Echoes of Reconstruction: Grant’s Bicentennial and His Changing Assessment

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. 

Brooks Simpson

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. 

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14 Responses to Echoes of Reconstruction: Grant’s Bicentennial and His Changing Assessment

  1. John Pryor says:

    Always enjoy, if disagree with Patrick’s conclusions. Sorry Patrick, but backfilling your 1950-ish vision of what 2022 is to attempt to redeem Grant’s seriously flawed administrations and slandering all anti Grant military analysis as “Lost Cause” propaganda is seriously flawed on two accounts. On the military side, merely because Grant recognized the obvious, that superior numbers should win out is hardly unique because his predecessor Halleck failed to grasp it. This hardly makes Grant a butcher, he had the dogged persistence to work through his frequent tactical blunders. But had he NOT had the numbers, it is not Lost Cause analysis to state he would not have pulled it off. Second, the good deeds of his administration were overshadowed by the corruption charges that divided his own party, and weakened his ability to govern. Dunning and his school, and the Populists and Progressives opportunistically ran with this idea later, but they didn’t create it out of whole cloth.

    • Dan says:

      Grant’s strategy as G-in-C was more than just relying on superior numbers, and claims that he could not have pulled it off without that ratio in numbers is just speculation.

  2. Mike Maxwell says:

    I must concur with John Pryor…
    Also, having grown up in “The Land of Lincoln,” where two-time Presidential aspirant Adlai Stevenson II received more recognition than U.S. Grant, I always found it curious that Galena-resident Grant did not benefit from Illinois school history taught in the classroom… until I returned to the study of Civil War history about a dozen years ago, and along the way encountered the push to rehabilitate General Grant’s checkered political career, apparently in time for the Bicentennial of Grant’s birth. And although I’ve said it before, I will say it again: “Before you erect a statue on a 200-foot high pedestal to the new ‘Marble Man,’ have a read of ‘Grant Under Fire’ by Joseph Rose.”

    • Dan says:

      Rose’s book is a flawed and extremely biased attack on Grant. No one with an interest in assessing Grant truthfully need bother with the book

    • Mike Maxwell says:

      Interesting… “flawed and extremely biased [towards his cronies]” best describes Grant’s Presidency.

      • Dan says:

        Any “historian” that promotes Rose’s book destroys his own credibility in my opinion. Try looking into the notes and see if the interpretations stand up to scrutiny. They don’t.

  3. Henry Fleming says:

    The facts are on your side, but it’s a what-if scenario to say if he had not the numbers. If he didn’t have the numbers on his side, is he still to be burdened with generals Banks and Burnside? Would he have brought Sherman with him as well as Sheridan if the numbers were close? If the numbers in the East are close, Thomas could hold the West. I think in the Spring of ’64 Grant was trying to end the war before the election, but had he not a two-to-one advantage he may have been less gung-ho, and less likely to make the mistakes he made. Grant was frequently mentioned as giving clear directions, ie, “I intend to fight it out on this front if if takes all summer.” Lee gives orders like, “Take that hill if practicable.” Grant was a kind guy, the one slave he was forced to have, he freed. He didn’t like eating red meat, it had to be well done. He didn’t care if people didn’t like him having an American Indian on his staff. I haven’t studied his presidency but it sounds like his overarching goal was to make sure the South didn’t go retrograde, and he probably made compromises to achieve that end, leading to the fiasco. Like Truman said of Eisenhower, “he’ll say do this, do that! And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army.”

  4. Pat Young says:

    My problem with those who say that Grant won “because of the numbers” is that prior Union commanders had the same resources but with lesser results.

    • billhenck says:

      Good point. Also, Grant was on the offensive in the Overland campaign at a point in the war where armies were constantly building fortifications. Those fortifications gave the army on the defense a considerable advantage.

      • The resource that Grant did have that prior Union generals in the East didn’t have was political capital and Lincoln’s confidence, enough so that Lincoln did not lose confidence after reverses. By contrast, Burnside, Hooker, and Meade pretty much lost their status as independent commanders as soon as they disappointed Washington. And as much as anyone can “earn” political capital, Grant probably earned that with his record in the west.

      • Pat Young says:

        Tough being on the tactical offensive.

  5. scott s. says:

    I’ve had an interest in understanding Pres Grant’s foreign policy efforts, in particular as regards East Asia, but haven’t ever come across anything.

  6. robert dean says:

    1. Before he became President, Grant used surplus arms and Sheridan to play bad cop to Seward’s good cop, and convince the French to leave Mexico. The US did not get bogged down supporting an insurgency in Mexico.
    2. There was probably no time before 1964 that the 15rh Amendment would have been ratified, Grant’s support for the Amendment was critical. In fact I doubt 38 states would ratify it now.
    3. The course of treatment of the indigenous people in the US would have led to extermination of the Indians, had Grant not finally stated the evil and weakness of such policies. Anyone who reads Grant’s; own words is aware of his empathy both for the ordinary Mexicans, and the indigenous inhabitants of the US.
    4. The ritualized arbitration of the US war grievances arising from British sale of the Alabama and other raiders to the Confederacy was an enormous step forward in cementing the relationship between Britain and the US.
    5. As painful as the taxation and monetary restraint of the 1870’s was, the ability of the US to return to the mostly self regulating gold parity system a few years after Grant left office.was critical to creating confidence in the US economy. A working federal reserve system capable of providing liquidity and preventing financial panics did not develop until after the Great Depression.
    6. The US was a racist nation in 1870 and its still takes many forms. Corruption is hardly unique to the Grant administration. And in particular the Credit Mobilier corruption was due to a system created by Congress, approved by Lincoln, and left unsupervised during the long conflict between Congress and President Johnson.

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