The legacy of Ulysses S. Grant isn’t getting any less complicated 200 years after his birth.
Grant battered the slave-owning South into surrender as President Abraham Lincoln’s top Union general, yet he owned at least one enslaved person before the war.
A Native American man was among Grant’s best friends and Grant was sympathetic toward Indigenous people, but he let white settlers overrun their lands as president.
A relentless attacker on the battlefield, Grant failed to prevent corruption in his own administration.
Once widely viewed as a battlefield butcher and a drunk, Grant’s life has undergone a reassessment in recent years. Grant is now considered by some to be America’s first civil rights president, a troubled leader who did his best to protect freed slaves during Reconstruction after the Civil War.
“In the current memory wars, and boy are they raging, it seems particularly relevant that we revisit, revise and recast Ulysses S. Grant as a general who saved the Union and as a steadfast and essential president who both championed civil rights and made sure that the United States stayed together,” said historian Joan Waugh, who wrote “U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth.”
But Grant also tried to expel Jewish people from a Southern military district he oversaw in an ill-fated attempt to crack down on illegal cotton trading. And he favored a policy of “assimilating” Native Americans into white culture rather than letting them maintain their own traditions — a practice some now view as cultural genocide.
Similar to Lincoln, who didn’t view Black people as fully equal to white people yet issued the Emancipation Proclamation, it’s difficult to judge Grant based on today’s norms, said Edna Greene Medford, a history professor at historically Black Howard University.
“These are 19th century men and they were more progressive than average men during that period, but they’re still struggling with some very basic issues,” Medford said.
Medford’s and Waugh’s comments came at a symposium held last month to kick off a series of events marking the 200th anniversary of Grant’s birth on April 27, 1822. It was held at the Grant presidential library — located, oddly enough, in Mississippi, the scene of Grant’s epic, war-altering victory at Vicksburg.
Other bicentennial events include a living history weekend at the Grant historic site in St. Louis, where he lived before the war; a Grant birthday party in Clermont County, Ohio, where he was born; and a ceremony at Grant’s tomb on the Hudson River in New York.
After serving in the Mexican War and failing repeatedly at business, Grant rejoined the U.S. Army and rose to become its top commander, a general whom Lincoln prized for his aggressiveness. Grant was elected to the first of two terms as president as a Republican in 1868, three years after Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the war. He died in New York in 1885.
A reassessment of Grant that began more than 20 years ago has gained steam as the nation grapples with statues and monuments erected after the Civil War by Confederate descendants who tried to portray Southern leaders as noble, and the war’s cause as something other than slavery.
While Grant was widely revered at the time of this death and is pictured on the $50 bill, promoters of the “Lost Cause” version of history reinforced the view that Grant sent troops to slaughter indiscriminately in a war that claimed 620,000 lives, and was a heavy-drinking dullard. Grant’s standing has risen as Confederate statues have come down, historian Anne E. Marshall said.
“I don’t think these monuments coming down causes people to reassess Grant. But it’s part of the same process,” said Marshall, executive director of the Ulysses S. Grant Association and the Grant presidential library at Mississippi State University.
As the nation’s values changed, other parts of Grant’s life have gotten more attention, Marshall said. That includes his work to guarantee the civil and voting rights of freed slaves and his fight against the Ku Klux Klan, which murderously imposed white control in the South after the Civil War.
So has Grant’s fight against what likely was alcoholism, considered a moral failing at the time but now recognized as a disease. Ron Chernow’s best-selling 2017 biography, “Grant,” detailed the way Grant largely overcame an addiction to alcohol that threatened to derail his early military career.
“I think now, on many different levels, people are willing to rethink these things,” Marshall said.
Still, Grant doesn’t get a pass on other troubling parts of his record, including his own ties to slavery.
Grant’s father was an abolitionist, and the general came to see the necessity of eliminating the ownership of people through war. Yet he also was the last slave-owning president. Grant acquired a man named William Jones from his father-in-law and freed Jones two years before the war. He is given some credit for granting Jones freedom rather than selling him, particularly since Grant was all but broke at the time.
Despite that, some say Grant doesn’t deserve a second chance, given the way he benefited from enslavement, his treatment of Native Americans or his order that attempted to ban Jewish people from part of the South. Some suggested removing Grant’s tomb from beside the Hudson River in Manhattan because of the wartime order, later rescinded by Lincoln. Protesters in San Francisco tore down a Grant monument in 2020.
Similar to Lincoln, Grant also worried about whether Black men who weren’t educated while in bondage should be allowed to vote — women didn’t have suffrage at the time — and it’s difficult to judge his views in today’s cultural climate, said Medford, who spoke at the symposium.
But Grant gets credit for the 1875 Civil Rights Act, she said, and he favored the 15th Amendment, which outlawed using race and past enslavement as a disqualification for voting.
Despite a policy to “civilize” Native Americans and the era’s ongoing Indian wars, Grant also appointed a Native American aide, Ely Parker, to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He opposed outright extermination of tribes, even as he let white settlers move on to Native lands despite treaties, and then deployed the Army to protect the interlopers.
Medford said that when it comes to Grant, there’s a “disconnect” between the 1800s and 2022 that’s difficult to bridge.
“But I think we always have to remember the times,” she said.