Our Most Misunderstood President Was Also One of Our Greatest Americans
By Ned Barnett
Recently, I got into two unconnected discussions about Ulysses S. Grant, the first Lieutenant General in the US Army after George Washington, and the 18th President of the United States - and I've concluded that Grant has an image problem - a PR challenge for the ages. First, I'll give a lot of background (if you don't have the background, you won't be able to think about solutions), then I'll ask you to consider how Grant's image could be rehabilitated through PR.
As a General, many 20th and 21st century historians consider Grant a "butcher" for the way he won the Civil War, though the facts don't bear this out. As a President, Grant has often been considered both ineffectual as a leader and an amiable dupe of a group of corrupt men who stole the country blind while Grant presided in serene ignorance of their perfidy. Again, however, the facts don't bear this out.
Both of these charges were, in my opinion, politically motivated during Grant's lifetime for short-term political advantage by those who would attack his presidency, or by Confederates "smarting" over the way this uncouth commoner could have consistently whipped that epitome of the aristocratic Southern Gentleman, Robert E. Lee. More later on how and why latter-day historians came to the same unsubstantiated conclusions.
In the bloodiest war in US history, General Grant was remarkably economical of his soldiers' lives, and he felt their loss keenly (he was also "economical" of his enemies' lives - eager to end the war before more Americans from either side had to die). Grant fought but one battle where loss of life was excessive and preventable, and he never forgot that horror - or those bitter lessons - of Cold Harbor. Still, fewer soldiers died at Cold Harbor than died in Lee's last throw of the dice at Gettysburg (Pickett's Charge) or at Lee's own successful charge on Malvern Hill during the Peninsula (Seven Days) campaign. And of course, Lee presided over Antietam (or, to the South, the battle of Sharpsburg) - the bloodiest one day in American History.
Both of these great men felt their losses deeply, but in the cauldron of war, it was inevitable that each would have made mistakes that cost mens' lives. It is instructive that while Lee had relatively few of those awful days - Grant had only one day of disastrous casualties. Yet it is Lee who is remembered for the care in which he husbanded his troops - perhaps because he was more public with his feelings - while the more stoic but no less feeling Grant is unjustly smeared with the title "Butcher."
Lincoln, who deeply felt each American death (North and South), respected Grant as he respected no other man - and Lincoln was personally unable to support any man who was a "butcher." Once, when Grant's opponents in the war department snivelingly came to Lincoln claiming that Grant was a drunk (a calumny based on a bout of depression Grant experienced in the mid-1850s while he was in California in Army service, forced to be separated for years from his wife and children), Lincoln said, in effect, "What brand does he drink? I want to send a case to every one of my Generals."
While Grant was leading the Union Army during the last two years of the war, Lincoln was - along with Grant's home-town Congressman and friend, Elihu Washburn - Grant's strongest advocate. Lincoln was shrewd judge of character - he defended those, like Grant, who had the highest personal integrity, coupled with military effectiveness. And that support from Lincoln says more than anything else about Grant the man, and about Grant the General.
As a peacemaker, there was no-one more generous than Grant. For example, when Lee surrendered, Grant immediately ordered that Lee's men be fed from the Union's own stock of rations (not the typical action of a bloodthirsty conqueror). Further, out of respect, he ordered that Confederate officers - rather than going to prison for treason and rebellion - could keep their swords and sidearms (and their self-respect), and that all Confederates - regardless of their rank - could take their horses and mules home to facilitate the Spring planting.
Finally, in that surrender document, Grant specifically forbade the US government from arresting or prosecuting any surrendered Confederate for his role in the war, with that amnesty remaining in force for as long as that Confederate abided by the terms of the surrender (basically, to not take up arms and fight the American government anymore). This latter provision tied the hands of those in Washington who wanted to try and execute General Lee, at the very least.
As a President, Grant brought to an end the shameful "reconstruction" era in the South, and insisted that Southerners were once again Americans, with all the rights, privileges and obligations of American citizens. He was also the first president to specifically (and deeply) care about the fate of the Indians in America - he took positive steps to stop the war on the plains and bring an honorable peace between settlers and Indians, and to ensure their long-term protection of (and role in) America.
This wasn't a "new" position - on Grant's wartime staff, at a very high level, was an officer who was a full-blooded Native American - a man Grant treated as he did every other officer on his staff. This at a time when there was not only strong racial prejudice against Indians, but also at a time when the only Indians formally participating in the Civil War were Cherokees fighting on behalf of the Confederacy against the Union in the "trans-Mississippi" theater of operations (Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoman Territory).
