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Why So Many Historians Look Down on Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant Reputation
Image: Creative Commons.

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.

Ulysses S. Grant Reputation

Image: Creative Commons.

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).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. 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). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

22 Comments

22 Comments

  1. Slack

    September 17, 2021 at 10:51 am

    The spirit of general Grant lives on (like in members of US Congress).

    The US could have co-existed as two nations during his time, but then everyone wanted a good scrap. Families eventually endured ruin, suffered hunger and homes destroyed. Conditions on the battlefields were atrocious, with fighting men unwashed and wearing same dirty garments for months.

    Prisoners in some places were forced to eat snow due to severely depraved circumstances and were known as snow eaters. Today, Grant is alive and well in America.

  2. Donald Link

    September 17, 2021 at 1:02 pm

    It would seem a more balanced approach is needed for both men. In the case of Lee, the matter of whether states could legally secede from the union was an unsettled issue in 1861. The Civil War settled the matter but since Lee resigned before accepting service with the Confederacy, it can not be said he committed treason. After the war, no one from the former Confederacy supported reunification more than Lee. Grant is justifiably commended for his efforts to secure civil rights for Blacks during reconstruction and properly chastised for letting two of his favorite Civil War generals, Sherman and Sheridan, carry out brutal campaigns against Native Americans. Finally, NO ONE wanted the Civil War. The Confederacy pleaded to be allowed to go their way in peace and Lincoln stated that if he could save the Union without abolishing slavery, he would. Unfortunately, the bombardment of Ft. Sumter removed all choices for both parties.

  3. Winnie SC

    September 17, 2021 at 1:12 pm

    “There is every reason to prefer Grant to Lee as a human being.”

    Name one of these “ever reason[s]” please.

    Not saying you are wrong–just that your completely unsupported pronouncement is–well, completely unsupported.

  4. Walt

    September 17, 2021 at 1:26 pm

    Thank you for an excellent article. U.S. Grant deserves a reexamination, the story of his writing his memoirs is a tragedy.

  5. CSM

    September 17, 2021 at 2:06 pm

    1. If no one wanted wanted a war then why did confederate forces fire on Fort Sumter.

    2. Were the poor maligned slave owners pleading to be peacefully allowed to go their own way in peace willing to extend the same courtesy to the people they held in slavery? Of course not. They seceded explicitly because they wanted to hold other people as property.

  6. Jim Higgins

    September 17, 2021 at 5:03 pm

    General Lee could have pushed a long and lingering guerrila war that would have permanently, repeat permanently, split North and South.

    Lee pushed for reunification of both. That is something revisionist “historians” NEVER want to see and realize.

  7. Joseph A. Rose

    September 17, 2021 at 10:15 pm

    Having written a tome on how Grant’s stellar reputation is exceedingly undeserved, I could go on for almost ever discussing his military and personal deficiencies.

    He suffered the biggest surprise of the war at Shiloh, promulgated the worst official act of anti-semitism on American soil, came closest of all Union commanders to losing Washington, and grossly distorted Civil War historiography with his unreliable Personal Memoirs.

    And whatever else Robert E. Lee may or may not have been, he was head and shoulders above Grant as a general. In the Overland Campaign, Grant had an almost two to one advantage in men along with many other substantial advantages, yet the best he could do was too lose men almost twice as fast.

    Grant’s plan was not to pin Lee, but to beat him. That didn’t happen until the following year when the entire Confederacy was crumbling.

  8. Jan Leone

    September 17, 2021 at 11:58 pm

    Thank you for your excellent article on General and two term President Ulysses S. Grant.
    He was a great, yet humble man and patriot.
    He deserves an honored place in American history.
    What some people don’t seem to understand is that the 1800’s had a different culture and mores. People from that era cannot be looked at through the lens of the 2000s. They were wrong, but some of them didn’t know they were wrong and some just didn’t care.
    It looks as if the Civil War will be “fought” forever.
    But now is the time to come together as AMERICANS as I believe we are in the greatest crisis since that war.
    Not global warming or racism, but from people who want to destroy everything the Civil War and the men who fought and died in that war were trying to preserve.
    GOD Bless America!

  9. Art

    September 18, 2021 at 2:12 am

    My impression was that that the south was itching for a fight. The Fugitive Slave Acts were humiliating for the north, unthinkable to heap such humiliation on the honorable man of the south. Roadside drafting of the able-bodied to retrieve property? No southern man would countenance it. No, the south thought northerners were soft, not quite really men, and could be pushed around.

    They really did think God was on their side.

  10. Southern 123

    September 18, 2021 at 2:42 am

    The writer did not mention William Jones ,he was Grants slave that he owned and freed before the civil war he also did not mention the four slaves that Mrs. Grant was owned and she did not free until after the war.the writer did not mention the property owned by Grants father in-law Mr.fredric Dent that property was named white Haven he also did not mention that grant was incharge of that property and all the slaves on that property Grant also used slaves to build his house the property he named hard scrabble all easily researched.

  11. Donald Link

    September 18, 2021 at 1:22 pm

    Ft. Sumter was fired upon by South Carolina. The Confederacy had not been organized at the time with a national army and Lincoln was still hopeful that war could be avoided. The war was quite bloody as both Lee and Grant had served in Mexico and attempted to repeat the tactics of that war. It was not until Sherman made his famous march to the sea and Sheridan deployed cavalry as a mobile fighting force that tactics changed to favor the better equipped Union forces.

