The Unlikely Rise of Ulysses Grant

The Unlikely Rise of Ulysses Grant

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Ulysses Grant took an unconventional path to the White House, rising from a leather goods salesman to a heroic general in a matter of months.


Grant was the most successful Union General of the Civil War, defeating six Confederate armies and capturing three. [2] He was criticized over the Battle of Shiloh after the public learned that this victory came with unprecedented losses of life, and again during the Overland Campaign for the same reason. Despite the criticism, once Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox he was largely praised throughout the North as the man who had won the war. [3] Not surprisingly, general opinion of Grant in the South was much less favorable. During his presidency Grant experienced cases of fraud and governmental mismanagement, while his attempts to reunify the South with the North while trying to protect Civil Rights for African-Americans during the Reconstruction era were met with both praise and criticism, socially and historically. Grant's reputation rose again during his well-publicized world tour. While often criticized in the 20th century for not doing enough with Reconstruction efforts, and for corruption in his administration, many historians in the late 20th and 21st centuries have reevaluated Grant's performance and have largely offered more favorable assessments. [4] [5]

Grant's popularity declined with congressional investigations into corruption in his administration and Custer's defeat at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. In 1877, there was bipartisan approval of Grant's peaceful handling of the electoral crisis. [6] Grant's reputation soared during his well-publicized world tour. [7] At his death, Grant was seen as "a symbol of the American national identity and memory", when millions turned out for his funeral procession in 1885 and attended the 1897 dedication of his tomb. [1] Grant's popularity increased in the years immediately after his death. At the same time, commentators and scholars portrayed his administration as the most corrupt in American history. As the popularity of the pro-Confederate Lost Cause movement increased early in the 20th century, a more negative view became increasingly common. [4]

As they had early in the Civil War, Grant's new critics charged that he was a reckless drunk, and in light of his presidency, that he was also corrupt. In the 1930s, biographer William B. Hesseltine noted that Grant's reputation deteriorated because his enemies were better writers than his friends. [8] In 1931, Frederic Paxson and Christian Bach in the Dictionary of American Biography praised Grant's military vision and his execution of that vision in defeating the Confederacy, but of his political career, the authors were less complimentary. Speaking specifically of the scandals, they wrote that "personal scandal has not touched Grant in any plausible form, but it struck so close to him and so frequently as to necessitate the vindication of his honor by admitting his bad taste in the choice of associates." [5] However, Paxson and Bach noted Grant's presidency "had some achievements, after all." [5] Paxson and Bach said Grant's presidential achievements included settling peace with Great Britain, stabilizing the nation after an attempted Johnson impeachment, he brought the nation through the "financial and moral" uneasiness of the Panic of 1873, and kept the nation from breaking up during the controversial election of 1876. [5]

Views of Grant reached new lows as he was sometimes seen as an unsuccessful president and an unskilled, if lucky, general. [7] Even for scholars with a particular concern for the plight of former slaves and Indians, Grant left a problematic legacy and, with changing attitudes toward warfare after the end of the Vietnam War, Grant's military reputation suffered again. [9]

In the 1960s Bruce Catton and T. Harry Williams began the reevaluation of Grant's military career and presented assessments of Grant as a calculating and skillful strategist and commander. [10] Catton agreed that the Union had enormous potential advantages in terms of manpower and industry, but until Grant took over in 1864, it lacked the commander who could successfully exploit that potential. Catton said, "Grant, in short, was able to use the immense advantage in numbers, and military resources, and in money which the Federal side possessed from the start. Those advantages had always been there, and what the Northern war effort had always needed was a soldier who, assuming the top command, would see to it that they were applied steadily, remorselessly, and without a break, all across the board." [11]

William S. McFeely won the Pulitzer Prize for his critical 1981 biography that credited Grant's initial efforts on civil rights, but emphasized the failure of Grant's presidency to achieve lasting progress and concluded that "he did not rise above limited talents or inspire others to do so in ways that make his administration a credit to American politics." [12] John Y. Simon in 1982 responded to McFeely: "Grant's failure as President . lies in the failure of the Indian peace policy and the collapse of Reconstruction . But if Grant tried and failed, who could have succeeded?" [13] Simon praised Grant's first term in office, arguing that it should be "remembered for his staunch enforcement of the rights of freedmen combined with conciliation of former Confederates, for reform in Indian policy and civil service, for successful negotiation of the Alabama Claims, and for delivery of peace and prosperity." According to Simon, the Liberal Republican revolt, the Panic of 1873, and the North's conservative retreat from Reconstruction weakened Grant's second term in office, although his foreign policy remained steady. [14]

Historians' views continued to grow more favorable since the 1990s, appreciating Grant's protection of African Americans and his peace policy towards Indians, even where those policies failed. [1] This trend continued with Jean Edward Smith's 2001 biography where he maintained that the same qualities that made Grant a success as a general carried over to his political life to make him, if not a successful president, then certainly an admirable one. [15] Smith wrote that "the common thread is strength of character—an indomitable will that never flagged in the face of adversity . Sometimes he blundered badly often he oversimplified yet he saw his goals clearly and moved toward them relentlessly." [16] Brooks Simpson continued the trend in the first of two volumes on Grant in 2000, although the work was far from a hagiography. [17] H. W. Brands, in his more uniformly positive 2012 book, wrote favorably of Grant's military and political careers alike, saying:

As commanding general in the Civil War, he had defeated secession and destroyed slavery, secession's cause. As President during Reconstruction he had guided the South back into the Union. By the end of his public life the Union was more secure than at any previous time in the history of the nation. And no one had done more to produce the result than he. [18]

As Reconstruction scholar Eric Foner wrote, Brands gave "a sympathetic account of Grant's forceful and temporarily successful effort as president to crush the Ku Klux Klan, which had inaugurated a reign of terror against the former slaves." Foner criticized Grant for not sending military aid to Mississippi during the 1875 election to protect African Americans from threats of violence. According to Foner, "Grant's unwillingness to act reflected the broader Northern retreat from Reconstruction and its ideal of racial equality." [19] [a]

According to historian Brooks Simpson, Grant was on "the right side of history". Simpson said, "[w]e now view Reconstruction . as something that should have succeeded in securing equality for African-Americans, and we see Grant as supportive of that effort and doing as much as any person could do to try to secure that within realm of political reality." John F. Marszalek said, "You have to go almost to Lyndon Johnson to find a president who tried to do as much to ensure black people found freedom." [21] In 2016, Ronald C. White continued this trend with a biography that historian T. J. Stiles said, "solidifies the positive image amassed in recent decades, blotting out the caricature of a military butcher and political incompetent engraved in national memory by Jim Crow era historians." [22]

Grant was largely praised among Republicans for being a Union War hero and his nomination as president on the Republican ticket was inevitable. [23] Upon his winning the nomination for president at the 1868 National Union Republican Convention, he received all 650 votes from delegates, with no other candidate being nominated. [24] Union veterans were convinced that since he was an effective battle commander and general during the Civil War, he would be an effective President of the United States. [25] Grant won the presidency by 300,000 popular votes out of 6,000,000 voters, while he won the electoral college vote 214 to 80. [26]

According to historian John Y. Simon, had Grant served only one term of office, he would have been considered a great President by more historians, particularly noted for his successful negotiations of the Alabama Claims under his Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, his strong enforcement of civil rights for blacks, his concilliation with former Confederates, and for the delivery of a strong economy. [27] However, his second term, the Liberal Republican bolt had deprived Grant of the needed support from party intellectuals and reformers, while the Panic of 1873 devastated the national economy for years and was blamed on Grant. [27] When Grant left office in 1877 the age of the Civil War and Reconstruction ended, and his second administration foreshadowed the future administrations of Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley. [27]

Concerning his post-presidential trip around the world, historian Edwina S. Campbell said that Grant "invented key aspects of the foreign-policy role of the modern American presidency, and created an image abroad of the United States that endures to this day." [28] White viewed Grant as "an exceptional person and leader" and his presidency, although marred by corruption charges, "defended the political rights of African Americans, battled against the Ku Klux Klan and voter suppression, reimagined Indian policy, rethought the role of the federal government in a changing America, and foresaw that as the United States would now assume a larger place in world affairs, a durable peace with Great Britain would provide the nation with a major ally." [29]

When Grant assumed the presidency in 1869, the nation's Indian policies were in chaos, with more than 250,000 Indians on reservations being governed by 370 treaties. [30] Grant's presidency introduced a number of radical reforms while promising in his inaugural address to work toward "the proper treatment of the original occupants of this land—the Indians." [30] [b] As Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Grant appointed Ely S. Parker, a Seneca Indian, a former member of his wartime staff, as the first Native American to serve in this position. With his familiarity of Indian life, Parker became the chief architect of Grant's Peace policy. [32]

Grant's plan was to replace the often corrupt political patronage system of managing Indian affairs with one that relied much less on the military and instead used religious denominations to take charge of managing the reservations. Historian Richard R. Levine argues the result was a hodgepodge of contradictions with the military and the civilian leaders battling fiercely for control of policy. [33] Jennifer Graber says the churchmen, "had come to the plains to prove that peace and kindness, rather than coercion and force, were the best methods to achieve Indian acculturation and stop Indian attacks." [34] Both Catholic and Protestant churches responded to his request for help they were active in 70 reservations in the West. The Quaker denomination had the largest number of reservations under its supervision. Although historically committed to pacifism, the Quakers increasingly but uneasily recognized the need to use military force to keep uncooperative elements from engaging in raids. [35] The Protestant Episcopal Church brought together leaders in business and education to manage its reservation operations. Nevertheless, they became enmeshed in several scandals, including one at the Red Cloud Agency. Both the federal government and national media focused heavily on these scandals, leading to the severe damage to the reputation of the denomination as a whole. [36]

Historian Robert E. Ficken, points out that the peace policy involved assimilation with the Indians practically forced to engage in farming, rather than hunting, even though much of the reservation land was too barren for farming. The policy also led to boarding schools that have come under intense criticism since the late 20th century. Critics in addition note that reformers called for "allotment" (the breakup of an entire reservation so land would be owned in individual blocks by individual families, who could then resell it to non-Indians) without considering whether it would be beneficial. Ficken concludes that Grant's policy "contained the seeds for its own failure." [37]

Historian Cary Collins says Grant's "Peace Policy," failed in the Pacific Northwest chiefly because of sectarian competition and the priority placed on proselytizing by the religious denominations. [38] Historian Robert Keller surveying the Peace policy as a whole concludes that Grant's policy was terminated in 1882, and resulted in "cultural destruction [of] the majority of Indians." [39] Henry Waltmann argues that the president's political naïveté undercut his effectiveness. He was well-intentioned, but shortsighted, as he listened now to one faction, then to another among the generals, cabinet members, state politicians and religious advisors. The Peace Policy, concludes Waltmann, was more symbolic than substantial because Grant's actions and inactions too often contradicted his promises. [40]

Allegations of drinking, whether true, exaggerated or false, have been made about Ulysses S. Grant since his day. Historian Joan Waugh notes, ". one of the most commonly asked questions from students and public alike is, "Was Ulysses S. Grant a drunk?'" [41] Charges of drinking were used against him in his presidential campaigns of 1868 and 1872. [42] In 1868 The Republican Party chose Schuyler Colfax as his running mate hoping that Colfax's reputation as a temperance reformer would neutralize the attacks. [43]

Biographer Edward Longacre says "Many of the anecdotes on which his reputation as a drunkard were built are exaggerations or fabrications . [44] William McFeely notes that modern media typically has falsely stereotyped Grant as a drunk. [45] Contemporary stories of Grant's alleged excessive drinking were often reported by newspaper reporters during his military service in the Civil War. [c] Some of these reports are contradicted by eye witness accounts. [47] There are several other claims of Grant drinking, as he did at the isolated Fort Humboldt, which occasioned his resignation from the Army. [48] The question is how it affected his official duties. [49] Jean Edward Smith maintains, "The evidence is overwhelming that during the Vicksburg campaign he occasionally fell off the wagon. Grant took to drink, but only in private and when his command was not on the line. In a clinical sense, he may have been an "alcoholic", but overall he refrained from drink, protected from alcohol by his adjutant, Colonel John Rawlins, and especially by [his wife] Julia", maintaining that he drank when it "would not interfere with any important movement". [50]

