Albert Hunt: ‘Grant’ challenges Southern myth-making

Published 6:58 pm Monday, January 1, 2018

More than a few politicians say this honors the state’s heritage. And there’s plenty of lingering nostalgia for the Confederacy, Exhibit A being President Donald Trump’s sympathetic words for rowdy white supremacists and neo-Nazis who showed up last summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the planned removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee.

The Confederate monuments are outgrowths of the “Lost Cause,” a campaign begun after the Civil War by a Southern general, Jubal Early, and Jefferson Davis, who had been Confederate president. They argued that the Southern cause was mainly a noble defense of the principle of states’ rights, not a battle to preserve slavery.

The mythmaking included an idealized portrait of Confederate generals, especially Lee, who were painted as better military men and far better people than their Northern counterparts. A special target of this propaganda campaign was Ulysses S. Grant, the Union general who defeated Lee and later served two terms as president, championing equal rights for black citizens.

Confederate apologists, helped by some 19th-century historians, depicted Grant as a military butcher, a chronic drunk and a corrupt and failed president.

It’s a lie, and one that makes Ron Chernow’s voluminous biography, “Grant,” all the more important, especially in the context of a contemporary neo-Confederate revival on the political right.

Chernow definitively establishes that Grant was a great general – the military historian John Keegan once called him “the towering genius of the Civil War” – a compassionate and honest man and possibly the most underrated U.S. president.

Chernow, biographer of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, doesn’t gloss over Grant’s deficiencies. Grant had a drinking problem, though it seems not to have affected his leadership. He made a few huge military mistakes, particularly an ill-timed 1864 assault on entrenched Confederate troops at Cold Harbor, Virginia, that resulted in 7,000 Union casualties in less than an hour. He issued an anti-Semitic order against Jewish cotton traders during the Civil War and regretted it for the rest of his life. His presidency suffered from economic woes, the Panic of 1873 and scandals involving trusted advisers.

But he was an exceptional military man, forging a close bond with his two top lieutenants, Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Phil Sheridan. Grant’s victories at the Tennessee battlefields of Shiloh and especially Vicksburg, a strategic masterpiece, arguably were the turning points of the war. He was no military butcher, but was brilliantly aggressive at hunting down and destroying the enemy. He displayed unusual grace and generosity after the crowning Union victory at Appomattox, Virginia, going to great lengths not to humiliate Lee. Grant demanded unconditional surrender but omitted the phrase from the written agreement and allowed the Confederate general to keep his sword.

“With no tinge of malice, Grant’s words branded a spirit of charity reminiscent of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural,” Chernow writes.

Despite the scandals that plagued his presidency, Grant produced important achievements, establishing respect for the U.S. around the world. Domestically, he worked diligently for postwar reconstruction of the South and oversaw passage of the 15th Amendment giving blacks the right to vote. Grant broke new ground in appointing minorities to government posts, and Chernow credits him with “the most auspicious record on racial equality and civil rights of any president from Lincoln to Lyndon B. Johnson.”

Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist intellectual and escaped slave, observed at the time, “To Grant more than any other man, the Negro owes his enfranchisement.”

To be sure, racist backlash undid much of Grant’s civil rights work over the next 80 years. But the 18th president laid important groundwork.

Although in subsequent years his reputation suffered, Grant’s virtues were recognized by distinguished peers. Walt Whitman called him “the noblest Roman of them all.” Mark Twain published Grant’s memoirs and called them “the best purely narrative literature in the language.”

For me, reading Chernow’s book brought back memories of a bifurcated childhood. Born in Virginia and reared in suburban Philadelphia, I spent a month or so every summer during the 1950s in my mom’s small Virginia hometown of Orange. In the North, the Civil War was rarely mentioned. But in Orange, nostalgia for the lost cause and faith in the honor of the Confederacy still flourished.

My grandmother, the sweetest woman I’ve ever known, was a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and festooned her house with pictures of Lee and his horse, Traveler, and of General Stonewall Jackson and the dashing cavalry officer Jeb Stuart. If Grant’s name arose it was dismissed derisively. This was white Virginia.

The myths persist, astonishingly, in today’s White House.

Trump doesn’t read books, but Chernow’s biography would be a perfect Christmas present for him anyway. And Virginia should erect a 137th Civil War statue, to the general who led the fight to save the U.S., Ulysses S. Grant.

Albert Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.