Public Monuments and Ulysses S. Grant’s Contested Legacy

Public Monuments and Ulysses S. Grant’s Contested Legacy

On Memorial Day, three million people watched the first part of a three-episode documentary on the life of General and President Ulysses S. Grant. Three weeks later—on the much-publicized Juneteenth holiday, no less—a statue of Grant in San Francisco was vandalized and toppled. What gives?

The motivations for this act are still unknown as of this writing, but two things are clear. Despite the largely positive interpretation offered by the History Channel, this event might suggest that the debate over Grant’s legacy is far from settled. Equally important, the debate over commemorative monuments and statues is, for better or worse, moving beyond icons celebrating the Confederacy towards people and events celebrating United States history. There are no easy answers for what the nation’s commemorative landscape will look like moving forward, but re-examining Grant’s record on civil rights might provide some insights as to why his statue specifically may have been targeted.

Figure 1: Ulysses S. Grant during his presidency (1869-1877). Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

Early speculation about the statue’s removal on Twitter and popular media revolved around Grant’s ownership of an enslaved man before the Civil War.[1] It is true that Grant acquired William Jones from his father-in-law, “Colonel” Frederick Dent, while living in St. Louis. For five years (1854-1859) Grant worked as a farmer at White Haven, an 850-acre plantation owned by his father-in-law and worked by upwards of thirty enslaved African Americans. On the one hand, defenders have claimed that Grant only owned Jones for one year. Allegedly concerned about his role in slavery, Grant proceeded to free Jones by signing a manumission paper at the St. Louis Courthouse on March 29, 1859. This manumission paper is the lone document tying Grant to the ownership of an enslaved person.[2] There is more to Grant’s relationship with slavery, however.

For one, the manumission paper Grant signed does not indicate when he acquired Jones. He could have owned Jones for five years or five days, and in any case the length of time does not diminish the fact that Grant owned human property at some point in his life. Moreover, the few existing letters from Grant’s time in St. Louis do not indicate his feelings towards slavery one way or the other. It is impossible to determine why he acquired Jones in the first place or why he chose to free him. Further complicating matters is that after Grant freed Jones in 1859, four enslaved people informally gifted from Colonel Dent to Grant’s wife Julia—Dan, Eliza, John, and Julia—continued to live with the Grants and serve their needs until the family chose to leave St. Louis for a new life in Galena, Illinois, in early 1860.[3]

Grant’s relationship with slavery while in St. Louis took other forms. When a neighbor died in 1854, Grant served as an appraiser for the family estate. This process included the appraisal of three enslaved people (Bill, Augustus, and Amanda), two of whom were later sold at the St. Louis Courthouse. Grant also hired out enslaved laborers to assist with his farming ventures. For example, recently discovered documentation indicates that one of the enslaved men Grant hired out in 1858 was George, a 21-year-old who had been the property of Frances Sublette, wife of a wealthy St. Louis fur trader.[4] Politically, Grant had never voted in an election while a member of the U.S. Army. He recalled in his Personal Memoirs, however, that while he had been “a Whig by education and a great admirer of Mr. [Henry] Clay,” he chose to vote for Democrat James Buchanan in the 1856 presidential election. “The Republican Party was regarded in the South and the Border States not only as opposed to the extension of slavery, but as favoring the compulsory abolition of the institution . . . sensible persons appeared to believe that emancipation meant social equality,” Grant recalled. Seeing Buchanan as the most nationally appealing candidate who could prevent Southern secession, “I therefore voted for James Buchanan for President.” Although he had not lived long enough in Illinois to vote in the 1860 election, Grant also acknowledged that he would have voted for Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas had he been eligible to do so.[5]

My recent article for The Journal of the Civil War Era provides an in-depth review of Grant’s relationship with slavery while living in St. Louis and can be downloaded here.

