U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth

U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth

U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth

U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth


At the time of his death, Ulysses S. Grant was the most famous person in America, considered by most citizens to be equal in stature to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Yet today his monuments are rarely visited, his military reputation is overshadowed by that of Robert E. Lee, and his presidency is permanently mired at the bottom of historical rankings.

In an insightful blend of biography and cultural history, Joan Waugh traces Grant's shifting national and international reputation, illuminating the role of memory in our understanding of American history. She captures a sense of what led nineteenth-century Americans to overlook Grant's obvious faults and hold him up as a critically important symbol of national reconciliation and unity. Waugh further shows that Grant's reputation and place in public memory closely parallel the rise and fall of the northern version of the Civil War story - in which the United States was the clear, morally superior victor and Grant was the emblem of that victory. After the failure of Reconstruction, the dominant Union myths about the war gave way to a southern version that emphasized a more sentimental remembrance of the honor and courage of both sides and ennobled the "Lost Cause." By the 1920s, Grant's reputation had plummeted.

Most Americans today are unaware of how revered Grant was in his lifetime. Joan Waugh uncovers the reasons behind the rise and fall of his renown, underscoring as well the fluctuating memory of the Civil War itself.


U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth is about a true hero, celebrated for his strength, his resolve, and his ability to overcome severe obstacles, banishing the possibility of failure. Grant once wrote, “One of my superstitions had always been when I started to go any where, or do anything, not to turn back, or stop until the thing intended was accomplished.” His feats attained mythic status and, like many national myths, contained elements of truth and exaggeration, accuracy and distortion. “As for Grant,” a contemporary observed, “he was like Thor, the hammerer; striking blow after blow, intent on his purpose to beat his way through.” Grant’s reputation is inevitably entwined with that of the Civil War, the tragic American epic. Like the president he served, Grant stood firm in his faith in a future beyond the terrible bloody battlefields of war. Unlike the president he served, Grant survived the war to implement their shared vision of reunion and emancipation, in a country still riven by dangerous crises. Inevitably, the hero stumbled, the myth was tarnished. Even heroes have flaws, and Grant’s heroism lay not in his moral perfectionism but in his resolute determination to defeat those who would split the Union. This book traces the shifting legacy of general and president Ulysses S. Grant, who emerged from obscurity to claim victory as the North’s greatest military leader.

Grant’s meteoric rise between 1861 and 1865 was not necessarily predicted by his first thirty-nine years. An undistinguished student in the West Point class of 1843, Grant gathered honors in the Mexican War but later resigned from the regular army in 1854 under questionable circumstances. He took up farming in Missouri, failing to achieve success in that occupation and then in a number of others as well. When Lincoln asked for volunteers in 1861, Grant was clerking in his father’s leather goods store in Galena, Illinois. He responded eagerly to his country’s call and rapidly won fame in the Western Theater, scoring decisive and morale-raising victories at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga. Promoted to lieutenant general in early 1864, Grant assumed direction of the entire Union military effort in the last year and a half of the war. That spring, Grant and Confederate general Robert E. Lee waged titanic battles across the Virginia countryside, ending only when Grant crossed the James River and pinned Lee’s army . . .

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