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Ohio’s Ulysses S. Grant finally getting his due from history

E.C. Fields Jr., who portrays Ulysses S. Grant at the Grant Boyhood Home in Georgetown, says of the Civil War Union general’s reputation: “Grant was anything but a butcher. That was a criticism heaped upon him by the Confederates.” [Marty Schladen/Dispatch/TNS)

It’s taken awhile — nearly a century and a half — but Ulysses S. Grant’s reputation is on the rise.

The quiet tanner’s son from southwestern Ohio had been rated by most historians as a poor-to-middling president who ran a corrupt administration from 1869 to 1877.

As a Union general, he has been cast as a butcher who relied on superior manpower and sheer slaughter to defeat more-skilled Confederate commanders in the Civil War.

But Grant has been reconsidered by historians in recent years, rising 11 spots — to No. 22 — in the C-SPAN historians poll between 2000 and 2017. Major, sympathetic biographies of Grant have been published by H.W. Brands, Ron Chernow and Ronald C. White since 2012.

In 2017, a new Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library opened on the campus of Mississippi State University — in the heart of the former Confederacy that Grant helped to defeat as a general and worked to reconstruct as a president.

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Then, in April, a statue of Grant was dedicated at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. This at a time when statues of Confederate generals are coming down, including one of Robert E. Lee. That removal led to white-supremacist rioting and murder in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.

The fate of the statues says a lot about why Grant is slowly rising in historians’ esteem, White, the author of “American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant,” wrote last spring in The Washington Post. Many of the Confederate statues went up decades after the Civil War, at a time when white supremacy was government policy and the statues were a stark reminder of that. Grant saw his reputation suffer accordingly.

“A chief insight in the reappraisal of Grant is the recognition that, at the beginning of the post-Civil War period of oppression, he acted courageously to protect the rights of freed men and women,” White wrote. “As a Republican president, when states refused to act, Grant used the power of the federal government to battle domestic terrorist organizations, particularly the Ku Klux Klan, even as his own party was growing tired of the struggle.”

The new thinking about Grant is welcomed in his old Ohio stomping grounds of Point Pleasant and Bethel in Clermont County and Georgetown in Brown County.

E.C. Fields, who has an uncanny likeness to the 18th president, impersonates him at the Ulysses S. Grant Boyhood Home in Georgetown. Standing in his top hat and broadcloth suit, Fields described Grant’s love of animals, his dislike of hunting and the “ghastly” work he had to do in the tannery of his father, Jesse Grant, across the street.

Those characteristics — and the fact Grant had never wanted to go into the military — contradict descriptions of him as a cold-blooded killer, Fields said.

“Grant was anything but a butcher. That was a criticism heaped upon him by the Confederates,” Fields said, explaining that while Grant had no love of killing, he understood the need to act decisively in war. “His feeling is ‘We’re pussy-footing around and not doing what we need to do to defeat the Confederacy.’ ”

During the Civil War, Grant provided President Abraham Lincoln with invaluable strategic military victories, showing that the “administration and the war were on the right track,” said Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, who, like many others, has taken an interest in Grant. Husted said that one reason Lincoln’s reputation later soared while Grant’s suffered is because Lincoln was martyred before the nation went through the painful process of reunification.

“It was a messy period,” Husted said. “Winning the war and then being assassinated, Lincoln is remembered up to that moment. You wonder how, if Lincoln went through the messy process of reunification, how that would have reflected on his own legacy. Anytime you’re dealing with a mess, it’s not a celebrated role.”

Perhaps one reason that Grant is rising in public esteem is that, by all accounts, he was humble, well-read and of an outlook held more widely now than in his day. He rode off to the Mexican-American War more than a decade before the Civil War and quickly came to see the invasion as a mistake. While in Mexico, he learned some Spanish, made friends and took an interest in the southern neighbor that he would maintain throughout his life.

Back in the states, in a lonely outpost in the Oregon Territory, Grant rode out and befriended nearby Indians. And although Ohio generals and soldiers under his command such as William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip Sheridan and George Armstrong Custer would act harshly against the Plains Indians, Grant was the first American president to speak consistently for Indian rights.

As with Indian rights, Grant stood more forthrightly for the rights of African Americans than any of his predecessors had. Grant worked hard to put down white-supremacist terrorism in the South while pushing to enforce the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, which had been created to free the slaves and secure their voting rights.

“Grant is our first civil rights president,” Fields said.

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© 2020The Columbus Dispatch

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