Ulysses S. Grant built a log cabin, had a weakness for liquor, led the Union army and was a president tarnished by scandal. So went the schoolhouse orthodoxy.
For many years, history was hard on the plain-speaking, resolute general in a rumpled privates coat. Grant hovered near the bottom of the ubiquitous rankings of presidents, usually because of the whiskey-tax scandal that played out in a federal courthouse in downtown St. Louis. Even his success as the Unions commanding general was diminished by the slur that he was the butcher of the Civil Wars final bloody campaigns.
Much of that fit neatly with the Souths powerful myth of the Lost Cause, which always took poorly to the notion that the hard-luck farmer from St. Louis County could sunder its heroic planter- warrior, Gen. Robert E. Lee. Grant wore mud-stained boots, for heavens sake, when he accepted the impeccably dressed Lees surrender on April 9, 1865.
He also allowed Lees soldiers to take their horses home for spring plowing and instructed his own men to cease their victory cannonade. The late Shelby Foote, a Mississippian, wrote approvingly of Grants decency in his three-volume Civil War narrative, published in 1974.
Clearly, there was much more to Grant than the caricature. Despite having married into a slaveholding family, he saw from the beginning of the Civil War that the goal was slaverys extinction. As president, he worked earnestly to better the rights of the freed slaves by enforcing Reconstruction. He fought the surge of the Ku Klux Klan with new laws and, when necessary, blue uniforms. He was sympathetic to American Indians, certainly by 19th-century standards.
H.W. Brands, a professor of history at the University of Texas, describes those attributes in detail in a new book, The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace. It is the latest in a series of scholarly works that offer a more complete picture of Grants place in American history.
Grant, meanwhile, has been rising slowly in the periodic rankings of presidents. At least hes out of the basement.
Brands is author of more than two dozen works of American history and biography, including books on Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt. (His biography of FDR, entitled Traitor to his Class, was published in 2008.)
Brands considers Grant the greatest of our war-hero presidents, surpassing even George Washington in importance. …