It is no surprise to Civil War students that Ulysses Grant’s reputation has soared over the last fifty years. During the past twenty years nearly all of his biographies have been decidedly favorable. They typically ignore, minimize, excuse, or deny his failings. Examples include those of Jean Smith, H. W. Brands, and Joan Waugh. Two more will apparently join the group later this year. One from Ron Chernow, who wrote the biography upon which the hit Broadway show Hamilton is based and the second will be Ronald White’s American Ulysses.
Nonetheless, several lesser-known authors have recently provided analyses that question Grant’s lofty reputation. They might persuade a venerable reader that Grant’s reputation, once too low, is presently too high. But a reader who first studied Grant in the past twenty-five years will be shocked and might conclude that the general’s reputation should be dropped to a new low.
Joseph Rose published an 800-page expose titled Grant Under Fire. Professor Frank Varney wrote General Grant and the Rewriting of History after studying the errors and self-serving statements in the general’s memoirs. David Moore wrote a biography on General William Rosecrans who he felt Grant had wronged. Readers seeking an earlier bio that is not overly critical, or overly favorable, may enjoy the Pulitzer Prize winning one from William McFeely.
Onset of the Sesquicentennial of Reconstruction led me to study Grant’s presidency. Despite numerous scandals his reputation has recovered so much that recent biographers give him an unmerited “pass” as president. They typically emphasize that he (reluctantly) used federal power to suppress the Ku Klux Klan and tried to sustain black voting power in the South. However, they miss or minimize two essential points.