Skip Navigation

The Lost Legacy of Ulysses Grant

Heavily tinted image by Charles H. Crosby of the profiles of Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington in a medallion.

Ron Chernow, historian and author of Hamilton (the main influence for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s acclaimed Broadway musical), recently released a biography of Ulysses S. Grant, Union Commander and later President.

The fate of Ulysses is curious indeed, especially when compared to those of the Confederate generals he defeated. As is well known, much controversy surrounded the removal of statues of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans, Charlottesville, and other towns across America this past summer. The South is, of course, dotted with statues of Lee, Jefferson Davis, and other Confederates such as Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Just this past week, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly caused controversy when he praised Lee.

While Abraham Lincoln is, of course, forever enshrined in American history, Grant is known more for his failures than his achievements.  Indeed, it is quite telling that on Wikipedia there is a separate article listing all the Lee memorials, while poor old Ulysses only has four paragraphs at the foot of his article, detailing the mere handful of memorials and street names dedicated to him.

This fact is worthy of questioning, since Grant was highly respected among his contemporaries. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, for example, said that “the negro owes his enfranchisement and the Indian [his] humane policy…to [Grant] more than any other man,” while John Mercer Langston, another great abolitionist of the period, noted that Grant was an active and honest ally of “the negro.”

Ulysses S. Grant emphatically won re-election in 1873, and was the last president of the 19th century to serve two full terms. After his presidency ended, Grant’s renown was furthered by the roaring success of his two-year world tour, and his popularity was so overwhelming that a third presidential term was seriously considered.

His wartime performance, in contrast to caricatures of Grant, manifested itself in Grant’s quick rise through the Union ranks: while the Union outnumbered the Confederates in both manpower and munitions, he proved his abilities as a deft and able commander on numerous difficult occasions: his capture of Fort Donelson, the Battle of Shiloh, the Chattanooga Campaign, and ultimately Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

Grant’s personal memoir was also highly acclaimed, both among the general public and literary critics. Mark Twain, who published the book, compared it favorably to Julius Caesar’s Commentaries, claiming that “the same high merits distinguished both books: —clarity of statement, directness, simplicity, unpretentiousness, manifest truthfulness, fairness and justice toward friend and foe alike, soldierly candor and frankness, and soldierly avoidance of flowery speech,” and that he “placed the two books side by side upon the same high level, and… still think[s] that they belong there.”

When the war was won, Grant sought out neither vengeance nor victor’s justice. He respected his opponents, and, in his personal memoirs, claimed to “rejoice…at anything rather than the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse”.

Most importantly, Grant was, for his time, incredibly progressive on racial issues. As the most prominent member of the Radical Republicans, his efforts resulted in the incapacitation of the nascent KKK for forty years, and he was instrumental in the passing of the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing the constitutional voting rights of African-Americans.

Moreover, in 1875, he signed the last Civil Rights legislation for almost a century, preventing racial discrimination in public accommodations. This is not well known, as the bigoted Supreme Court of the time did not allow the law to be enforced as intended, citing “government overreach”. Grant held these racially-progressive views even as Lincoln, who while being undeniably anti-slavery, was somewhat ambivalent about the ultimate idea of racial equality. In a discussion with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Civil War historian Brooks D. Simpson noted “for Grant, it was the color of the uniform, not the skin, that mattered.”

Of course, Grant’s presidency was marred by scandals. On this count, he surely possessed a hint of political naïveté, and should have done better. But he was never himself implicated, and it could be argued that the scandals were blown out of proportion in favor of ideological goals.

With such a formidable record and history, Grant’s lukewarm reputation today is surprising. One can perhaps assume it is a product of the American cultural infatuation with “the underdog,” which led to the veneration of the Confederate Generals at the expense of Grant. Yet, upon investigation, it seems that it is a direct consequence of the growing prominence of “Lost Cause” theory, in which pre-Civil Rights historians played a pivotal role.

As explained in a Ta-Nehisi Coates column, the Dunning School at Columbia University, led by William Archibald Dunning, sought to review Civil War history in a light more flattering to the Confederate cause. The historians’ agenda paralleled the zeitgeist of their period: as Dunning and his bright students were making strides in their historical analysis, the “Lost Cause” was coming into fashion. More and more people believed that honorable Confederates had nobly lost a rigged and unfair battle against the tyrannical North.

Such sentiments culminated with the white supremacist film ‘The Birth of a Nation’ in 1915. And, of course, this was the period in which the disfranchisement of blacks and poor whites was firmly entrenched, a process that was started ever since President Hayes ordered federal troops out of the South in the Compromise of 1877.

Hence, it is no surprise that the rising influence of the Dunning School coincided with sudden erection of Confederate Statues (in contrast to popular belief that most of these statues were placed in the years directly succeeding the Civil War).

Such was the growing influence of the Dunning School that W.E.B. DuBois felt compelled to respond with his book ‘Black Reconstruction’. He accepts that reconstruction was not carried out flawlessly, and, indeed, that some of the reconstruction administrators were corrupt.

But, in spite of its failures, DuBois argues its vision was right, with Reconstruction having led to some of the greatest policy achievements in the South: public education, the (albeit incomplete) enlargement of the voting population, the spread of philanthropy and investment in public infrastructure. However, despite careful and impressive usage of historical data, DuBois’ work was largely ignored until the Civil Rights Era.

A short glance of historians’ rankings of US Presidents makes it clear that, from the very first survey commissioned by Arthur Schlesinger in 1948 to the Siena College survey of 2002, Grant is consistently placed on the lower tiers.  However, in a turn of events, the latest C-SPAN survey ranked him as the 22nd best president, his highest position ever, and perhaps an indicator of his growing popularity among historians.

In addition to Chernow, other historians have also released Grant biographies in recent years. For example, Ronald White released American Ulysses last year, while H.W. Brands published the provocatively titled The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace in 2012. One year prior to that, Joan Waugh’s U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth hit bookshelves nationwide.

Slowly but surely, the counter-revision is well underway. One can only hope that modern historians succeed in restoring the reputation of one of the forgotten heroes of the Civil War era.

It surely won’t hurt Grant’s reputation if Lin Manuel decides to turn Grant’s civil war into a Broadway Musical. If it worked for Hamilton, then there is no reason why it shouldn’t work for Ulysses.