Who lives, who dies, who tells your story... is one of the amazing lyrics from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton (tinyurl.com/zubmyshot), adapted from the biography of Alexander Hamilton written by Ron Chernow. Chernow’s last book, Grant, was a comprehensive story of the life of General Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States. This three part, six hour series is based on his book, and produced by a team led by actor Leo DiCaprio. Right from the beginning, it’s clear that this is a rehabilitation of Grant’s image and place in history.
I’ve always been a history buff, but as taught in (my South Carolina) High School, Ulysses S.Grant was always portrayed as lazy, ineffective, corrupt, and a drunk. According to this series, nothing could be further from the truth. They almost immediately attack two similar ideas that came from later Southern revisionist historians. The South obviously lost the war, but in truth they won the peace and in many ways have controlled the narrative. When you think Civil War generals, who comes to mind? Not U.S.Grant, more likely Robert E. Lee. The first point concerns why the war was fought. The series makes it clear that the reason there was a Civil War was slavery, clear and simple. The second point they bring up, at the end of the series, is how the South later advanced the ideas of states rights, heritage, and the so-called ‘lost cause.’ The Grant miniseries lays waste to this idea, pointing out that later Southern historians could not defend any position on slavery, so they made up the ‘lost cause’ claptrap.
Grant’s reputation seems to have been caught in this backwash.
The conceit of the series is to use actors as well as talking head historians, and Grant gets real props for its use of a diverse group of knowledgeable “heads” providing the commentary, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the collection of essays on the Reconstruction, We Were Eight Years In Power. Other heavyweights include General David Petraeus and Elizabeth Samet, English professor at West Point, and plenty of commentary from Chernow himself.
Ulysses was born in Ohio in 1822, a simple son of a tanner, with no interest in the family business. His love was horses, and he became quite an impressive equestrian at a young age. Somehow his father got him into West Point, the training ground of most Civil War generals. The narrative goes that Gallant Robert E. Lee was valedictorian, one of the few graduates in history to emerge with an unblemished record, but Grant, portrayed as a scrappy, scruffy Goofus, was only a middling student with many demerits. After graduation, he fell in love with and married Julia Dent, of a wealthy Missouri family that had many slaves. Grant’s father was a vehement abolitionist and none of Grant's family attended the wedding.
Ulysses made a name for himself during the Mexican war in 1846, with a brave display of horsemanship during one battle to get supplies for his troops. After that war, he ended up in Oregon Territory, lonely and despondent for his family. This is one of the two times the series shows Grant drinking, and he has to resign his post. Things went from bad to worse for Ulysses, living in a cabin on his father-in-law’s property and working in the fields with the slaves. He sold firewood in the town and failed at a number of career choices. Given a slave by Julia’s father, Grant set the man free, which Ta-Neishi Coates describes as “walking away from your house.” A slave was worth at least $1000 at the time, a lot of money for the broke-ass Grants.
The Civil War changed everything, with Grant leading an Illinois regiment and moving up in the ranks quickly. He is a decisive and impressive commander, rarely retreating. He quickly makes a name for himself in the ‘Western’ theater of the war. There is a lot of the series devoted to the military campaigns, as this is where Grant made his name. The scenes are vivid and often graphic, the History Channel ante up for realistic production values. While Lincoln’s generals in the east were getting outsmarted by Lee and his army, Grant was only held back by timid higher ranking Union officers. He won a bloody, pitched battle at Shiloh, with over 23,000 (13,000 Union, 11,000) Confederate) casualties. Grant was portrayed as a ‘butcher’ and briefly considered resigning.
Soon he would have a victory at Vicksburg, controlling Confederate supply lines. By 1864, he was promoted to Lieutenant General, a position previously only held by George Washington. Lincoln made him in charge of all Union armies, and Grant trained his eye on Lee. After a terrible battle in ‘the Wilderness’ in Virginia, Grant prevailed and Lee laid down his arms at Appomattox. Five days later, with the Civil War over, was the Good Friday assassination of Lincoln. Julia and Ulysses were to be the guests of the Lincolns at Ford’s Theater that night, and Grant was an intended target of the Booth Conspiracy to decapitate the Union’s leaders.
Ulysses served two terms as President, and his administration was viewed as corrupt. In reality, Grant himself was not corrupt, or drunk, but many of his cronies were. He oversaw reconstruction and by the end of his first term had almost completely stamped out the influence of the Ku Klux Klan in the southern states. Grant was a hard worker for African American rights, using Federal troops (with congressional approval) in the southern states to enforce Reconstruction laws. As the series makes clear, however, war weary white Americans grew tired of the expense, and the South resented the occupation and social and political gains by freedmen. The North basically gave up on the black man. It was a terrible thing to hear.
Once out of office, Ulysses and Julia took a two year worldwide vacation. Everywhere he went, crowds of up to 250,000 people would show. He was the world's most famous American. On returning home, the Wall Street firm he headed went belly-up. He was screwed by the Bernie Madoff of his time. Back to nothing, and now suffering from cancer, he decided to write his memoir, aided by Mark Twain, who worked to get Grant a better book deal than the magazine serial he had originally agreed to, assuring him that now sales would provide handsomely for the Grant family. Willing himself to live through immense pain, he finished the book two days before he died. The book was a huge success, earning about $12,000,000 in today’s money for his family.
The story and series of Grant is a true American story. A simple, poor man rises to military and political greatness, tries to do the right thing, and is knocked back many times. I learned a great deal from Grant, especially about revisionist history. History Channel should be applauded for this series, which has both excellent production and a stellar script, and Ron Chernow for his book.
Who tells your story, indeed.
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