April 27, 1997, will be the 175th anniversary of the birth of Ulysses S. Grant. In his day, he was one of the most popular men in the United States. The nation acclaimed Grant for rescuing the country from dissolution through military prowess. He was catapulted to the vanguard of the nation's pantheon of heroes. Americans declared the equal of Washington and Lincoln in death. Does Grant deserve to be the butt of the nation's jokes?
General Sherman, one of Grant's friends, gave the explanation long ago. Margaret Truman Daniel In First Ladies she recounts a story by Julia Grant. Mrs. Grant, the first First Lady to write her autobiography, recalled General Sherman speaking to her. Upon hearing the news that Grant had been nominated for President, he declared: "You will find out that you married a bad man." Julia: "Why?" Sherman: "The press will tell you so." Grant did not have a chance to defend himself after he died. Historians are guilty of writing what should have been done and retelling old myths as fresh verities. Historians also write with rose-colored glasses to defend the succeeding presidential administrations.
Ulysses S. Grant became the nation's hero during the Civil War. When he fought a bloody battle at Shiloh in 1862, President Lincoln fended off demands for his removal by saying, "I can't spare this man -- he fights." After Lincoln appointed him General-in-Chief in March 1864, he coordinated and lead the Union armies to victory. Grant kept Lee tied down at Richmond. As a result, other Union armies rolled up the rest of the Confederate armies. As great as he was in War, Grant showed generosity and compassion in peace. He was granted humane and liberal peace terms when Lee surrendered to him on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House.
Above all, Grant helped to heal the division between the north and south after the Civil War. During the administration of President Andrew Johnson, Grant, the head of the Union armies, was approached by Stanton, the Secretary of War. Stanton asked for Grant's support: "Let us try the Confederate leaders as Lee and Davis as traitors." Grant said, "No, you can't do it. I gave my word at Appomattox Court House." He threatened to resign if this proposal was carried out. Grant's decision helped to heal the country after the Civil War.
The nation experienced substantial progress during its presidential administration (1869-1877). Upon accepting the Republican nomination for president in 1869, he declared, "Let us have peace" which became Grant's epitaph. As president, he pardoned many former Confederate leaders but insisted on protecting the full political equality of the former slaves. He worked for peace and equality for all Americans. Grant upheld Radical Reconstruction of the South and signed Civil Rights laws. In 1870, he signed the fifteenth amendment. It guaranteed the right to vote to all male Americans regardless of race.
During Grant's presidency, the nation was united by Transcontinental Railroad when the Golden Spike was ceremonially driven in at Ogden, Utah in 1869. He pioneered efforts to resolve international disputes through arbitration rather than by the threat of war such as the Alabama Claims dispute in 1871. The nation's first national park, Yellowstone, was created in 1872. Although some scandal-plagued his presidency, his personal integrity was never questioned. The general gave the country peace at home and abroad. He succeeded an extremely unpopular president, Andrew Johnson, who had barely escaped being impeached. Grant truly lived up to his slogan of "Let Us Have Peace."
More than one million people witnessed his funeral in New York City on August 8, 1885, one of the nation's most spectacular. President Cleveland, the Cabinet, the Congress, and the Supreme Court were among the marchers. On April 27, 1897, on what would have been his seventy-fifth birthday, Grant's tomb was dedicated and his body was laid in final rest. Ever since, a contingent of West Point cadets, led by the Superintendent, honors his memory on this day. The Grant Monument Association donated the tomb to the American people in 1958. Since then, it has been administered by the United States National Park Service.
General Grant National Memorial, popularly known as Grant's tomb, the memorial to General Ulysses Grant, is located near the intersection of Riverside Drive and West 122nd Street. The site was donated by a former mayor of New York City. Funds were raised by popular subscriptions to build the world's third-largest mausoleum, "Grant's Tomb." It rises an imposing 150 feet from a bluff overlooking the Hudson River, 122nd Street, and Riverside Drive. John Duncan, the architect, designed the memorial to be "a Monumental [sic] Tomb, no matter from what point of view it may be seen." The allegorical reliefs on the vaulting, designed by Rhind, represented four parts of Grant's life: birth and marriage, military life, civilian career, and death. The bronze busts in the crypt, sculpted under the WPA program in 1938, depict some of Grant's best generals: William T. Sherman, Philip H. Sheridan, George H. Thomas, James B. McPherson, and Edward O. C. Ord. The WPA also did the map room. In 1966, Allyn Cox did the three mosaics on the ceiling: Appotomattox Court Showing Lee and Grant shaking Hands, the Battle of Vicksburg, and the Battle of Chattanooga.
Grant's star has dimmed since his death. Even in his own time, there were hero bashers. In 1874, the Democrats won control of the House of Representatives. They investigated lots of scandals. The Grant administration vigorously persecuted the miscreants. The newspapers, even more, partisan than today, found much wrong with Grant. Most of the writers of the Civil War have a pro-southern bias. They generally favor Lee over Grant even though the former was beaten by the latter.
Just as the traditional negative views points of Reconstruction have been questioned in recent years, perhaps it is time to question the scholarly research on Grant. He became the scapegoat for a nation that turned its back on Reconstruction. As too often the case, the verities of one generation become the myths of another generation. Perhaps it is time that we reexamine what other generations have believed.