The relentless focus on Grant's last battles against Robert E. Lee in Virginia has obscured his stellar record of winning battles in the western war long before taking charge of Union forces in early 1864. After that, he did not simply direct the Army of the Potomac, but masterminded the coordinated movements of all federal forces. A far-seeing general, he adopted a comprehensive policy for all theaters of war, treating them as an interrelated whole. However brilliant Lee was as a tactician, Grant surpassed him in grand strategy, crafting the plan that defeated the Confederacy. The military historian John Keegan paid homage to Grant as "the towering military genius of the Civil War" and noted the modernity of his methods as he mobilized railroads and telegraphs to set his armies in motion. Grant, he concluded, "was the greatest general of the war, one who would have excelled at any time in any army."
Many Grant biographies dwell at length on the Civil War, then quickly skip over his presidency as an embarrassing coda to wartime heroism. He is portrayed as a rube in Washington, way out of his league. But Grant was an adept politician, the only president to serve two full consecutive terms between Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson. Writing in 1888, British historian James Bryce assigned him to the "front rank" of presidents with Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. After that his reputation tumbled, his presidency degraded to an unfair cartoon of an inept executive presiding over a scandal-ridden administration. Recent biographies have begun to rehabilitate Grant in a long overdue reappraisal. While scandals unquestionably sullied his presidency, they eclipsed a far more notable achievement—safeguarding the civil rights of African Americans. Even eminent historians have gotten wrong—sometimes badly wrong—Grant's relationship with the black community. Typical is the view of C. Vann Woodward: "Grant had shown little interest during the war in emancipation as a late-developing war aim and little but hostility toward the more radical war aim of the few for black franchise and racial equality.
In truth, Grant was instrumental in helping the Union vanquish the Confederacy and in realizing the wartime ideals enshrined in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. The Civil War and Reconstruction formed two acts of a single historical drama to gain freedom and justice for black Americans, and Grant was the major personality who united those two periods. He was the single most important figure behind Reconstruction, and his historical reputation has risen sharply with a revisionist view of that period as a glorious experiment in equal rights for all American citizens instead of a shameful fiasco.
What has been critically absent from Grant biographies is a systematic account of his relations with the four million slaves, whom he helped to liberate, feed, house, employ, and arm during the war, then shielded from harm when they became American citizens. Frederick Douglass paired Grant with Lincoln as the two people who had done most to secure African American advances: "May we not justly say...that the liberty which Mr. Lincoln declared with his pen General Grant made effectual with his sword—by his skill in leading the Union armies to final victory?" For the admiring Douglass, Grant was "the vigilant, firm, impartial, and wise protector of my race." More recently the historian Sean Wilentz has ratified this verdict: "The evidence clearly shows that [Grant] created the most auspicious record on racial equality and civil rights of any president from Lincoln to Lyndon B. Johnson."
The imperishable story of Grant's presidency was his campaign to crush the Ku Klux Klan. Through the Klan, white supremacists tried to overturn the Civil War's outcome and restore the status quo ante. No southern sheriff would arrest the hooded night riders who terrorized black citizens and no southern jury would convict them. Grant had to cope with a complete collapse of evenhanded law enforcement in the erstwhile Confederate states. In 1870 he oversaw creation of the Justice Department, its first duty to bring thousands of anti-Klan indictments. By 1872 the monster had been slain, although its spirit resurfaced as the nation retreated from Reconstruction's lofty aims. Grant presided over the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave blacks the right to vote, and landmark civil rights legislation, including the 1875 act outlawing racial discrimination in public accommodations. His pursuit of justice for southern blacks was at times imperfect, but his noble desire to protect them never wavered.