A review of
Ulysses S. Grant, by Josiah Bunting III
Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero, by Michael Korda
Two publishers have recently touted their new, short biographies of President Ulysses S. Grant as "revisionist." Grant's reputation certainly needs a little revising. The CSPAN Survey of Presidential Leadership ranked Grant as our 33rd greatest President. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s 1996 survey of historians ranked him as a failure. Proving that this scholarly ambivalence toward Grant is not strictly political, the Federalist Society-Wall Street Journal Survey on Presidents ranked Grant "Below Average." Not content merely to look with disdain on Grant's service in office, his critics ignore it completely. History has not been kind to President Grant.
Josiah Bunting's Ulysses S. Grant addresses the mystery of how Grant could be among the most beloved men of his time, yet receive so little respect from subsequent generations. His account of Grant's life and presidency is well paced and based on the best of recent scholarship. The first problem, he argues, is that Grant's military career has overshadowed his time in politics. Indeed, the American Civil War has produced a seemingly infinite flood of history books, but literature on Grant's political life is scarcethe last major scholarly work to focus exclusively on his presidency was William B. Hesseltine's Ulysses S. Grant: Politician, published in 193570 years ago.
The second problem is that Grant's character, although noble and great, is inherently unattractive to modern historians. As president, Grant demonstrated that he was as courageous and steadfast as he had been in battle, but he was never a graceful or a stylish man. He was not cultured or educated. He never mastered the give-and-take of political intrigue. He seemed to be, in short, a simple man, lacking the character that makes for scandal.
Thirdly, says Bunting, Grant's reputation has suffered because of the prejudices of scholars who have examined his presidency. Among earlier scholars, racism certainly kept many from praising Grant's efforts on behalf of black Americans, and the massive casualties of World War I reminded many people of the old charge that Grant was a "butcher" of his own men during the Civil War. Scandals in the Oval Office are still compared with corruption during Grant's years in office. He has been a perfect target for progressive historians and Southern sympathizers alike.
To Bunting, A former superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute, Grant's youth and early military career suggest some redeeming qualities. As a young man, Grant was direct, practical, and fair. He had a fatalistic streak that led him to accept tasks without worry or reflection. Although a mediocre student at West Point, Grant did not lack intellectual gifts. He was a quick study, a good writer, and an intellectually curious student who fed his curiosity with a steady diet of serious fiction. His horsemanship was legendary among his contemporaries. As a young officer in the Mexican-American War, Grant was steadfast and shocked at his own calmness under fire. He mastered logistics and learned the value of tactical improvisation. He studied his commanders and learned how to lead men effectively. Grant emerged from the war more confident in his own abilities, loyal to his friends and superiors, and dedicated to the idea that action is more definitive than talk.
Peacetime military service, however, was difficult for Grant. A quartermaster during peacetime was little more than a clerk, and Grant had no interest in clerking. He hated being away from his family and his time at isolated Fort Humboldt in the Pacific Northwest was the bleakest in his life. He turned to the bottle. He would slur his speech after one glass of whiskey; any more would leave him staggering. Rumors circulated that he was a drunk and the peacetime army was small enough that rumors spread quickly. Grant's depression-induced drinking problem led to his resignation from the army in April 1854 and six years of odd jobs before the Civil War brought him back to his calling.
Only eight months passed between the start of the Civil War and the victory at Fort Donelson that brought Grant national fame. In that short time, he proved himself a tactically aggressive and able leader. He gained a powerful political ally in President Lincoln who protected him from jealous rivals with the now-famous remark, "I can't spare this man; he fights." His views on slavery evolved quicklyinitially drawn to the war solely for the sake of preserving Union, Grand soon decided that the war was necessary for the destruction of slavery.
During the Civil War, Grant faced the persistent charge that he was too willing to sacrifice his own men. For this, Bunting blames a culture that praised commander of the Army of Northern Virginia Robert E. Lee excessively. While Grant had a reputation for being "slouching, rumpled, stooped, sloppy, stubby, grubby, slovenly, dusty," and "shuffling," Lee garnered praise in both the North and the South as a humble gentleman. Bunting's analysis of casualty rates demonstrates that the losses the two generals were roughly comparable. In fact, Bunting notes, if one measures casualty rates as a percentage of the number of troops engaged, Grant was the more humane commander.
With the war's end, Grant realized that peace in the South would come only after the federal government protected black suffrage. He had little interest in politics, but he ran for president because he believed himself to be the only person able to protect the Union's gains from the Civil War. Grant's inaugural address reassured his fellow citizens that he would continue the process of healing the wounds between the regions, protect and promote voting rights for all citizens, and pay off the national debt as quickly as possible.
