Ulysses S. Grant: the forgotten emancipator

Ulysses S. Grant became the first American president to visit China in 1879. Here he sits with prominent Chinese viceroy Li Hung Chang. According to “Grant” by Ron Chernow, Grant correctly foretold an eventual return to greatness for the Chinese people after visiting the land in what was, at the time, an unprecedented world tour for a former U.S. President. (PHOTO: Qing government, Flickr CC, restored by Ralph Repo)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

My great-great-great grandfather Peter Crist lost an eye fighting for Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in the Army of the Potomac. Crist would stand just a few miles from the Appomattox Courthouse when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant, ending the U.S. Civil War. After the surrender, my maternal ancestor would guard the White House on the night President Lincoln was assassinated. Sadly, he would have done more good at Ford’s Theater.

Grant thought the same. Lincoln invited his top general to attend the play that night, but their wives weren’t getting along, so Grant declined. Before the play, he saw the assassin John Wilkes Booth on the street, glowering at him with menace. Only later did he realize who that man was and where he was headed. He would regret not being at the theater the rest of his life.

I know about Peter Crist from a family history written by a distant great aunt, May Crist Halvorson. The document once amused me for the way fawning support for Lincoln and Grant always seemed to enter otherwise unrelated family dialogue, even the love chatter of my ancestors. Among her observations were her father’s (perhaps overly) joyous celebration of the election of U.S. Grant as President in 1868.

“Grant” by Ron Chernow

But I learned much more about this modest general-turned-statesman from the recent book “Grant” by historian Ron Chernow. The book challenged what I thought I knew about this western military genius who nevertheless endured many personal struggles. Chernow gives the clearest picture yet of how Grant saved this country and tried, ultimately in vain, to make it more just.

Grant was a sensitive, strong man with a melodic voice and curious mind. He did not speak unnecessarily, so his silence was often mistaken for slowness. Military historians credit Grant with several genius victories throughout the war, far superior to any general on either side. His casualty rate was no higher than other generals, either, though he was often painted as a butcher because he maneuvered decisively, preferring short battles to long ones.

Grant’s had two massive personal flaws. He was trusting to a fault, and he was an alcoholic. His trust of the wrong people left him penniless in retirement and invited many scandals into his presidency. His drinking was sporadic, but devastating when he partook.

Nevertheless, Chernow’s study shows Grant’s strengths far outweighed his shortcomings. He didn’t just oppose slavery, he fought for the total freedom of former slaves. Grant wanted freedmen to vote, to receive education, to become citizens and leaders in the South. He took efforts to demonstrate the capabilities of newly freed men and women whenever possible. Moreover, he was right. Black men and women — given resources and freedoms — flourished. After the war, Grant fought the KKK with the same fervor he fought the Confederacy.

I thought I knew about the failures of Reconstruction. But I was chilled by Chernow’s accounts of white supremacists undermining the rights of black Americans, intimidating voters, and randomly murdering black officials to achieve their ends. And it worked. With reconstruction ended through political pressure, Jim Crow laws in the South enforced a different form of slavery for almost 100 years to follow. Grant would regret this regression deeply.

Grant sought not only to free slaves, but to grant them economic independence and an equal share of American prosperity. He faced enormous blowback, often based on racist scientific theories and a collective effort by South to revise history, the famous “Lost Cause” of the noble South. These people were so successful that people in loyal Union state of Minnesota still put Confederate flags on their pickup trucks in the year 2018.

Today, the powers of prejudice and white nationalism still plague us. They look different. The robes are off. Social media takes the place of nighttime raids. Perhaps it is always so. But the enduring fires of freedom remain, fed by the kindling of justice. We are always able to do right.

Grant represents endurance of ideals through hardship. Before medical science had any understanding of addiction, Grant was an alcoholic who made a meaningful and lasting effort to stay sober. In his time alcohol was regularly prescribed by doctors for everyday problems and served with nearly all meals. In order to emancipate people in bondage, Grant had to emancipate himself from the powerful shackles of liquor. Chernow argues this might have been Grant’s greatest achievement, given the severity of his disease.

Grant was also decades ahead of his time in attitudes about racial justice and equality. In retrospect, perhaps my great-great aunt had it right all along. U.S. Grant was the right person at the right time. Flawed, like us, and failed at first. Yet always resolute when it counted most.

May we all overcome our barriers for reasons bigger than self-interest.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, April 1, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Mike Worcester says

    I really want to read Chernow’s work. Unfortunately there’s something like 72 people ahead of me in the library que. Guess I’ll have to wait patiently. Very patiently.

  2. I had to wait three months late last year to get mine from the library. Honestly with books that size I just don’t have room for too many of them in my house. Though it was good enough I wouldn’t have regretted buying it. I’m sure Chernow would appreciate if a few people did. 🙂

  3. David Gray says

    If you want a rounded understanding of Grant check out Dr. Frank Varney’s “General Grant and the Rewriting of History: How the Destruction of General William S. Rosecrans Influenced Our Understanding of the Civil War.” It is meticulously researched and he is generally very careful in his analysis. My research on my master’s thesis confirmed and expanded some of what Varney wrote.

    A more agenda driven work but with excellent research as well is Joseph Rose’s “Grant Under Fire: An Exposé of Generalship & Character in the American Civil War.” I wouldn’t use this as a sole source but it helps provide balance against the more common hagiography of the man.

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