Skip to main content

The American Ulysses: Rehabilitating U. S. Grant

ISSUE:  Summer 2005

Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero, by Michael Korda. Harper Collins. October 2004. $19.95

Ulysses S. Grant, by Josiah Bunting III. Times Books. September 2004. $20

Ulysses S. Grant’s standing in the American pantheon has undergone dramatic shifts in the 140 years since he accepted the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s army at Appomattox. The two brief volumes under review in this essay form part of a renascent interest in Grant that during the past decade has yielded, among other things, three major biographies and a PBS documentary in the American Experience series. Should this trend continue for a few more years, it seems possible that Grant could move past Lee to a position alongside Abraham Lincoln as one of the two great popular figures of the Civil War. Contemporaries of Grant, at least those in the northern states, where most Americans lived, would find it hard to believe that he has not occupied that lofty position all along. After all, it was Grant who, more than anyone else but Lincoln, ensured that the nation would vanquish the forces of rebellion, and who consequently stood as the most famous living American for the last two decades of his life. Yet Grant’s popular reputation may be thought of as a reversed capital J, with the top of the stroke representing his towering reputation throughout the 19th century, the shaft tracing a steady decline toward nadir in the 1930s and 1940s, the generally flat bottom indicating a period of slight improvement from the 1950s through the 1980s, and the upward curve denoting the recent upsurge.

Grant’s imposing stature between the end of the Civil War and the early years of the 20th century cannot be disputed. The Union’s greatest military hero, praised even by many former Confederates for his conciliatory demeanor at Appomattox, he became the first four-star general in United States history before winning two terms as president. A courageous effort to complete his memoirs while dying of cancer further enhanced his reputation. More than a million people watched his funeral procession, which stretched for seven miles through the streets of New York City on August 8, 1885. On the seventy-fifth anniversary of his birth, April 22, 1897, the dedication of his tomb on Morningside Heights above the Hudson River also drew a million people, among them President William McKinley. Then and now the largest tomb in North America, it remained New York’s leading tourist site until the Great Depression. The national capital dedicated its memorial to Grant on the centenary of his birth. Exceeded in size by only one equestrian statue in the world, it took sculptor Henry Merwin Shrady more than twenty years to complete and occupies perhaps the most desirable site in the city—at the foot of Capitol Hill facing down the Mall toward the Lincoln Memorial.

By the time of the dedication in Washington, persistent criticisms of Grant as a butcher on the battlefield, a drunk, and a president surrounded by corruption had clouded his reputation. Former Confederates writing in the Lost Cause tradition, who sought to transform Lee into a blameless icon, labored with great effect to diminish Grant’s stature. They insisted that he had defeated Lee only because of overwhelming advantages of men and material, casting him as a brutally effective officer who fed Union soldiers into a meat grinder until outnumbered Confederates capitulated. Jubal A. Early, a Confederate lieutenant general and leading Lost Cause controversialist, captured the dismissive attitude toward Grant in a widely circulated lecture delivered in 1872 on the anniversary of Lee’s birth: “Shall I compare Lee to his successful antagonist? As well compare the great pyramid which rears its majestic proportions in the valley of the Nile, to a pigmy perched on Mount Atlas.” Winston Churchill, beguiled by Lost Cause writers and apparently unaware that Lee had incurred proportionately higher losses than his opponent, wrote in A History of the English Speaking Peoples of Grant’s “unflinching butchery,” insisting that “more is expected of the high command than determination in thrusting men to their doom.” Overall, thought Churchill, Grant’s performance against Lee “must be regarded as the negation of generalship.”

Criticism of Grant’s presidency often focused on corruption, but the bitterness of Reconstruction undoubtedly played a major role. White southerners and many northern Democrats disapproved of Grant’s efforts to secure the fruits of victory for African Americans, and early academic historians who believed the United States government oppressed former Confederates during Reconstruction also found much to disparage. The idea that Grant had been a poor president persisted through the 20th century, as evidenced by the widely quoted rankings overseen by scholars such as Arthur M. Schlesinger. For example, a survey of historians in 1994 placed Grant 38th, ahead of only James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Warren Harding; a similar canvass of scholars in 2000 located him 32nd, behind such marginal figures as Calvin Coolidge, Chester A. Arthur, and Benjamin Harrison.

