Ulysses S. Grant Portrayed in the Movie 'Lincoln' --His Reputation Continues to Grow


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Few Civil War heroes have garnered as much  attention in the 20th Century as Ulysses S. Grant. He has been portrayed in more than 35 films, including the hit, Lincoln directed by Steven Spielberg, plus dozens of TV shows. 

From the 1920s through the 1980s Grant was viewed as a brutal warrior general, an inept President and a drunk. However, though Grant's legacy as a military leader and President will always be entwined with the American Civil War and Reconstruction, revisionist historians have since begun to look at Grant from a new approach having appreciated his genius as general, his protection of African Americans during Reconstruction as commanding general and President, and his peace policy towards American Indians.

Historian H. W. Brands has said Grant's reputation suffered in the years after his presidency as "Southern Democrats forgot that secession was about slavery" and embraced the Lost Cause view of the war, while northern Republicans likewise "lost touch with the anti-slavery roots of their party" and embraced a more capitalistic view of politics. Brands states that since Grant's presidency stood against both party's revisions of history, he was attacked for scandals and failed actions while the positive aspects of his presidency were overlooked.

In terms of assessing President Grant from an "emancipationist" historical view, Grant's policies look "surprisingly good." Grant secured the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment and enforced the rights of African Americans to vote. Grant's reputation has improved due to his use of federal troops and the Justice Department under his Enforcement Acts to prosecute and shut down the Ku Klux Klan from 1871 to 1873; the result, according to historian James McPherson, was that Grant's victory in 1872 was one of the fairest Presidential elections in the United States.

E. Alyn Warren as GrantGrant is the third most popular American president to be portrayed in movies and TV. Portrayals include:

Book cover: U.S. GrantJoan Waugh, author of U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth, explores the memory of the heroic Civil War general and 18th President of the United States.

Q: Why is reviving the image of Ulysses S. Grant as a great American hero so important?

A: I see my book as not "reviving" but "recovering" or even "rediscovering" his image and reputation. I think it's important because people cannot really appreciate the enormous impact of the Civil War if they forget about or dismiss the meaning behind its symbols and heroes, such as U. S. Grant. He embodied the Union cause for Americans of his day -- why the United States fought to preserve the country -- more than any living person of the time.

Q: Tell us about why you divide the book into two parts, first considering Grant's life and his status as an "American Hero" and then examining him as an "American Myth."

A: That's such a good question, and to tell you the truth, I struggled with the organization of the book in terms of how much to write about his life. In the beginning of my project, I assumed that everyone knew about Grant's role in the Civil War and as president (whether they liked him or not), but after researching the topic for a few years, I realized that many of my potential readers might need to be educated about the scale of his accomplishments and achievements. That is why the first chapters of the book highlight his ascent into heroic status while the remaining chapters chronicle the mythic general.

Grant's portrait is in the middle of a picture surrounded by his chronological military history starting with graduating from West Point, next the Mexican-American War, and finally Civil War events and battle scenes.

Grant from West Point to Appomattox, an 1885 engraving by Thure de Thulstrup. Clockwise from lower left: Graduation from West Point (1843); In the tower at Chapultepec (1847); Drilling his Volunteers (1861); The Battle of Fort Donelson (1862); The Battle of Shiloh (1862); The Siege of Vicksburg (1863); The Battle of Chattanooga (1863); Appointment as Lieutenant General by Abraham Lincoln (1864); The Surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House (1865)

Q: In his day, Grant was considered a hero comparable to the likes of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Why was Grant so popular in the nineteenth century? What did he represent to the American people?

A: Most Americans held a high regard for the man who, with Lincoln, preserved and sustained the United States. In my book I make clear that white southerners did not esteem Grant and his memory like so many in the northern states. (The overwhelming majority of Americans lived in the northeast during the nineteenth century.) Yet in 1885, the year of Grant's death, I found a number of published southern eulogies linking Washington, the Father, with Grant, the Savior, emphasizing Grant's magnanimity at Appomattox. In the north, Lincoln, the Martyr, was added in countless representations of the "great triumvirate."