There are no reported episodes while he was president or on the world tour, even though the media was well aware of the rumors and watched him closely. His intense dedication to staying dry proved successful and it not only resolved the alcoholism threat it made him a better decision maker and general. Historian James McPherson maintains Grant's self-discipline in the face of prewar drinking failures enabled him to understand and discipline others. [51] Geoffrey Perret believes that regardless of the scholarly books, however, "one thing that Americans know about Grant the soldier is that he was a hopeless drunkard." [52] [53] However, historians overall are agreed Grant was not a drunkard – he was seldom drunk in public, and never made a major military or political decision while inebriated. Historian Lyle Dorsett, said he was probably an alcoholic, in the sense of having a strong desire for hard drink. [54] [50] They emphasize he usually overcame that desire. Biographers have emphasized how "his remarkable degree of self-confidence enabled Grant to make a very great mark in the terrible American Civil War". [55]

Throughout the 20th century, historians ranked his generalship near the top and his presidency near the bottom. In the 21st century, his military reputation is strong and above average. The rankings on his presidency have improved markedly in the 21st century from a place in the lowest quartile to a position in the middle. [19]

The Amazing Life of Ulysses S. Grant

No American led a more eventful life than Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States and the Union Army's most celebrated general. Garry Adelman, director of history and education at the Civil War Trust, tells Grant’s amazing story in this inspiring video.

In the early stages of the Civil War, the Union lost several high profile battles, such as the Battle of Bull Run and Wilson’s Creek, despite having superior resources.

The Union had more resources than the South, producing 90 percent of the nation’s manufacturing output, including 20 times as much pig iron as the South and 32 times more firearms.

Despite having a clear advantage in resources and numbers, President Lincoln struggled to find competent leaders.

The Union needed a counterpart to the Confederates’ Robert E. Lee. That military leader turned out to be Ulysses S. Grant.

Ulysses S. Grant is one of the more unlikely military and political heroes of American history.

Ulysses S. Grant had no ambition to be a soldier but was pushed into it by his father.

Grant went to West Point but was unexceptional in his performance and graduated 21st out of a class of 39.

Though he performed admirably the Mexican-American War, Grant later condemned the war as “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”

When he was assigned to the Pacific Northwest, Grant, missing his family, allegedly started to drink heavily and finally resigned his army post in 1854 to avoid a court-martial.

After failing at several business ventures, Grant went back to work for his father in 1860.

Related reading: “Ulysses S. Grant at West Point, 1839” – The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

The Civil War was a turning point in the life of Ulysses S. Grant, who proved to be the leader the Union desperately needed.

Ulysses S. Grant volunteered for the Union army and quickly advanced through the ranks. His leadership skills were obvious.

In 1862, Grant scored a major victory at Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and another at Fort Donelson, along Cumberland River.

After his victory at Fort Donelson, Grant earned the nickname "Unconditional Surrender Grant.”

He followed his early success up with a costly but ultimately victorious engagement in the Battle of Shiloh, one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.

In Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln found the aggressive and competent general he had been searching for to lead the Union to victory.

In the early stages of the Civil War, President Lincoln struggled to find effective leaders.

Lincoln had been repeatedly frustrated by overly cautious generals, but Ulysses S. Grant’s approach was aggressive and unflinching.

Grant had a talent for identifying the enemy’s vulnerabilities and exploiting them, as he did in his bold 1863 campaign for Vicksburg.

Related reading: “Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on the Siege of Vicksburg, 1863” – The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

In March 1864, Ulysses S. Grant became the commander of all the Union armies and within a year brought the Civil War to a close.

In March 1864, Abraham Lincoln made Ulysses S. Grant commander of all the Union armies.

The last Confederate general surrendered on June 2, 1865, formally ending the war.

President Lincoln and General Grant had developed a close bond over the course of the war.

WATCH: “Grant and Lee at Appomattox” – American Battlefield Trust

After saving America as a general, Ulysses S. Grant worked to save it as a politician, winning the presidency in 1868 and 1872.

After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Ulysses S. Grant had to walk a tightrope between new president Andrew Johnson’s pro-South agenda, and protecting the newly won rights of the freed slaves.

Running as the Republican, Grant won the presidential election in 1868 and then again in 1872.

President Grant supported the passage of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed that the right of all American citizens to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States, or by any State, on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

President Ulysses S. Grant supported the 15th Amendment and promoted civil rights for African Americans and Native Americans.

President Grant supported the passage of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed that the right of all American citizens to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States, or by any State, on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Grant worked to end the Ku Klux Klan with the Ku Klux Act, which authorized the president to use military force against the Klan.

He also advocated for the rights of Native Americans and attempted to change for the better U.S. government policy relating to Native Americans.

Grant presided over the completion of the transcontinental railroad and a rapidly expanding industrial economy.

Grant also created the Department of Justice.

Ulysses S. Grant’s legacy as a nation-saving general and a civil rights-promoting president lives on to this day.

One week before his death on July 23, 1885, Ulysses S. Grant completed his autobiography. It became one of the best-selling books of its time.

Of Grant’s amazing life, Frederick Douglass wrote, “In him, the negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.”

In the areas of civil rights and foreign policy, Grant’s presidency was successful and innovative.

Grant died July 23, 1885, at Mount McGregor, New York.

Related reading: “Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant” – Ulysses S. Grant

The year was 1862. America was in the depths of the Civil War.

Looking back, it’s easy to believe that a Union victory was inevitable. The North had more money, more population, more industry. But no one thought that at the time. In the first year of the war, it looked as if the South would win. A series of high-profile victories in the east convinced many that Confederates were better fighters, under better leaders.

Where would President Lincoln find a battlefield general who could do for the Union what Robert E. Lee was doing for the Confederacy—lead it to victory?

The man he found, the man who saved the Union, was Ulysses S. Grant. He wasn’t Lincoln’s first choice—or second, or third. In fact, when the war started in 1861, Lincoln had no idea who Ulysses S. Grant was. Hardly surprising since, at the time, Grant was selling hats to farmers’ wives in a small town in Illinois.

His rise to glory is one of the most amazing stories in American history.

Born in Ohio on April 27, 1822, Grant had no ambition to be a soldier. His father pushed him into it, thinking he wasn’t suited for much else. Grant’s West Point career wasn’t especially distinguished, either. But during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), Grant proved himself to be an officer of unusual ability. He was cool under fire, daring, but rarely reckless. Even more important, the men under his command trusted him.

After that war, Grant returned to St. Louis to marry his fiancée, Julia Dent, the daughter of a slave-owning Missouri farmer. Grant was never happier than when he was with Julia. And he was never unhappier than when he was not. Unfortunately, in this period, Army life forced them to be separated—sometimes for many months.

To assuage his loneliness, Grant started to drink. While in a distant posting in northern California, a thousand miles from Julia, his drinking got the better of him. He resigned his Army commission to avoid an embarrassing court-martial.

It was downhill from there, one business venture failing after another. By 1860, thoroughly humiliated and with no money and no prospects, he was back working for his father in the small town of Galena, Illinois.

Then, the Civil War happened.

The Union was in desperate need of experienced soldiers. Grant volunteered. His leadership skills were immediately obvious. He quickly advanced through the ranks.

In a little more than six months, he scored two major victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, along the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. He followed these up with victory in the largest battle in American history up to that time—the Battle of Shiloh—making him a true Union hero in a cause that was starved for heroes.

There was nothing flashy about Grant’s generalship. All he did was win.

Unlike the overly-cautious generals that drove President Lincoln to distraction, Grant’s battle plan was to always move forward, always put pressure on his foes. Any advantage the Union had in technology or manpower he employed to the fullest.

Like Napoleon, Grant was a superb reader of maps. He could identify the enemy’s vulnerabilities and exploit them, as he did in his brilliant 1863 Campaign for Vicksburg—a campaign that is still studied at war colleges.

In March 1864, Lincoln made Grant commander of all the Union armies. It took more than a year of the war’s hardest fighting before Lee surrendered and the war finally came to an end.

By this point the president and his general had developed a close bond. Shortly after Grant returned to Washington, Lincoln invited the Grants to join him and Mary Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. Grant accepted. Julia, however, had developed an intense dislike for Mary Lincoln and insisted that her husband get out of the commitment. Embarrassed, Grant did.

That night, in that theatre, Lincoln was assassinated.

As the commander of all Union armies, Grant was placed in a terrible bind, having to walk a tightrope between new president Andrew Johnson’s pro-South agenda, which favored the old white aristocracy, and protecting, as Lincoln intended, the newly-won rights of the freed slaves.

Grant had saved America once as a general. Could he save it again as a politician?

Running as the Republican candidate for president, Grant easily won election in 1868, and then again, in 1872.

During his tenure, he fought to secure the passage of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed all American citizens the right to vote, regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

He created the Department of Justice, broke up the Ku Klux Klan, and advocated for the rights of Indians.

He presided over the completion of the transcontinental railroad and a rapidly expanding industrial economy.

One week before his death on July 23, 1885, he completed his autobiography. It became one of the best-selling books of the 19th century.

Of Grant’s amazing life, Frederick Douglass wrote a fitting epithet: “In him, the negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.”

I’m Garry Adelman, director of history and education at The Civil War Trust, for Prager University.

About by History Channel

“At the time of his death, Ulysses S. Grant was the most famous man in the world and stood alongside men like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in the pantheon of American heroes. However, today Ulysses S. Grant is largely forgotten, his rightful legacy tarnished by a fog of myth, rumor and falsehood.

Grant tells the remarkable and quintessentially American story of a humble man who overcomes incredible obstacles, rises to the highest ranks of power and saves the nation not once, but twice. With a seamless blend of dramatic scenes, expert commentary and beautifully enhanced archival imagery, this three-part miniseries uncovers the true legacy of the unlikely hero who led the nation during its greatest tests: the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Born into a humble family of abolitionists, Ulysses S. Grant was never destined for greatness. At a time when the nation is being ripped apart over the issue of slavery, Grant marries into a slave-holding family and is forced to confront his own feelings about equality. As the country falls apart around him, Grant bounces from job to job, at one point selling firewood on the streets to buy food for his family. Just a few years later, this quiet, unassuming man is in command of a million men, and it is his ingenious strategy and bulldog determination that wins the Civil War, re-unifies the Nation and helps bring freedom to 4 million former slaves.

Widely regarded as the greatest general of his generation, Grant is called to duty again to serve as president. In the face of huge obstacles, Grant reunifies a fractured nation, battles the KKK and emerges as a champion of civil rights and equality for all Americans. Grant’s meteoric rise is one of the unlikeliest stories in American history, but it wasn’t luck, it didn’t just happen by accident and it wasn’t easy. With gritty depictions of brutal battles, risky gambles, crushing setbacks and triumphant victories, Grant will take the viewer inside the moments that defined Grant and forever changed our nation.“


