These days, there is a Ulysses S. Grant renaissance. I’ve talked to a lot of friends who are reading — and raving about — Grant, the new Ron Chernow biography of the former Union Army General and President. And now the word is out that Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio are in discussions to team up on a new film about Grant that is in development.
It’s a good example of how perceptions of historical figures can change, and quickly. During his lifetime, Grant was credited with being essential to the Union victory in the Civil War and was a popular President, and as he was dealing with the cancer that would kill him he wrote an autobiography that was immensely popular and helped to provide funds for his family after his death. But the narrative soon flipped, and Grant’s reputation changed in the years after his death. His generalship was called into question, and he was viewed by some as a drunkard who knowingly butchered his men, coldly calculating that the Union was better situated than the Confederacy absorb the losses. He was presented as a kind of know-nothing President whose two terms were marked by corruption and endless scandal. Only Grant’s autobiography, The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, maintained its reputation, and has been consistently regarded as one of the finest examples of autobiography in the English language.
The reevaluation of Grant began with the publication of Ronald C. White’s American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant in 2016 and became broader and deeper in 2017, with the publication of Grant. When two talented biographers turn to the same subject in a two-year period, things are bound to be shaken up, and that is exactly what has happened. I read American Ulysses, an excellent book, and I think anyone who does so will inevitably come away with a greater appreciation for Grant. I understand from friends who’ve read the Chernow biography that readers of that book reach the same point. (Richard got me the Chernow book for Christmas, and I’ve been saving it for some summer reading, and then I’m turning to Grant’s autobiography.)
American Ulysses tells the story of a decent, good, unassuming man who came from humble beginnings and never lost his sense of personal humility. He struggled with alcohol, moved from the Army to a series of civilian jobs that were marked by business failures, but rejoined the Army at the outset of the Civil War and seized the opportunity that conflict presented. Through determination, careful planning, and a willingness to make calculated gambles, he won a series of crucial battles in the western theater, lifted the spirits of the North during the early days of the Civil War, rose rapidly in the ranks of Union generals, and eventually became general-in-chief and was transferred to Virginia, where he met, and defeated, Robert E. Lee. To be sure, there were some battles he deeply regretted — something he confessed in his autobiography, which tells you something about his character — but his Civil War record is remarkable. President Lincoln viewed Grant as essential to the Union victory, and Grant’s comrades in arms, like fellow Ohioan William Tecumseh Sherman, shared that view.
With a fresh look from a modern perspective, Grant’s presidency also has been reassessed. He was incredibly modern and enlightened in his policies about native Americans and Reconstruction, and principled and resolute in his willingness to defend the rights of “freedmen” who had just recently escaped the chains of slavery. Unfortunately, Congress didn’t always share his views. And while there were scandals in his administration — as there seem to be in most presidencies — Grant’s personal integrity was not touched and his primary failing was in faithfully trusting friends and colleagues who ultimately lacked the same integrity that Grant possessed.
His life is an amazing journey, and one in which he traveled widely — to Mexico during the Mexican War, to the west coast of the United States during the gold rush, and then around the world after his presidency — at a time when the primary means of transport were horses, trains, and steamships. Through it all, he never seemed to hate his enemies, and generally viewed the world with keen interest and a gentle, forgiving eye. When I put down American Ulysses, I thought that Grant was a person I’d like to know and call my friend.
It’s interesting now, more than 100 years after a public figure’s death, their legacy can be revisited and their reputation greatly revised. In Ulysses S. Grant’s case, it’s well deserved.