast away from his family, but the stories of his drinking during the Civil War mostly come from one uncorroborated source, or have been proved to be unfounded. The one fact about Grant all his biographers agree on is that his marriage was very happy, which is not generally the case with alcoholics. Accounts of White House dinners suggest he was able to drink a glass or two of wine and then stopping, which is not generally the case with alcoholics. So let’s put the “Grant the Drunk” slander to rest.