  • Justin Salinger as Ulysses S. Grant
  • Carel Nel as Abraham Lincoln
  • Dianne Simpson as Julia Grant
  • Craig Jackson as General Henry Halleck
  • Francis Chouler as John Rawlins
  • Jason K. Ralph as General William Sherman
  • Brian Heydenrych as Robert E. Lee
  • Daniel Fox as Colonel Charles Marshall
  • Arthur Falko as Young Sentinel (Shiloh)
  • General Andrew Jackson
No. TitleDirected byWritten byOriginal air dateU.S. viewers
1"Unlikely Hero"Malcolm VenvilleNicholas Greene & Frederick RendinaMay 25, 2020 ( 2020-05-25 ) 2.97 [4]
In one of the unlikeliest stories in American history, Ulysses S. Grant rises from his humble beginnings to the winningest general in the Civil War. As a child in Ohio, he helps his father with his tanning business. Then is sent off to military school, becoming an underachieving cadet at West Point. Grant serves as a quartermaster in the Mexican-American War, and marries Julia Dent, the daughter of a slave-owner in White Haven, Missouri. He is then stationed at Fort Humboldt where he is melancholic without his wife and two sons, and starts to drink heavily. After resigning from the U.S. Army, he adjusts to civilian life in Illinois where he learns of a lawyer named Abraham Lincoln who is running for president to end slavery. When the southern states secede from the Union, Grant is thrust into war once again, first in the messy Battle of Belmont. He then takes out Fort Henry and Fort Donelson with Commander Foote and his Navy gun boats, and finally wins the long, bloody Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee alongside General Sherman in 1862.
2"Lincoln's General"Malcolm VenvilleNicholas Greene & Frederick RendinaMay 26, 2020 ( 2020-05-26 ) 2.81 [5]
Seven weeks after the bloodbath of Shiloh, Major General Ulysses S. Grant is sidelined by his superior General Halleck in Corinth where the Rebels had evacuated. Instead, Grant sets his sights on Vicksburg and takes incredible risks in crossing the mighty Mississippi River. He first wins the Battle of Jackson and then the Siege of Vicksburg where he gets a glimpse of freed slaves wanting to fight alongside his soldiers. President Lincoln creates the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 to call all black people to arms and put them in Union blue uniforms. He combines three armies into a single conflict in Chattanooga, proclaiming victory on Missionary Ridge. Grant finally meets Abraham Lincoln in person at the White House where the president makes him his favorite, promoting him to lieutenant general, commander of the entire Union army. Then Grant prepares for an epic clash with Confederate General Robert E. Lee at the exhausting Battle of the Wilderness of Spotsylvania County in Lee's home state of Virginia in 1864.
3"Freedom's Champion"Malcolm VenvilleNicholas Greene & Frederick RendinaMay 27, 2020 ( 2020-05-27 ) 2.78 [6]
Ulysses S. Grant focuses on defeating Robert E. Lee in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. But it's not easily accomplished as Grant's failed campaign in the Battle of Cold Harbor gives him the nickname "The Butcher". Then Grant's commanders put the wrong man, James Ledlie, in charge, causing major casualties in the Battle of Petersburg when a mine explosion created a deep crater in the ground and he plunders his battalion into the onslaught. By 1864, Grant's grand plan is set into motion when General Sherman captures Atlanta before the re-election of Lincoln. Grant defeats Lee in Jetersville. And on April 9, 1865, Grant meets Lee at the Wilbur McLean House in Appomattox where he surrenders, thus winning the Civil War. A week later, Lincoln is assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theater. After Andrew Johnson makes a mess of the aftermath, General in Chief Grant is called to serve as the 18th president of the United States during one of the most difficult times in America's history the Reconstruction era, the black codes conflicts, the New Orleans massacre of 1866 and taking on the newly-formed Ku Klux Klan in the South. Grant finishes two terms, travels the world with Julia, writes his manuscript with Mark Twain, and contracts throat cancer. In 1885, he dies a hero's death as the "savior of America".
  1. ^"Grant Full Episodes, Video & More". HISTORY.
  2. ^
  3. Pedersen, Erik (April 22, 2020). " ' Grant' Trailer & Premiere Date: History Mini Tracks Union's Civil War Savior & 18th President". Deadline . Retrieved April 22, 2020 .
  4. ^
  5. Alcinii, Daniele (April 22, 2020). "History slates three-night miniseries event "Grant" for late May". RealScreen . Retrieved April 22, 2020 .
  6. ^
  7. Metcalf, Mitch (May 27, 2020). "Updated: ShowBuzzDaily's Top 150 Monday Cable Originals & Network Finals: 5.25.2020". Showbuzz Daily. Archived from the original on May 29, 2020 . Retrieved May 27, 2020 .
  8. ^
  9. Metcalf, Mitch (May 28, 2020). "Updated: ShowBuzzDaily's Top 150 Tuesday Cable Originals & Network Finals: 5.26.2020". Showbuzz Daily. Archived from the original on May 29, 2020 . Retrieved May 28, 2020 .
  10. ^
  11. Metcalf, Mitch (May 28, 2020). "Updated: ShowBuzzDaily's Top 150 Wednesday Cable Originals & Network Finals: 5.27.2020". Showbuzz Daily. Archived from the original on May 28, 2020 . Retrieved May 28, 2020 .

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Almost Chosen People

Few men in American history have gone from complete obscurity to being a central figure in the life of the nation faster than Ulysses Simpson Grant. Known as Sam Grant by his West Point friends, his first two initials making Sam an inevitable nickname, Grant had an unerring ability to fail at everything he put his hand to, except for war, his marriage and his last gallant race against the Grim Reaper to finish his memoirs and provide financially for his wife and children. Most great figures in our history have known success more than failure. Not so Sam Grant. He would encounter humiliating defeats throughout his life, from beginning to end. At the beginning of the Civil War, he was a clerk, barely able to support his family. This section of John Brown’s Body, the epic poem on the Civil War by Stephen Vincent Benet, chronicles the unlikely rise of a military genius who knew unending defeat except in war.

Fate has a way of picking unlikely material,
Greasy-haired second lieutenants of French artillery,
And bald-headed, dubious, Roman rake-politicians.
Her stiff hands were busy now with an odd piece of wood,
Sometime Westpointer, by accident more than choice,
Sometime brevet-captain in the old Fourth Infantry,
Mentioned in Mexican orders for gallant service
And, six years later, forced to resign from the Army
Without enough money to pay for a stateroom home.
Turned farmer on Hardscrabble Farm, turned bill-collector,
Turned clerk in the country-store that his brothers ran,
The eldest-born of the lot, but the family-failure,
Unloading frozen hides from a farmer’s sleigh
With stoop-shouldered strength, whittling beside the stove,
And now and then turning to whiskey to take the sting
From winter and certain memories.
It didn’t take much.
A glass or two would thicken the dogged tongue
And flush the fair skin beneath the ragged brown beard.
Poor and shabby–old “Cap” Grant of Galena,
Who should have amounted to something but hadn’t so far
Though he worked hard and was honest.
A middle-aged clerk,
A stumpy, mute man in a faded army overcoat,
Who wrote the War Department after Fort Sumter,
Offering them such service as he could give
And saying he thought that he was fit to command
As much as a regiment, but getting no answer.

So many letters come to a War Department,
One can hardly bother the clerks to answer them all–
Then a Volunteer colonel, drilling recruits with a stick,
A red bandanna instead of an officer’s sash
A brigadier-general, one of thirty-seven,
Snubbed by Halleck and slighted by fussy Frémont
And then the frozen February gale
Over Fort Henry and Fort Donelson,
The gunboats on the cold river–the brief siege–
“Unconditional surrender”–and the newspapers.

Major-General Grant, with his new twin-stars,
Who, oddly, cared so little for reading newspapers,
Though Jesse Grant wrote dozens of letters to them
Pointing out all the wonders his son had done
And wringing one dogged letter from that same son
That should have squelched anybody but Jesse Grant.
It did not squelch him. He was a business man,
And now Ulysses had astonished Galena
By turning out to be somebody after all
Ulysses’ old father was going to see him respected
And, incidentally, try to wangle a contract
For army-harness and boom the family tannery.
It was a great surprise when Ulysses refused,
The boy was so stubborn about it.

An Author and a President

Two of the nineteenth century’s most prominent American men, Ulysses S. Grant and Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, developed an unlikely friendship extending from the White House to Grant’s deathbed. The steely, quiet demeanor of the former Union Army general contrasted sharply with the jocular nature of the celebrated author. Nevertheless, over the years a deep relationship blossomed, cementing a friendship for the ages.

