Thursday, May 28, 2020


This week the History Channel showed a three-night docudrama, Grant, adapted from historian Ron Chernow's 1,104-page 2017 biography of victorious Civil War General and 18th U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant. The series is an act of reparation of sorts, seeking to restore the once famous (but now barely remembered) Grant to his proper place in the American pantheon.

The first episode dealt with Grant's early life, including his West Point and Mexican War experiences, his marriage and family life, his opposition to slavery, his drinking problem, and his business failures - from which he was finally freed by the opportunity to return to military command provided by the Civil War. The second episode highlighted his successful rise to top commander in the Civil War. The final episode takes us through the war's conclusion through his post-war service and support for reconstruction, his two-terms as president, and his post-presidency, memoirs, and death.

Grant has long been remembered as Lincoln's most aggressive and successful General - in a war in which so many Union generals were a disappointment, to put it mildly. The series does a good job of highlighting the qualities that made Grant such a successful general and relating that experience to his earlier life and to his overall character and commitment to such critical qualities as fairness and equality, all of which made him a natural partner for Lincoln and Lincoln's natural successor. Grant's post-war commitment to Reconstruction gets the emphasis it deserves and solidifies Grant's place as Lincoln's spiritual and political heir.

The history of the Civil War has long suffered from "Lost Cause" pro-Southern, racist romanticism, which has unjustly elevated the memory of traitors like Robert E. Lee. This series serves as a good counterweight to that deplorable historical revisionism. The bad history my generation grew up with also seriously distorted Reconstruction, even treating the despicable Andrew Johnson as a sympathetic figure and distorting our understanding of his well deserved impeachment.  Grant rushes past the disastrous Johnson administration, but it does serve to rehabilitate our recollection of the Grant Administration, which heroically sought to implement Reconstruction, after which the victory in the Civil War was lost to the Jim Crow era, and has only begun to be recovered in our own lifetime.

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