And then the war ended, and the South had to cope with having lost. And so they turned to the novels of Sir Walter Scott, that world of romantic myth. They turned to Ivanhoe, to that great tale of the cruel tyranny of Norman overlords and valiant Saxon rebels. Of course the Saxons could not win. But they could inspire the world with their courage and nobility. In the antebellum South, no novelist was more admired than Scott. His popularity became, if anything, more pronounced after the war. And so the myth of the South, the thrilling tale of the ‘lost cause.’ And that romance became history.
When I was in high school, that was the history of the Civil War we studied. The dashing J.E.B Stuart, and the noble Robert E. Lee, and the intrepid Stonewall Jackson and Longstreet and A.P. Hill and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Of course the war wasn’t about slavery, it was about state’s rights. Lincoln, of course, was a secular saint, his immortal legacy tarnished by his successors, the alcoholic and incompetent Andrew Johnson and the naive and corrupt Grant. Grant, who won the war through thuggish means, Grant, who hammered Lee’s positions with superior firepower and manpower, but who hadn’t the native wit to really strategize. That was the Civil War. Fought for noble purposes, won by bullying power.
It’s all there in Gone With the Wind, isn’t it? Sure, there are slaves, but they’re, you know, more friends than slaves, and unfitted for any other life, aren’t they? What matters is the lifestyle of cotillions and fetes. What matters are the romantic affiliations of pretty Southern belles. Birth of a Nation was earlier, the most popular film in America in 1915. Evil Yankee carpetbaggers, with the heroic cavalry riding to the rescue of those same pretty girls. The heroic cavalry dressed in the hoods and robes of the Ku Klux Klan.
It’s all nonsense, of course, all of it. The War was about slavery. March, 1861, Alexander Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederacy and a man Lincoln liked and admired, put it thusly:
“Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
The South was about slavery. It was the basis of the Southern economy, it was the heart of the Southern culture. Post-war historical revisionism may have distorted the views of my much-admired high school history teacher, Mr. Hurt. But we’re just starting to know better.
H. W. Brands new biography of Ulysses S. Grant, The Man Who Saved the Union is another piece of masonry in the construction of a truer Civil War narrative. Grant: who was U.S. Grant? According to Mr. Hurt: he was a fine general, possibly, though no match for Lee. But he won because he had more men and better armaments, because he had the resources of the industrial North behind his efforts. And when he became President, he was a colossal failure. His administration was corrupt, the Credit Mobelier scandal. He was outwitted by Jay Gould and other crooked Eastern bankers.
Balderdash. First, Grant was a genuinely brilliant general. Look at his Vicksburg campaign, for example. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee fought entirely in hostile territory. He had to constantly keep supply lines open, and communications were exceedingly complex. Vicksburg took six months, involved eleven different battles, all against what was regarded as an impregnable position, an elevated and well-armed bluff in the river. Robert E. Lee never once managed anything nearly that complex.
Did Grant consistently send men to charge fortified positions, with the loss of life such a foolish strategy entails? He did once, at Cold Harbor. Mostly, though, he maneuvered, he did what he could to minimize slaughter. In fact, Grant’s Army of the Potomac suffered fewer casualties in its campaign against Lee than were suffered by the Army of Northern Virginia. The idea that Grant wasn’t much of a general is simply preposterous, and after the war, antagonists like Lee and Longstreet and Johnston were the first to say so.
Grant didn’t particularly want to be President, but once in the White House, he proved decisive and energetic and effective. He fought for, and shoved through a very reluctant Congress, an anti-Ku Klux Klan bill, and sent troops to enforce it. He thoroughly investigated claims that freedmen (former slaves) were being intimidated and denied their right to vote, and he did what a President could to combat it. He passed, and was glad to enforce, the most comprehensive Civil Rights bill until Lyndon Johnson.
Economically, Grant was what was called a ‘sound money’ man, and pushed for efforts to reduce greenbacks, and limit American currency to gold and silver coins. This proved contractionary, and inevitably a recession resulted. This would be, in my mind, his biggest failing as President. But it was a failing based on the limited economic understanding of the 1870s. And he did set the stage for the economic expansion that would make the US a colossus.
Grant was deeply concerned by the Indian policies he inherited. He met frequently with Native American leaders, and did what he could to limit access to miners trying to find gold in the Black Hills, which were sacred to many tribes of Plains Indians. He did not succeed, and war broke out. Grant was persuaded, against his better judgment, to give Custer an army, and was unsurprised when catastrophe resulted–he never thought much of Custer’s capabilities. Grant did reform the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He generally favored civil service reform, but that legislation did not pass until the administration of Chester Arthur–Arthur’s one Presidential accomplishment.
Was Grant corrupt? No. As Brands points out, ethical standards were evolving in the 1870s. As railroads expanded, the way in which railroad contracts were acquired did change. Grant’s close friend and secretary Oliver Babcock, was corrupt, and Grant took too long to acknowledge it. Grant did defeat Jay Gould’s efforts to corner the gold market. The stain of corruption will always attach to Grant’s Presidency; what is unquestioned is that Grant himself did not profit.
Without question, though, Grant’s greatest achievements as President were in the area of civil rights, and voting rights. Jim Crow laws preventing black citizens from voting were not the product of Grant’s administration; they came as part of the corrupt bargain by which Rutherford Hayes became President.
But nothing became Grant’s life more than the way he died. Grant’s good friend, Samuel (Mark Twain) Clemens thought there would be a lucrative market for a Grant auto-biography. Late in his life, Grant discovered that he was suffering from throat cancer, and only had a few months to live. He was desperate that Julia Grant, his beloved wife, be properly supported. And so, dying, he wrote what would become one of the great American auto-biographies. And Clemens was right; the book sold well, providing for a comfortable retirement for Julia and the Grant children.
Brands’ book is an easy read, a biography intended for a general readership. It’s not an in-depth or complicated account. It’s judicious, fair and accurate. What it has going for it is truth. No one wants to re-fight the Civil War. But it’s time to combat pro-Southern revisionism. It’s time to get the history right.