I’m suspicious of all monuments, and I believe in dismantling those that tell warped tales about our national past, suppress its horrors, and gild its errors by encasing them in tragic dignity. Monuments to the Confederacy do all this, and they ought no longer to lord it over us in public parks, town squares, or the halls of the Capitol. Even if I know that in the long run it would have been better and healthier for us to have arrived at this conclusion in an orderly and official way, I also know at first hand the intransigence of all those Americans so deeply in love with the sham chivalry—to steal Mark Twain’s phrase—of Robert E. Lee and all the rest. So whenever I learn that the statue of a Confederate has been disturbed in some way during these days of unrest, I think: He certainly had that coming.
Then, on the morning after Juneteenth, a day meant to celebrate the liberation from slavery, I learned that Ulysses S. Grant had become a casualty of the long overdue war against the tyranny of misremembrance, when protestors toppled his bust in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. And my self-satisfied iconoclasm suddenly gave way, first to righteous indignation, then to confusion. Rather than surrender to Grant, Lee would have preferred dying “a thousand deaths,” but surrender he did, because Grant had ground down the Army of Northern Virginia with an iron will and “a bulldog grip,” as Abraham Lincoln enjoined him to do. Grant is the man who, whatever else he may have failed to do—and he failed at many things—figured out how to win the Civil War, thereby preserving the United States and securing the emancipation of four million enslaved persons.
Most monuments tend to accomplish what Bertolt Brecht accused traditional drama of doing: eroding our capacity for action rather than awakening it, leaving us with the feeling that the human being is fixed rather than capable of change. That’s the source of my mistrust. A year ago, my ambivalence notwithstanding, I participated in the dedication of a new statue of Grant at his alma mater, West Point. I hoped this new monument would begin to turn the tide. The Army, just like the country at large, fell in love with those flamboyant cavaliers rendered in bronze, granite, and marble throughout the land while blithely ignoring the fact that their lost cause was “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”
Who judged it that? Grant, in his Personal Memoirs, written as he was dying and published posthumously in 1885. He had gone to school and served together with many of those against whom he fought in the Civil War, but personal relationships did not distract him from this elemental truth. Is that worthy of a monument? A lot of people used to think so, although many more thought Lee deserved one.
I’ve spent decades of my life studying Grant through his book, weighing his shortcomings and mistakes against his triumphs and successes, arguing his worth with colleagues and students often resistant to his unheroic, undramatic, frankly American brand of heroism. Lees, J. E. B. Stuarts, and Stonewall Jacksons—with their aristocratic manners, their plumed hats and scarlet-lined capes, their reckless and doomed exploits—are almost always more appealing to the military mind (and not only the military mind) than a shabby fellow who didn’t want to join the army in the first place but somehow found, to his surprise as much as anyone’s, that he was good at one of the world’s least glamorous jobs: fighting wars. In truth, it is such a grim yet sadly necessary job that we lard it with all sorts of romantic nonsense and want its protagonists to look gallant and dashing rather than like the agents of destruction they are.
The reason Grant was toppled, together with Father Junipero Serra and Francis Scott Key, isn’t entirely clear. Other monuments in the park, including one of the novelist Miguel de Cervantes, were also damaged. Online, one protestor noted, correctly, that Grant owned a slave before the war. Grant, whose father was an abolitionist, married into a family of slave owners, acquired William Jones from his father-in-law, and ultimately manumitted him. In many ways, Grant was a man of his age, unwittingly trapped by too many of its prejudices, assumptions, and errors, just as we are trapped unknowingly by our own, no matter how progressive we presume ourselves to be. Like all antebellum Americans to greater or lesser degree, North and South, Grant awakened to find himself implicated in American slavery, just as we are complicit in the injustices we see and all those injustices we can’t.
Yet in a crucial way Grant transcended his era. His commitment to abolition grew slowly, steadily, until he became one of the most crucial protectors of the emancipated. Born into a world in which, as he wrote, “the subject of slavery caused but little or no disturbance to the public mind,” he left having applied his particular genius to ending it. He escaped the moral limitations of his time when it counted and contributed to the realization of a future that was more just, more equal, even if all too fragile.
Was Grant monumental? Was he great? Are these even the right questions to ask? Measuring greatness is a parlor game, and the current crises are about real life, real people, real suffering after years of unfulfilled promises, years of lies made to seem permanent truth in bronze and granite. Maybe monuments ought to have the graffiti, chips, and imperfections baked right in. Maybe, like Rodin’s sculptures, they should seem to be in the process of emerging from their blocks—or perhaps rising like sea creatures from the deep, flailing yet tenacious, bringing us somehow a little closer to the light, a little nearer to the truth.
Read Elizabeth D. Samet’s article about last year’s dedication of a Grant statue at West Point here.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.