ECW is pleased to welcome back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog
Last month’s commemorations of the 200th Anniversary of the Birth of Ulysses S. Grant helped to place the general and president in the perspectives of the various decades when his life has been recalled. I was a boy during the 150th Anniversary of his birth. Grant’s Sesquicentennial in the 1970s was little noted. At the time, he was likely to be remembered as a victorious general who butchered his men to win the war, making him a questionable leader to a generation tired of Vietnam and most other wars. This perception was reinforced by Lost Cause historiography that depicted Grant as leading an overwhelming force of men who greatly outnumbered their Confederate opponents and whose material resources drew on the unmatched industrial output of the North. Grant was routinely stigmatized in the 1970s as a drunken general and a failed president. The fact that other Union generals with the same resources and men had failed to defeat the Confederates was left unsaid, as were Grant’s presidential innovations that made former slaves into voters and office holders.
The Grant Bicentennial this year saw more than a dozen events in half-a-dozen states that either celebrated or reconsidered the Ohioan’s life and careers. Several sites on the Grant Trail in Ohio engaged in festivities and living history events that associated their communities with the young Grant. Grant’s pre-war homes in St. Louis, Missouri and Galena, Illinois focused on Grant as a historical figure who lived an ordinary life before the Civil War. Not all of the events are over. The Grant Cottage near Saratoga, N.Y. will celebrate his 200th Anniversary on June 18th. The cottage is the mountain retreat where Grant finished his memoirs and died soon thereafter.
I was fortunate to be able to attend the Grant Bicentennial at his, and his wife’s, final resting place. Grant’s Tomb in Manhattan was among New York’s most visited attractions a century ago. When Grant’s Sesquicentennial was observed in 1972 it was poorly maintained and visitation was off sharply. Two decades later, a courageous effort by a student at nearby Columbia University named Frank Scaturro led both the Federal and local governments to restore the magnificent mausoleum and its now-beautiful surrounding landscape.
I was glad that the former Columbia student was able to speak at the Bicentennial commemoration outside the tomb. Frank Scaturro continues his work to preserve the site and keep it accessible to the public. President Grant’s Great Grandson, Ulysses Grant Dietz, also spoke. He talked about his experience of being one of the more than seventy of Grant’s great grandchildren. His life illustrates the changes in the perception of Ulysses Grant. He said that as a boy in the 1960s, he was more likely to be made fun of because of his ancestor than asked questions about him. Now his great grandfather is recognized as a singular military figure in American history and his presidency is seen as the most advanced on civil rights between Lincoln and the 1960s.
Professor Brooks Simpson of Arizona State University delivered the Keynote Address at the ceremony. Simpson is the nation’s leading authority on Grant, and his work beginning in the 1990s led to a massive change in how historians interpret Grant. (Brooks Simpson also grew up near me on Long Island as well, by the way.)
While much of historian Simpson’s writing is about Grant as a military commander, his keynote presentation examined how Grant’s military experience helped form him as a Reconstruction figure and president. Simpson told the audience of over three hundred attendees that “Most people know of Ulysses S. Grant as the general who led the United States to victory in the American Civil War, that should be enough. Yet there is more to Grant than that.”
Simpson continued, “In some ways Grant found peace more challenging than war. Victory not only saved the Union and destroyed slavery, but it also secured for him the personal security he had sought for so long. Yet over the next four years he found himself embroiled in political controversy as he sought to preserve in peace what he had won in war by repressing recalcitrant white Southerners’ violent resistance to Black freedom.”
According to Simpson, Grant had not aspired to become president. His fame and family security would have come through continued service at the highest level of military command. However, as Grant told William T. Sherman, if he did not run for office, the future of the American Republic at this dangerous moment would be left to “mere trading politicians.” When Grant received the nomination of the Republican Party for the presidency, he responded with the words carved over his Tomb’s entrance: “Let us have Peace.” By this he meant not only peace between North and South, but also between Black and White. He wanted to forge ahead, said Simpson, and leave the terrorism and disorder of the Civil War and the first years of Reconstruction behind. This, Simpson reminds us, was a sentiment “coming from the last slaveholder” to serve as President of the United States. “Such statements,” said Simpson, “reminded everyone of how far we had come in a decade.”
Grant wanted Blacks to have a “Fair Chance” said Simpson, and Grant urged whites to “treat the ‘Negro as a citizen and a voter, as he is and must remain.” Despite Grant’s best efforts to subdue violence, however, Simpson said, “it ultimately prevailed.”
In 2022 we recognize the power of supremacist violence to undo racial equality and racially neutral democracy. Grant could not find an antidote to White violence, but he did more to try to suppress it than any other president for nearly a century.