A Review of Grant at 200: Reconsidering the Life and Legacy of Ulysses S. Grant

By Nancy Spannaus

April 1, 2023—It was on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865 that General Ulysses S. Grant met General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia to accept the surrender of the Confederate Army. As he had in previous surrenders, Gen. Grant refused to humiliate his foe. Rather, by proposing terms that allowed “each officer and man … to return to their homes not to be disturbed by United States Authority so long as they observe their parole,” Grant sought to turn the military surrender into a peace agreement that would set the stage for reconciliation of the nation.

President Grant's True legacy
Painting of Lee’s surrender, housed at the National Portrait Gallery.

This extraordinary action by Grant is just one of the aspects of his career which the recently published book of essays, Grant at 200: Reconsidering the Life and Legacy of Ulysses S. Grant highlights, in its attempt to return Grant to the “Pantheon” of American presidents. The collection was edited by Civil War historian Chris Mackowski and Frank J. Scaturro. Scaturro is president of the Grant Memorial Association and has been working for decades to rehabilitate Grant’s reputation and the New York Memorial.

Scaturro’s previous book, President Grant Reconsidered, argued that one of the major reasons for the denigration of our 18th President was his stalwart stance in favor of full Constitutional rights for black Americans, especially the formerly enslaved. That argument is also taken up in this book by both Scaturro and Alvin S. Felzenberg, a noted presidential historian. Indeed, as a previous article on this blog elaborated, President Grant’s clampdown on the KKK effectively routed those terrorists for a time.

In this period of shameful ignorance about American history (as opposed to opinions about it), this 250-page book is well worth reading. To further whet your appetite, I will further discuss two of the 15 chapters.

U.S. Grant and the Surrender at Appomattox

How ironic that the general nicknamed “Unconditional Surrender” Grant actually provided the generous terms that he did to General Lee at Appomattox. But according to Joan Waugh, a Civil War historian who wrote the chapter with the above title, Grant’s stance should be no surprise. Not only had the general taken this tack in two previous surrenders – those at Fort Donelson and Vicksburg – but his approach stemmed logically from his commitment to reconciling the adversaries and creating a peaceful nation once again.

President Grant's True Legacy
A poster celebrating the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870. Grant acted forcefully for its ratification.

But don’t think for a minute that this proposed reconciliation was like that of President Andrew Johnson and his ilk. For not only did Grant believe, as Lincoln did, that the nation was inseparable, but he also was absolutely committed to enforcing the rights of black Americans which were asserted in the 15th Amendment to the Constitution.  Blacks had the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” just like all other Americans. Grant personally twisted arms to achieve ratification of the 15th amendment, and called its enactment “the most important event that has occurred, since the nation came into life.” And although fulfillment of Grant’s commitment is still being fought out, he must get credit for moving us in that direction.

Waugh’s chapter on the surrenders is quite illuminating in terms of not only Grant’s passion to achieve reconciliation, but also his strategic foresight. Fortunately, General Lee agreed sufficiently with his perspective to sign the surrender. That outcome was by no means pre-ordained. As Jay Winik pointed out in his book April 1865, Lee could have decided to continue the fight through guerrilla warfare, effectively replaying the devastating prolonged warfare in central Europe known as the Thirty Years’ War. Winik asserts that Lee knew that history, and deliberately rejected that course, to the benefit of the nation.

Of course, there were others in the Confederate command who made the opposite choice, and thus contributed to creating the lasting racial and sectional divisions we still suffer from today.

In fact, their approach was taken up by a whole school of history which attacked Reconstruction from the standpoint of the Lost Cause. It is that school of history which has played a major role in trashing the reputation of President Grant.

President Grant Belongs in the Pantheon

The longest chapter in this book was written by Scaturro, who rather exhaustively examines all the charges against Grant, in order to refute them. He asserts that Grant deserves to be restored to the Pantheon of Presidents, where he resided during the last decades of the 19th century, due to both his domestic and foreign policy achievements. He credits Grant not only for his fight for civil rights, but for staying out of war, negotiating a settlement with Great Britain over that Empire’s support for the Confederacy in the Civil War, and restoring fiscal stability in the economy.

There is much to be learned in this chapter, especially about the danger of war breaking out with Spain, and the successful diplomacy with Great Britain. The issue in that diplomacy was Britain’s role in building ships for the Confederate Navy. The United States sought recompense, and eventually got in through a processing of international arbitration, which awarded our nation $15 million to be paid by the British.

President Grant's True Legacy
The Grant Memorial in New York City. (National Park Service)

Where I disagree with Scaturro (and Felzenberg as well) is on the issue of the economy. Both praise Grant for pushing through specie resumption, which amounted to a cutback in credit issuance and rapid escalation in the power of the Wall Street banks, who then used their control of gold to vastly expand the speculative economy.  I would refer readers to the famous letter by Lincoln economist Henry C. Carey to Grant, upon the eve of his inauguration, as well as other of Carey’s writings about the need to continue the greenback policy of the Lincoln administration. [1]

Scaturro goes into great detail to undermine the charges of corruption against President Grant, noting the flimsiness of the evidence that he was aware of what corrupt subordinates were doing, as well as the double standards being applied.

Why It Matters

It is notable that it is often military men who argue the hardest against driving their nation into war. Having seen the ravages of conflict, both physical and mental, truly great generals conduct their war strategy with a constant eye on creating the basis for peace. They eschew wars of annihilation. Warriors in a just cause will always be able to offer a peace which creates better lives for both sides in the combat.

President Grant was not the only American general who had this outlook, but his pursuit of a just peace during the war and afterwards makes him worthy of our praise and gratitude. On this Palm Sunday, let us remember him in that light.

[1] This letter can be found in Salisbury, Allen, The Civil War and the American System: America’s Battle with Britain, 1860-1876, EIR, 1992.

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