When President Grant died in 1885, it didnt take The New York Times much longer than it would today to report his passing.
Six minutes after his death, the bulletin was in the office window and a special edition on the press, writes Joan Waugh in her fine book, U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth.
Waugh is among six scholars who will speak at a daylong conference Oct. 25 at Boise State, Why the Civil War Still Matters, marking the 150th anniversary of the 1861-1865 hostilities that killed 600,000, about 2 percent of the population.
Its like doing open-heart surgery on American history, says Waugh, who teaches at UCLA. You just see everything there. You see the past, the present, and you speculate about the future.
The conference is the brainchild of Andrus Center President Marc Johnson and part of a national sesquicentennial observance that began last year and runs through 2015.
A quarter-million people viewed Grants casket in two days, 60,000 marched in the funeral procession and 1.5 million lined Manhattans streets. A medallion coined to commemorate the opening of Grants Tomb in New York in 1897 pictured Washington, Lincoln and Grant, and read, Father, Savior, Defender.
In 1922, the only marking necessary for a monument of Grant on his horse at the foot of the Capitol, was five letters, GRANT.
The statue confirms in bronze the enormous esteem the nation held for Grant almost 50 years after his death when the simple, silent western man stood as the symbol of the victorious Union Cause and a powerful reunited nation, Waugh writes.
Just 30 years later, however, Grant and his presidency had become a joke. Groucho Marx cracked, Whos buried in Grants Tomb? By 1995, Times columnist John Tierney wrote, The correct answer today is, Who Cares? Tierney urged removal of the body of Grant and his wife, Julia, and the conversion of the monument to a World War II memorial.
Instead, the U.S. Park Service restored the monument for its 100th anniversary. Now, historians including Waugh, Josiah Bunting and Jean Edward Smith are repairing Grants reputation, pushing back against misguided claims he was a butcher, bumbler and drunk.
This man was central to the Civil War and Reconstruction, Waugh told me. He stood for something immense and important, and his reputation had been completely forgotten. Whether you like him or not, whether you love him or hate him, he needs to be reckoned with.
Waughs 7 p.m. talk will plumb more deeply her chapter about Grants magnanimity in accepting Gen. Robert E. Lees surrender. On top of restoring Southerners their guns and horses, Grant called off a 100-gun salute planned by his men. The rebels are our countrymen again, and the best sign of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations in the field, Grant said.
Waugh is researching a book on the nature of surrender, including Grants role as the only Civil War commander to conduct the surrender of three entire armies, at Fort Donelson, Vicksburg and Appomattox. With no written guidelines, Grant sort of created this format, Waugh said, refusing to humiliate the defeated.
These days the Union Cause keeping the United States whole is the most neglected of four major Civil War scholary traditions, Waugh says, taking a back seat to the Souths Lost Cause, the Emancipationist Cause and Reconciliation.
But, writes Waugh, Grant left no doubt that slavery was the cause the just cause of the war. Grant tellingly emphasized that citizens can learn about the history of a nation, a nation that was forged anew at Appomattox with a Union victory.
Grants contribution to reconciliation was immense and prompted a southern newspaper to write at his death, the grief is as widespread as the Union.
Grants voice resonates for anyone whos read The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, crafted while throat cancer slowly killed him. (The 11,000 cigars sent in gratitude for Fort Donelson prompted his deadly habit.) Military scholar John Keegan calls the book perhaps the most revelatory autobiography of high command to exist in any language.
Despite his enormous celebrity, Grant embodied the American belief in the nobility of free labor and free men. On a two-year world tour after his oft-troubled but overly maligned presidency, Grant was greeted by millions. In Germany on July 4, 1878, a host said Grant had saved the country.
Replied Grant: If our country should be saved or ruined by the efforts of any one man we should not have a country, and we should not be celebrating our Fourth of July. There are many men who would have done far better than I did under the circumstances in which I found myself during the war. If I had never held command; if I had fallen; if all our generals had fallen, there were 10,000 behind us who would have done our work just as well, who would have followed the contest to the end and never surrendered the Union.
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics