“No great American has suffered more cruelly and undeservedly at the hands of historians than Ulysses S. Grant. The dominating influence of pro-Southern historians early in the twentieth century—an influence that tainted scholarship on the Civil War for decades—helps to explain Grant’s abysmal reputation. But it does not explain Grant’s fate in full, nor why the vilification of the man has continued into our own time.”
Reviewing Joan Waugh’s new book US Grant: American Hero, American Myth in The New Republic, Sean Wilentz offers an excellent brief appraisal of the reasons behind the eclipse of Grant’s reputation in “The Return of Ulysses”:
“The imminent Civil War sesquicentennial of 2011 to 2015 augurs a full recasting of popular as well as scholarly understanding of the war and its major figures, including, inevitably, Grant. Perhaps then, Waugh concludes, visitors to the tomb ‘may be able to see all the tangled, complicated, but ultimately inspiring dimensions of a man who truly is both an American hero and an American myth.’
“If indeed justice is done and truth is served, those visitors will be inspired by far more than certain particular dimensions of Grant. A superb modern general who, with Lincoln, finally unleashed the force required to crush the slaveholders’ rebellion, Grant went on, as president, to press vigorously for the reunification of the severed nation, but on the terms of the victorious North and not of the defeated South. Given all that he was up against—not simply from Confederates and Southern white terrorists but, as president, from high-minded factional opponents and schismatics from his own Republican Party—it is quite remarkable that Grant sustained his commitment to the freedmen for as long and as hard as he did. The evidence clearly shows that he created the most auspicious record on racial equality and civil rights of any president from Lincoln to Lyndon B. Johnson. He also formulated some remarkably humane and advanced ideas on subjects ranging from federal Indian policy to public education. Given the limitations imposed on executive power by the Constitution, it is all the more remarkable that he acted as boldly as he did.
“So Grant’s full vindication—which will render him one of the greatest presidents of his era, if not of all American history—still awaits. But when it comes, we will better understand our complicated history . . . .”
(For several links to some of our earlier posts on Ulysses S. Grant, and to our review of Josiah Bunting III’s Ulysses S. Grant, see