Ulysses S. Grant: Hero or butcher? Great man or doofus?

The guy who is conspicuously not on Mount Rushmore is Ulysses S. Grant. In the second half of the 19th Century he had a stature among Americans equal to that of Lincoln; a million people, at least, attended his funeral procession in 1885. When he toured the world after his two-term presidency he was greeted by enormous crowds. His memoirs are considered classics of the form. And purely from a military perspective, he was the man who devised the strategy that won the war. He rose from obscurity to become the victorious general at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg and Chattanooga, and then as general-in-chief he prosecuted the Overland Campaign and pinned down Lee, allowing Sherman to march through the heart of the Deep South. Historians promoting the “Lost Cause” interpretation always dismissed Grant as a lunkhead, and while he was still in the field — after Cold Harbor in particular — he was derided as a butcher. But Grant is making a comeback — and here’s my piece in our latest Civil War package, which will be in print this weekend. (We do a Civil War package every 6 months; my last piece was on Gettysburg.)

Excerpt:

The Ulysses S. Grant Memorial is the Lost Monument of Washington. It might as well be invisible. No one knows it’s there. ¶  Its location is actually spectacular, right at the foot of Capitol Hill, at the opening to the Mall. The memorial features one of the largest equestrian statues in the world, set on a platform 250 feet wide, with ancillary sculptures that are heaving with action and drama. Grant is, appropriately, the calm man at the center of the storm. He stares fixedly down the Mall toward Lincoln in his memorial. His horse is so passive-looking it appears to be waiting for someone to insert a quarter. ¶  Washington is full of statues to Civil War heroes whose achievements have been largely forgotten. Logan. Thomas. Sheridan. Scott. Farragut. McPherson. But at least these folks are surrounded by pedestrians and motorists. ¶ Grant, huge as he is, is dwarfed by the Capitol and is flanked by lots with signs reading “Permit Parking Only.” The oceanic Capitol Reflecting Pool was built in 1971 as if to block Grant from charging onto the Mall. The memorial is a hike from the museums, Union Station or any Metro stop. Tour buses stop nearby, but everyone walks toward the Capitol — except groups that pose on the steps of the memorial because it offers an excellent spot to capture the Capitol as a backdrop. Grant is left out of the frame.

One hundred and fifty years ago this spring, Ulysses S. Grant took command of all the armies of the United States. He developed a grand strategy to defeat the Confederacy and ultimately, with much struggle, succeeded. As much as any person not named Abraham Lincoln, Grant saved the Union. He went on to serve two terms as president and write some of the most celebrated memoirs in the history of American letters.

More than 1 million people, and possibly as many as 1.5 million, attended his funeral procession in New York in 1885 on a national day of mourning.

A million people attended the dedication of his tomb on the northern tip of Manhattan in 1897.

And then the veterans of the war died off, and the populace as a whole largely forgot why they had once revered the little man from Ohio.

When Groucho Marx asked on his 1950s TV quiz show, “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?,” he was just being silly (no one is actually buried there — the remains of the 18th president and his wife, Julia, are in sarcophagi). But by then the tomb was no longer one of the most visited sites in New York. It had fallen into disrepair, marred by graffiti and vandalism. That matched the decline in Grant’s reputation among historians.

Many ranked him among the very worst presidents. They maligned his military prowess. The “Lost Cause” interpretation of the war, created by the Confederate generation and later adopted by such influential historians as Douglas Southall Freeman, portrayed Southern commanders as chivalrous aristocrats waging a noble war against the industrialized and more populous North. They heaped praise on Robert E. Lee at the expense of the man to whom Lee surrendered.

Grant has been on the $50 bill for 101 years, but even there he’s an outlier — because how often do you see a fifty?

“Grant has been forgotten. And I don’t know that it’s ever going to change that dramatically,” said Joan Waugh, a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles and the author of “U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth.”

Her book is among a number of favorable reassessments of Grant. Additional biographies are forthcoming from such acclaimed historians as Ronald C. White Jr. and Ron Chernow. Lee’s reputation has suffered in recent decades, while Grant’s has been gradually rehabilitated. Even if this is so, Waugh writes, his reputation in popular culture is that of a “drunken butcher” (he was periodically a heavy drinker and, yes, many soldiers died because of his straight-ahead style of warfare) and “worst president.”

Something about Grant got lost over time, which is why, when Waugh would eat her lunch at the Grant Memorial while researching her book, she would often hear people say as they looked up at the horseman, “Who’s that guy?”

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Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · April 23