In late November 1867, a young Mark Twain arrived in Washington, D.C., to serve as private secretary to William Stewart, a senator from Nevada. Twain had just returned from a tour of Europe and the Middle East aboard the former Union steamship, Quaker City. While his travels on the Quaker City would later be documented in the successful 1869 book, The Innocents Abroad, he was fairly unknown at the time he went to Washington. Twain later wrote in his autobiography, “I was not known then I had not begun to bud--I was an obscurity…” 1

After moving into the Willard Hotel, just down the street from the White House, Twain spent a great deal of time at the Capitol observing the proceedings of the Fortieth Congress, meeting congressmen, making friends with correspondents, and writing for newspapers. 2 On November 25, he wrote home, “Am pretty well known now- intend to be better known. Am hobnobbing with these old Generals and Senators and other humbugs for no good purpose.” 3

This photograph of Mark Twain was taken on May 20, 1907.

One of these “old Generals” happened to be Ulysses S. Grant. In a notebook chronicling Twain’s life from August through December 1867, he noted their first meeting, “Acquainted with Gen Grant-- said I was glad to see him--he said I had the advantage of him.” Although the details of this first meeting are few and far between, it is likely that Grant and Twain met through Senator Stewart. 4 It is unknown where this meeting took place, but their introduction laid the groundwork for a very important friendship that benefited both men later in life.

On January 19, 1868, Twain attempted to contact Grant but was unsuccessful, writing to his family, “I called at Gen. Grant’s house last night. He was out at a dinner party, but Mrs. Grant said she would keep him at home on Sunday evening.” 5 If this second meeting ever came to fruition, it is undocumented. Around the same time, Twain secured a book contract to write about his travels aboard the Quaker City and concluded his short stint as private secretary by early March. 6 Twain had grown weary of Washington, writing in a letter to his brother, “I am most infernally tired of Wash. & its ‘attractions.’” 7

Two years later on July 4, 1870, Mark Twain returned to Washington to lobby the passage of a Senate bill that would reorganize the Tennessee judicial system. 8 By this point, Twain had gained greater notoriety with the publication of The Innocents Abroad the previous year. After Twain observed congressional proceedings for several days, Senator Stewart brought him to the White House on July 8 to meet President Grant, now a year into his first term. The author described the encounter in a letter to his wife, Olivia, later that evening, “Called on the President in a quiet way this morning. I thought it would be the neat thing to show a little embarrassment when introduced, but something occurred to make me change my deportment to calm & dignified self-possession. It was this: The General was fearfully embarrassed himself!” 9

This nineteenth century oil on canvas portrait depicts President Ulysses S. Grant

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

What caused the president’s fearful embarrassment? Twain recounted the events of July 8 many years later in more detail: “I shook hands and then there was a pause and silence. I couldn’t think of anything to say. So I merely looked into the General’s grim, immovable countenance a moment or two, in silence, and then I said: ‘Mr. President, I am embar[r]assed-- are you?’ He smiled a smile which would have done no discredit to a cast-iron image and I got away under the smoke of my volley.” 10

Their meeting at the White House certainly left a deep impression on the president. Nearly ten years later, Twain agreed to speak at a Chicago reception given in Grant’s honor on November 13, 1879. The mayor of Chicago, Carter Harrison, introduced the two men. Upon introduction Grant paused, looked at Twain, and asked, “Mr. Clemens, I am not embarrassed, are you?” The tension broke and the two men laughed together. To Twain’s delight, Grant recalled their previous meeting and a friendship, twelve years in the making, was born. 11

Starting in the fall of 1880, Twain began to call often at Grant’s home in New York City. By this point a costly world tour had depleted most of Grant’s personal savings, so Twain encouraged the president to publish his memoirs. 12 Grant did not believe his memoirs would be profitable, writing in a January 1881 letter to Twain, “I have always distrusted my ability to write anything that would satisfy myself and the public would be much more difficult to please. In the second place I am not possessed of the kind of industry necessary to undertake such a work.” 13

Several years later, after a failed railroad venture plunged Grant and his wife Julia into near destitution, he reconsidered. In 1884, he wrote several articles for The Century Magazine at $500 per article. This venture encouraged the former president to write his memoirs, right around the same time doctors diagnosed him with throat cancer that fall. 14

Meanwhile, Mark Twain busied himself preparing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for publication. After he experienced a falling out with several publishers, Twain established his own publishing house, Charles L. Webster & Publishing, to produce this new book. One night in November 1884, Twain ran into Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century Magazine. Gilder invited Twain and his wife to dinner at his home. Gilder told Twain about Grant’s articles and let slip that the former president was prepared to write his memoirs. 15

This 1885 engraving depicts the title character Huckleberry Finn from Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain published the novel in 1885, through his publishing company Charles L. Webster & Publishing. Twain also published Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant through this publishing company the same year.

Armed with this information, Twain went to Grant’s house the very next morning to ask whether he signed the contract with Century. Grant responded that the contract was drawn but not signed. Twain reviewed the contract, appalled to discover Century’s offer of ten percent royalty. Instead, Twain offered to publish Grant’s memoirs at his new publishing house. 16 Grant deliberated over this proposition, initially reluctant to renege on his original agreement with Century. However, after comparing offers and discussing the matter with his son, Colonel Frederick Dent Grant, Grant wrote to his financial advisor George W. Childs on November 23, 1884: “On reexamining the Contract prepared by the Century people I see that it is all in favor of the publisher, with nothing left for the Author. I am offered very much more favorable terms by Chas L. Webster & Co. Mark Twain is the Company.” 17 Twain offered Grant a choice, a twenty percent royalty or seventy percent of the total profit. Grant chose the latter and signed the contract. 18

Grant began writing as the cancer ravaged his body. By the winter of 1885, his health deteriorated to the point he could no longer leave the house. Twain visited Grant in late February. Stunned by the former president’s declining health, Twain feared Grant would not live to finish his memoirs. 19 But Grant persevered, brushing off several close calls with death to continue his work.

Meanwhile, Twain navigated the publishing world, communicating with Century about Grant’s magazine articles and responding to claims about the true authorship of Grant’s memoirs. On April 29, Theron C. Crawford, correspondent for the New York World, alleged that Grant’s assistant, Adam Badeau, an accomplished author in his own right, was the true writer behind the memoirs. Several years prior, Badeau, who worked as part of Grant’s Union Army staff during the Civil War, published Military History of Ulysses S. Grant. 20 Twain responded publicly in early May, publishing a letter from Grant in the New York Tribune emphatically denying the charges, “This is false. The composition is entirely my own.” 21 Shortly after, Badeau parted ways with Grant in an attempt to quell the rumors.

Draft pages from Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant written by Ulysses S. Grant in 1885.

On June 16, Grant relocated from his home in New York City to a cottage called Mount McGregor in the Adirondack Mountains at the advice of his doctor. 22 One week later, as Grant moved into the final stages of writing, he grappled with his impending death in a letter to his physician, John H. Douglas: “I said I had been adding to my book and to my coffin. I presume every strain of the mind and body is one more nail in the coffin.” 23

Twain joined Grant at Mount McGregor on June 27. Grant could barely speak, and the two men communicated by slips of paper as they went over page proofs together. During this visit, Grant completed his chapter on Appomattox and assessments of Lincoln and several Civil War generals. Twain departed for Elmira, New York, and the friends continued to correspond during the final days of June. 24 Grant wrote in one letter, “There is much more that I could do if I was a well man. I do not write as clearly as I could if well.” 25 On July 1, 1885, he wrote a preface which Twain immediately released to the public. With the preface written, at long last Grant finished his book. Just three weeks later, on July 23, 1885, President Ulysses S. Grant passed away surrounded by his loved ones. 26

As the nation mourned the death of their beloved general and president, Twain worked to prepare Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant for publication. The two-volume set detailing Grant’s life, Civil War experiences, and portraits of famous men, including Abraham Lincoln, was a major financial success. The first printing alone sold 300,000 sets and Twain presented Julia Grant with a check for $200,000. After additional sales, the royalties eventually totaled $450,000 (or twelve million dollars in today’s currency), affording Mrs. Grant a comfortable retirement. 27

This photograph by Mathew Brady depicts First Lady Julia Dent Grant

In addition to its great financial success, critics lauded Personal Memoirs as a literary classic. On February 3, 1886, Twain wrote to Julia Grant, “An able critic told me the other day that the Memoirs are so noble a literary masterpiece that they will long outlast any other monument that can be erected to the memory of General Grant.” 28 Ultimately, the relationship between Grant and Twain, formed during that fateful first meeting in Washington, resulted in an enriching friendship which helped cement President Grant’s legacy. Although Grant’s writing was driven mostly by his and his family’s financial needs, he began a historic trend of presidents writing their memoirs for public consumption after leaving office.

The Unlikely Paths of Grant and Lee

Gens. Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

One hundred fifty years ago, in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, Ulysses S. Grant won the Civil War.* His chief opponent, Gen. Robert E. Lee of the Confederate States, had surrendered, all but ending the rebellion that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives but freed millions more.

But this was just the beginning of Grant’s career. Three years later, after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the terrible tenure of Andrew Johnson, he was elected president and served two terms, leaving office as a celebrated statesman. Afterward, he would manage a bank, lose his wealth, and die from cancer, although not before penning the greatest memoir of any former president. But this isn’t the end of his story Grant would die a second death of sorts, as opponents reduced his life to its worst qualities: His bloody tactics came to the forefront, as did his drinking and the corruption in his administration. There are few monuments to Grant, and they are mostly ignored.

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By contrast, Robert E. Lee didn’t have Grant’s long career in public life. He died in 1870, just a few years after the war. But in his short tenure as president of what’s now Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, he became a Southern saint, never defeated, and a man who surrendered his army with honor and dignity. In death, this part of Lee would subsume the whole person. In 1890, when ex-Confederates erected a monument to Lee in the middle of Richmond, Virginia—the old Confederate capital—he would stand as an avatar for the Old South, the symbol of a romantic age. At present, there are Lee memorials across the South: highways, parks, monuments, and state commemorations. And in popular memory, he remains a figure of admiration, an example of duty, honor, and chivalry.

To millions of Americans, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, Lee is a role model and Grant is—despite his gifted generalship and consequential presidency—an embarrassment. What happened? How did the hero of the war become a quasi-ignominious figure, and how did the champion of Southern slavery become, if not the war’s hero, its most popular figure?

The answer begins with Reconstruction. 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’ 14 th and 15 th 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.

Grant wasn’t blind to his critics, and he devoted his presidency and post-presidency to defending both his record as general and the aims of the war he won. “While I would do nothing to revive unhappy memories in the South,” he once declared, “I do not like to see our soldiers apologize for the war.”

Facing him was a phalanx of Southern sympathizers and former Confederates, from ex-president Jefferson Davis to polemical writers like Edward Pollard, who would give the name “Lost Cause” to the movement to redeem and defend the former Confederacy. Born out of grief and furthered by a generation of organizations (like United Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy), proponents of the Lost Cause would wage a battle for the nation’s memory of the war. To them it was not a rebellion or a fight for slavery it was a noble battle for constitutional ideals. As Davis put it in his two-volume memoir and defense of the Southern cause, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, slavery “was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident,” and the South was fighting against “unlimited, despotic power” of the federal government and its “tremendous and sweeping usurpation” of states’ rights.

Which brings us to Lee, who—in his surrender at Appomattox—gave raw materials to the Lost Cause. “After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources,” wrote Lee in his farewell address. “You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from a consciousness of duty faithfully performed and I earnestly pray that a Merciful God will extend to you His blessings and protection.”

Not only would this order help cement Lee as a Southern icon—as historian David Blight writes in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, Lost Cause advocates would canonize Lee as a “blameless Christian soldier, a paragon of manly virtue and duty who soared above politics”—but it would fuel other narratives: that the nation should honor Southern bravery, that the Union’s victory was one of numerical superiority and not tactical skill (it’s in this that we see the claim that Grant was a “butcher” of men, despite all evidence to the contrary), that Reconstruction was a disaster of federal overreach, and that white supremacy was the proper order of things in the United States. And in at least the case of Southern bravery, Lost Causers would find help from Grant, who admired Lee and the soldiers he led. “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse,” Grant wrote in an oft-quoted passage of his memoirs. “I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.”

Grant’s post-facto nod to Lee would stand as a powerful symbol of reconciliation. Blight writes, “Grant’s passing was invoked as a moment of national unity. Some Confederate veterans’ groups in the South passed resolutions of honor and sympathy for their former foe.” Two of his pallbearers were former Confederate generals—appointed by Democratic President Grover Cleveland—representatives of a nation united in mourning and eager to move on. Exhausted by Reconstruction and the battles over black rights, white Northerners were eager to put the past behind them and reunite with their Southern cousins. The Lost Cause was a template for doing just that. White Americans didn’t want to dwell on the challenges of race and emancipation, and the South’s narrative of honor and sincerity—aggressively pushed by Confederate veterans and their supporters—allowed everyone to celebrate the individual greatness of men like Lee and Grant, even as the latter never abandoned his view that the Southern cause was slavery and that the North was right to wage the war.

In popular culture, this sentimental picture of sectional rapprochement was spread by a cottage industry of writers and publishers in academia, it was helped along in the early 20 th century by scholars under the tutelage of historian William Archibald Dunning of Columbia University. Following his lead, a generation of writers would bring the Lost Cause and its ideas into American historiography. To the “Dunning School,” Reconstruction was a terrible failure, a product of dangerous revolutionaries (the Radical Republicans) and an enfeebled, drunken, and corrupt President Grant. Dunning and his students justified the proto-Jim Crow “Black Codes,” and derided the entire project of the Republican Party as a dangerous experiment in “Negro rule.” “A concept that for them,” writes historian John David Smith, “signified a saturnalia of corruption and fiscal excess by black, carpetbag, and scalawag state governments and the tyranny of U.S. Army occupation forces.” Blacks were inferior, they reasoned, and unfit for any government. They praised Andrew Johnson’s lenient Reconstruction and attacked Grant’s in an effort to bury his reputation.

If the ideas of the Dunning School stuck with the public, it’s in large part because it gave white Northerners license to ignore black oppression, and white Southerners a way to justify it. “The traditional or Dunning School of Reconstruction was not just an interpretation of history. It was part of the edifice of the Jim Crow System,” said historian Eric Foner in a recent interview with The Nation. “It was an explanation for and justification of taking the right to vote away from black people on the grounds that they completely abused it during Reconstruction.” It’s hard to overstate Dunning’s influence. President Woodrow Wilson—a virulent white supremacist—held to the Dunning School, as did a generation of the men and women responsible for American mythmaking. Dunning’s narrative was the basis for the novel The Clansman, later adapted into the pathbreaking film The Birth of a Nation—it has all the elements of Lost Cause mythology and history—as well as the novel Gone With the Wind and its film adaptation several decades later. And you can see vestiges of it in our continued fascination with the noble ex-Confederate, sent West in pursuit of life, revenge, or both.

There were strong challenges to this view—W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America stands as the most prominent—but this picture would hold in American life until the Civil Rights movement, when a new generation of scholars challenged the consensus and began the slow work of rehabilitation, for Reconstruction and for Grant. That work continues, exemplified in works like Foner’s Reconstruction and Douglas Egerton’s The Wars of Reconstruction, as well as Frank Scaturro’s President Grant Reconsidered and Joan Waugh’s U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth.

But while historians have rehabilitated Grant in academia—as a flawed president who nonetheless held a strong commitment to black rights—his standing still lags in public memory. The reverse is true of Lee. To many, he is what he’s been for almost 150 years: a decent man on the wrong side of history.

Whether this changes depends on where the country goes. Both men are eternally tied to Appomattox and everything it meant, from the end of the Confederate dream to the promise of emancipation. And in turn, their legacies are tied to what those things mean today, from the particular heritage celebrated by millions of white Southerners to the fight for full inclusion of black Americans to national life. Maybe, if full racial equality is in our future, Grant will rise higher as the man who helped move the country a step toward its destination, while Lee declines to the background of history. And if that isn’t our path? Then Lee might remain as an image of what we want our past to look like, and not what it was.

*Correction, April 10, 2015: This article originally misstated that Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the courthouse in Appomattox, Virginia. He surrendered in the village Appomattox Court House, Virginia. And it also misstated that Grant was the last president to propose civil rights legislation until Lyndon Johnson. He was the last to do so until Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero

This lively and well-constructed short biography of Ulysses Grant follows the method of Plutarch, describing Grant's life from the standpoints of narrative and character. Narratively, Korda outlines as well as anyone ever has the odd structure of Grant's life: two towering peaks of heroism rising out of a muddy plain of perplexity and failure. The first peak was his extraordinary rise to greatness and victory in the Civil War, after years of obscurity in the Army and various failed ventures. The second, following a dismal presidency and an aimless post-presidency climaxed by financial scandal and ruin, saw Grant race the clock to write his memoirs (and provide for his wife) as he died slowly and painfully of throat cancer. Korda concisely summarizes Grant's military gifts, describes his deeply happy marriage with the "walleyed" daughter of a slaveholding Confederate, and documents his apparently congenitally bad judgment about anything having to do with money. This failing blighted both his public and private lives. It condemned him to failure before the war, disgraced his presidency, and bankrupted him afterward. Even so, he was a great man, and Korda's biography is an excellent introduction to an important American life.

Ron Chernow: Lessons in Leadership - The Unlikely Rise of Ulysses S. Grant

Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, sits down with the Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Ron Chernow to discuss his best-selling biography of former President Ulysses S. Grant. Chernow, whose previous work inspired the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, tells Blankfein why he chose to write about Grant and why Grant’s successes as a Civil War general and two-term president should give hope to any “late bloomers” in life. Finally, they talk about how Grant’s legacy impacts current events, particularly around race relations in the United States.

On why Grant is Chernow’s favorite work yet: “In many ways, this is my favorite book because we all admire accomplishment, but we all identify with failure. There’s a lot of failure in this book before Grant begins to soar and soar.”

On why Chernow chose to write about Grant: “When I decided to [write about] Hamilton, he was really fading into obscurity. To the extent that he was remembered, he was demonized. It was the same impulse that drew me to Grant. I felt that he was a much, much bigger and important figure than people realized.”

On Grant’s lasting impact on race relations in the U.S.: “When [people] talk about Grant’s presidency, they talk about the scandals, the corruption, and all of that happened, but I think the lasting story of Grant’s presidency is what he did to protect those four million blacks in the South from the ravages of the [Ku Klux] Klan.”

This Talks at GS session was originally streamed on Facebook Live.

Watch the video: Talks at GS Ron Chernow: Lessons in Leadership The Unlikely Rise of Ulysses S. Grant (October 2022).

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