In 1877, three men were commonly regarded as the foremost heroes of the United States: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant.
For their efforts, each of these three Americans since has been recognized with a place of honor on the National Mall.
Yet over time, for various reasons, our appreciation of Grant—and the condition of his memorial—have deteriorated, while Lincoln’s and Washington’s have remained strong and well maintained. But there is reason for hope.
Even our national museums still perpetuate many of the common negative stereotypes of Grant.
Accompanying the painting of Grant at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., for example is this commentary:
His unrelenting campaign against Robert E. Lee, in 1864–65, finally won the war for the North.
Grant was ultimately elected president, but the powers of command he displayed in the Army seemed to abandon him when he reached the White House.
He was unable to manage the politics of Reconstruction, and his hands-off attitude spawned an outbreak of federal corruption.
Ask an American in the street about U.S. Grant and you might hear that Grant, as a general, was a “butcher” and a drunk, and as president ran a corrupt administration. But as biographer Ron Chernow brilliantly described in his 2017 book “Grant,” none of that is accurate.
As Chernow relates, Grant was truly a skillful general, and his 1863 victory at Vicksburg, Mississippi, is still studied at war colleges as a masterpiece of maneuver and tactics.
Typical Grant histories end with his role in the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, Virginia. Chernow keeps going and tells the story of Grant as president and after. He provides vivid descriptions of how Grant, who never drank during or near a battle, ultimately conquered his alcoholism through sheer power of will and with the support of friends and family. He later lent his support to temperance movements.
Grant appointed some Cabinet members who proved to be corrupt, but Grant himself was never involved and was horrified to learn of their actions. His fault was that he trusted too much.
As president, Grant notably created the Justice Department to fight the KKK, helped shepherd the 15th Amendment giving blacks the right to vote, and then repeatedly deployed the Army to enforce those rights.
Of Grant, Princeton professor Sean Wilentz has written, “the evidence clearly shows that [Grant] created the most auspicious record on racial equality and civil rights of any president from Lincoln to Lyndon B. Johnson.”
Faced with the news that he was both dying of cancer and bankrupted by a villain who stole his money, Grant resolved to write his memoirs to provide for his family.
Despite the agony of cancer, Grant’s book is renowned for its clarity and lack of pretense. He died within days of finishing it, but his family’s finances were made secure.
So, it’s welcome news that, with little fanfare, the restoration of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial was recently completed. Sited in a position of extraordinary honor at the foot of the Capitol building, Grant gazes westward from his horse in the direction of the president he faithfully served, Lincoln, and the 16th president’s memorial on the other end of the Mall 2 miles away.
Over the years, Grant’s memorial had fallen into disrepair. Bronze elements had been stolen, vandalized, or just corroded away. Stone walkways had crumbled and blue streaks from corroding bronze discolored the stone pedestals.
Pigeons appreciated the statue, but few others did. It had become an embarrassment.
The monument, the largest equestrian statue in the United States, was commissioned by an act of Congress in 1901. The artist Henry Merwin Shrady toiled for 20 years to bring the memorial to fruition.
For his research, he observed drills at West Point to design the cavalry and artillery groups at the corners of the memorial.
At two and a half times life-size, the entire monument is a triumph. The rich details, the symmetry, and the authenticity make this a true American gem, and it appropriately honors Grant.
The recent restoration has restored the memorial to what it must have looked like when it was dedicated in 1922. Meticulous craftsmen under the supervision of the Architect of the Capitol recast missing bronze parts and gave the entire memorial a deep cleaning. It positively gleams, and it’s a sight to behold. It’s a fitting tribute.
Now, it’s past time for Grant’s reputation to be fully refurbished as well.
He deserves our admiration as a true American hero whose life story includes overcoming crushing poverty, a debilitating addiction, and fighting racial discrimination, all the while demonstrating extraordinary humility, bravery, and a dogged determination.