President Ulysses S. Grant Deserves More Respect

There is nothing stranger in American history than the up-and-down reputation of

Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant, who was born April 27, 1822, was the commanding general who ended the Civil War. He managed the great campaigns that captured Vicksburg and Richmond, saved Chattanooga, and compelled the surrender of

Robert E. Lee

and the main Confederate field army, and did it so well that President

Abraham Lincoln

apologized for not showing him enough confidence. Grant’s “Personal Memoirs,” published after he died in 1885, are a landmark of 19th-century American prose.

Grant may be a greater example even than Lincoln of the American rags-to-riches story. In 1861 he was working in his father’s leather-goods store in Galena, Ill. Three years later, he was general-in-chief of U.S. forces. Four years after that, he was elected president.

Still, Grant gets no respect. As a general, he was accused of alcoholism—and he was an alcoholic, by the clinical definition of the term. As a strategist, he was denounced by First Lady

Mary Todd Lincoln

as an unfeeling “butcher,” feeding the bodies of Northern soldiers into battles that simply wore away the Southern armies. As president he was derided as a tongue-tied incompetent.

Henry Adams,

the ultimate Washington insider, sneered at Grant as an upstart, “inarticulate, uncertain, distrustful of himself, still more distrustful of others, and awed by money.” Adams snarled that Grant should “have lived in a cave and worn skins.”

Certainly, Grant made his share of mistakes. He yielded to demands from his father,

Jesse Root Grant,

to ban “the Jews, as a class,” from his encampments in 1862 (an order he rescinded at Lincoln’s command and regretted as “that obnoxious order”). He ordered a disastrous series of attacks at Cold Harbor, Va., in 1864 that cost as many as 7,500 Union lives. As president, he surrounded himself with old Army cronies who, from sheer inexperience, didn’t swim well in Washington’s political waters. And there was no display of military flamboyance to distract attention from the mistakes. Grant “was a man of grave and serious purpose” (according to

James Rusling,

an army staffer), but as a puzzled Boston lawyer wrote, he “had no gait, no station, no manner.”

Yet Charles Dana, a journalist and assistant secretary of war who was posted by the War Department to spy on Grant’s drinking while in action, reported that no decision Grant made during the war ever betrayed any trace of being under the influence. Though Grant took the offensive in every campaign he mounted during the Civil War, the armies he commanded suffered 55,000 fewer casualties than those suffered by Robert E. Lee and his fabled Army of Northern Virginia, who fought mostly on the defensive.

Grant’s two terms as president may pose the severest challenge to his reputation, since his presidency acquired an embarrassing odor of scandal. But many of those scandals turned out to be politically motivated campaigns by Grant’s congressional opponents. As only the second Republican elected to the presidency, Grant inherited a postwar Reconstruction program that had gone disastrously awry under his predecessor,

Andrew Johnson,

and Democrats eager to stymie Grant’s policies announced after his election “that the chief duty of the next Congress will be investigation.”

Nevertheless, a string of corruption inquiries by congressional Democrats yielded not a single indictment. The one undoubted scandal within Grant’s cabinet concerned kickbacks on federal contracts received by War Secretary

William Belknap,

who resigned in disgrace. But no one was ever able to lay a finger on the president himself.

It wasn’t really corruption that enraged the Democratic opposition, but Grant’s Reconstruction strategy. His inaugural address endorsed the ratification of the 15th Amendment, ensuring voting rights for all citizens, including the former Confederacy’s newly freed slaves. Although Grant himself had once owned a slave (a gift from his father-in-law; Grant emancipated him in 1859), the war exerted a volte-face on race for Grant. “Enfranchisement and equal rights should accompany emancipation,” he insisted in a statement to the National Colored Convention in 1873, and he waved away “the prejudice to color” that was hamstringing movement toward equal rights as “senseless.” In 1871, when Ku Klux Klan violence threatened the Reconstruction government of South Carolina, Grant took the unprecedented peacetime step of suspending the writ of habeas corpus and sending in federal troops to arrest Klan members. And in 1875 he signed the most comprehensive civil-rights bill the country would see before the modern civil-rights movement.

But not even Grant could hold back the returning tide of the old plantation elite in the South. Although he was re-elected in 1872, a national financial panic the following year sent angry voters to the polls in 1874 and the next year put a Democratic majority in control of the House. After that, there would be no more funding for Reconstruction initiatives or protections against election violence, as Grant simply ran out of resources to combat what he labeled “these annual, autumnal outbreaks in the South.” Once Grant left the presidency, the last redoubts of Reconstruction fell back into the hands of white Southerners, and the former Confederacy would soon see the substitution of

Jim Crow

for Reconstruction.

Along with that would come the disparagement of Ulysses Grant. To Progressives at the beginning of the 20th century, Grant symbolized the era of the robber barons. To advocates of the Confederacy, sullying Grant’s reputation helped distract their cause’s quick loss at his hands. But Ulysses Grant deserves better, and if his recent surge in historians’ rankings of American presidents is any indication, the bicentennial of Grant’s birth may be the perfect occasion for that recognition.

Mr. Guelzo is director of the

James Madison

Program’s Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship at Princeton University.

Journal Editorial Report: The week’s best and worst from Kim Strassel, Jason Riley and Dan Henninger. Images: AFP/Getty Images/ABC/MSNBC/Zuma Press/Shutterstock Composite: Mark Kelly

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