Q: Why have his status as an American hero and his importance as a historical figure diminished since the mid-twentieth century?

A: Undoubtedly the fallout from the Vietnam War turned Americans, and certainly many historians, away from a favorable portrayal of military heroes in war and peace, and General Grant's historical status suffered and declined. The perception persists in the popular mind that Grant's generalship was brutal and presaged "modern" war while his Confederate counterpart, General Robert E. Lee, waged a "gentlemanly" type of old-fashioned warfare. The fact that soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia suffered many more deaths and casualties (proportionately) in comparison with soldiers under Grant has not really changed the perception of Grant the "butcher."

Q: Today, Confederate General Robert E. Lee's memory often overshadows Grant's image as a Civil War general. Why?

A: As the memory and meaning of the Union cause faded somewhat in the twentieth century, the pro-Confederate depiction of the war called the "Lost Cause" seemed to gather strength, and Lee was the patron saint of that effort. In addition, Lee was also genuinely admired by northerners for his faultless public acceptance of the results of the war. Indeed, Lee's high born status, his link with George Washington, his striking good looks, and his remarkable talent as a military leader made him the perfect choice for the reconciliationist icon along with President Abraham Lincoln. Those two -- Lincoln and Lee -- emerged as the symbols of the war, not Lincoln and Grant. Recently, Lee's image has suffered as academic scholars have dismantled the myths of the Lost Cause, including the idea that Lee hated slavery. Recent scholarship on Grant has been trending more favorably both for his reputation as general and as president.

Grant from West Point to Appomattox, an 1885 engraving presumably intended to commemorate Grant's achievements after his death. Q: Why did Grant become so revered by the American people as a general in the war?

A: In both the western and eastern theaters, Grant fought aggressively, secured a vast amount of Confederate territory, and received the surrender of three rebel armies at Fort Donelson in 1862; at Vicksburg in 1863; at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865. He was, by far, the most successful Union general of the Civil War and by November 1863 (after his victory at Chattanooga) emerged as the military symbol of Union victory and a reunited country, offering hope for an end to the terrible bloodshed.

It may seem odd to us that military heroes were so revered, but in many ways, Civil War generals were treated like today's celebrities. (This was already an established American tradition -- think of general-presidents George Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and Zachary Taylor.) After 1863 until the end of his life, Grant attracted huge crowds wherever he went, and the extent and depth of his fame rivals the movie stars or sports celebrities of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Q: How did he use his popularity to secure his two terms as president?

A: Grant's immense prestige, lending stability to a war-weary country was enough to make both his elections a certain thing. He did not seek the presidency and was a reluctant politician. He stated his reasons for accepting the 1868 Republican nomination very clearly when he wrote that the fate of the United States could not be trusted to "mere trading politicians," expressing the fear that the war's gains would be lost if left to them.

Q: What did nineteenth-century Americans think of Grant's presidency? How is Grant's presidency remembered today?Â

A: We do not have the benefit of extensive opinion polls to help interpret nineteenth-century voters' mood swings toward their politicians and political parties. Besides newspapers, orations, letters, and other material, we must rely on election results. Despite huge challenges and controversies, we know that Grant won two commanding victories in 1868 and 1872. During his administrations, a majority approved his actions toward western development, Indian policy, reconstruction, and diplomacy, particularly the resolution of the so-called Alabama claims with Great Britain.

His second term brought disappointment and disaster in the form of scandals and a severe economic depression (1873). His dream of a peaceful reconstruction was dashed by the harsh realities of white resistance, the failure of Republican state governments, and a growing impatience with military intervention in the south. In 1876, I think that even Grant's most stalwart supporters were happy to see him leave office, which, by the way, makes him little different than most of our second term presidents!

Q: After leaving office, Grant commenced on a world tour that lasted from 1877-1879. How did it contribute to his public image?