Nothing better illustrates the degree to which Grant’s drinking has entered the popular imagination than James Thurber’s “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox,” which appeared in the New Yorker on December 6, 1930. Thurber’s Grant rises on the day of the surrender with a hangover from the previous night’s imbibing. He first mistakes Lee for the poet Robert Browning, then, reminded that a solemn occasion beckons, takes another swig: “Slowly, sadly, he unbuckled his sword. Then he handed it to the astonished Lee. ‘There you are, General,’ said Grant. ‘We dam’ near licked you. If I’d been feeling better we would of licked you.’” Despite the absence of credible evidence that Grant’s drinking affected his behavior on any Civil War battlefield, the image persists of a tippler who invites invidious comparisons with the famously self-controlled Lee.

Publication of Bill Clinton’s My Life in 2004 prompted reviewers to discuss books by Grant and other ex-presidents. Many rightly noted that Grant’s account ends at Appomattox and should not be considered a presidential memoir, and some took the occasion to deprecate Grant. In the New York Times, Larry McMurtry managed to trivialize Grant’s struggle to finish his book before cancer claimed him, remarking that “some people don’t want slick Bill Clinton to have written a book that might be as good as dear, dying General Grant’s.” McMurtry then explained that one is a general’s account and the other a politician’s, adding a gratuitous Lost Cause flourish regarding Grant and Lee: “Grant’s is an Iliad, with the gracious Robert E. Lee as Hector and Grant himself the murderous Achilles.” McMurtry’s idea that Clinton’s book rivals Grant’s as autobiography—never mind that they deal with apples and oranges—can most charitably be explained by the possibility that he did not have time to read Personal Memoirs before gushing about My Life.

Prior to the recent spate of biographies, William S. McFeely’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Grant: A Biography, published in 1981, served as the most up-to-date benchmark for gauging Grant’s standing. McFeely finds military affairs distasteful, a fact that helps clarify why his handling of Grant’s role in bringing Union victory strikes far more false than true notes. Grant’s actions during Reconstruction also fail to win McFeely’s approbation. He is most engaged with Grant as a man of “no organic, artistic, or intellectual specialness” whose “limited though by no means inconsequential talents” allowed him to focus on certain tasks: “He became general and president because he could find nothing better to do.” McFeely’s overriding purpose, one scarcely calculated to inspire a favorable portrait, is to use Grant as a vehicle to explore the nation’s failures to guarantee full African American rights during Reconstruction and to offer a “troubling picture of an America, often represented as in a period of boundless opportunity, that offered him and thousands of men like him no chance for fulfillment other than war.”

Filmmakers and artists apparently concur with McFeely’s conclusion that Grant lacked “specialness”—though few likely would embrace the historian’s unfortunate choice of phrasing. Lee has appeared prominently in two films over the past dozen years. In Gettysburg, a moderate financial success released in 1993, Martin Sheen played Lee as written in Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels. Ten years later, Robert Duvall rendered a Lost Cause version of Lee in Gods and Generals, a box office bomb based on Jeff Shaara’s best-selling novel of the same name. Grant has not figured in any mainline film since Harry Morgan delivered a laconic reading, alongside John Wayne’s William Tecumseh Sherman, in a brief sequence on the battle of Shiloh in the early-1960s epic How the West Was Won. Grant has fared even less well in paintings and sculptures marketed to Civil War enthusiasts. Advertisements in popular magazines devoted to the conflict, all of which are published outside the former states of the Confederacy and reach national audiences, reveal that over the past forty years, readers could choose from nearly ten items devoted to Lee for every one devoted to Grant—a trend that shows only the slightest signs of change.

Much like consumers in the Civil War art market, tourists selecting Civil War–related destinations have exhibited relatively little interest in Grant’s principal sites. Grant’s Tomb, far from its heyday as a grand magnet for visitors to New York, fell into neglect by the early 1990s. Defaced by graffiti, extensively vandalized, and a gathering place for drug users, it attracted fewer than 40,000 visitors annually. Descendants of the general deplored the National Park Service’s stewardship of the tomb and threatened to remove his and Mrs. Grant’s remains for reinterment elsewhere. Admirers created a new Grant Memorial Association, which helped prod the Park Service into making needed repairs. The tomb, partly refurbished, was rededicated on its centennial in 1997, but it remains to be seen whether visitation will climb to anything like its past high level. Similarly, the imposing equestrian statue in Washington sits largely unknown and seldom viewed by anyone seeking out Grant. Kathryn A. Jacob addresses this phenomenon in Testament to Union: Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C. (1998), observing that designers intended that Grant and Lincoln would serve as crucial anchors at either end of the Mall. “Somehow things have not turned out as the planners hoped,” she writes: “While the Lincoln Memorial remains one of the capital’s most visited attractions, few visit the Grant Memorial. Its steps, designed as a reviewing stage for passing military parades, have instead been appropriated by commercial photographers, who pose and photograph there a perpetual parade of high school students.”

Change will come only if some of the recent scholarship makes its way into popular conceptions of Grant. Three large biographical studies published between 1997 and 2001, although differing in their assessments of various elements of Grant’s life, contribute to an overall interpretation more positive and persuasive than William McFeely’s. In Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier and President, military historian Geoffrey Perret lauds Grant’s generalship, highlighting his adaptability in the face of enormous obstacles, his ability to coordinate the Union’s gigantic war effort in 1864–65, and his success in teaching “the army how to fight.” Perret also finds much to admire in Grant’s efforts to suppress white violence against black people in the postwar South, most notably his targeting of the Ku Klux Klan in 1871, which he pronounces “Grant’s biggest contribution to Reconstruction.” Brooks D. Simpson’s Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity, 1822–1865, the first of a projected two-volume life, dutifully notes shortcomings and failures but finds in ample measure “bravery, integrity, determination, persistence, generosity, gentleness, and a self-confidence that if not as unshakable as is commonly portrayed was nevertheless astonishing.” “Grant may not have carried himself as did Robert E. Lee,” remarks Simpson, “but generals are defined not by how they look or what they say but who they are and what they do.” Jean Edward Smith’s Ulysses S. Grant, less rigorous as a piece of scholarship than Simpson’s book, bestows as much praise on Grant’s presidency as on his years in a general’s uniform. For Smith, most of Grant’s failures grew out of his virtues, as when he trusted friends who betrayed him during a scandal-ridden second term as president.

In the wake of these substantial books come our two small volumes, each published last year and designed to introduce Grant to nonspecialists. Michael Korda’s Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero forms part of the Eminent Lives series at HarperCollins. Made up of “brief biographies by distinguished authors on canonical figures,” this series promises to pair “great subjects with writers known for their strong sensibilities and sharp, lively points of view.” Whoever thought up this approach apparently saw no imperative for the distinguished authors to find time to examine much evidence regarding their canonical subjects—at least that was the case with Korda and Grant. The book betrays a breathtaking lack of familiarity with the past two decades’ scholarship on the era in which Grant lived, on key figures who helped shape it, and on Grant himself. Editor in chief at Simon & Schuster, Korda readily concedes that he leaned most heavily on McFeely’s Grant and W. E. Woodward’s Meet General Grant, the latter a virtually worthless debunking effort from the late 1920s. The brief bibliographical chapter notes also mention three websites, a good guide to Civil War battlefields, an atlas, and one other book, but neither the notes nor the narrative suggests that Korda consulted the recent biographies or other revisionist literature.

The quality of Korda’s analysis emerges clearly in the first two pages. He suggests that most Americans know only two things about Grant—“his reputation as a drinker . . . and the fact that his portrait, with a glum, seedy, withdrawn, and slightly guilty expression, like that of a man with a bad hangover, is on the fifty-dollar bill.” In less than a full sentence, the author manages to evoke the major cliches about Grant’s coldly sending men to their deaths, presiding over a corrupt regime, and drinking too much (as well as describing a version of the fifty-dollar bill that must not have reached wide circulation). Just before this passage, Korda describes a Beyoncé Knowles concert at Grant’s Tomb that prompted a good deal of discussion in the popular press, signaling a strategy of alluding to popular culture in making points about Grant. Elsewhere, for example, readers learn that Julia Grant, the general’s wife, thought of herself as “a kind of border-state Scarlett O’Hara,” and that “Grant would not have loved, like the Air Cav colonel played by Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, the smell of napalm in the morning (or at any other time).”

Korda gets so many things wrong, large and small, that the temptation is to make a long list. Two examples will suffice. He asserts that Grant made almost no impression on classmates at West Point, including the future Confederate general James Longstreet, “who hardly remembered Grant at all.” In fact, Longstreet and Grant forged the closest of friendships. Related to Mrs. Grant’s family through his mother, Longstreet served with Grant in the Old Army, attended his wedding in 1848, and remained friendly after the Civil War. Korda also claims that in the late 1850s, Grant “recognized what few other people had thought through yet: If the Southern states seceded from the Union, there would be war; if there was war one result would eventually be the destruction of slavery; and that war, if and when it came, would be incalculably more bloody than anyone supposed, and would be won only by brute force and killing on a scale that would eclipse all previous wars.” No part of this remarkable passage is accurate, though, in attributing admirable prescience to Grant, it serves the useful purpose of illustrating how later events can be read into a historical character’s thinking at an earlier time.

Korda’s summary assessment favors the general over the president. Determined and courageous, Grant “defined for all time the American way of winning a war, from which, 150 years later, we deviate at our own risk.” Such a war must apply the nation’s “great industrial strength and reserves of manpower” and “be firmly based on the support of the American people and have an essentially moral base.” Korda echoes McFeely in arguing that Grant served two terms as president because he did not know what else to do, as well as in finding his efforts on behalf of freedpeople insufficient. Korda closes with praise for Grant’s Personal Memoirs, the pages of which, it must be said, reveal a man rarely glimpsed in Korda’s own portrait.

Josiah Bunting III’s Ulysses S. Grant, part of the American Presidents series edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., resembles Korda’s book only in its brevity. Far more diligent in mining the rich lode of recent scholarship, Bunting delivers a balanced and convincing appraisal. Grant remained a quiet puzzle to the American populace that poured out its affection and gratitude in the wake of his death, states Bunting, even as he later eluded authors who wrote about him without “anything approaching the objectivity and disinterestedness he both prized and represented.” Bunting sets up his narrative by restating the long-standing bill of indictment—“drunk, butcher, scandalmonger”—that continues to bedevil Grant. Unlike Korda, he appreciates that the work of Brooks Simpson, Jean Edward Smith, and others has begun a major reevaluation of Grant’s post–Civil War years.

Bunting allocates a bit less than half of his text to the origins and ultimate flowering of Grant’s gifts as a military commander. A former soldier who served as superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute, Bunting navigates this dimension of Grant’s career with incisive authority. Like Julius Caesar, he argues, Grant always moved forward and grappled with obstacles head-on. Capable of “almost inhuman disinterestedness in reaching judgments about strategy,” he “saw things bluntly and directly” and undoubtedly possessed “that rare combination of those qualities of character and mind that make for a great commander.” Far from an unimaginative butcher who relied on grim arithmetic for success, Grant kept his head amid the war’s enormous slaughter and unpredictability, mastering logistics and drawing the best out of his subordinates and men in the ranks. Perhaps most important for a general in chief, he “was willing to make decisions and live with their consequences, sustained, as William Tecumseh Sherman once said, by a constant faith in victory.”

Grant’s postwar career impresses Bunting as much as the years of Union command. “Bequeathed heavier and less tractable burdens than any other president in our history” except Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Grant dealt with the formidable task of reconstructing the nation, the final stage of conflict between the government and native peoples of the Great Plains, and a severe economic depression. “Of no president are biases in judgment less well disguised,” comments Bunting, “than in those that inform opinions about Ulysses Grant.” Unlike many of Grant’s critics, Bunting recognizes that he operated amid intensely racist forces, in both North and South, that militated against sweeping reforms to assist African Americans. In Grant’s campaign against the Klan and other actions, Bunting finds far more commitment to black people than most white northerners exhibited. The president meant to uphold the legacy of the Civil War, which included the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.

Bunting’s evaluation of Grant’s policy regarding Native Americans also takes into account pervasive mid-19th-century attitudes. At a time when many voices, including those of his friends Sherman and Philip H. Sheridan, called for the brutal suppression of native peoples, Grant favored “any course which tends to their civilization and ultimate citizenship.” In short, Grant hoped to transform Indians into Christian farmers and artisans who would resemble white Americans. Such an attitude reeks of cultural superiority and insensitivity toward native culture from a 21st-century perspective. But within the context of Grant’s time, believes Bunting, his ideas “were as unusual as they were bold.”

Like Korda, Bunting focuses on the Personal Memoirs at the close of his book, noting that “Grant imprinted his will, his character, his understanding of the Mexican and Civil Wars on the narrative.” He does not mention that Grant also evened some old scores and slighted subordinates who operated outside his inner circle, yet he is right in calling the Memoirs a “remarkable self portrait.” Grant wrote of personal and public events in a way that revealed “a man of sterling common sense, unfailing chivalry, unguessed-at resources of humor and compassion both.” More than that, “Grant displays an unself-conscious willingness, unusual in soldiers of any stamp, to confide self-doubt.”

The Grant described by Bunting would be unrecognizable to most Americans who have any impressions at all of the general and president. If revisionists such as Bunting prove as resilient and determined as their hero, then—but only then—will there be a chance for Grant to resume his place among the most celebrated and attractive figures in United States history.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading