The attempted ‘vindication’ of Grant
The History Channel’s miniseries Grant did a great job indemnifying the ex-President and General. If only it was a complete depiction.
Prior to Black Lives Matter protests and other uprisings across every sector of American society have preoccupied our time of late, Grant — the 3-part miniseries on former President and Army General Ulysses S. Grant — had millions of viewers over Memorial Day Weekend. While it seems trivial at this present time, Grant was surprisingly relevant. The issues that followed Grant’s life continue to press us today, in part due to the events that took place while Grant was in power.
Largely based on Ron Chernow’s book of the same name and executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, Grant examines its namesake’s role in preserving the United States. Justin Salinger eloquently portrays Grant, in gripping scenes affixed between heavy commercial breaks, and commentary from the likes of Chernow, Ta-Nehisi Coates and David Petraeus.
Promoted on the premise that the show would be reviving the image of one of America’s famous men, the miniseries paints Grant as a quiet, honorable military man who became unfairly known for his few mistakes. Almost the entirety of each of the 3 episodes focuses on Grant’s military career and leadership during the Civil War. Very little time is given to his presidency, later life and work outside of the war.
In this right, Grant is very American.
Yet, while Grant does openly discuss the 18th president’s failures in office and losses in the battlefield, it’s how they are told — and what the series omits — that is more telling.
The first episode, “Unlikely Hero,” opens on Grant’s life by discussing his simple upbringing in Ohio, where he became locally known as an oaf and referred to as “Useless” Grant. At the age of 17, Ulysses’ father, Jesse Root Grant, has him enlisted for West Point Academy without telling him. The name West Point received was incorrect, so Grant (actually born Hiram Ulysses Grant) became known as “Ulysses Sam Grant” or “U.S. Grant” at the military academy, and for the rest of his life.
Grant’s service in the military was the major factor in his relationship with his father. As Jesse’s firstborn son, Ulysses had many expectations from his father, especially to be an excellent military man. However, while he set records in horsemanship at West Point and was very knowledgeable, Ulysses was far from infatuated with warfare or military service.
After making a name for himself in the Mexican-American War and becoming a captain, Grant was assigned to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, and met his future wife Julia Dent, the sister of one of his West Point classmates, and the daughter in a prominent Dent slave-holding family. Later, Grant lands in California as a Army captain - but his separation from his wife, disinterest with military life, his dependence on alcohol and the resulting depression caused his superiors to ask for his abrupt resignation.
Grant returned to Missouri and took up different occupations to avoid poverty — including as a farmer, leading to Grant becoming a slave owner. While he was known to have managed several more slaves at other times, the series touches on the subject by only discussing one, William Jones, gifted to him by his father-in-law. Commentators try to ascribe Grant’s altruism to his slave ownership, claiming the criticism he received for his more “humane” treatment of Jones (as in working side by side with him in the field) was evidence of who he was as a person.
We see that Grant does eventually free Jones instead of selling him, but it’s not mentioned that this came on the eve of the Civil War in 1859, when Grant was attempting to become a county engineer in a divisive area. Freeing a slave, a show of faith of his Republican-leaning persuasions, may have helped him, but he ultimately did not earn the position — likely due to the shadow from his father-in-law’s pro-slavery, Democrat affiliation.
Grant then immediately jumps into the Civil War period. Grant is not recommissioned initially, and he has to leverage his previous experience to receive an appointment as colonel (and later brigadier general) of an Illinois Voluntary Regiment. His early success with the previously unruly volunteer corps, followed by success in Kentucky, earned him the attention of President Lincoln for the first time, and his capture of Forts Henry and Donelson in the face of fierce Confederate resistance earned him the title of Major General of Volunteers.
Grant’s second episode, “Lincoln’s General”, continues to discuss Grant’s Civil War leadership. Some of the campaigns that followed — the Battle of Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga — were successful, but cost more lives than the Union could have imagined, and this earned Grant the public reputation as a “butcher.” Unsuccessful campaigns — the Fort Pillow Massacre and Cold Harbor assault — were even more costly and ill-advised. Still, the Grant commentators defend these decisions as much as possible, and continue to positively defend Grant’s actions whenever possible. They highlight Grant’s notices to residents in Kentucky that the Union Army “came as friends” as evidence of his compassion and introspective leadership.
What is omitted in this period, and from the series entirely, is mention of the General’s issuance of General Orders №2 and №11 in December 1862. The orders, arising from underground cotton trading, blamed Jewish people for causing the majority of “military corruption”. Order №2 banned Jewish traders from even boarding trains or receiving permits anywhere Grant held command. Order №11 explicitly expelled all Jewish people from the territories controlled by Grant’s military (Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee), under the anti-Semetic pretense that “as a class, [Jews were] violating every regulation of trade.” For the next month, Jewish people were forced from their homes in the midst of several Union campaigns into the Confederacy along the Mississippi River Valley.
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Upon receiving several complaints, Lincoln would have the order rescinded, but it was weeks before Grant actively stopped the expulsions. In his explanations afterwards, Grant claimed that “Jews seem to be a privileged class…they come in with their carpet sacks in spite of all that can be done to prevent it.” Yet, by the time that he issued General Orders №2 and №11, it was Grant’s own father Jesse — in business with two Jewish clothing contractors — that had obtained trade permits, thanks to his son and tried to break into the cotton trading scheme. Grant’s questionable ethics became a recurring tone of his life and presidency, and he claimed he spent the rest of his life trying to “make up” for his anti-Semitic legacy.
In the final episode, “Freedom’s Champion”, we watch Grant at his most pivotal moment in history: commanding of the entire U.S. Army in 1864, as he begins a months-long campaign battling against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the last stronghold of the Confederate Army. Attributing his understanding of Lee’s tactics from meeting and knowing him during their time together at West Point, Grant continuously chases after the regiments, trying to tire Lee’s men out and corner them. This would eventually prove successful.
Given discretion from Lincoln, Grant was to offer Lee ‘amicable’ terms of an unconditional surrender to end the Civil War. Grant went beyond that, paroling all 28,000 Confederate men and allowing them to return home peacefully — including some who were (by today’s standards and those in place then) war criminals; some who were the very same men that needlessly slaughtered African American Union soldiers, as Grant watched, earlier in the war.
This set a precedent that followed, in similar terms, when other Confederate forces surrendered. The freeing and refusal to reprimand most of the Confederacy set the stage for the later miseducation and rehabilitation of the Confederate cause — known as the Lost Cause myth — that persisted longer than Reconstruction, well into the 21st century. For decades after, history still revered Lee as a war hero (with at least one infamous statue) while Grant was disparaged as an aloof drunk who got lucky.
Grant leaves very little time to its subject’s post-Civil War career, dedicating less than 45 minutes in the nearly five-hour series to discuss his life after Lee’s surrender, serving as Commanding General of the U.S. Army, being in Andrew Johnson’s cabinet, and his own two-term Presidency. This is the largest injustice of the series; it seems so focused on heroically rehabilitating Grant, that it had no choice but to minimize discussion over the period where Grant’s mismanagement (later known as Grantism) was most harmful to American history. This leaves Grant seeming rushed and chaotic.
What we do hear on these topics is, at best, myopic. The third episode continues, focusing on how Grant became dissatisfied with Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, and how the latter’s jealousy pushed Grant out of his Cabinet-level position — and into his own political career.
While Johnson and Grant would eventually become adversaries, the two did share support for certain policies — namely giving permission to Southern leaders to return to power, including pro-Confederate people, not even a few years after their rebellion. In fact, Grant intervened on Robert E. Lee’s behalf to prevent his prosecution and offered him a position in the U.S. Army following the start of Reconstruction.
Following Grant’s election as President in 1868, he fills his positions with Army friends, or people based on their recommendations, which led to corruption plaguing Grant’s administration. Grant’s own brother Orvil would allegedly accept kickbacks during his time in office. Grant was initially more forceful in enforcing law in the South than his predecessor Johnson, and he had success fighting the Ku Klux Klan — even creating a government bureau the Department of Justice, for this purpose.
By his second term however, he decided to leave Reconstruction to the very states and ex-Confederate leaders that seceded less than 15 years prior. This proved disastrous, and the policies were ultimately abandoned, much to the sociopolitical detriment of African Americans.
Grant also oversaw further colonization and early assimilation of Native Americans. As commander of the Army and in his first Presidential term, Grant attempted to make peace negotiations with Native tribes as opposed to endless war, and ordered others to do the same. He may have really seen peace with Native tribes as achievable, but his staff was filled with military and ex-military members — who had either went to war with various tribes before, or were otherwise ingrained with the notion of manifest destiny — and they likely did not share the sentiment.
Upon his second term, Grant lost control of maintaining his Native policies. Instead, Grant allowed the Army (and greed-driven) citizens to engage in pseudo-war in the West, and invasion of Native territories for gold and land became more commonplace throughout the 1870s. The attack that led to the massacre of George Custer and his cavalry known as “Custer’s Last Stand”, and the ensuing war, began during Grant’s presidency, but he took no responsibility for the chaos in the West.
Yet, the only mention of any Natives in Grant, is Ely Parker, Brigadier General serving as Grant’s assistant. A Seneca Native American, Parker actually wrote the final terms of surrender that Lee signed at the end of the Civil War — but his mention is brief and more so serves to describe the dynamic between Grant’s men and Lee’s at the Appomattox Courthouse. The rest of Native American history involving Grant is completely ignored.
Another unaddressed part of Grant’s legacy is how he used his power to target Mormons in the Utah territory for practicing polygamy, as he believed they “violate the law[s] under the cloak of religion.” In 1871, he said that the Mormon-majority population in Utah “remains a remnant of barbarism, repugnant to civilization, to decency, and to the laws…”
By January 1877, the country’s governance was in such disarray and covered in corruption that the Presidential Election of 1876 was still undecided. Democrat Samuel Tilden had won the popular vote by a nearly 200,000 vote margin, but for the second time in history (at the time), he was not the winner — Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican from Ohio, had earned just one more electoral vote than his opponent. Tilden’s popular vote victory was attributed to the various “military wings” of the Democratic Party that actively sought to repress Black men’s ability to vote throughout the South. On the other hand, at least 5 states had questionable results, at best, and the electors in those places mostly determined their votes for the Republicans, in allegiance with their appointing party.
Grant — who excluded himself from consideration for another term at the time, partly due to his unpopularity with the House of Representatives — sat and watched while Democrats brokered a ‘compromise’ that would allow the South to ‘accept’ the result, determined by a federal Election Commission. Grant began withdrawing troops from the South, essentially pulling the bottom out from under the state governments in place throughout Reconstruction. This allowed his Republican successor to come into office, and effectively ended all of the post-Civil War progress made for Black people in America, among other things.
Historians conclude that through this compromise, white supremacy resurged and became a core tenet of the Democratic Party at the time. This became known as the ‘Solid South’, and the region supported the party almost unanimously through the 1960s, and in majority until the 1990s.
Yet another subject barely covered in Grant is his post-Presidency, when Grant and his family travelled the world as an unofficial U.S. envoy via Navy ships. Grant eventually returned home and jumped back into politics, unsuccessfully running again for President in 1880. He campaigned for the eventually successful candidate James A. Garfield, and actively persuaded him to appoint personal associates and political allies into government based on his own experiences. Garfield was, in fact, eventually assassinated by a man who believed he was owed an appointment — first from Grant, then Garfield.
Beyond the corruption and greed of those around Grant, the former President would himself jump into several money-making ventures following his expensive world tour, including last-ditch support for a firm founded by his son “Buck”, but they all eventually left him broke. The series reflects on Grant’s financial plunge, showing that he turned to writing his autobiography. A generous royalty deal with friend Mark Twain’s publishing company ultimately took care of the former President’s family following his death in 1883.
After being showered with commentators fawning over the 16th President, watching a commendable performance by Salinger (among others), and sitting through the 5-and-a-half hour saga’s captivating cinematography, it may be surprising that so much of Grant’s legacy was much more complicated than depicted.
Such is the way of the TV documentary, of course, but the lengths this documentary takes to skip over key parts of Grant’s life and work feels fairly obvious. It still makes for good, but overelaborate, television; Grant is, if nothing else, an extratypical story that has become synonymous with Leonardo DiCaprio, a la The Aviator and Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. It’s very clear why he was drawn into the miniseries, and maybe him narrating instead of appearing in a cameo might have added the necessary dazzle to make the series great. Either way, the well-produced drama that is Grant is more American folklore than truth telling. No, he wasn’t perfect; but he was far from lacking agency throughout the puzzling (at best) moments of his career.
While Grant was up front about many of its subject’s failures in the war and Reconstruction — and even touches on the rise of white supremacy and capitalism that arose from them — it fails to honestly address Grant’s reckless decisions, prejudiced beliefs, and his corruption-plagued time in power. The series largely absolves Grant of his responsibility for many failures — yet fails to connect his contribution to the destabilization of several persecuted communities in America, and those who suffered for generations as a result. This was years in the coming, as a 2010 New York Times article predicted historians’ “vindication of Ulysses S. Grant” and even said it was “well under way.”
Together with his sympathetic assistance to ex-Confederates and former slave owners (of which he is also one), Grant’s choice making was far more harmful and morally bankrupt than his heroic portrayal in this series. Grantism allowed for the creation of Jim Crow laws and voter suppression, the underground revival of the Ku Klux Klan, set the path for the rise of monopolies, lend credence to the trend of American imperialism over peace, and further empowered the executive branch to exert more power down the line. We continue to face the repercussions, and the revisionism, from these policies today.
If we don’t start becoming honest about them, like this country has avoided for the last 150 years, the oppression of marginalized communities will continue to persist — and documentaries such as Grant will be more of a disservice to society than reflective.