Tell me about a complicated man
April 18, 2019 10:18 PM   Subscribe

Pour One Out For Ulysses S. Grant, Adam Gopnik inThe New Yorker:
Though he [Ron Chernow] does the usual justice to the military saga of the Civil War, and Grant’s decisive part in it, his book aims to rehabilitate Grant as a politician and as President. He makes a convincing case that Grant actually behaved nobly, even heroically, while in the White House. He pressed the cause of black equality under the law, and was consistently on the right side of Reconstruction-era issues—winning more heartfelt praise from Frederick Douglass than Lincoln ever did.

Reviewing American Ulysses: The Rehabilitation of an American Hero:
In recent years, however, a series of biographies have come forth to make the case for Grant as a worthy member of the pantheon of great Americans.[3] Ronald C. White, author of an acclaimed Lincoln biography, makes a magnificent addition to this literature with American Ulysses, a work that goes beyond others in analyzing Grant the man, unpacking his evolving political and religious views and showing how his character served the nation during some of its most tumultuous years. The Grant that emerges from these pages is a man not only worthy of admiration, but one who is remarkably relevant to the twenty-first century
Ulysses S. Grant: American Giant
Like its more recent predecessors, Grant skillfully dislodges a host of pernicious myths. Chernow extols Grant as instrumental in securing emancipation, enlisting black soldiers, and winning Union victory. A master strategist who cultivated a model relationship with his commander-in-chief, Grant, a proponent of “hard war” against the Slaveocracy, was the Civil War’s greatest and most visionary general, Chernow argues, as well as an adept (if excessively trusting) president who performed ably in the face of relentless obstacles. Addressing his opponents’ charges of so-called “Grantism”— the notion that the Crédit Mobilier and Whiskey Ring scandals reflected singular malfeasance — Chernow recalls that while all postwar presidential administrations featured corruption, opponents singled out Grant’s misconduct in part because of his administration’s support for Reconstruction and black civil rights.
posted by the man of twists and turns (33 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite

H.W. Brands' The Man Who Saved the Union
posted by absalom at 10:33 PM on April 18

"My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral."

- Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, opening.

I'd encourage anyone to read his memoirs as they are available for free on Project Gutenberg. Grant's memoirs are written in a tone that, is on the surface, quite matter-of-fact and even handed, except for the odd occasion where Grant allows himself some dry wit, or a sharp jab cloaked in understated language. There's one paragraph in particular from the chapter where Grant describes the capture of Jackson that has stuck in my mind:
Sherman and I went together into a manufactory which had not ceased work on account of the battle nor for the entrance of Yankee troops. Our presence did not seem to attract the attention of either the manager or the operatives, most of whom were girls. We looked on for a while to see the tent cloth which they were making roll out of the looms, with "C. S. A." woven in each bolt. There was an immense amount of cotton, in bales, stacked outside. Finally I told Sherman I thought they had done work enough. The operatives were told they could leave and take with them what cloth they could carry. In a few minutes cotton and factory were in a blaze. The proprietor visited Washington while I was President to get his pay for this property, claiming that it was private. He asked me to give him a statement of the fact that his property had been destroyed by National troops, so that he might use it with Congress where he was pressing, or proposed to press, his claim. I declined.
There's quite a bit that can be unpacked there. But it occurs that Grant is making a fairly blunt statement about his conduct of the war: "We burned the factories and improvements that were supporting the Confederate armies, no matter what might be claimed after the fact about the nature of the destruction", and wrapping it up as a fairly funny anecdote.

Also, it's really good writing. I find that I can see these two scruffy looking men in uniform wandering casually into the factory, to no-one's particular notice or concern, observing the goings on and then, after some casual discussion, having the place burned to the ground.
posted by Grimgrin at 10:59 PM on April 18 [31 favorites]

An aspect of this, which is touched upon by Eric Foner and David Blight, is that Grant became the favorite bete noire of Lost Cause historians- characterized as the epitome of the callous, corrupt north that tyrannized a valiant South.

Grant was the one individual that actually tried to defend freed people's rights, who maintained the Freedman's bureau, and who worked to counter the retrenchment of the Dixie oligarchs. For those reasons, he is despised in the dominant cultural narrative of American history.

