Ulysses S. Grant

Brooks D. Simpson

in Military History

ISBN: 9780199791279
Published online June 2012 | | DOI:
Ulysses S. Grant

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Ulysses S. Grant’s reputation as both a general and as a president has experienced its ups and downs. During his lifetime, the savior of the Union came under heavy criticism as an unimaginative battlefield tactician and mediocre strategist who owed his victory to superior resources that he mindlessly applied to wear down his opponent, at a great cost in lives. Others, however, praised him for his determination, perseverance, and skill, but it would not be until the 20th century that military historians began to reemphasize his brilliance as a strategist and operational planner. More recently, studies have expanded their treatment to offer positive views of Grant’s handling of civil-military relations, his understanding of war aims, and his grasp of the relationship between military means and policy ends, making him the classic Clausewitizan warrior. At the same time, more detailed studies have called into question the image of a plodding butcher, pointing out that much of that impression rests upon a rather selective, incomplete, and uninformed assessment of the Overland Campaign of 1864. Although Grant still has his critics, most military historians today acknowledge his skill and intelligence, ranking him as one of the very best commanders in American history. Grant’s reputation as president took longer to recover after it dipped deeply at the beginning of the 20th century. Portrayed as naïve, bumbling, and gullible, Grant came under particularly heavy criticism for his support of Reconstruction at a time when mainstream scholars had dismissed that process as corrupt and fundamentally flawed in its aspirations to preserve and protect black civil and political rights. Eventually, historians came to understand Reconstruction in a new light, as a gallant if flawed effort to realize the promise of a new birth of freedom. Unfortunately, this let to Grant being criticized for not doing enough to achieve that goal. Only when historians began to realize the limits of the possible, due to institutional and political constraints as well as the persistence of racism throughout the postwar United States, did Grant’s presidency come under a more fundamental reassessment. Scholars now show more appreciation for his political skills and suggest that the portrayal of his two terms as riddled by corruption is overblown and misleading. They are more inclined to offer a sympathetic assessment of his presidency, credit his good intentions, and stress that there was only so much he could have achieved under the circumstances, with a few scholars pressing for an even more upward reassessment that might strike others as overcompensation for previous unjust evaluations.

Article.  6599 words. 

Subjects: Military History ; Pre-20th Century Warfare ; First World War ; Second World War ; Post-WW2 Military History

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