Redeeming Ulysses S. Grant

For a century and a half, Ulysses S. Grant’s reputation as a commander has been whittled down to that of a drunken butcher who wasted the lives of tens of thousands of troops on doomed war strategies. As for his two terms as America’s 18th President, about all the contemporary public vaguely seems to recollect is that his administrations were tarnished by excessive patronage and scandal.

The only slightly charming twist on Grant’s character portrays him as an eccentric but social scatterbrain solely interested in fun friends, fast horses and good cigars. None of these harsh characterizations are based in reality.

In his new biography, Ulysses S. Grant, Josiah Bunting III rehabilitates the memory of the brilliant general who was responsible for winning the Civil War and keeping the United States together as one nation.

The most elementary feature of Grant’s leadership of Federal forces is that he undertook what none of Lincoln’s other commanders could manage: doing what needed to be done to win the war. For example, his use of joint force operations was visionary for the era and brought about the surrender of Vicksburg, which opened the Mississippi River to Northern forces and sealed the fate of the Deep South.

Of course the war–which took the lives of 698,000 Americans–was gruesome by any measure, but Grant’s tactics were no more profligate than those of other generals on either side. And once the Army of the Potomac was in a state of permanent advance, it logically was going to sustain high casualties on the assault against Confederates who were dug into defensive positions on home turf.

As Bunting explains, as a percentage of troops engaged on each side, Grant’s losses were smaller than those of the Army of Northern Virginia commanded by Robert E. Lee. Gen. Lee never has suffered the calumny of being called a butcher despite the fact that it was the South’s determination to continue fighting long after defeat was inevitable that caused the most unnecessary bloodshed.

Another unfair disparagement is that Grant was a simpleton, or at the very least an uncouth barbarian. Part of the provenance for this was the image of a muddy-boots soldier on a dusty horse that he purposely cultivated to be approachable to his men. Another cause was misinterpretation of the general’s dry humor, such as his famous crack during a European tour that Venice could be a nice city if only they would drain the streets. A man with artistic sensibilities, he enjoyed drawing and watercolors, devoured novels and was a poetic writer, even when dispensing military orders.

As for his presidency, it is true that Grant was not swift enough to discipline a few close government associates with conflicts of interest. However, a number of scandals associated with the Grant years had nothing to do with his administration but get lumped in because they occurred during the same period.

This guilt by association overshadows what should be his legacy as President: a belief that voting is the defining act of U.S. citizenship and a determination that freedmen’s rights won through war would not be lost in peacetime. In days when it was not scandalous to support “extermination” of the Indians (a word Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman used many times when ordering punitive strikes on tribes), Grant pushed for a comparably enlightened policy of assimilation.

Only the second Republican President in American history, Grant’s campaign platforms and domestic policy initiatives for smaller government, tax cuts, deficit reduction and greater cooperation between the government and Christian charities would satisfy most conservative stalwarts today.

What makes this book a uniquely pleasurable and worthwhile read is the biographer’s dilettantish comfort with many subjects and expertise in ones that count. Bunting’s background as both a decorated infantry veteran and prize-winning novelist means that Ulysses S. Grant flows like fiction while being supported by keen insight into military strategy. His look at Grant’s years at West Point particularly benefits from the author’s time as a West Point professor and superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute.

No doubt Bunting understands what it takes to develop a military leader’s character–which Grant had in full. Ulysses S. Grant embodied the traits that used to be recognized as gentlemanliness: fearlessness in battle, loyalty to his friends, dedication to his country, magnanimity to the defeated, compassion for the downtrodden, silent stoicism amidst personal trouble and humility in success.

America now is the strongest nation in history because the Union was kept together. We have Grant largely to thank for that. Josiah Bunting’s biography is a first step in the noble task of putting U.S. Grant back where he belongs in this Republic’s Pantheon of Heroes.