Ronald C. White is the author of “American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant.”
Over the past several years, in cities and on college campuses across the nation, Civil War statues and monuments have been removed or relocated, steps prompted by an impassioned debate about race and culture.
In counterpoint to the trend, a new statue of a Civil War figure will be dedicated Thursday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. The original date for the unveiling had been planned for March 4, but organizers thought better of it — not because protesters were expected on the 150th anniversary of Ulysses S. Grant’s inauguration as the 18th president, but because of worries about wintry weather.
Why Grant? Why now?
If some presidents, including Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson, have been losing stature in recent years, Grant’s reputation has been improving. In the three C-SPAN Presidential Historians Surveys taken since 2000 (2000, 2009 and 2017), Grant has moved up 11 places to No. 22 in the most recent survey. The West Point statue is yet another sign of the growing appreciation of Grant, not simply as the general who led Union armies to victory in the Civil War, but as a president whose accomplishments are being seen in a fresh light.
The reassessment has been aided by new information made available by the completion of the Papers of Ulysses S. Grant Project in 2017. The 32 volumes opened up perspectives not available to earlier Grant biographers. Two new annotated editions of Grant’s memoirs have further expanded our appreciation.
Early in researching a Grant biography several years ago, I spent a week at West Point. Though his name has been affixed to halls and barracks over time, and a splendid painting of the general hangs in the library, until now, his commemorations on campus have been far outranked by those of Robert E. Lee.
Lee, the Confederate general whose statue in Charlottesville was at the center of a 2017 white-supremacist rally , finished second in his 1829 West Point class and was one of the only cadets in the academy’s long history to graduate without a demerit. After serving with distinction in the Mexican-American War in the 1840s, Lee returned to the academy in 1852 to serve as its ninth superintendent. His portrait hangs in the superintendent’s quarters. Lee is everywhere at West Point: Lee Barracks, Lee Gate, Lee Hall and Lee Road.
California sculptor Paula Slater has produced a bronze Grant standing 7 feet 6 inches tall, wearing a general’s uniform with a full four-star display. If Grant could see the statue, I think he might give a wry smile. He usually avoided such military pomp, typically wearing a private’s uniform, with the only notation of rank a single star on each shoulder.
A significant result of renewed focus on Civil War monuments has been the realization that many were erected not immediately after the war but many decades later. The dedications took place during an era that witnessed the rise of white supremacy with its accompanying Jim Crow segregationist laws.
A chief insight in the reappraisal of Grant is the recognition that, at the beginning of the post-Civil War period of oppression, he acted courageously to protect the rights of freed men and women. As a Republican president, when states refused to act, Grant used the power of the federal government to battle domestic terrorist organizations, particularly the Ku Klux Klan (as The Post’s Charles Lane depicts in his new book “Freedom’s Detective”), even as his own party was growing tired of the struggle.
Grant’s fall from American grace largely coincided with the rise of white supremacy in the early 20th century. During that period, leaders who stood up for the rights of African Americans were not often lionized.
After Grant’s reelection in 1872, a delegation of African American leaders from Philadelphia came to the White House to thank him. They told Grant that he was “the first president of the United States elected by the whole people.” During a speech around that time, he said of African Americans, “in your desire to obtain all the rights of citizens I fully sympathize,” adding that citizens of the United States “should stand in all respects alike. It must come.”
In the present climate of taking down statues, putting up the Grant statue at West Point will send a different message. Mean-spirited presidential policies are helping to spawn a dramatic rise of hate speech and hate crimes. The dedication of Grant’s statue can help Americans rediscover a leader whose moral example is much needed today.