Monday, May 31, 2010


Officially, the purpose of Memorial Day is to commemorate members of the military who have fallen in the service of our country, but I thought I’d use this occasion to remember one of my heroes, Ulysses S. Grant, who didn’t die in battle but was of course a great military leader and our 18th president. Years ago I read a couple of biographies and watched a good documentary about the man. My comments here stem from my recollections and so I’ll be more impressionistic than fact-based in this blog.

Grant is first and foremost my hero because without him the North would not have won the war, or least not as soon as it did. Without the war ending in the North’s favor, of course, we’d still have slavery. As I’ll point out below, Grant, unlike, say, the other great Union general from the Midwest, William Tecumseh Sherman, evinced some compassion for the plight of both Indians and blacks. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

When I was a kid my dad bought me a set of illustrated children books on the Civil War. I devoured them. I remember he took me to a Civil War reenactment too. Growing up in California, I was a Union guy all the way, even if a number of my ancestors came from the South. Later, when as a university instructor I taught Western Civilization courses and came to the Punic Wars, I’d often compare the Roman general to Scipio Africanus to Grant and the Carthaginian general Hannibal to Robert E. Lee. I’m not the first one to draw this interesting parallel, and I’ll just sketch out the similarities rather briefly and crassly here. Scipio, a brilliant field commander, had the numbers and resources; he was not afraid to throw men into the battle. Hannibal, commander of the fledgling North African Empire, was a superior strategist who had less troops and armaments but amazingly continued the war for years only to make a last-ditch effort in invading the North (as in the Roman Empire on the southern reach of the European continent). Does this sound familiar, Civil War buffs?

If pressed, I’ll agree that Robert E. Lee was a superior general and an unsurpassed leader of men; yet, Grant was hardly far behind and indisputably the better man. The fact that he was fighting for the right cause informs part of my view here. I understand that Lee was supposedly against slavery but felt an obligation to defend his beloved Virginia.  The fact remains that he supported an evil institution.  Grant's magnanimous reception of a defeated Lee at the Courthouse in Appomattox is the stuff of legend and the eternal exemplar of a face-saving and gracious victory, something the Allies should have looked to after World War I. Moreover, something about Grant’s biography, his flaws, and the hardships he faced draw me to him. Sherman, Grant’s friend and another great general in American history, is different. Though his march to Savannah ended the war sooner than later and handed Lincoln a second election, he deemed African Americans inferior and harbored a genocidal disregard for Indians.

By contrast, Grant as president advocated the so-called “Santo Domingo” policy of annexing the Caribbean island and making it a haven for freed slaves who were experiencing persecution in the postwar years. Ironically, and sadly, self-styled advocates of freedmen in congress rejected the plan because they saw it as a failure of Reconstruction. Under President Grant, African Americans benefited. Under his watch the Fifteenth Amendment gave black men the right to vote, the Ku Klux Klan Act enabled the federal government to deal with this menace, and the 1875 Civil Rights Act of which required “public accommodations” for anyone regardless of race or color. Grant was also seemed generally concerned about the U.S. government’s treatment of Indians and wanted to find a way to end the evil “wars of extermination” (his words). I love Senator Fred Thompson’s portrayal of a humane and reasonable Grant in the excellent 2007 HBO movie Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

Grant’s fame ultimately rests on his military record. He was a superb general and I’d love to talk about the Battle of Shiloh. For the sake of many readers who might not be as appreciative of military history, however, I’ll focus on Grant’s character. After all, what I love most about Grant has just as much to do with his actions off the battlefield! Granted, he was no prince charming. He was a drunkard, and his appetite for the bottle jeopardized his military career on more than one occasion, most notably during the Vicksburg campaign. Another blemish, I suppose, is Grant’s inability to make money, the consequences of which ultimately led to an impoverished, hardscrabble life and a corrupt presidential administration. Acknowledging his predicament, he called his first home Hardscrabble! His presidency was one of the most corrupt of the 19th century. True enough. But revisionist biographers have rehabilitated his legacy a bit, showing that Grant was more often the unwitting pawn of unscrupulous cabinet officers and businessmen than a scheming greed-driven man.

At the end of his life Grant suffered from throat cancer. Despite excruciating pain, he was determined to get his family out of bankruptcy before he died. In the photo Grant is writing his account of the war on the porch of his home in upstate New York. Though he was no man of letters, his personal memoirs are of high literary quality and he got a hefty sum of money with their publication. Grant was no saint, but when the chips were down in war or at home he rose to the occasion. I’m not a believer in holy men and I don’t hold people to utopian ideals, so I guess that’s the most that can be said of anyone.