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
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
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. …