The American Ulysses: Rehabilitating U. S. Grant

By Gallagher, Gary W. | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

The American Ulysses: Rehabilitating U. S. Grant


Gallagher, Gary W., The Virginia Quarterly Review


The American Ulysses: Rehabilitating U. S. Grant 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 igth 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 2Oth 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. …

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