U.S. Grant was the great hero of the Civil War but lost favor with historians


This painting depicts Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant on the field during the Battle of the Wilderness, Virginia, May 5-7, 1864. (Megan Clugh/USAWC)

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.


Lieut. Genl. Ulysses S. Grant: General in Chief of the armies of the United States. Creator: Currier & Ives. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.)

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?”

Named by accident

Hiram Ulysses Grant, the son of a tanner, was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, on April 27, 1822. When a congressman nominated the teenage Grant to West Point, he mistakenly wrote the boy’s name down as Ulysses S. Grant, which stuck. At West Point, Grant proved to be an average student. He was an excellent horseman and fought with distinction in the Mexican War.


Ulysses S. Grant, full-length portrait, seated at table with books and top hat, facing right. Brady, Mathew B., approximately 1823-1896, photographer. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.)

Rough times followed. Military duty often separated him from his wife, with whom he would raise four children. After serving at a lonely outpost on the California coast and struggling with alcohol, he resigned from the army and bounced around for a few years, trying his hand at farming and winding up working in his father’s leather goods store in Galena, Ill.

Then the war came.

“He had unknown qualities that were just waiting for an opportunity to be revealed,” said Steve Laise, chief of cultural resources for the National Park Service’s New York City sites, including Grant’s Tomb.

He racked up victories in the West, including at Shiloh, Vicksburg and Chattanooga. He earned his nickname, “Unconditional Surrender Grant,” at Fort Donelson in Tennessee when the opposing commander asked for terms of capitulation and he replied, “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.”

He added stars to his shoulders until finally, in March 1864, Lincoln elevated him to lieutenant general, the first officer to be promoted to that rank since George Washington. Grant would now be general in chief.

He was no majestic figure like Washington. Grant was 5 feet 8 inches tall, not quite 140 pounds, slouchy, rough-looking, and handsome only in the renderings of artists. People noticed his steely gaze and headlong way of walking.

One Union officer famously wrote that Grant “habitually wears an expression as if he had determined to drive his head through a brick wall, and was about to do it.”

In the Army of Northern Virginia, the rebel general James Longstreet, who knew Grant well from their military adventures long before the great rupture, knew what was coming: “That man will fight us every day and every hour ’til the end of the war.”

At photographer Mathew Brady’s studio, an assistant to Brady fell partway through a skylight and showered potentially lethal glass shards all over the floor next to Grant, who had been sitting for a portrait. Grant barely flinched. He was almost superhumanly imperturbable. He was the kind of man who did not seem to hear the shrieking of the world.

“I think his secret was his utter unflappability and his ability to keep his eye on the ball no matter what else was going on,” said Gary W. Gallagher, a historian at the University of Virginia and author of numerous books about the war.

That’s what the Union would need in the painful spring and summer of 1864, which Gallagher calls the low point of the war for the U.S. government because civilian morale had plummeted. All eyes were on the coming presidential election. The Democrats were angling to nominate Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, who ran as a War Democrat but whose party’s platform called for a negotiated peace with the Confederacy that could permit the survival of slavery.

Against this backdrop, the Confederacy didn’t need to defeat the Union forces; it needed merely to hang on. The Union’s will to fight might well succumb to exhaustion.

Lincoln and Grant both understood this.

Grant had planned to return to the West, but the public was clamoring for him to face Lee head-on. Half a dozen Union offensives in Virginia had already failed, and although from a purely military perspective the war in the West was just as important, the Eastern theater produced the greatest political reverberations.

Grant decided to attach himself to the Army of the Potomac, which, while officially commanded by Maj. Gen. George Meade, became in the public’s mind and for practical purposes “Grant’s Army.”

His broad strategy called for simultaneous advances on Confederate positions from multiple angles. Grant would press upon Lee directly over land from the north, while other forces would move up the James River and in the Shenandoah Valley. Advancing in the West were multiple Union armies, including one under the command of Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who had his eye on Atlanta. Grant knew that if he fully occupied Lee’s army, Lee could not send reinforcements to the rebels trying to halt Sherman’s march through the heart of the Confederacy.

On May 4, the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River, heading south. So began what came to be known as the Overland Campaign. Grant’s goal was to fight Lee’s army, destroy it and march on to Richmond.

As Grant wrote in his memoirs, “This was not to be accomplished, however, without as desperate fighting as the world has ever witnessed; not to be consummated in a day, a week, a month, single season. . . . We had to have hard fighting to achieve this. The two armies had been confronting each other so long, without any decisive result, that they hardly knew which could whip.”

Virtues of obstinateness

The key moment came early in the campaign. As soon as Grant’s army had crossed the river, and as his men moved through a forest dense with underbrush known as the Wilderness, Lee pressed the attack. Lee was outnumbered nearly 2-1 and did not want to let the battle get onto open ground. The rebels charged and the woods quickly filled with smoke. Wounded men were immolated as fire swept through the forest. The Battle of the Wilderness proved to be a ghastly two-day affair that prefigured more horrors to come.

At the end of the battle, the Army of the Potomac had 18,000 casualties, and it looked like another defeat in Virginia. But when Grant rode his horse to a crossroads, he turned south, not north.

His men let out a cheer. Grant would not retreat back toward Washington as so many other generals had done after previous battles. He pressed on, toward Spotsylvania Court House.

