Leonardo DiCaprio’s Big Middle Finger to the Confederacy

Nick Schager
Joe Alblas/History Channel

Grant, a History Channel miniseries airing over three nights beginning on Memorial Day (May 25), is an overt—and timely—reclamation project. His reputation having faded over the past century because, as many here assert, the South’s “Lost Cause” rewriting of Civil War history invariably downplayed his accomplishments, Ulysses S. Grant is restored by this informative and entertaining TV documentary to the prototypical modern American hero. Based on Ron Chernow’s critically acclaimed 2017 biography of the same name, it’s a stirring tribute to an individual who embodied America’s finest ideals: hard work, determination, courage, resolve, and belief in democracy and equality for all, no matter the color of their skin.

Executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, and featuring participation from numerous historians, writers and servicemen, including Chernow, Ta-Nehisi Coates and David Petraeus, Grant is a non-fiction tale about the intertwined self-definition of a man and a nation. Born on April 27, 1822, Grant grew up the working-class son of an Ohio tanner and merchant, and found his first calling as an accomplished horseman. Disinterested in taking over the family business, and having garnered the nickname “Useless Grant” as a kid, he was sent—without being asked—to West Point, where a typo bestowed him with the middle initial “S” (rather than “H,” for Hiram), thereby resulting in the more patriotic “US Grant” moniker. The reconfiguration of Grant’s name would continue once he joined President Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War army, his initials eventually coming to stand for “Unconditional Surrender” Grant due to his habit of securing definitive victory over his adversaries.

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The evolution of Grant’s handle goes hand-in-hand with the upwards trajectory of his life. Post-military school graduation, Grant entered the infantry, and soon fell in love with and married Julia Dent, the daughter of a family that owned slaves—a situation that caused some friction for Grant and his own abolitionist clan. Triumphs in the Mexican-American War proved that he was preternaturally cool under pressure, but in the years immediately following that conflict, Grant left the service and fell on hard times, to the point of taking various odd jobs just to make sure his family didn’t starve. Even at his most destitute, however, he hewed to his convictions, freeing his only slave, William Jones—given to him by his father-in-law.

The Civil War altered Grant’s fortunes forever, and after establishing the man’s backstory, this series roots itself in the commander’s rise up the ranks via a series of impressive and daring campaigns that confirmed his imposing mettle, intelligence, and strategic shrewdness. On the battlefields against a Confederate Army led by his fellow West Point graduate Robert E. Lee, Grant exhibited canny tactical acumen and equally formidable tenacity, taking immense gambits (such as at Vicksburg, hailed as his “masterpiece,” where he seized control of the Mississippi River) and often pursuing enemies into hostile territory in order to attain decisive wins. Grant began to develop into a legend in the thick of warfare, and it’s there that Grant spends the majority of its time, recounting in exhaustive detail the many clashes that marked his Civil War tenure, and the famously daring and clever maneuvers that allowed him to eventually secure victory for the Union.

Melding talking-head interviews and narrated excerpts from its subject’s memoirs with copious dramatic restagings of key events in his life, Grant’s formal approach takes some getting used to, especially at the outset. Fortunately, it settles into a rhythm, with its staged sequences providing momentum and weight to interviewees’ informative commentary about Grant’s exploits and mindset. From the catastrophic victory at Shiloh, to the heroic rescue at Chattanooga, to the bloody conflict in the Wilderness of Virginia, Grant’s recreations aren’t always as grand as one might like, resorting to soundbite-y dialogue and wannabe-mythic posing. Yet they’re sturdy and coherent complements to the show’s academic speakers, and they’re augmented considerably by excellent graphical maps and diagrams that lay out the specifics of Grant’s brilliant operations.

In the aftermath of his Civil War service (and his beloved President Lincoln’s assassination), Grant was elected America’s 18th commander-in-chief, and while in office, he became renowned for spearheading Reconstruction, creating the Justice Department, and using that arm of the government to battle and prosecute the Ku Klux Klan. Though slandered throughout his life as a drunk, a butcher and a corrupt would-be dictator (the last slur courtesy of an administration dogged by scandal), Grant makes the convincing case that he was, first and foremost, a noble patriot. A staunch defender of the Union, he was convinced of the necessity for emancipation for African-American slaves, and of the evil of the Confederacy, whose members he often referred to as “rebels” and “traitors” to the grand democratic experiment of the United States.

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In this regard, Grant is an active attempt to rehabilitate the historical record, positing Confederate adversary Robert E. Lee as a symbol of the intolerant, aristocratic, treasonous old guard, and Grant as an emblem of a more open, just, unified modern America. Grant’s disgust for the Confederacy and the rancidness it stood for is on full display throughout this series, which pointedly contends that—good ol’ boy revisionism be damned—it was slavery, not simply the more euphemistic “states’ rights,” which drove the South to secede and take up arms against the Union. At the same time, Grant’s compassion and levelheadedness also remains front and center, epitomized by the lenient terms of surrender he ultimately offered to the defeated Lee, which helped him secure support throughout the South in the years following the end of the war.

Grant’s prolonged focus on the lieutenant general’s most famous wartime decisions means that the series is directly aimed at those with a fondness for in-depth military history. Nonetheless, the context it provides about Grant’s life, both as a young man and as an eight-year resident of the Oval Office, deepens its argument about the titanic nature of his achievements, and the greatness of his character—both of which make him, no matter the vantage point, one of the true, indispensable founders of the American republic.

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