De­ter­mined war­rior, mud­dled pol

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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).

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.