I had heard the name "Ulysses S. Grant" as a child, and knew he was important; but did not know much about him. I had heard much criticism of Grant's generalship, with the old claim that he was a butcher - an unfavorable characterization voiced by then-First-Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. I also heard some good things about Grant's generalship, and my father was a great admirer of Grant; but everyone seemed to consider Robert E. Lee's generalship superior to his. The general, it seemed, was incompetent; and a drunk to boot. I knew also of the apocryphal story about someone complaining to President Lincoln about Grant's drinking, and then hearing the response to "Find out what he drinks, and I'll send a barrel of it to all my other generals" (or something to that effect).
It was in watching Ken Burns' Civil War miniseries that I got to know Grant a little better; to hear Jason Robards read quotes from him, and to hear a brief version of Grant's postwar life. Ken Burns is a little hard on Grant's presidency in the postwar episode, I think, mentioning only its failures in the brief sentence about it. He does do justice to the story of Grant's writing his memoirs, and setting it up with the business failures that prompted his writing them; but he also ignores some important context when mentioning that Grant had someone tied to a tree for several hours for mistreating a horse - the man was ordered to stop doing it, and persisted quite openly in doing so. Mentioning this insubordination would have seemed appropriate to give context; but given the other virtues of the series, I'll let this omission slide.
This American Experience documentary about him is the definitive film on Grant. The Western director John Ford, I am told, wanted to do a biopic about Grant; but never got to do so. A Hollywood movie would have been something, but this documentary is quite impressive as well; making good use of the many photographs of Grant, the people he worked with, and the events he was involved in. They make good use of quotes from Grant's memoirs, and benefit from having one of the most interesting stories in American history to dramatize. I think Grant may be the most fascinating man in American history, and this documentary does him justice.
Grant as young soldier
They do not gloss over his drinking, and mention that he married into a slaveholding family and once owned a slave; but they also add that he freed the man later - the only slave he had ever owned. Equally importantly, they help put to rest the terrible myth that he was a butcher, and show that he hated the awful effects of war. They mention his fighting in the earlier war with Mexico - a war he disapproved of, but thought that he should fight in, being a career soldier who had graduated from West Point. It was his proving ground, and the lessons he learned there would later help him in the Civil War.
Grant as general
They briefly go over his unsuccessful period between the wars, when he failed at every single peacetime occupation he tried; and when they get to the Civil War, they mention his early attempts to re-enter the Army as an officer, only to be turned away because of his reputation as a drunk. But Grant was not stopped by these setbacks, and eventually got a commission to fight in the Army. I won't mention any specific battles he was involved in; but I will say that this documentary made a powerful argument for Grant being a great military commander, possibly even the best we've ever had in our history. Lee gets most of the glory in this war, but I think Grant was just as good, if not better. He was the first person to hold the rank of Lieutenant General since George Washington, and must have been conscious of this rank's conspicuous nature.
The documentary really sets itself apart going over his presidency, and sets it up with his less-than-favorable opinion of Lincoln's successor Andrew Johnson - the first president in American history to be impeached. This Southern-sympathizing man, who botched Reconstruction so badly, was the man that Grant would be succeeding as Commander-in-Chief; and as any professional performer can tell you, it helps to follow a bad act - compared to Andrew Johnson, anyone was bound to look good.
Grant as president
Grant himself once admitted that he was not a great president, knowing of his administration's corruption scandals and economic failings; but the documentary makes clear that Grant himself was not corrupt, and that he's not nearly as bad a president as most people think. At a time when the Ku Klux Klan was terrorizing and murdering blacks, and his first presidential opponent had the campaign slogan "This is a white man's country - let white men rule," Grant's tough opposition to the Ku Klux Klan really stands out as remarkable. When his fellow Republicans no longer supported his attempts to bring order to the South, Grant was forced to do something he had never done on the battlefield, which was retreat. It was a painful decision, but he cracked down on the mob violence whenever and wherever he could, which argues for his being a much better president than he's usually given credit for. One of the black historians interviewed here says that he was "a reasonable man in an unreasonable time," which is a ringing endorsement.
There is brief coverage of his post-presidency life, including a trip around the world, financed by one of the few good investments Grant ever made. His hero's welcome in foreign nations makes clear his popularity internationally, and how he was a war hero across oceans and on foreign continents. There's also a funny story about a faux pas Grant made when visiting Queen Victoria, which was that he brought his children to Buckingham Palace (something not done at that time). But the queen brought out some of her own children, and so this social mistake was swept under the rug. Grant received all kinds of gifts from admirers in foreign countries; many of which were warlike, including a samurai sword from Japan. The documentary shows pictures of some of them.
Then they cover one of the most painful moments of his life, which was when he was cheated out of a great deal of money by his business partner, putting his family deeply in debt. A wealthy friend bailed him out, but Grant was humiliated by this public embarrassment, and paid back whatever he could. He gave the gifts he had received in foreign lands to this wealthy friend, who soon after donated the items of historical interest to the Smithsonian (hence the documentary being able to show pictures of them). But Grant needed money, and there was just one way to do it: write his memoirs. Being a former president as well as a famous war hero, his memoirs were virtually guaranteed success; and so he reluctantly set out to write his life story.
Grant after his presidency
Partway through the writing, he was struck with another painful blow, which was being diagnosed with throat cancer. He knew during his meeting with the doctor that he had been handed his death sentence, and so his writing the memoirs was a race against time - would he be able to finish his memoirs satisfactorily before he died, and get his family out of debt? The documentary makes clear that Grant was in tremendous physical pain when writing the memoirs, pain which sometimes included the sensation of choking, but that he kept his sense of humor even during these times. He was offered painkillers to deal with the pain, but refused them so that he could keep his mind clear. This man formerly known for substance abuse problems (specifically, heavy drinking) managed to do without legal painkillers when he was slowly dying of cancer, so that he could write the memoirs well enough to get his family out of debt.
Grant writing his memoirs
The historians and writers interviewed here heap some well-deserved praise on Grant's memoirs, praise which later inspired me to read them myself. As someone who's read them, I can testify that they do not feel rushed, and that they end soon after the conclusion of the Civil War, the most important period of his life. Had he lived longer, he might have written about postwar events (such as his presidency); but three days after finishing the memoirs, he passed away, leaving this dramatic record of his military service to history.
The documentary mentions the bestselling nature of Grant's memoirs after his death, which sold half a million copies, earning the equivalent of millions of today's dollars in royalties for the widow he left behind, and rescuing his family from debt. This final heroic act of writing, despite the hardships, gave some poetry to how his life ended. The memoirs are literary, and I have never read any memoirs I like better (even Benjamin Franklin's). I owe my reading them to this three-hour documentary by PBS, and their wonderful telling of Grant's story.
Painting of Grant
Grant is now a personal hero of mine, and it is as much for this as for anything else that I truly love this documentary. It's an inspiring story of triumph over setbacks, and one that our country could use today.
Preview at PBS website
DVD at Amazon
If you liked this post, you might also like:
U.S.-Mexican War 1846-1848 (PBS miniseries)
The Civil War (PBS miniseries)
Reconstruction: The Second Civil War (PBS miniseries)