Leonardo DiCaprio’s Big Middle Finger to the ConfederacyBreaking News
tags: Civil War, Confederacy, historical memory, Ulysses S. Grant
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.
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.
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.
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