Despite these connections to slavery, it is fair to ask whether Grant’s prewar experiences define the entirety of his character and legacy. Grant’s remarkable political evolution during the Civil War and Reconstruction must be recognized. While originally opposed to a war against slavery and fearing the further alienation of white Southerners, Grant came to understand that emancipation was necessary as a war measure by 1863. He understood that African Americans were anxious to provide aid and intelligence to the U.S. military. He welcomed their entrance into the ranks of the Union Army. During the Vicksburg campaign, Grant worked with Chaplain John Eaton to establish refugee camps and education for African Americans in the surrounding area. He also took a principled stand by ending prisoner-of-war exchanges with the Confederacy after it was discovered that Black soldiers were considered “fugitive slaves” by the Confederate government and sold back into slavery (or in some cases outright executed).[6]

During Reconstruction, Grant gradually transitioned to the Republican Party. He originally opposed Black male voting rights, believing that “a time of probation, in which the ex-slaves could prepare themselves for the privileges of citizenship” was necessary, but came to believe by 1868 that African Americans were the most loyal Unionists in the South and that military service had established a right to vote for Black men. When the 15th Amendment banning racial discrimination at the ballot box was ratified in March 1870, Grant declared it to be “the greatest civil change[,] and constitutes the most important event that has occurred since the nation came into life.” As such, he implored his fellow white Americans to “withhold no privilege of advancement to the new citizen” and to treat Black Americans with dignity and respect. Ultimately, few white men had a larger role in promoting civil and political rights during Reconstruction than Grant. Civil rights leader Frederick Douglass later recalled that Grant had been not just a military leader, but a moral leader for the country through his advocacy for Black rights. Grant overcame “popular prejudice” and successfully adjusted himself “to new conditions, and adopt[ed] the lessons taught by the events of the hour,” argued Douglass.[7]

Seen in this light, one might view the Grant statue toppling on Juneteenth as a crucial mistake in the larger effort to promote racial justice in today’s United States. Defenders of Confederate statues now have an excuse to say “I told you so” and dismiss the larger goals of the movement to end systemic racism against Black Americans.

Grant’s legacy via commemoration has been challenged in the past, however. Although not a form of outright protest, the mausoleum in New York City where Ulysses and Julia Grant rest was regularly vandalized in the mid-1900s through neglect and inaction both by the city and the National Park Service. And few readers may remember that three years ago a small movement called for the destruction of Grant’s Tomb because of General Orders No. 11, which banned Jewish residents from Grant’s military lines in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi in December 1862. Although Grant later apologized for the order, the fury in 2017 was large enough that historian Jonathan Sarna wrote a passionate op-ed against the tomb’s destruction.[8]

We must also deal with the realities of Grant’s treatment of the various Indian nations who endured the pain of violated treaties, forced removal to poorly-run reservations, assimilationist policies that destroyed their traditional ways of living, and in some cases outright massacres of Indigenous populations at the hands of the U.S. Army during his presidency. The Reconstruction era was not just about the re-admittance of former Confederate states into the Union or the promotion of Black civil rights. It was also about the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny and the removal of all Indian nations as a political threat in the West. As NPS Cultural Affairs Manager Reed Robinson described in a recent interview, “Reconstruction was a process of Deconstruction for Indian Country.” The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the Enforcement Acts used to shut down the KKK, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 live in coexistence with the Camp Grant Massacre, the Modoc War, the Battle of Little Bighorn, and the Ponca Trail of Tears.[9]

Figure 2: “Robinson Crusoe Making a Man of His Friday” was a political cartoon by artist Thomas Nast that neatly summarized the assimilationist goals of Ulysses S. Grant’s Indian Policy. Cartoon Courtesy of Princeton University Library.

Grant genuinely sought a peaceful solution. He believed that Indians had been “put upon” by whites and that fraud and corruption were widespread in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Grant appointed his friend and Seneca Indian Ely S. Parker (Donehogawa) to head the BIA at the beginning of his presidency, established a Board of Indian Commissioners to oversee the BIA’s operations, and was praised by the chiefs of the Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee, and Chickasaw nations for his proposed policies. But Grant and the Republican Party’s vision of mass settlement, free labor farming, and a vast railroad infrastructure in the West was predicated on the belief that this land was theirs for the taking in the first place. Any Indian nations opposed to the Grant administration’s assimilation policies—including removal to reservations, a transition to farming, Christianization, and eventual “civilization” and U.S. citizenship—faced the prospect of military conflict and potential war. A recent article defending Grant may be correct in asserting that “perhaps there was a better way than Grant’s, but nobody ever found one,” but those words probably ring hollow to the Indian nations negatively affected by Grant’s policies.[10]

Seen in this light, we must remember that civil rights are not the exclusive purview of African Americans alone, but something that has meaning to everyone. Reconstruction was decidedly not a civil rights movement for the country’s indigenous population.

The transition from Confederate monuments as targets for removal to Columbus statues and now historic figures such as Washington, Lincoln, and Grant suggests that the debate is shifting. Concerns about celebrating slavery and secession in public commemorations are now being accompanied with concerns about settler colonialism, Manifest Destiny, Indian removal, and genocide. As a friend of mine recently stated, expanding the discussion to mistreatment of Indigenous populations blurs the distinction between right and wrong. “With a colonial nation, everybody’s hands are dirty to some degree. Who sets the bar? What will be the metric?” she asked. Indeed, one could make the case that someone like John Brown—as committed to social justice as anyone in the nineteenth century—nevertheless engaged in settler colonialism by fighting to make Kansas a free state. Frederick Douglass denigrated the Indian nations of the West by arguing that while Blacks achieved the “character of a civilized man,” backwards-looking Indians were not prepared for “civilization” and viewed “your cities . . . your steamboats, and your canals and railways and electric wires . . . with aversion.”[11]

Figure 3: “Historical Geography” by John F. Smith (1888) summarized the dreams of Reconstruction: A reunited country without slavery and the fulfilment of Manifest Destiny. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Finally, a word about public monuments in general is warranted. While the seemingly indiscriminate vandalizing of monuments (which now includes the 54th Massachusetts Memorial, abolitionist Hans Heg, and even guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughn) raises important questions about the ways Americans choose to remember their past, it might be fair to ask whether erecting new monuments is an appropriate course moving forward. President John Quincy Adams once stated that “Democracy has no monuments. It strikes no medals; it bears the head of no man upon its coin; its very essence is iconoclastic.” Monuments, in Adams’ view, were undemocratic, coercive tools of monarchy. These troublesome icons demanded unquestioned fealty and promoted a version of history as simple hero-worship.[12] Are there better ways to utilize these public spaces in the future?

In public history, practitioners regularly preach the importance of highlighting multiple historical perspectives, “sharing authority” with communities in telling diverse stories, and thinking critically about the past. Most monuments fail to achieve these lofty goals. Regardless of how one might personally view Ulysses S. Grant’s legacy, most of the monuments erected in his honor probably do a poor job of telling the full story. While it is more than fair to be concerned about the future of public monuments, discussions about who, how, and why we honor certain historical figures must continue. Local communities should be empowered to make decisions for themselves about who they choose to honor. And perhaps most importantly, these conversations must be accompanied with calls for increased funding to promote the teaching of history in public education, historical sites, and museums around the United States.

 

[1] Riviano Barros, Joe (@jrivianob). 2020. “Nearby statue of Ulysses S. Grant is also toppled. He was a slave owner too, before the Civil War. That’s three for three this night.” Twitter, June 19, 2020, 11:15PM. https://twitter.com/jrivanob/status/1274194145838428160; Marty Johnson, “Protestors Tear Down Statues of Ulysses S. Grant, National Anthem Lyricist Francis Scott Key, The Hill, June 20, 2020, accessed June 30, 2020. https://thehill.com/homenews/state-watch/503685-protesters-tear-down-statues-of-union-general-ulysses-s-grant-national

[2] The text of the manumission document can be found in John Y. Simon, ed., The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 1: 1837-1861 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967), 347.

[3] On Dan, Eliza, John, and Julia, see Julia Dent Grant, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1975), 82-83.

[4] Nicholas W. Sacco, “I Never Was An Abolitionist: Ulysses S. Grant and Slavery, 1854-1863” The Journal of the Civil War Era 9, number 3 (September 2019), 410-437.

[5] Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Volume 1 (New York: Charles L. Webster & Co., 1885), 212-216.

[6] Brooks D. Simpson, Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865 (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000), 162-163, 375.

[7] “Ulysses S. Grant & the 15th Amendment,” National Park Service, April 8, 2020, accessed June 28, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/articles/ulysses-s-grant-the-15th-amendment.htm; Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Hartford: Park Publishing, 1881), 433-435.

[8] On Grant’s Tomb, see Joan Waugh, U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 261-302; Jonathan Sarna, “Why the Rush to Tear Down Grant’s Tomb is Ignorant,” Forward, August 24, 2017, accessed June 25, 2020. https://forward.com/opinion/380997/why-the-rush-to-tear-down-grants-tomb-is-ignorant/

[9] “Ranger Chat with Reed Robinson,” National Park Service, 22:31, May 15, 2020, accessed June 30, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/media/video/view.htm?id=0A2D0554-0ABB-8E2B-2AFC516ED68734E2; see also Philip Weeks, “Farewell, My Nation”: American Indians in the United States in the Nineteenth Century (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson Publishing, 1990).  

[10] See Mary Stockwell, Interrupted Odyssey: Ulysses S. Grant and the American Indians (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press), 2018; C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa, Crooked Paths to Allotment: The Fight Over Federal Indian Policy After the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); Stephen Kantrowitz, “’Not Quite Constitutionalized’: The Meanings of ‘Civilization’ and the Limits of Native American Citizenship” in Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur, eds., The World the Civil War Made (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 75-105; Dan McLaughlin, “In Defense of Ulysses S. Grant,” National Review, June 23, 2020, accessed June 25, 2020. https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/06/in-defense-of-ulysses-s-grant/?fbclid=IwAR16JuU1M81WdR4tleNBu83RZ45T2rbwRZ_hxQ1FLMsU4BifUt1IBJIToDI  

[11] Douglass quoted in David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 486.

[12] Adams quoted in Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., The National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 1.

Nick Sacco

NICK SACCO is a public historian and writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a master’s degree in History with a concentration in Public History from IUPUI (2014). In the past he has worked for the National Council on Public History, the Indiana State House, the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, and as a teaching assistant in both middle and high school settings. Nick recently had a journal article about Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery published in the September 2019 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. He has written several other journal articles, digital essays, and book reviews for a range of publications, including the Indiana Magazine of History, The Confluence, The Civil War Monitor, Emerging Civil War, History@Work, AASLH, and Society for U.S. Intellectual History. He also blogs regularly about history at his personal website, Exploring the Past. You can contact Nick at PastExplore@gmail.com.

30 Replies to “Public Monuments and Ulysses S. Grant’s Contested Legacy”

    1. Hi, Tim.

      I would love for you to expand on what exactly you’re trying to argue here. My world view is constantly evolving and I question my prior assumptions quite often.

      1. Well, not once in this piece do you mention capitalism, let alone the robber baron version rampant under Grant. Douglass himself perfectly encapsulates the Marxian analysis of the Civil War, that slavery is a labor relation not a race relation, and that people like Douglass will always find (and did) some “other” that will provide the unpaid involuntary labor. Maybe think about it like that for once.

        1. Hi, Tim.

          Thanks for the clarification. Discussions about class, labor, and capitalism should most certainly be part of the conversation. I chose to focus on Grant’s legacy as it pertains to his views on civil rights. I’d love to address more of the story but this is a blog and I have word limits.

          Check out Matthew E. Stanley’s review of Ron Chernow’s Grant biography for some interesting thoughts about Grant’s presidency in relation to discussions of free labor and economics. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/12/ulysses-s-grant-american-giant-ron-chernow-biography-reconstruction

          Thanks for reading.