A: Grant, who never lost his iconic military status even in the worst days of his presidency, saw his popularity rise once again when he left the White House. He became a global celebrity and international statesman, traveling to England, France, Denmark, Italy, Germany, Austria, Russia, Holland, Spain, and Portugal (among many other countries), and ending in China and Japan. The first time any ex-president traveled so widely, Grant was greeted everywhere by huge crowds and treated with great respect by kings and queens, generals and prime ministers. To his hosts, General Grant symbolized a new American identity born of war, freedom, economic prosperity, and a nationalism and internationalism leavened with democratic ideals.

In short, U. S. Grant embodied the wave of the future to admiring nations, and the extraordinary press coverage abroad and in the American press made him a formidable figure upon his return to his country in 1879.

Q: How much of what we know about Grant's life and how we remember the Civil War is influenced by Grant's own writing in his memoir, The Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant?

A: Grant's two-volume autobiography is largely the history of his generalship in the Civil War, and, as such, it is a riveting narrative of the entire war from one of its leading participants. From its publication in 1885, the Memoirs have been considered an indispensable source for historians as well as a large reading public audience. Frankly, I approached my first experience reading the volumes with the expectation that I would find them hard going, but I was pleasantly surprised. There is a good reason why the Memoirs are considered by many to be both a literary and historical masterpiece. For the purposes of my book, they represent the best explication of what the Union cause was all about. Modern readers expecting a "tell-all" memoir will be sorely disappointed. In the nineteenth century, both autobiographies and biographies were intended to deliberately inspire, not to cater to the desire for scandal and gossip. Grant penned a short (but nonetheless illuminating) section on his family and youthful experiences, but neither addressed his personal failings (for example, alcoholism) nor revealed details of his private life.

Q: The publicity surrounding Grant's death and his funeral, which was attended by a million and a half people, was unheard of in the late nineteenth century and represent his overwhelming status as a great American hero at the time of his death. How is his funeral representative of the memory he left behind and his status as a symbol of the Civil War?

A: While over a million and a half people gathered in New York City to view Grant's funeral procession and burial ceremonies, it was but the biggest of the thousands of memorial ceremonies (in the south too) held on August 8, 1885. Grant's funeral was by far the largest ever held and suggests that his passing sparked a national conversation about the meaning and memory of the war which had ended twenty years earlier.

What was especially notable about this event -- which was at once patriotic, religious, and emotional -- is how Grant's death marked an important milestone on the road to sectional reconciliation. Indeed his death and funeral became a vehicle for exploring and celebrating how his generous surrender terms at Appomattox began the hard but successful work in bringing the nation back together.

Even as serious divisions persisted and large groups of veterans and others cherished and honored their memories of the war (Union cause, Lost Cause, emancipationist), a version of the war emphasizing "sectional harmony" emerged (both sides fought for honorable causes; both Confederate and Union soldiers were brave and honorable; the best outcome was that of a strong and united America). This version of the war allowed both northerners and southerners to agree on a non-controversial memory of the war and to commemorate it together at certain times. Thus, commemorating Grant at his death and during the national funeral became a way of acknowledging the fact that "The north and south are reunited forever."

Grant's tombQ: How do Grant's Tomb, The General Grant National Memorial in New York City, and its construction represent his legacy?

A: The most important and surprising aspect of Grant's Tomb that came out of my research was how the sheer scale of tragic death and heroic sacrifice endured by the Civil War generation resulted in the building of statues and other structures in so many places north and south. Grant's Manhattan monument was the largest and most expensive memorial of all, but its essence was to immortalize in granite, marble, and bronze both Grant's legacy of preserving the Union and bringing freedom to enslaved people, and the entire generations' role in the conflict.

A conversation with Joan Waugh, author of U. S. Grant: American Hero  (University of North Carolina Press, November 2009).


