When I taught middle-school history, one question on my Christmas quiz was “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” Almost everybody got it right. Ulysses S. Grant’s Tomb sits on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River a few blocks from where I write. Tomorrow is the 190th anniversary of his birth.
Grant is one of three men to have been both commander of all U.S. armed forces and president of the United States. While we remember George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower as beacons of personal rectitude and public benevolence, Grant has fared far worse – recalled for heavy drinking, the scandalous behavior of his appointees, and the ruthlessness with which he pursued the Civil War. Robert E. Lee, Grant's adversary, has become a more sympathetic figure in history.
But Lee was as hard on his troops as Grant. After the disaster of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, Lee told Pickett to reform his division for a second suicidal attack. “General Lee,” replied Pickett “I have no division."
We revere our Revolution and talk of World War II as “the good war” – despite the 60+ million people who died. The Civil War is more problematic because it pitted “brother against brother” on American soil.
It also ended slavery in this country; and as president Grant enforced civil rights laws and backed African Americans’ constitutional rights.
All that changed after Grant’s presidency, when Klan violence brought racist retrenchment and the Jim Crow caste system – buttressed by a nostalgic view of the South right out of “Gone With the Wind” and “The Birth of a Nation.”
That revisionism made its way into generations of American history textbooks, and after that, Grant’s reputation never had a chance.