Grant was equally concerned with the fates of former slaves, putting the full force of the Federal Government (including the Army) behind ensuring that these men, women and children had the rights of American citizens, fighting the rising tide that led, shortly after Grant's death, to the widespread adoption of Jim Crow laws. He had been one of the first (and relatively few) Union advocates of enlisting and arming "contrabands" - former slaves - during the war, and giving them the same status as white soldiers. This might seem all the more remarkable because Grant was no abolitionist and had even (briefly) owned a few slaves - gifts from his father-in-law, who was a prominent Missouri slave-holder. It's my personal belief that Grant's brief and painful experience owning another human being turned him against slavery and reinforced his view that all men were equal before God and should be equal before the bar of justice.
Grant did much that was good as President - so much so that he had to actively refuse a "draft" to make him the first American president to serve three consecutive terms (and if he'd accepted this draft, he would have won hands-down - he was that popular). He was also courted to run again after his successor's first term as President, and would have won had he run. In short, his fellow citizens - North and South - honored him despite the scandals (common to all Administrations in the era between Andrew Johnson and William McKinley) that never touched him. Nobody who knew him questioned his integrity - his biggest flaw was that he trusted men who'd once proved trustworthy, but who (tempted by money or power - usually money) had failed to live up to that trust. That is hardly the worst sin a sitting American President has committed.
Grant was a man of immense integrity and deep personal responsibility. Upon learning that he had throat cancer - the byproduct of his habit of smoking a dozen or more cigars every day - and knowing that he wouldn't be there to support his beloved Julia, Grant set out to write his autobiography, something his natural modesty had kept him from doing until necessity over-rode humility. It was and is one of the most honest and objective (and remarkably well-written) autobiographies I've ever encountered - certainly it stands head and shoulders above the rest of the General officers' autobiographies coming out of the Civil War.
To make this book happen, a Missourian and Southern sympathizer (though not a combatant) named Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) created a publishing company and borrowed against everything he owned to ensure the publication of this remarkable work - and he did this all long before a word had even been written. If that book had failed, Clemens would have been ruined - but thanks to the generous advance he had given to Grant, Mrs. Grant would have been provided for even if the book failed - though it turned out to be a huge best-seller. Grant finished this book barely two days before he died, and that honest work of self-exploration is a worthy monument to a great man's memory.
When Grant died, the largest parade in American' history was held, in New York City, to honor his passing. This funeral parade was decades after the Civil War, and more than a dozen years after Grant had last served as President - yet Americans, including tens of thousands of Americans not yet born when the Civil War ended, came out in unprecedented numbers to honor his memory. Leading that parade in Manhattan was a group of Confederate veterans - wearing the Gray one more time - honoring the man who defeated them in battle, but who then treated them so honorably and compassionately in victory that Grant stood higher in the minds of these ex-Confedrates than many of their own Generals and leaders.
When Grant's autobiography came out, it became the best-selling book in American history - except for the bible - which was and remains far and away the best-seller in American history. The public, though Grant was now beyond honoring, still poured out their love and regard for this brave and great man by buying his book in record numbers.
The judgment by those who knew him during his lifetime - and the judgment of the people he served and those who fought against him - was clear. Grant was a great general, a President of no mean accomplishment, and a man of the highest personal standards. Lincoln judged him the best man in uniform on either side of the war, and Lincoln had been burnt so often by his generals that he was not eager to praise any one of them. The people judged him as a President worthy of an unprecedented third term - and in death, long after he was out of the limelight, Grant was again honored as no other President has been who was not assassinated in office.
It was only a generation after Grant's passing that revisionist historians began to tarnish his name and reputation. They were eager for something new to say, and as a result they were equally eager to give life to the worst calumnies of Grant's contemporary political opponents. Being academics, they were eager to "say something new" so they could get published and earn tenure. For all the wrong reasons, these men, who were not worthy to polish Grant's mud-stained boots, began grinding away at this great man's reputation. With no contemporaries left to defend Grant, with no academics "with a dog in the fight" to dispute the lies, those lies stuck.
None of these calumnies, of course, were true, but "dish" is generally more salable than honesty and integrity. Fortunately, and more recently, yet another generation of historians have looked at Grant - this time through documents and statistics, and through the perceptions of those who knew him best. In doing so, they have once again completely revised "history's assessment" of Grant as General and as President, finding him to be worthy of admiration rather than condemnation, respect rather than contempt - yet to the public, his image is still tarnished, his name as mud-stained as his combat boots.
Which brings us back to the original question - what can be done to restore this great and good man's reputation? What can PR do in the face of generations of ignorance imposed on Americans by scholars' self-serving assessments and public schools' parroting of those assessments?