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15 february 2010
Shortly after he took Richmond, Ulysses S. Grant saw his historiographical stock begin to fall. It fell and fell in the decades after his death, to the point where in the mid-to-late 20th century he was universally seen as one of the worst American Presidents, and maybe not such a great Civil War general, either.
Such unchecked plummets in reputation have a way of calling forth rehabilitating reactions, always assuming that the historical figure in question wasn't John Wayne Gacy or Hitler or somebody. As Joan Waugh points out in U.S. Grant, pro-Grant scholarship has been increasingly on the move since the Civil Rights era. (Not that the General ever lacked completely for defenders, among them the highly influential Civil War historian Bruce Catton.)
U.S. Grant is the first full-scale study of Grant memory. Civil war "memory studies" have flourished in recent years, including general looks at the entire postwar period (David Blight's excellent Race and Reunion), specific studies of Gettysburg (Jim Weeks's Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine, Thomas Desjardin's These Honored Dead, and Carol Reardon's Pickett's Charge in History and Memory), and of course, almost an entire publishing industry devoted to meta-analyses of Abraham Lincoln.
Rather than go elbows-out into the fray over Grant's reputation, however, Waugh chooses to prepare her ground very carefully. Most of her book is an expository recovery of just how venerated Grant was in the postwar years, and then at and after his death in 1885.
There is no doubt that the death of U.S. Grant was a very big deal. If you thought that the obsequies for Ronald Reagan were a little protracted, you should have been there back in '85. The nation ground to a halt as the General lay dying, with front pages providing the equivalent of today's cable news tickers, reporting Grant's diet, ablutions, and daily mood swings. When he died, his remains made a progress from upstate New York to downtown Manhattan, and then up again to temporary lodgings in Riverside Park. And it wasn't only Northerners who mourned; Southern participation in the funeral was extensive, and Waugh reprints images of reconciliationist grief from the South.
Waugh gives an especially good account of the planning, building, decay, and rebirth of Grant's Tomb – material also available in her co-edited collection Wars within a War. The great monument is now somewhat overshadowed by Riverside Church and the growth of greenery in the park itself. Unless you're on a boat on the Hudson River, you can't really see it as its designers intended.
In some ways this occluded grandeur symbolizes Grant's place in the national mythology. He is extremely glorious, but private and humble. He achieved his heroism by killing lots of people, and he knew he had to kill them, but he didn't exult in his victories. He wanted people to feel that his actions had been right, but he didn't want them to feel that he was inherently right no matter what he'd done.
Waugh ends up saying little about Grant's role as President, which is indeed the weakest part of the case for his historical recuperation. Instead, she focuses on his military leadership, and on its results. Whether or not you admire Grant as a strategist is to some extent beside the point. Like Lincoln, Grant achieved world-historical goals. Lincoln, whatever his opinions of African-Americans and whatever his political trimming and self-contradiction, freed the slaves. Grant, whatever the elegance of his operational doctrine ("Wherever the enemy goes, let our troops go also" sums it up), forced Lee to surrender. Nobody else did those things. Sometimes, you have to judge history by the results.
While she doesn't extensively critique Grant's military record, Waugh develops the idea that Grant's roles as grand strategist and operational supervisor of a continent-wide military effort were unprecedented, and his ability to cope with the demands of those roles unmatched. Nobody could manage a battle like Robert E. Lee, perhaps; and perhaps nobody, soldier for soldier, got greater results from his command than Lee. Lost Cause disdain for Grant hinges on an insistence that Grant could hardly have failed to take Richmond, given his overwhelming manpower.
But again, every previous Union general in the East had failed to take Richmond. Grant is one of history's greatest victors, and since his companions in arms passed away, it has often seemed like gloating to celebrate winning a war that, given his resources, he should have won. Joan Waugh's book makes it easier for us to see why the postwar years in America often seemed like one long celebration of U.S. Grant.
Waugh, Joan. U.S. Grant: American hero, American myth. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. [Civil War America]