Determined warrior, muddled pol
Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” That’s the question — first posed by Groucho Marx — that University of California at Los Angeles history professor Joan Waugh sets out to answer in this vigorous and highly readable study. Who was this man? Why has his reputation suffered?
In part, she says, it’s because of an anti-military sentiment prevalent among our thinkers and talkers and in part a fluctuating belief in the Northern version of the Civil War, combined with the growth of a popular and romantic “Lost Cause” Southern version (see “Gone With the Wind”), with Robert E. Lee the Cavalier and Ulysses S. Grant the Roundhead.
At the time of his death, Grant was considered “a true hero,” comparable to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln — primarily a Northern sentiment, of course, although Ms. Waugh also has unearthed published Southern eulogies linking Washington and Grant and praising Grant’s magnanimity at Appomattox. In his lifetime, Grant was “celebrated for his strength, his resolve, and his ability to overcome severe obstacles, banishing the possibility of failure.” One military contemporary wrote that Grant “was like Thor, the hammerer; striking blow after blow, intent on his purpose to beat his way through.”
Grant himself, in the “Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant,” a work Ms. Waugh rightly calls “a classic in American literature,” puts it this way: “One of my superstitions has always been when I started to go any where, or do anything, not to turn back, or stop until the thing intended was accomplished.”
This basic approach accelerated Grant’s meteoric rise between 1861 and 1865, with decisive victories at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg and Chattanooga. In 1864, he took command of the Union Army, and after a series of battles in Virginia, accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House in 1865. Shortly thereafter, Grant was named the first four-star general in American history and remained the Army’s top general until 1868, when he was elected to the first of two terms as president.
Grant’s administration, Ms. Waugh writes, especially in the second term, when presidents often get into trouble, was plagued by charges of cronyism and bungling, brought on largely by “his lack of expertise in the humdrum but important world of national political machinations.”
As one historian wrote: “He had a true political sense, for he could see big things and big ideas, but he possessed no political cunning, he could not see the littleness of the little men who surrounded him.”
Nevertheless, Ms. Waugh writes, most Americans believed him to be “honest and well meaning.” His mythic status as savior of the Union was only slightly diminished, and Americans largely approved of his policies on westward expansion, Indian policy and Reconstruction, although the latter would prove a failure, for reasons no president could control.
Upon leaving office, from 1877 to 1879, Grant embarked on a two-year, triumphal world tour, becoming a celebrity and international statesman; cheered by admiring throngs; feted by monarchs, generals and prime ministers; and even on occasion asked to lend a diplomatic hand:
“When Grant was in China,” Ms. Waugh writes, “Viceroy Li Hu asked him to deploy his diplomatic skills in negotiating a peaceful treaty between China and Japan regarding a dispute over the Ryuku Islands, which he accomplished successfully.”
Returning to New York, Grant found his savings had been lost in speculative schemes by men he had trusted. At that time, our ex-presidents received neither perks nor pensions. Grant set out to make money by writing articles, and a proposal to write his memoirs followed. At about the same time, he discovered that he had an advanced case of throat cancer, which as he worked on his memoirs brought on “hours of indescribable agony.”
The story, Ms. Waugh writes, is “riveting” and “gut-wrenching.” “His family’s financial future depended upon the successful completion of the book, and he could not let them down.” He didn’t. As on the battlefield, it was straight ahead, and damn the hostile fire “until the thing intended was completed.”
Grant died on July 23, 1885. On Dec. 10, 1885, the publication of the “Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant” (1,231 pages in all) “proved a spectacular popular and critical success.” Reviewers made favorable comparisons with Caesar’s “Commentaries,” and literar y lions including William Dean Howells and Mark Twain (a personal friend who had facilitated publication) were effusive in their praise, as were later commentators (among them Gertrude Stein).
“Within the first two years,” Ms. Waugh writes, “royalties totaled over $450,000, bringing financial security to Grant’s widow and four children.”
Objective achieved. And that’s the man — Cavalier or Roundhead — who’s buried in Grant’s tomb.
John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).