Butcher. Alcoholic. Anti-Semite. For more than a century the tainted legacy of Ulysses S. Grant centered either on that of a tactician inferior to General Robert E. Lee or a rube politician presiding over a presidency plagued with scandal.
But in recent years, historians — in particular Pulitzer Prize-winning author and eminent Grant biographer, Ron Chernow — have begun challenging that one-dimensional narrative.
Now, an upcoming three-night miniseries from the History Channel, aptly titled “Grant,” seeks to delve into the general’s myriad complexities and chronicle the full breadth of the “life of one of the most complex and underappreciated generals and presidents in U.S. history.”
The six-hour miniseries, executively produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and Chernow, premieres this Memorial Day, May 25.
“We come from a nation of citizen soldiers and that differentiates us from other nations in certain ways,” Garry Adelman, a Grant expert featured in the miniseries and chief historian of the American Battlefield Trust, told HistoryNet.
“On Memorial Day, if we are to recognize those who have fallen in military service on behalf of the United States, I can’t think of a better person to recognize than U.S. Grant, who helped these citizen and professional soldiers to victory to achieve what America is today — with all of its bumps and flaws.”
Among the many falsehoods at which the miniseries takes aim is Grant’s label of “drunkard,” which so permeated his life and career that it remains one of the more persistent myths.
“Grant clearly had a drinking problem,” Adelman remarked, but “people have a way of treating drinking like they treat most things in history: Somebody did something once. Therefore, he or she must have been doing it all of the time.”
President Abraham Lincoln was aware of Grant’s imbibing tendencies, but famously defended his general by declaring, “He fights!” In 1863, when someone in Lincoln’s vicinity commented about Grant’s drinking, the president reportedly asked what brand of whisky Grant preferred so he could have barrels of it sent to all the other Union commanders.
The myths of Grant’s alcohol consumption and his soaring body counts as a military strategist are largely entwined. However, if Lee is heralded as a master tactician, then it must be acknowledged that Grant surpassed him in grand strategy. It was his military genius that defeated the Confederacy.
“To paraphrase Lee, ‘that man Grant will fight us every day. And if he reaches the James River, it’s just a matter of time,’” Adelman recounted. “[Lee] had figured Grant out, but there was nothing he could really do about it.”
“He has been derided as a plodding, dim-witted commander who enjoyed superior manpower and matérial and whose crude idea of strategy was to launch large, brutal assaults upon the enemy” with little care for his men, writes Chernow.
But the bloody fighting took its toll on the general. Grant once remarked that war was “at all times a sad and cruel business. I hate war with all my heart, and nothing but imperative duty could induce me to engage in its work or witness its horrors.”
There was little romanticizing of the brutal task at hand, and although Grant never shrank from sending men into battle the analysis of being a “butcher” of men remains flawed and shortsighted.
In fact, a careful reexamination of casualty percentages in Grant’s armies have confirmed that his battle losses were often lower than that of his Confederate counterparts.
Grant’s presidency, meanwhile, only further shrouds his legacy, with many biographers “quickly skipping over his presidency as an embarrassing coda to wartime heroism,” Chernow writes.
Undoubtedly naïve in business and politics, Grant was taken advantage of by two speculators, Jay Gould and James Fisk, who schemed to corner the market in gold.
Grant famously worked on his memoirs — almost up until his dying breath — just to try to recoup some of his losses from a pyramid scheme and provide for his family.
“During his presidency, there are people on the inside working against his agenda,” said Adelman. “That just didn’t happen with his close circle during the Civil War.”
The intrigant men surrounding Grant admittedly befuddled the scrupulously honest president, deceitful actions that largely eclipsed any of Grant’s notable presidential achievements.
As the General-in-Chief of the Army of the Potomac Grant helped to liberate more than four million slaves, an effort commended by famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
“May we not justly say…that the liberty which Mr. Lincoln declared with his pen General Grant made effectual with his sword — by his skill in leading the Union armies to final victory?” Douglass wrote.
And it was Grant who helped bridge the emergent wartime ideals of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments during the tumultuous post-war period of Reconstruction.
Grant championed the Fifteenth Amendment, giving blacks the right to vote, and presided over and signed into law the 1875 Civil Rights Act outlawing racial discrimination in public accommodations.
In 1870 he would oversee the creation of the Justice Department, whose first duty was to bring indictments against members of the Ku Klux Klan who had previously escaped prosecution.
While Grant’s presidential legacy and pursuit of justice is not without blemish, “he fought with the same passion to protect people that he did in a way to vanquish people during the Civil War,” Adelman said.
Watch the official trailer: