Jonathan Yardley reviews 'U.S. Grant' by Joan Waugh

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, November 22, 2009


American Hero, American Myth

By Joan Waugh

Univ. of North Carolina. 373 pp. $30

As I noted in this space three weeks ago, in a review of "Monument Wars," Kirk Savage's fine study of statues and other memorial edifices in this city, the Lincoln Memorial is familiar to people all over the world, yet the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, at the other end of the National Mall, is visited these days by almost no one except those who happen upon it accidentally. Dedicated in 1922, its central figure is Grant on horseback. As Joan Waugh writes, "In finely wrought and accurate detail, the sculptor, Henry Merwin Shrady, captured the steely determination, fortitude, and calm of the Union commander." She continues:

"In the twenty-first century, the sculpture is virtually invisible in the city of ever-growing massive monuments. Parking lots, heavy traffic, an ugly reflecting pool all impede access, and decades of rust diminish its former grandeur. Plans are afoot for a restoration, but so far, the emphasis is on creating an 'urban civic square,' not on restoring Grant's memorial. Tourists who somehow find their way to the monument wonder aloud about the identity of the man on the horse. One word, 'Grant,' carved on the supporting marble pedestal, is the only identifying mark. In 1922, no other information was needed. The statue confirms in bronze the enormous esteem the nation held for Grant almost fifty years after his death when the simple, silent western man stood as the symbol of the victorious Union Cause and a powerful reunited nation."

Thus we have the question that stands at the heart of Waugh's exceptionally thoughtful and valuable book: "Why did Grant's star shine so brightly for Americans of his own day, and why has it been eclipsed so completely for Americans since at least the mid-twentieth century?" Though there can be no final, definitive answer to either part of the question, Waugh, professor of history at UCLA, provides intelligent, plausible suggestions. Not merely that, but at a time when too many professional historians employ unintelligible academic jargon, she writes clear prose that is readily accessible to the serious general reader.

To be sure, there has been, as Waugh readily acknowledges, something of a change for the better in Grant's reputation in recent years, principally because of two sympathetic biographies: a full-dress one by Jean Edward Smith and a brief one by Josiah Bunting. Both books convincingly refute the two charges most often levied against Grant: that as a Civil War general he was a butcher rather than a deft strategist, and that as president he stood idly by while corruption flowed at all levels of his administration. Both books no less convincingly convey the essence of his human qualities, summarized by Waugh as "tenacity, aggressiveness, modesty, integrity, simplicity, resoluteness, and imperturbability."

That Grant was blessed with these strengths -- as well as others, among them loyalty, compassion and clarity of mind -- was widely recognized during the war by his troops and residents of the Union, and after Appomattox by many Southerners, who were grateful for his generosity toward Southern soldiers and officers at the surrender and for his efforts as president to reconcile the former enemies and reunite the nation. "From April 9, 1865," Waugh writes, "Grant emerged as the top military victor, but importantly as a magnanimous warrior of mythic status to whom the people of the re-United States turned for leadership time and again in the years after Lincoln's assassination."

Throughout the last quarter-century of his life, from his leadership during the war, through his two terms as president and right up to his death in 1885, Grant was seen by his fellow Americans as a man of legendary stature, ranked with Washington and Lincoln among the country's greatest leaders. "It is understandable why so many at the time drew comparisons between Washington and Grant," Waugh writes. "Both emerged as the 'indispensable' men of their age, the victorious generals who established or preserved the Republic, and the presidents who led the nation to peace and stability." In the words of Lt. Gen. John M. Schofield:

"It has been said that Grant, like Lincoln, was a typical American and for that reason was most beloved and respected by the people. . . . Soldiers and the people saw in Grant . . . not one of themselves not a plain man of the people, nor yet a superior being whom they could not understand, but a personification of their highest ideal of a citizen, soldier or statesman, a man whose greatness they could see and understand as plainly as they could anything else under the sun."

Those words were published in the San Francisco Chronicle in April 1897, just as the Monument and Tomb of General Ulysses S. Grant -- forever to be known simply as Grant's Tomb -- was being dedicated a continent away in New York City's Riverside Park. Waugh uses the planning and construction of that memorial, along with the staging of Grant's epic funeral procession through New York nine years earlier, as vehicles for demonstrating the heroic, indeed mythic, stature that Grant enjoyed from the mid-1860s until well into the 20th century. Though Gen. Schofield was right to say that Grant was not simply a "plain" man, he was beloved among the people for "his plain western 'ordinariness,' a trait that cemented a bond between himself and so many soldiers and citizens."

As Waugh says, "The clamor for Grant among common people was explained by their view of him as a humble man who scaled the heights of society without any help from family or royal relations. As, such, Grant represented the triumph of free labor and free men in a true democracy." Grant himself understood this, as he wrote to a friend during his post-presidential world tour: "The attentions which I am receiving are intended more for our country than for me personally. I love to see our country honored & respected abroad, and I am proud to believe that it is by most all nations, and by some even loved." As Waugh says of the tour:

"To his hosts, Grant symbolized a new American identity born of war, freedom, economic prosperity, and a nationalism and internationalism leavened with democratic ideals. Grant represented the wave of the future to many admiring nations. His triumphant two-year trip abroad, his return in 1879 to masses of adoring crowds, and his near nomination for the presidential ticket in 1880 chronicle another rise to the top that would be sustained for more than a generation after his death."

Why did his reputation fade so rapidly in the 1920s and '30s? Waugh thinks that the "post-World War I generation feared, rather than celebrated, the endless sacrifices of the Civil War," that the nationwide popularity of the "Lost Cause" movement elevated Robert E. Lee and diminished Grant, and that "in an era known for its racism and its rejection of the biracial democratic implications of both the war and Reconstruction, Grant was scorned by many." Add to that the hostility of many 20th-century historians to his record as president, and you have the ingredients for a free-fall tumble, not to mention an utter injustice. If you read the biographies mentioned above along with this fine study, you will understand just how much of an injustice it really is.

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