Visit your local library for these resources:

U. S. Grant: American Hero
Joan Waugh, (2009).

The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace
 H. W. Brands,(2012).
With the Grant-biography market full of scholarly works by William McFeely, Brooks Simpson, and Jean Edward Smith, Brands’ entry, like Geoffrey Perret’s Ulysses S. Grant (1997), is designed for a wide readership. Synthesized from basic sources, such as Grant’s memoirs, and informed by Brands’ knowledge of nineteenth-century American history, about which he’s written numerous popular titles, the narrative straightforwardly presents Grant’s life, from his boyhood love of horses to his stoical perseverance in finishing his memoirs during his terminal illness in 1885.
— Excerpt of review by Gilbert Taylor first published June 1, 2012 (Booklist).

Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year
Charles Bracelen Flood,  (2011).
Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, commonly extolled as the best memoir by a Civil War general, had a precarious genesis. “I had determined never to . . . write anything for publication,” Grant explains in the preface, but “the rascality of a business partner” ruined him. Forced to make money fast, he consented to a magazine’s importuning for an article about the Battle of Shiloh. The result dismayed the editor, who thought it as lifeless as an official report. His fix—the key to the memoirs’ readability—was to have Grant, a good conversationalist, compose it as if he were talking to friends. Grant saw the point, scaled up to a book, and contracted with Mark Twain to publish it. Civil War historian Flood recounts the ensuing circumstances of Grant’s completion of the book, which became a race against time after Grant’s late 1884 diagnosis of terminal throat cancer. In day-to-day detail about editorial advances and retreating health, Flood captures Grant’s stoic determination to finish, delivering the poignant backstory to his famous, ever-popular recollections. — Excerpt of review by Gilbert Taylor first published August, 2011 (Booklist).

General Ulysses S. Grant: The Soldier and the Man
Edward G. Longrace, (2006).
In its level of detail, this Grant biography rests between a comprehensive title, such as Brooks Simpson’s Ulysses S. Grant (2000), and the recent slew of brief profiles exemplified by Josiah Bunting III’s Ulysses S. Grant (2004). Longacre positions his work as an examination of aspects of the Union Civil War general that he regards as neglected or controversial, and he further limits the subject by drawing the curtain at April 1865.  
— Excerpt of review by Gilbert Taylor first published July, 2006 (Booklist).

Ulysses S. Grant
Josiah Bunting,(2004).
Like John Dean’s Warren G. Harding (2004), Bunting’s Grant rehabilitates a reputation commonly besmirched with scandal, and also, in Grant’s case, with drunkenness and military butchery. Grant did drink too much—almost exclusively, however, when, after the Mexican War, he was stationed on the West Coast, far from his family. Grant waged war with unstinting force, which Bunting says was necessary against an enemy fighting on their home ground; this led to increased Union losses, but Confederate casualty rates were greater.  A richly written blow against ill-informed historical cynicism.
— Excerpt of review by Ray Olson first published September 1, 2004 (Booklist).

Grant : A Biography
William S McFeely, (1982).
Pulitzer Prize winner.

Ulysses S. Grant: An Album: Warrior, Husband, Traveler, “Emancipator,” Writer
McFeely is a historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for Grant: A Biography (2002). Here he has not attempted to provide a comprehensive portrait of the man and his life. Rather, he has assembled a “scrapbook” of drawings, photos, and paintings that illuminate various stages of Grant’s personal and public life. They are accompanied by text that focuses on specific aspects of his character and career. Excerpt of review by Jay Freeman first published October 15, 2003 (Booklist).


1. Article illustration:"On to Richmond". This painting depicts Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant on the field during the Battle of Wilderness, May 5-7, 1864
Author     Courtesy of U.S. Army, credit: USAWC

2. Image of E. Alyn Warren in his portrayal of Ulysses S. Grant in the 1930 film Abraham Lincoln.

3. Book cover:U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth.

4.Grant from West Point to Appomattox, an 1885 engraving presumably intended to commemorate Grant's achievements after his death.

5. Grant's Tomb concrete structure face and dome shown.

General Grant National Memorial, known colloquially as "Grant's Tomb", is the largest mausoleum in North America, and one of the largest in the world.

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