          1. Thanks. I find these days that anything that uses its “word limits” to ignore slavery as a labor relation is already a misfire. The cultural hegemony of capital is collapsing (your world view) and it’s only natural to come to the defense of it in this way.

          2. Thanks, Tim. You are free to interpret my motives and world view any way you’d like, but I’m sorry the essay didn’t meet your standards. I do admire your passion. Have a great day.

  1. A very balanced and reasoned article and opinion. Thanks. It is not clear to me why a A”great” person must be great in every aspect of life. Grant was a great general, at the strategic and operational level. He was certainly not a “great” person in other aspects of his life. His moral courage however is unchallenged. the fact that he grew into the President that enforced Reconstruction, even against the original abolitionists who thought the rules got in the way of their business is highly laudable. Surely the man who saved the Union is worth remembering. But I am not sure that a statue in California is the best way to do it. I do think the one of him in front of the US Capitol is fitting.

    1. Hi, Michael. Thanks so much for taking the time to read the essay and share your thoughts. I agree that people are complex, especially people that are asked to lead a country through its most difficult military and political challenges and shape that country’s policies. I find Grant’s political evolution and defense of Black rights during Reconstruction to be admirable and an example of moral courage. But as a I suggest here, there are other negative marks in his record. Grant most certainly must be remembered and his legacy continually examined, but that examination can’t stop with monuments and statues – we have to dig deeper and perhaps think anew about the ways we understand the Civil War and Reconstruction.

  2. Hi Nick, This was a great job as always. If the toppling of the Grant monument in San Francisco led to this excellent essay, then it turns out it would seem to have a silver lining leading to more understanding of Grant. Let’s hope this is just the first of more discussion about Grant and the complexities of the man.

    1. Hi, Al. Thanks so much for the kinds words! The Grant statue’s toppling in the wake of a very popular TV documentary about the man is just wild. Clearly there are many more conversations to be had about Grant’s legacy.

  3. Toppling of statute. San Francisco. And Nancy Pelosi. Have in common ? Every thing. It is all a ploy to dis erupt the govt. Nothing about history. Please wake up America

  4. If Grant was a Confederate General, would you write the same thing?
    What if a Roman Catholic Priest, that had done wonderful things for hundreds of people, became Cardinal had sexually abused even one child would you feel the same? Would you give him a pass?
    Doing good things negate abhorrent behavior?

  5. If Grant was a Confederate General, would you write the same thing?
    What if a Roman Catholic Priest, that had done wonderful things for hundreds of people, became Cardinal had sexually abused even one child would you feel the same? Would you give him a pass?
    Doing good things does not negate abhorrent behavior?

    1. Hi, Lee.

      Your question as to whether or not a person’s good deeds negates their bad behaviors is a great question, the exact sort of question that my essay tries to address. My answer can only be “some people can be redeemed, others cannot. It depends on the context.”

  6. Hi Nick
    A very interesting article, thanks. Im a Civil War buff forever. I see Grant being mediocre at best as a General and President. Whereas General Robert E. Lee was and remains one of the great generals of history. My take on what is happening in terms of monuments is that the destroyers of same as Santayana warned, did not remember (or ever learn) their history. The issue is that these monuments and statues are ours, warts and all, and provide many teachable moments. It is not up to gangs, in our country at least to decide what we have or have not to look at. All efforts I hope will continue to preserve them as and where they are.

    1. And, Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign strategies and tactics are still taught at West Point. In terms of the removal of confederate statuary, I’m learning a lot as a southerner during this time of turmoil. Mind you, I’m not learning much from The Vandals who destroy the statues, but when historians step up and tell me Roberty E. Lee himself disapproved of public Confederate statuary outside of cemeteries, then my ears perk up. When Ulysses S. Grant‘s statue is vandalized in San Francisco, I’m not sure how that can be construed as “the debate continues.” It looks like an ignorant and indiscriminate active of violence from where I sit. It’s hard to ascribe noble motives to an act that defaces or destroys public property. I miss Shelby Foote.

      1. Hi Robert and Jack,

        Thanks for your comments. We can be opposed to the taking down of statues in the way the Grant statue came down but still use this moment to have important discussions about the legacies of the people whose lives have been commemorated through monuments. That is what “the debate continues” is all about. Regardless of the motive for toppling the state, we can still try and come to terms with Grant’s legacy through education and discussion. That statue’s toppling won’t prevent me or any other historian from doing our work. We won’t forget about Grant because that statue is gone. And it’s not preventing us from having this conversation right now. I agree that everyone in a local community should have a say in what monuments they want in their public spaces, and that a more democratic process to vandalization and toppling is preferred. But if we want to have these conversations, let’s look at historical figures fairly and squarely, “warts and all.”

        1. lol and you wonder why the average American can’t tell the difference between the right and wrong of the Civil War such that no statue is safe. Is this where you run to Twitter and insult the commenters on your article?

  7. Thank you for this detailed yet succinct article. I am reading the Chernow book currently, and this article stuck a timely chord. I particularly appreciated you raising the issue of whether there are better ways to utilize public spaces than to erect statues to “heros.” Will be sending the article link to friends and family.

  8. Nick,

    Great work on this piece. Grant deserves better considering all he did for African Americans between 1862 and 1877. The silver lining is that historians and scholars will continue to get to the bottom of the Grant story when it comes to his civil rights record soon enough. I wrote my entire dissertation on this subject and enjoyed bring it to light for my committee last fall. I hope to bring it to broader audience soon enough.

    Dr. John P. Williams

    1. Hi John,

      Thanks for reading and for your comment. Is your dissertation publicly available? Do you have a timeline on when your book is getting published? I’d be very interested in reading your scholarship!

      1. I will send you the link to the dissertation so you can read it. I am working on flipping it into full blow manuscript right now. I hope to have it published next summer. I will keep you updated. Take care.

        John

  9. Grant was a reluctant slave owner. His father in-law, Dent, was a hard to please individual. Julia was raised just as all southern plantation owner’s daughter were raised.
    She expected more than president Grant could ever give her in their early years.
    Grant was raised in a strong abolitionist family.
    His father didn’t attend their wedding because of the ownership of slaves by Dent.
    Grant was a hero for all.

    1. Hi Michael,

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. While I appreciate the spirit of your comment, some of your arguments are speculative.

      1. Since we have no letters or documents in Grant’s own handwriting to indicate his views on slavery before the Civil War, it’s impossible to verify whether or not he was a “reluctant” slaveholder. If anything, a full look at his actions while living St. Louis suggests he tolerated slavery and had no qualms about living on the White Haven plantation. Grant’s freeing of William Jones was a courageous move, but to reiterate a point I made in the essay, we don’t know why he acquired Jones or why he freed him.

      2. We don’t know why Grant’s parents chose not to attend the Grants wedding in St. Louis. You’re correct that the prominent theory is that it was because Grant was marrying into a slaveholding family, but Grant’s parents never indicated why they didn’t come.

      3. Grant’s upbringing in an antislavery family does not automatically mean that he embraced every view his parents held. Children rarely agree with every political view their parents hold, and we can that complex dynamic at play when it comes to slavery. For example, Angela and Sarah Grimke were raised on a South Carolina plantation, but were so disgusted by slavery that they became abolitionists and prominent lecturers against the institution. William Lowdnes Yancey’s stepfather was a strongly antislavery Northerner, but Yancey himself became a rabid proslavery fire-eating secessionist who led the charge to have Southern states secede from the Union to defend their slave property. Jesse Grant said he would never live in a slave state, but at the very least we can see that Ulysses had no qualms about doing that.

      I want to stress that there are many qualities about Grant that I find admirable, not least of which is his remarkable political evolution. But at the end of the day I’m trying to get as accurate a picture of Grant’s prewar life with my scholarship, and I believe some of the popular Grant biographers have made some missteps on this topic. Thanks again for reading.

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