The appraisal of Ulysses S. Grant, the nation’s 18th president, has been on the rise in recent years, no doubt helped along by new works reexamining his leadership during a pivotal time in U.S. history.
Grant has seen the largest rise of any of the presidents in C-SPAN’s ranking by noted historians from 2000 to 2017, jumping from 33rd place to 22nd. The most recent survey was completed in 2017.
Many will likely have their true introduction to the Ohio native on Memorial Day when The History Channel premiers its much-anticipated three-night mini-series “Grant,” which is executive produced by Pulitzer-prize winning biographer Ron Chernow and actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
Chernow, author of “Alexander Hamilton,” the biography that inspired the wildly popular Broadway musical, has done much to raise the profile of the exploits of this 19th century hero through his 2017 biography, “Grant.”
However, Frank Scaturro — author of “President Grant Reconsidered” (1999) and head of the Grant Monument Association — was among those drawn to study this former chief executive’s time in office before it was back in vogue.
His fascination with Grant began as a young boy studying the presidents and continued during his college years, when he volunteered as a guide at the General Grant National Memorial in New York City while attending nearby Columbia University.
Asked why Grant suffered from such low presidential rankings for so many years, Scaturro said it was mainly based on who tells the story — much as it is in 2020.
“The elites of his time, the most literate people, the editors of the largest and most influential magazines, the intelligentsia of his time, you can say, were against him,” Scaturro said.
But he had support of the people, easily winning two terms, first in 1868 and again in 1872.
Scaturro pointed out it has been a recurring pattern in the nation’s history for Americans to turn to top military leaders to secure the peace after a major war.
“It’s actually helped us to have professional soldiers in the White House, if we want to avoid war,” he said. “If we want to assert peace through strength, we’ve done best in that vein with professional soldiers in the White House.”
In the trailer to the upcoming mini-series, Chernow describes Grant’s rise to lead the Union War effort and later become president of the United States as the most improbable of “any figure in American history.”
Grant graduated 21st out of his class of 39 at West Point in 1843. He did not particularly want to go to the academy, but his father had insisted, liking the price of admission: free.
As a young officer in the Army following graduation, Grant distinguished himself in the Mexican War as a master logistician; following the conflict, however, he fell on hard times.
He reputedly began drinking heavily while stationed in a remote post in northwest California near Eureka, separated from his wife Julia and two young sons by thousands of miles. Grant eventually resigned from the Army in 1854 and traveled to St. Louis to be reunited with his family.
There he unsuccessfully tried his hand at farming and then real estate, ultimately ending up a clerk in his father’s leather goods store in Galena, Illinois.
“During this very bleak period in Grant’s life, Julia has a dream that her husband is going to be president of the United States,” Chernow related to an audience at the National Festival of Books in Washington, D.C., in 2018.
“When she tells her friends and family about this dream, everyone laughs. Nothing could seem more preposterous. This man is struggling to support a wife and four children,” the author said. “Julia knew.”
Grant himself wrote in his memoirs of having a “presentiment” while a West Point cadet that he, like hero Gen. Winfield Scott, would one day command vast numbers of troops.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Grant sought to reenter the regular Army but was denied a commission. He eventually found his way into the Union ranks as a colonel in the Illinois militia.
Thus began the meteoric rise that took Grant from clerking in his father’s leather goods store to commanding the victorious Union forces to the White House in just eight years.
“He goes from being a failed shopkeeper in Galena to president of the United States. That’s the American dream,” Dr. Conrad Crane, chief of historical services for the Army Heritage and Education Center, told The Western Journal.
Of course, entire books have been written about Grant’s generalship during the Civil War, but a few highlights include capturing entire Confederate armies on three occasions: at Fort Donelson in Tennessee in February 1862, at Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, and finally at Appomattox in April 1865.
By comparison, though Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee achieved some impressive wins during the Civil War, he never forced the surrender of entire Union armies.
Vicksburg is perhaps Grant’s most celebrated campaign because of the brilliance of how he maneuvered his forces, though fewer in number than his foe in the region, to lay siege on the Confederate stronghold controlling passage on Mississippi River.
“I’ve never seen anything quite as complex as this in terms of you’re conquering geography, fighting geography if you will, as well as the Confederacy,” Donald Miller, author of “Vicksburg: Grant’s Campaign That Broke the Confederacy,” told The Western Journal.
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The Lafayette College history professor emeritus and author of multiple books about warfare explained the win opened the Mississippi up to the Union Navy and effectively cut the Confederacy in two.
“Grant is now the man,” Miller said. “When he is called to Washington after Vicksburg, he is at that point in time easily the most popular man in the country, and I would say the most popular man, I would say, in the 19th Century, far more popular than [President Abraham] Lincoln.”
In March 1864, Lincoln placed Grant in charge of all of the Union armies, and the general used his new authority to ensure all his forces’ military campaigns were coordinated to place maximum pressure on Confederate forces.
“The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike at him as hard as you can and as often as you can, and keep moving on,” the self-effacing Grant famously observed.
On April 9, 1865, Grant managed to do what none of the previous six generals who had faced off against Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had done: force the Confederate leader’s unconditional surrender.
The American people turned to Grant for leadership at the end of the contentious presidency of Andrew Johnson, who had assumed the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination.
Among Grant’s most notable achievements, according to Scaturro, was the implementation of the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed blacks the full rights of citizenship and equal protection under the law. The Republican also championed the passage of the 15th Amendment, which secured the vote for African-Americans.
C-SPAN, in its book, “The Presidents,” noted that historians in its survey have given Grant increasingly high marks in several categories, including moral authority and international relations. Crane attributes part of his rise to the increasing acceptance in recent years that the Confederacy was, contrary to the “Lost Cause” way of thinking, unequivocally on the wrong side of history.
“There has been a realization that there were definitely good guys and bad guys in the war. The South was definitely perpetuating the evil institution of slavery,” Crane said.
As much as he respected Lee and the bravery of his soldiers, Grant wrote in his memoirs that the cause of perpetuating slavery “was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought.”
The three-part miniseries “Grant” will premier on Memorial Day evening on the History channel.
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