The history books tell of discrete battles at Spotsylvania, North Anna and Cold Harbor, but in fact this became a single 40-day, meat-grinder engagement with barely a quiet interlude long enough to pick up the bodies on the battlefield.

Grant’s one grave error was ordering an assault on fortified rebel positions at Cold Harbor, and he forever regretted it. After that bloodbath, Lincoln wrote, “It can almost be said that the ‘heavens are hung in black.’ ”

In the words of Confederate commander Evander Law, “It was not war, it was murder.”

The critics called Grant a butcher. None other than Mary Lincoln used the term after Cold Harbor. She called Grant an “obstinate fool.”

Lee assumed that Grant would gather strength for another charge at his main line, but Grant slyly slipped away south, sneaking the bulk of his army across the James and advancing to Petersburg. He hoped to cut the supply lines from the south leading into Richmond, but his men were too slow and too exhausted, too frazzled by six weeks of unrelenting combat, to take advantage of their numerical advantage. Lee reinforced Petersburg and the two sides dug in for what would become a 10-month siege. This became trench warfare.

It looked bad for Lincoln and Grant. The prize of Richmond had not been seized and Lee remained in the field. Sherman in the West had yet to reach Atlanta. The Confederate general Jubal Early staged a raid on the nation’s capital, reaching Silver Spring, so close to the White House that Lincoln himself ventured (a bit recklessly) to the front line to see his first Civil War battle up close. Early was driven back, but this hardly seemed a season of triumph for the Union cause. Lincoln’s reelection looked increasingly unlikely.

Everything that happened in the spring and summer of 1864 proved the adage of Clausewitz that war is politics by other means. The events also showed that war is a contest of wills. Battlefield victories and the occupation of territory do not necessarily yield what you need, which is capitulation.

But in the darkest days for Lincoln and the Union cause, Grant’s strategy finally paid off. On Sept. 2, Sherman marched into Atlanta, bearing his chilling message, “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it.” The news of Atlanta’s capture reversed public opinion in the North about the war.

Now came the endgame — Sherman’s march to the sea, Gen. Philip Sheridan’s campaign in the Shenandoah Valley and the tightening noose on Lee in Virginia. Lincoln would win reelection; the war’s duration would be measured in months.

It is not reckless to guess that without Grant’s bullheaded determination, the story of the Civil War would have played out differently, perhaps ending with the inauguration of President George B. McClellan and the perpetuation of slavery.

A reluctant president

Grant got a fourth star, and as the embodiment of the Union he almost inexorably followed the path to the White House. He was not eager to be president nor particularly adept at the job. His presidency was troubled by scandals among his aides and appointees and sectional strife over Reconstruction. He won a second term, handily, and in his second inaugural address said, “I have been the subject of abuse and slander scarcely ever equaled in political history, which today I feel that I can afford to disregard in view of your verdict.

Soon thereafter came the Panic of ’73, a deep depression, the takeover of Congress by Democrats and the disintegration of Reconstruction.

Grant’s admirers note many accomplishments: He pushed for passage of the 15th Amendment giving male African Americans the vote, sent federal troops to fight the Ku Klux Klan and reformed the government’s Indian policy.

In his farewell address, Grant said, “It was my fortune, or misfortune, to be called to the office of Chief Executive without previous political training. . . . Mistakes have been made, as all can see, and I admit.”

He told a reporter, “I was never as happy in my life as the day I left the White House.”

Still just 55, he spent two years on a world tour amid adoring throngs. He visited Europe, the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, China and Japan.

As Waugh recounts in her book, the German leader Otto von Bismarck said to Grant that it was a shame that the United States had to endure so terrible a war. Grant answered, “But it had to be done.”

Bismarck: “Yes, you had to save the Union.”

Grant: “Not only save the Union, but destroy slavery.”

He finally returned home, arriving in San Francisco to a parade and fireworks. About 350,000 people honored him with a parade in Philadelphia. Then he lost almost everything in a financial swindle. He wrote magazine articles for money and decided to write his autobiography. (Mark Twain’s new company published the two volumes, offering an excellent royalty arrangement, but Twain did not, as some mistakenly think, write a word of the memoirs.)

The historian White notes, “He had a remarkable ability to use strong verbs, which are action words, and the ability not to use adjectives and almost no adverbs.” On the battlefield, White said, “those who received the orders knew exactly what they were supposed to do. This is no small thing.”

Grant raced to finish the memoirs before throat cancer could silence him. The country learned of his grave illness and followed daily reports of his condition. He finished just in time, and the memoirs were hugely popular. He died July 23, 1885, at the age of 63.

Frederick Douglass eulogized Grant as “a man too broad for prejudice, too humane to despise the humblest, too great to be small at any point. In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.”

Waugh’s book on Grant recounts a scene in the 1936 Frank Capra movie, “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” in which the protagonist, Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), visits Grant’s Tomb.

A cynical newspaper reporter asks him what he sees.

He answers, “I see a small Ohio farm boy becoming a great soldier. I see thousands of marching men. I see General Lee with a broken heart, surrendering, and I can see the beginning of a new nation, like Abraham Lincoln said. And I can see that Ohio boy being inaugurated as president. Things like that can only happen in a country like America.”

In 2013, according to the National Park Service, 83,400 people visited Grant’s Tomb, a drop of 9,000 from the previous year.

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