Last week, former President Donald Trump took the trouble to express his displeasure about the removal from Richmond of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Ironically, the discussion of the memorialization of Lee overshadows to this day the question of what to do with his US Army counterpart, Ulysses S. Grant. Statues of Grant have also been removed, mainly because of the terrible policies his Presidential administration pursued towards Native Americans, but these removals have not gained nearly as much attention because Grant no longer has the cult-like status that remains attached to Lee.
Our question is this: Why would a Republican President devote so much attention to a Confederate general who committed treason against the first Republican President, and who was eventually defeated by the second Republican President, and so little to the US Army general who won the Civil War? And of course, this brings to mind the bigger question of why a New York real estate magnate would want to invoke a Virginia aristocrat to appeal to his “working class” base, rather than a Midwesterner of modest means who rose from obscurity to the command of the United States Army, and eventually to the Presidency.
Much has been written elsewhere about the shoddy treatment of Grant by historians of the Dunning School, who resented Grant’s defeat of Lee but especially his pro-Reconstruction policies as President. Denigration of Grant was apparently necessary to the Cult of Lee that developed in the South after Reconstruction ended. Unfortunately, this line of thought remained deeply influential in US education circles for over a century, and even today finds echoes in the rhetoric of President Trump.
Grant has been justly lauded for his sound strategic judgment during the war, although this assessment has often included a backhanded slap at his tactical talents. Grant, the story goes, knew that he could bleed the South dry, and needed no special military talent to do so; he could simply commit the Army of the Potomac to grind down the Army of Northern Virginia and eventually prevail through numbers alone.
The first part of this assessment is sound; Grant had the firmest grip on the strategic situation of the Civil War of anyone apart from Abraham Lincoln. The second part is nonsense. It takes active, aggressive ignorance to ignore Grant’s tactical intelligence at Forts Henry and Donelson, at Vicksburg, at Chattanooga, and in the Overland Campaign that won the war. Generations of historians (many of whom were Southern sympathizers) were willing to be actively, aggressively ignorant but there is no need for us to take their assessments seriously.
Grant displayed a nuanced, forward-thinking approach to war, characterized early on by his appreciation that offensive action could disrupt the cognitive process of the enemy. Like Lee, he understood that interaction with the enemy was necessarily fluid and that rapid, assertive action placed the enemy under stress and made them inclined to poor decisions. Grant’s final campaign set out to pin Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia like a bug against Richmond. It succeeded brilliantly, even if it left Virginia drenched in blood; having identified the Confederacy’s two remaining assets, Grant tied them to one another, eventually destroying Lee’s army shortly after seizing Richmond.
After the war, a posthumous cult of personality was attached to Lee, bound tightly with the campaign to restore white supremacy in the Reconstruction South. This cult had little room for Grant, in no small part because Grant was the only President to vigorously pursue Reconstruction and the first to treat blacks as both human and American. And so Grant became simultaneously butcher of the flower of the South and pawn of the Radical Republicans, his military brilliance ignored and his literary genius forgotten.
Of course, from a policy point of view much of this is beside the point. There is no reason to speculate that Grant or Lee could have won the war in Afghanistan because the failures there were not failures of generalship. The military as an institution failed and it is hardly blameless for the outcome, but America’s failure in Afghanistan fundamentally stems from a whole of government problem. Hagiography of either Grant or Lee obscures the organizational and institutional dynamics of the armies of the Civil War, and of the social forces that contended against one another in its wake.
But the politics still matter. There is no reason to prefer Lee to Grant as a military officer, and there is all the reason in the world to prefer Grant to Lee as a human being. The preference for Lee over Grant as an American symbol is inherently suspicious, and indeed almost necessarily damning.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).