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U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth

By Joan Waugh, University of North Carolina Press

Near the end of a July 2007 article in History The Journal of Military surveying the previous quarter-century of scholarship on Ulysses S. Grant, the author offered a number of suggestions for students of the Union’s greatest general and 18th president. Among these was that someone take on the challenge of examining how Grant’s image evolved in history and memory over the past century and a half. Joan Waugh takes up a portion of this challenge with her new study of Grant’s life and public career, from his upbringing in rural Ohio and military and political endeavors to the effort to complete his memoirs while at death’s door. Throughout, Waugh analyzes Grant’s public image, the ways his contemporaries viewed him, and how they reflected broader forces in late 19th century America.

There is much to praise here. Waugh has a good story to tell and presents her findings in clear and compelling prose. While her treatment of Grant’s generalship and political career does not break much new ground, Waugh’s account is notable for her effort to contextualize his magnificent rise to and performance in supreme command. Readers will especially enjoy Waugh’s compelling accounts of Grant’s final last days and the effort to build the General Grant National Memorial in New York.

Throughout, Waugh provides a fascinating and revealing portrait of a man symbolizing and espousing Union and Emancipationist interpretations of the sectional conflict, but who nevertheless came to be embraced and celebrated by many who downplayed both those views to advance the cause of intersectional reconciliation.

Lamentably, though, Waugh ends her study with the completion and dedication of Grant’s tomb, offering only a brief epilogue carrying the story forward from there. In any study of Grant as hero and myth, the process by which his reputation declined during the early 20th century is an important part of the story—and one that certainly seems worthy of the same level of research and thought that Waugh devotes to the events of the late 19th century. For instance, in her epilogue Waugh identifies World War I as a contributing factor in the decline of Grant’s reputation. There is undoubtedly much truth to this—but the idea demands further investigation. After all, if this was the case, how do we explain that J.F.C. Fuller, perhaps the most virulent and prominent critic of WWI generalship, was also a great admirer of Grant?

It would also have been good to see Waugh fully explore such important topics as how the evolution of warfare in the past 150 years has shaped Grant’s image among professional soldiers, as well as the post-World War II rehabilitation of Grant, which is ongoing even today.

While Waugh has produced a worthy, welcome addition to Civil War literature, much of the story of Grant as hero and myth remains to be told.

Originally published in Civil War Times.