A man for our times
Ulysses S. Grant shines in a new docuseries that mostly focuses on his military career
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It’s heartening to watch the progression: A white man working the fields alongside black slaves, then freeing a slave from his in-laws, saying, “God protect you, Wilbur.” The same man commands some of the Civil War’s first black troops. Then as president, he advocates for Abraham Lincoln’s Reconstruction plans and helps ratify the 15th Amendment to grant men voting rights regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Later, he sends agents south to capture and prosecute Ku Klux Klan members.
Ulysses S. Grant, 18th president of the United States, was a man for turbulent times, and we could learn from him now. History network’s new three-part miniseries Grant shows a steely-eyed man of character. Despite his flaws, he advocated for blacks throughout his life, loved his wife, and led his army and country tenaciously.
As Justin Salinger masterfully portrays Grant’s stoic, calm countenance, it’s easy to forget he’s reenacting. He even looks like Grant.
Salinger captures the boredom and loneliness Grant endured while at California’s Fort Humboldt several years after fighting in the Mexican-American War. It’s hard not to cringe when we watch him guzzle from a flask, trying to fill the void separation from his family left. This film, based on Ron Chernow’s best-selling biography of Grant, says he learned to control his drinking. Detractors spread rumors exaggerating his imbibing all his adult life.
Other scenes show the general’s commanding presence atop his steed: He directs troops at the brutal Battle of Shiloh. Later he maneuvers regiments into position to lay siege to well-fortified Vicksburg, high on the Mississippi River bluffs. He was an expert horseman too—a reputation he earned when he clung to a galloping horse’s side to avoid enemy fire early in his infantry career. His battlefield acumen earned him accolades as a military genius, which is the film’s major focus.
Grant’s fairness and compassion shine when he gives Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee favorable surrender terms, allowing soldiers to keep their swords and horses. Earlier he ensured Lee’s starving men got rations.
The reenactments, combined with historians’ enthusiastic insights, beautifully restored photos, color-coded battle maps, and Grant’s “voice” from memoirs, humanize an extraordinary and often misunderstood Civil War hero and reluctant politician. Each episode thrusts viewers into the heart of national upheaval and creates a desire to understand how Grant navigated the chaos.
One of the series’ shortcomings is too little examination of his two-term presidency. And, like many recent historical documentaries, it ignores Grant’s faith. In reality, he was a Methodist, though he prayed privately and rarely attended church.
The terms “grit” and “resiliency” are popular in today’s lexicon. This series shows Grant personifying both to the end. Beware: Battle scenes are gory.
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