The violent upheaval in the US over the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, presents a chance to set the record straight about a true hero of the American Civil War – General of the Army Ulysses S Grant.
Since white nationalists in the US South are intent on fighting the Civil War all over again, now is as good a time as any to put to rest some fake news of the 19th-century variety: the enduring myth of the “Noble South” and the generalship of Robert E Lee.
The myth was spun in the years following the Civil War by Southern scribes who concocted the romantic tale of a downtrodden people who gallantly fought against overwhelming odds and the meat grinder of a Union war machine led by a cigar-chomping Ohioan named U S Grant. Such poppycock gave rise to celluloid fantasies like D W Griffith’s Klansman-laced Hollywood epic The Birth of a Nation and Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind.
Grant got a raw deal from history. He was the real victor of the Civil War whose military acumen has been sold short and whose reputation has been unfairly maligned. Unlike Lee, who hailed from a patrician Virginia military family reeking of entitlement, Grant rose from utter obscurity to command the 80,000-man Army of the Potomac.
He was the only one to emerge victorious from a gaggle of incompetent Union commanders with his methodical, unflappable feel for the battlefield. As Abraham Lincoln famously said of Grant: “I can’t spare this man, he fights.”
If Grant had not taken the key river fortress of Vicksburg in 1863, Union General George Meade’s victory at Gettysburg on the same day in July that year would have been meaningless. As it was, Meade’s repulse of Lee at that Pennsylvania town should be credited to subordinate commanders who held the high ground and who resisted a cowardly bid by Meade to withdraw his army on the eve of the battle.
Grant’s pyrrhic victory at Shiloh in 1862 was also one of the first signal Union victories, one in which he and General William Tecumseh Sherman (after some blunders) snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
Sure, Lee was a great tactician. But Grant (a humble general who went through the war wearing a private’s uniform without insignia) beat him. He took horrendous losses. In the end, this hard-drinking West Pointer bottled Lee up in a maze of muddy trenches outside Petersburg, Virginia. Grant killed so many rebels that one chronicler observed that there were more flags than soldiers in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia when they finally stacked their guns at Appomattox in April 1865.
The evidence may be anecdotal, but if the US press were to make a scientific count, I have no doubt that there are more statutes of Lee in the US than there are of Grant. Most of the moldering Civil War statutes that dominate village greens in northern US states depict ordinary Union soldiers – not Grant. I believe the Stonewall Jackson lovers in the South have done the same to Sherman.
Why are there so many statues to the losing side in a war? The avalanche of Confederate stone effigies is traceable to the rise of Democratic legislatures in the South after Reconstruction who erected the monuments and later incorporated the Confederate insignia into their state flags.
This would have been deemed treason in the years immediately after the Civil War, and the Confederate flag is still technically, from a federal view, an illegal flag of the Rebellion.
Sherman, Grant’s right-arm man in the west, was another victim of revisionists who rewrite history a century after the fact. Though he is vilified for his burning of Atlanta in 1864, Sherman’s march to the sea that sliced the Confederacy in two was a master stroke that shortened the war. Atlanta was a railroad hub and the burning of the city, while brutal, made perfect sense from a military point of view.
As the 18th president of the United States, Ulysses S Grant was arguably one of the finest writers ever to grace the Oval Office. His literary talent was recognized by none other than Mark Twain, who encouraged him to write. And Grant’s personal memoirs covering his service in the Mexican War and the Civil War and completed as he was dying of cancer in 1885 have been celebrated ever since for their folksy verve and wit.
Grant, after the end of his second term in 1879, was also the first US president, sitting or otherwise, to visit Asia. He and his wife Julia traveled to Burma, Singapore, Siam, French Cochin China, Hong Kong, Canton, Shanghai and Japan.
He helpfully, but vainly, tried to mediate a dispute between Qing China and Japan over the Ryukyu Islands. He sailed up the Yangtze, and huge crowds turned out in Tokyo to greet the homespun victor of Appomattox. He shook hands with Emperor Mutsuhito and counseled Japan’s Meiji leaders on the need to arm themselves against the evils of European colonialism.
On the dark side, Grant’s presidency saw some of the worst abuses and massacres of native Americans by white settlers and the US military. But in his defense it can be said that he personally opposed such atrocities, futilely sought to reform federal policy toward the tribes, and was the first (and only) US president to refer to what was happening as genocide.
Until this year, Grant’s presidential administration also had the dubious distinction of being the most corrupt in US history. It’s highly likely that this will no longer be the case and that the cronies and opportunists who doomed his presidency will be greatly outdone by the masters of a new Trumpian universe.
The large number of Confederate statues still standing in the US today belies the old adage that the victors write history. The victors should. To borrow a few words from President Donald Trump, there should be more “beautiful statues” of Ulysses S Grant in America. If people can’t find any, they should make more.