Fun fact: he's also the guy that tried and failed to get the Dominican Republic admitted to the USA. Not apropro to the topic, but an interesting sub-corner of the times.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 11:03 PM on April 18 [36 favorites]

except for the odd occasion where Grant allows himself some dry wit.

It was twenty dollars worth of horses, not six.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:05 PM on April 18 [2 favorites]

A notable contrast to Robert E. Lee.
I was impressed by the Grant described in Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative, and while I have not read more than the first volume of his auto-biography (and even the story why he decided to write it is interesting, as well as Mark Twain's role therein), this whets my appetite.
posted by bouvin at 2:35 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]

I have Chernow’s book and have heard great things, but I don’t think anything can touch the poignancy of Grant’s Memoirs. You get such a feel for him, and it wasn’t at all what I expected him to be like. It’s not surprising people believe Mark Twain wrote them (although I disagree). It’s an incredible work.
posted by sallybrown at 4:14 AM on April 19 [3 favorites]

I see what you did there with the post title. Well done.
posted by Groundhog Week at 5:06 AM on April 19 [8 favorites]

Worth noting are the circumstances under which Grant wrote his Memoirs. After his presidency, he invested most of his savings with a scam artist named Ferdinand Ward. Trusting Ward, he exercised little oversight. Their joint venture, essentially a Ponzi scheme, failed in 1884, the same year Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer. (Those near-constant stogies finally caught up with him.) He had always resisted writing an autobiography, but now he did it out of necessity, so that his family would have something to live on when he died. He made a publishing deal with Mark Twain and wrote at a prodigious pace, through pain and disability, even when he could no longer walk, and finished the manuscript five days before he died.
posted by beagle at 5:27 AM on April 19 [26 favorites]

When Richard Nixon told Eisenhower in 1956 that it was common knowledge Stonewall Jackson was the greatest Civil War general, followed by Lee, Eisenhower interrupted him:

I wouldn’t say that, Dick. In fact I think it’s not a very reasoned opinion. You forget that Grant captured three armies intact, moved and coordinated his forces in a way that baffles military logic yet succeeded and he concluded the war one year after being entrusted with that aim. I’d say that was one hell of a piece of soldiering extending over a period of four years, the same time we were in the last war.”
posted by wallstreet1929 at 6:07 AM on April 19 [34 favorites]

Again, the valorization of Lee and Jackson did not happen arbitrarily - it was all part of the Lost Cause Movement. It's no surprise that Eisenhower, who received actual instruction in military tactics, knew the score when Nixon didn't.
posted by NoxAeternum at 6:49 AM on April 19 [24 favorites]

If this topic interests you be sure to catch the new PBS documentary on Reconstruction, streaming and broadcasting this month. It's really quite good. There's not a lot of time spent on Grant himself, and certainly no revisionist history of him, but of course he's a major player.

I can't think about the weakness of Grant's presidency and the failure of Reconstruction without thinking about the Crédit Mobilier scandal. Grant himself mostly escaped but his VP Schuyler Colfax and several important senators and congressmen were all implicated. It's sort of tragic; the actual scandal had very little to do with Reconstruction or the South but the end result was the federal government was so debased that all its plans were weakened.
posted by Nelson at 6:57 AM on April 19 [5 favorites]

Grant also supported the equality achieved by strong separation of church and state, especially as it applied to public schools:
Resolve that neither the state nor nation, nor both combined, shall support institutions of learning other than those sufficient to afford to every child growing up in the land the opportunity of a good common school education, unmixed with sectarian, pagan, or atheistical dogmas.
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:58 AM on April 19 [7 favorites]

He had two great weaknesses: Naivete and the booze. Both are regrettable. Neither is a mortal sin.
posted by mono blanco at 7:31 AM on April 19 [7 favorites]

I did my residency at the Ulysses S. Grant Historic Site in St. Louis and they do a very good job on presenting the man as a complex and whole being who tried very hard to do right by the world and his country and was successful in some areas and unsuccessful in others.

One area that I did a lot of research into was Grant's involvement in the creation of Contraband Camps during the Civil War. Other Union generals noticed that as they won more and more battles in the South, African Americans showed up at the Union camps and wanted to work and wanted protection. Gen. Butler determined that these individuals who were currently property of the enemy were "contraband" and could be "confiscated" to help Union armies.

