Letter to the Editor: Examining Ulysses S. Grant and the South

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"Let us have peace." The words of President Ulysses S. Grant were quoted by Chronicle columnist Dr. Richard Stride in his recent column. After 130 years of residing at the bottom, President Grant is now rising rapidly in the polls. Historians currently rank him as the 12th best president.

After four years of President Andrew Johnson's concerted effort to overturn the outcome of the Civil War, Grant took office on March 4, 1869, facing nearly as great a degree of difficulty as had Abraham Lincoln eight long years earlier. We still suffer from Johnson's misguided efforts to re-empower the "planter" class of southerners, but many of our current divisions also come from the Vietnam War and changes and challenges brought by the global economy.

The South seethed with resentment after the war. At the Appomattox surrender ceremony ending the war, General Grant showed respect and courtesy to Confederate officers and men, but that regard was not reciprocated. When one Union officer told his Confederate counterpart they could "go home now and live in peace," the southern officer replied, "you don't understand sir, we hate you. "

President Grant was not a pushover. He did not want peace if the price was forfeiting all the gains made by the war to align the country with its founding principles. He understood the deposed southern "planter" class was trying mightily to reimpose a variant of the old slave system. He knew that the system that had been held in place for years by "slave laws" was being reinvented as a system held in place by terror. As president, he made war on the original Ku Klux Klan movement, obliterating them. "The South," he intoned more than once, “is being ruled by terorism.”

To maintain their enormous wealth and privilege (the greatest in the world at the time, even surpassing the wealth of royal Europe) the planter class would do anything. Their most insidious and longlasting trick was to plant in their white, less educated yeomen southern brethren the idea that, as low in life as they might be, they would always be better than the Negro. Slavery was a good, Bible verified, "Christian" institution, and they should fight for their state's right to practice it. The novel and film "Cold Mountain" tells the story of one Confederate soldier who is disabused of that.

Southern intransigence led to Northern weariness, and Federal troops left the south almost immediately after Grant left the White House in 1877. "Jim Crow" laws took effect very soon after that. Black Americans were told they could vote if, among other absurd tests, they could guess the number of jellybeans in the jar. Somehow they never got it right. I am surprised not to have heard anything from Mitch McConnell or Lindsey Graham regarding jellybeans.

The planter class (and I use that term ironically because most of them never planted much of anything) explanation of the cause of the war came to be called the "Lost Cause," which proposed that the war was a noble defense of "states' rights.” As Lincoln once said of the "states' rights" theory, "the only liberty they sigh for is the liberty to enslave other people."

For the planter class to rise again, Ulysses Grant, the hero of the Civil War and a good president, had to fall. In his "Personal Memoirs," Grant, anticipating the move of his opponent as he did so well as general, stated unequivocally that the cause of the war was slavery, not states' rights. If Dr. Stride is looking to find the reason Grant is so underestimated, he will find it in the slanderous, successful utter vilification of him by the "Lost Cause" movement.

 

Marty Ansley

Cinebar

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