progressive president

Dickson Allen Anderson Centennial Professor of History and Government, Department of History

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

H.W. Brands focuses on the complexities of the denounced Union leader Ulysses S. Grant in his biography “The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace.” Brands is currently writing a history of the United States in biographies, and Grant’s biography is the fourth installation in a six-part series. The Daily Texan spoke with Brands about his unconventional portrayal of Grant as a progressive president rather than the brutal commander who destroyed the South.

The Daily Texan: Why did you pick Ulysses S. Grant to represent the Civil War time period in your documentation of American history?

H.W. Brands: In the first place, Grant was a soldier and I have come to realize that soldiers, warriors play a large role in history. I wanted to see what kind of personality became a great soldier. That was part of the reason. The other part was that America is a country that has been shaped dramatically by war. I wanted to look at the role of war in American history.  And I wanted to look at the character of a warrior or a soldier, and Grant was the obvious choice.

DT: Why do you think he was so disrespected after the Civil War?

Brands: There were people who felt like they needed to choose sides by their favorite general, and typically Grant was opposed to Robert E. Lee ... Robert E. Lee had the advantage of being more handsome, more dashing, more the mythical figure. [The South] thought Lee was the more brilliant general, Grant the butcher. This is the story that was told for decades afterwards. This overlooks a fundamental fact of war which is you win by whatever means you have available. Grant understood what could lead to a Union victory and he followed that path. Nonetheless, that didn’t seem dashing. That didn’t seem gentlemanly. That seemed plodding. That seemed almost barbarous.

DT: How would you characterize Grant?

Brands: Grant had a genius for war. He understood what was required to win. He could visualize the battlefield better than most people could. He understood logistics, how you get provisions, troops, equipment and ammunition to the front when you need it. He also had the ability to look past the casualties of any given battle to the long-term goal. Grant, unlike Lincoln’s previous generals, could make that awful decision to set the battle in motion, even when he knew that 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 young men might not survive the battle.

DT: At what point do you think that Grant had a downfall?

Brands: Grant had political enemies. All forceful politicians do. Grant remained the most popular man throughout his presidency. He could have been elected a third time if he had desired it, but he didn’t. He was enormously popular at his death in 1885. Grant was the great hero of his age. Needless to say, he wasn’t so popular in the South because he had been the general on the other side. But most people in the South considered him the good general, in part because he had given Robert E. Lee quite generous terms of peace at the surrender at Appomattox. He forbade his own soldiers from cheering as the Confederates marched out, because, as he said, they are no longer the enemy, they are our fellow Americans. And so Grant had a certain magnanimity that was not associated with many other officers.

DT: When you’re looking at a story or an idea, what is the most challenging part?

Brands: Well, I won’t say this is the most challenging part, but the thing I try to do first is hear the voice of my character. So I read what they wrote in diaries, and what they wrote in letters. I’m trying to figure out the impression this figure made on the world around them. For the purposes of telling my story, I want my main subject to speak. I don’t want my books to read like a history lecture, where the professor is telling you about these people. I want these people to come to life for the reader. With Grant, I have his memoir, his own telling of his life, letters that he wrote during the course of his life, and I’ve got a whole lot of orders that he gave when he was in the Army.

Printed on Thursday, October 25, 2012 as: Ulysses S. Grant's kind side revealed