Bunting claims that historians have undervalued or ignored Grant's handling of Reconstruction, leaving the worst images of Grant to linger. Instead, he finds Grant's policy during Reconstruction to be noble, and notes that many of the problems he faced had no viable solutions. These problems were "more severe than those that have greeted all American presidents save only two (Lincoln and Roosevelt) at their inaugurations," he argues. The North was tired after the war and frustrated with what seemed like an unending series of demands and challenges. Republicans were divided among themselves while Democrats were united against them. Nevertheless, Grant pushed hard for the ratification of the 15th Amendment, crushed the Ku Klux Klan, and held the devoted support of Frederick Douglass. His crusade for union during Reconstruction became more determined with each passing year. Additionally, he became more partisan; he associated the Democratic Party with systematic attempts to destroy the rights of blacks. As Grant put it, "I am a Republican because I am an American, and because I believe the first duty of an Americanthe paramount dutyis to save the results of the war…."
As President, Grant faced an immediate financial crisis brought about by the speculative ventures of the now-infamous Jay Gould and Hamilton Fisk. Bunting finds Grant's leadership in the "Black Friday" episode to be honest if "uncertain" at first, but "culminating in decisive action." He tackles the scandals of the Gilded Age (commonly blamed on Grant) systematically and finds that Grant had little to do with them.
Grant also faced crises in foreign affairs and handled them with skill. He settled the Alabama claims that charged the British with prolonging the Civil War by putting a commerce raider to sea. He avoided war with Spain over the Cuban insurgency. Most notably, Grant attempted to annex the Dominican Republic in order to provide freed slaves with economic leverage. He wanted "to secure a retreat for that portion of the laboring classes of our former slave states, who might find themselves under unbelievable pressure."
Bunting finds Grant's policies toward "the original inhabitants of this land" to be humane in intent, if ultimately tragic in consequence. Grant wanted to protect Native Americans in the short-run and assimilate them into the larger culture over time. Bunting finds this policy to be "generous in instinct and intent, [and] far ahead of the conventional cultural and political wisdom of its day."
In total, Bunting finds Grant to be a calm, honest, and effective generalneither a drunk nor a butcher. As president, Grant worked for justice for blacks and Indians, a sound economy and peace with Britain. Bunting's work is part of the American Presidents series published by Times Books. The same Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. whose poll ranked Grant a failure is the general editor of the series. Perhaps some of the historians who ranked Grant a failure will read Bunting before the next survey.
Another sign of just how much rehabilitation Grant's reputation needs is that Michael Korda's incorrect and ill-informed Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero is considered "revisionist" at all. Unlike Bunting, he does not even begin to address several important issues during Grant's presidency, and some of the errors in his biography are laughable. Korda, Simon and Schuster's editor in chief, demonstrates his ignorance of both the Eisenhower and the Grant administrations when he claims that "Grant was unwillingagain very much like Ike less that a hundred years laterto use federal force to defend the rights of blacks or challenge the southern status quo..." On the contrary, Eisenhower did in fact send in the U.S. military to protect the rights of blacks and challenge the Southern status quo. Grant became president precisely because he wanted to preserve what had been gained in the Civil War and used military force to crush Southern terrorism on more than one occasion.
Korda is also a master of distracting or pretentious analogies and foreign references. He compares Grant to "Byron's famous lines about George III." New York's Upper West Side is the "equivalent of Paris's sixteenth arrondissement." Korda twice describes Lee as a "beau sabreur." He and his wife Julia had "un coup de foudre" and he was her "beau ideal." Grant's method of beginning a battle was like Napoleon's: "On s'egage, et puis on voit." In two remarkable sentences, Korda describes Grant using the words of Homer, Shakespeare, and Twain. The references to Twain make sense, given the relationship between Twain and Grant, but it should be possible to write a book about Grant without mentioning The Horse Whisperer, Tennessee Williams, marriage customs in the British army, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, or Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves.
Korda's sources are a less frustrating but more serious flaw. The endnotes include only eighteen citations for ten chapters. Most of Korda's account is based on two books: Grant by William S. McFeely (1997) and W.E. Woodward Meet General Grant (1928). He relies on "the Ulysses S. Grant homepage" for most of his information on the Grant presidency, except for the account of "the Santo Domingo fiasco," which comes from McFeeley. He makes no mention of prominent recent scholars of the Grant Administration such as Brooks Simpson, Jean Edward Smith, or Frank Scatturo, and there is no evidence in his book that Korda consulted their work.
Korda and Bunting demonstrate the potential and the danger of revisionism. Bunting gives us hope that it is now possible to consider the Grant presidency in a new light, while Korda reminds us that old lessons and prejudices die hard. Bunting's good work is only a beginning, though. Perhaps the upcoming volume from Brooks Simpson will force historians into a deeper reexamination and new appreciation of the Grant presidency. Surely it is time.