However, the slave owners were ballsy enough to petition Union generals for permission to enter Union camps and look for their slaves. Grant saw that as a hot mess and a pile of bad shit waiting to happen so he issued an order that expressly state that no slave owners be allowed to search for their property in Union camps and the fugitive slaves were to be housed, fed, and employed by the Army to support their needs while denying the enemy free labor.

By the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, the number of contraband camps around the battlefields had jumped greatly and Grant needed someone to organize the efforts to feed, educate, and pay African American workers.

Throughout the war, Grant demonstrated a canny understanding of how to hurt his enemy but he did mention in his memoir that he began to understand that these camps were more than a way to deny Confederates valuable resources, but they were a way to create communities of free blacks.

Grant was a damn cool dude and has been given a short shrift by Lost Cause influenced historians and I'm glad he's getting a better treatment.
posted by teleri025 at 7:49 AM on April 19 [28 favorites]

Grant comes off pretty well in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team if Rivals — he was Lincoln’s fourth Army commander after Scott, McClellan, and Halleck all of whom were hopelessly blinded by their own pride, or political ambition, or agenda and none of them really seemed to see slavery as the central moral issue the way Lincoln and the abolitionist congress did. As a result, the union was in serious jeopardy of losing the war by the time Lincoln got around to appointing Grant. And Grant kind of quietly and competently did the job he was asked to do because it was his duty and there’s little evidence that he had any great ambitions beyond being a great soldier and leader.

He was an alcoholic there is no question but it would seem he was a pretty damn functional alcoholic, drinking throughout the war and beyond.

I would think there was so much devastation, social upheaval, corruption, opportunism, settling of old scores that the period after the civil war was going to be an absolute shit show no matter who was in charge, in fact I could think of many people who could have sat in the White House at the time under whom things would have been far worse.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:18 AM on April 19 [4 favorites]

One of my favorite quotes from Grant's memoir is a little aside on dueling:

One morning about daylight I happened to be awake, and, hearing the discharge of a rifle not far off, I looked out to ascertain where the sound came from. I observed a couple of clusters of men near by, and learned afterwards that "it was nothing; only a couple of gentlemen deciding a difference of opinion with rifles, at twenty paces. I do not remember if either was killed, or even hurt, but no doubt the question of difference was settled satisfactorily, and "honorably," in the estimation of the parties engaged. I do not believe I ever would have the courage to fight a duel. If any man should wrong me to the extent of my being willing to kill him, I would not be willing to give him the choice of weapons with which it should be done, and of the time, place and distance separating us, when I executed him. If I should do another such a wrong as to justify him in killing me, I would make any reasonable atonement within my power, if convinced of the wrong done.
posted by dismas at 8:26 AM on April 19 [15 favorites]

This would make a great musical...
posted by stet at 8:49 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]

He had two great weaknesses: Naivete and the booze. Both are regrettable. Neither is a mortal sin.

His weakness for purging and expelling Jews from territory under his control maybe shouldn't be ignored either.

The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the Department [of the Tennessee] within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.
posted by Rust Moranis at 9:03 AM on April 19 [7 favorites]

I had read about that as well, but on his actual Wiki page it says
Grant, while president, very much regretted his wartime order expelling Jewish traders, and set out to make amends. Historian Jonathan Sarna said Grant was eager to prove he was above racism, while he "appointed more Jews to public office than had any of his predecessors and, in the name of human rights, he extended unprecedented support to persecuted Jews in Russia and Romania."[292]
I’m not sure what that entails. Does anybody have more details?
posted by gucci mane at 9:16 AM on April 19 [2 favorites]

Here's a pretty in-depth piece about it. Seems like the reports of his anti-Semitism were similar to the reports of his corruption: a kernel of truth, buried in an avalanche of revanchist propaganda.
posted by protocoach at 9:30 AM on April 19 [7 favorites]