  12. Bart Haviv

    September 20, 2021 at 12:23 am

    The author’s statement that the war in Afghanistan was a military failure and not the failure of it’s generals overlooks the fact that the generals lied for the past twenty years. A quick perusal of all the claims committed to video since the early 2000s reveals every US military leader asserting that our troops were winning the Afghanistan war. General Milley and the generals who preceded him need to be held accountable for their blunders. The troops who served them and gave the last full measure of their lives deserve this to be investigated. On other principles alone Milley himself warrants a court martial trial.

  13. Mario DeLosa

    September 20, 2021 at 9:45 am

    For Winnie SC. Here are two reasons why Grant was a better human being than Lee. “Grant was the only President to vigorously pursue Reconstruction and the first to treat blacks as both human and American.” Try reading next time.

  14. Mario DeLosa

    September 20, 2021 at 9:53 am

    Joseph Rose, just because you wrote a “tome” on the many reasons why you believe Lee was better than Grant does not make you an authority. These days everyone is writing books. Are you a History PhD? Do you have senior level military experience? I recently read a book on Jefferson that featured a couple of significant whoppers, such as the claim that Jefferson was a member of the Republican party, that would never have sailed past anyone of my history professors. Sorry, just because you wrote a “tome” does not mean that it was well researched or accurately documented.

  15. Bob Taylor

    September 21, 2021 at 1:35 am

    The claim that Lee was a traitor is silly. Which country was he betraying the United States to, the Confederate States? Sorry, the CSA was an attempt, not a nation. If Lee was a traitor, so were the boys of 1776, the whole bunch of them. As it’s said, the victors write the history.

    A writer with this author’s education should be explaining his dismay about statue toppling, not apologizing for it. How can he not understand the ominousness of the Woke maniacs’ trying to rewrite history? It’s as if Orwell had never lived, and as if history really is malleable.

    Someone who doesn’t understand have a decent general understanding of America’s full history can’t appreciate the remarkable greatness of Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Until it was used to justify corrupting donations to political campaigns, the argument that the best answer to bad speech is good speech was extremely persuasive. Aside from its being stretched beyond persuasiveness in that matter, it still is.

    Here’s black America’s problem in microcosm: at the Duke Ellington centennial in 1999, our local newspaper sent a reporter to interview several black musicians about Ellington’s standing with young blacks. The musicians agreed that essentially, it was nonexistent because Duke Ellington’s life, let alone his music, was unknown to them.

  16. Ted

    September 22, 2021 at 10:27 am

    Grant is credited with winning the war but it was actually Sherman’s invention of total warfare through destroying homes and farms and killing civilians and raping southern white women on a wanton scale that won the war. Ft Sumpter was fired upon because it was a Northern bastion completely surrounded by folks who wanted them out. They were requested and refused to leave and so we’re attacked.

  17. Brian Hughes

    September 22, 2021 at 4:26 pm

    Seriously? Every reason to prefer Grant over Lee as a human being?

    Grant was a slave master. Sherman was a war criminal by any measure of his time and ours, Lincoln was an outspoken white supremacist. And people like you, who try to distort history to fit what they were forced to swallow and regurgitate in 3rd grade social studies class, that the North was made up of the ‘good guys’ fighting for a noble cause, are the real problem.

  18. Brian Rajala

    September 23, 2021 at 12:17 pm

    I have always considered Ulysses Grant under-appreciated, his deficiencies have been over-enphasized.

  19. Steve Woodward

    September 23, 2021 at 2:04 pm

    Hello America! This country is now as divided as it was before and during the times of Grant and Lee. EVERYTHING is based upon political ideology. You are either Democrat or Republican and your outlook is based upon that whether you realize it or not. For any of us to come out of this with our freedom intact we had all better remember one very important fact. WE ARE AMERICANS FIRST! If you hate our country Delta is ready when you are!

  20. Duane

    September 23, 2021 at 9:11 pm

    So much bullshit spouted by the treasonous rebels here in this thread as in so many others.

    There is zero question about whether Confederates committed treason. The US Constitution explicitly define treason as taking up arms against the United States. End of discussion.

    No, the South and North could never have coexisted peacefully. In addition to secession being treason, it was the Confederates who attacked the Union, and the slave states had been in a continuous struggle to expand slavery to the western territories, which the free states could never tolerate – even if separated the tens would have invaded the Union and the western territories.

  21. Bill Kennedy

    September 24, 2021 at 3:33 am

    Duane, by 1860 cotton farming had reached it’s natural limits with the 98th meridian. To the west annual rainfall dropped to less than 12 inches per year. There was almost no ground suitable for cotton until well into California where legal slavery was already prohibited. The legal entry of free black people was strongly discouraged in Cali and it was banned by the constitution of the state of Oregon. Large scale agriculture was the only remaining enterprise in the US where slavery was still economically viable.None of this was a secret in 1860

    When the Southern states left the Union they, obviously, gaves up all claims to the western territories. The assertion that the South would have waged war to claim theses territories is absolute unsupportable nonsense. An independent South would almost certainly have been less inclined toward expansion than the industrial North that was dedicated to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

    The Upper South left the Union over the demand that they wage war on their neighbors and all four governors unambiguously said exactly that as did their Articles of Secession.

    Hiram Grant owned one William Jones and Julia owned several slaves with at least one remaining with her until the war’s end or the ratification of the 13th depending on who one believes. Grant worked as a manager of his father in law’s 15 to 20 slaves at White Haven
    when he left the army the first time.

    Sorry all this isn’t as simple as you want it to be.

  22. Seth Grossman

    September 24, 2021 at 10:05 pm

    Grant was a great general and a great President. He won war to free slaves, protected lives and rights of freed black slaves, paid down debts of the war, allowed private businesses to rebuild nation stronger than before. His funeral procession largest in America. Only racist Democrat professors like Woodrow Wilson trashed Grant with their fake histories. Libertyandprosperity. com

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