I have always known a fair amount about Ulysses S. Grant.  What I had not known until recently finishing Joan Waugh’s U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth was the level of respect held for him by his contemporaries.  This can be summed up in the slogan—“Washington the father, Lincoln the martyr, Grant the savior”—that appeared in print around the time of his death.  Americans were so keen for news on the president’s illness that reporters staked out his Manhattan and Mount McGregor homes for months leading up to his death from throat cancer in July 1885.  To give you a sense of the intensity here are select headlines from the New York Times, just one of the nearly twenty Gotham dailies of the time:

GEN. GRANT NOT SO COMFORTABLE.  March 8, 1885

GEN. GRANT MUCH BETTER.  March 12, 1885

GEN. GRANT’S CONDITION; THE CONTINUED PROGRESS OF THE DISEASE. THE LOCAL DIFFICULTY MARKEDLY INCREASED–BROWN, THE SPECIALIST, NOT ALLOWED TO SEE THE PATIENT.  March 13, 1885

GEN. GRANT’S CONDITION.; EARNEST REMARKS BY MR. BEECHER AT THE PLYMOUTH CHURCH PRAYER MEETING.  March 14, 1885

GEN. GRANT ABOUT THE SAME.  March 16, 1885

GEN. GRANT’S CONDITION.; ANOTHER NIGHT OF SLEEPLESSNESS, BUT RESTING DURING THE DAY.  March 18, 1885

GEN. GRANT’S WEAKNESS; A WEARISOME DAY AND NIGHT FOR THE SUFFERER. SLEEPING IN HIS CHAIR TO PREVENT A RECURRENCE OF THE PAINFUL COUGHING SPELLS–A GREAT LOSS OF STRENGTH.  March 31, 1885

GEN. GRANT MUCH WORSE; ANOTHER SEVERE ATTACK YESTERDAY MORNING.  April  2, 1885

OBTAINING MORE SLEEP; A QUIET NIGHT AND DAY IN THE GRANT HOUSEHOLD.  April 4, 1885

PASSING A WAKEFUL DAY; STILL DESPONDENT, BUT PHYSICALLY COMFORTABLE.  April 6, 1885

Dedication of Grant’s Tomb, April 27, 1897

Americans continued to hold Grant in high esteem until his popularity waned in the 1920s with the institutionalization of Lost Cause historiography and the public aversion to militarism after the carnage of the just-ended Great War.  I think she overstates the case, but Waugh offers an analysis of Grant and his place in history at Salon.  I say overstates because the reinterpretation of Grant has been underway for some time now, with Grant going from bumbling drunk to conscientious public figure in the estimation of most historians.  That said, it is not clear if the general public has caught up with these changes in scholarship;  when my wife and I visited his tomb this past winter I was saddened to see the paucity of visitors.

Waugh talks about the disrepair at various Grant sites across the country.  Thankfully, this is no longer the case at his final resting place.  Last week the new Visitor Center opened in the Overlook Pavilion at Grant’s tomb.

She concludes:

Perhaps the looming Sesquicentennial will bring many Americans to a more knowledgeable and appreciative judgment of the man. Ulysses S. Grant became the embodiment of the American nation in the decades after the Civil War. No living person symbolized both the hopes and the lost dreams of the war more fully than Grant. No living person more clearly articulated for posterity a powerful truth about the Civil War when he wrote in his “Personal Memoirs” of his feelings about Lee and the soldiers he had led and the slave republic they had defended:

“I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the down fall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

Grant’s legacy to his own generation was deep and wide, and he became an icon in the historical memory of the war shared by a whole generation of men and women. They believed that an appreciation of Grant could only come with the recognition that he was both the heroic general that saved the Union, and the essential president who made sure that it stayed together.

Read the whole thing.