FWIW, that link is a piece by Sarna, and is really worth reading. As a Jewish American, it really gave me a new perspective on him and how massive the change was between General Order #11 and his presidency. In a fashion somewhat reminiscent of Robert Byrd, he changed from a man who was (rightly) criticized for his actions, to a President who was celebrated (and upon his death, mourned) as a true ally by many of those same critics and by a large majority of Jewish Americans in general. And as a Jewish progressive, I'm impressed that much of the impetus for his stance on separation of church and state was built on the work of my counterparts of his time.
posted by zombieflanders at 9:52 AM on April 19 [8 favorites]

I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the man of twists and turns's epony-excellent title choice for this post.
posted by BlueJae at 10:20 AM on April 19 [8 favorites]

Grant (with maybe some editing help from Twain) is one of the great English prose stylists. His words are understated, but everything comes from an insightful perspective. He doesn't indulge in personal opinion too often, but when he does it has a real weight to it.

One thing from his memoirs is that he spends a fair amount of time following the newspaper propaganda from both sides during the Civil War, and this turns into an interesting sub-theme.
posted by ovvl at 10:59 AM on April 19

Gropnik’s phrase “sinister revanchist rednecks” is almost as good as Hunter S. Thompson’s “Not even the Book of Revelation threatens a plague of vengeful yahoos.”

This book is definitely going on my “to read” list, which is getting longer than it should.
posted by TedW at 11:17 AM on April 19 [5 favorites]

The Reconstruction of Ulysses S. Grant

The Silent Type
He comes down to us like a figure out of the tangled mythology of Horatio Alger: Grant in his muddy boots, silently contemplating how to kill and capture more Confederates, smoking and chewing eighteen to twenty cigars per day, and writing dozens of clear dispatches to his commanders. Herman Melville envisioned this Grant in his poem “The Armies of the Wilderness”:

A quiet Man, and plain in garb—
Briefly he looks his fill,
Then drops his gray eye on the ground,
Like a loaded mortar he is still:
Meekness and grimness meet in him—
The silent General.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:54 PM on April 19 [2 favorites]

One of my favorite Grant quotes:
Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:22 PM on April 19 [6 favorites]

For several years before Grant took command in the East the Union had a pattern of launching offensives against Richmond, losing a major battle (often the first one), and ending the campaign.

July 21, 1861: P. G. T. Beauregard defeats Irvin McDowell at the First Battle of Bull Run
June 25–July 1, 1862: Robert E. Lee defeats George McClellan in the Seven Days Battles
December 11–15, 1862: Lee defeats Ambrose Burnside at the Battle of Fredericksburg
April 30–May 6, 1863: Lee defeats Joseph Hooker at the Battle of Chancellorsville

Over May 5–7, 1864, Lee defeated Grant at the Battle of the Wilderness. Unlike his predecessors, Grant kept coming, launched the Overland Campaign, and maneuvered Lee into a siege at Richmond and Petersburg in eight weeks.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:54 PM on April 19 [2 favorites]

Another understated part of Grant's presidential term was that his cabinet brokered the Treaty of Washington, which resolved a bunch of simmering problems between the US and UK which could have been escalated into another War of 1812.
posted by AzraelBrown at 2:34 PM on April 19 [1 favorite]

Emily Wilson’s translation (from whence the post title) had me laughing out loud when she has the OG Ulysses say, after revealing himself to the Suitors: “Playtime is over!”
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 2:48 PM on April 19 [1 favorite]

Another favorite Grant quote, on the surrender at Appomattox:
I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.
posted by kirkaracha at 5:56 PM on April 19 [5 favorites]

One of my favorite quotes from Grant's memoir is a little aside on dueling:

I'm amazed by how much that sounds like a monologue from a Cohen Brothers movie to me.
posted by traveler_ at 9:40 PM on April 19 [3 favorites]

Ulysses Grant, Trouble Man, Ta-Nehisi Coates - "Grant is straight out Marvel Comics--alcoholic, son of a tanner, manumiter of slaves, warrior-poet in the most literal uncartoonish sense, scourge of the Klan, (and thus the original prosecutor of the War on Terror) and so and so. More specifically, he's right out of our concept of the Hero. I haven't read enough Joseph Campbell. But I recognize something ancient in the story. The dude's name is Ulysses and U.S."

How Did Ulysses Grant Become a Caricature?, guestpost by Cynic
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:19 AM on April 23 [2 favorites]

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