Q: When did this obsession with General Ulysses S. Grant first begin to play into your life?
James Sorrels: Well, my Civil War professor gives little biographies of all the major generals in the course of time when they become important in the scheme of the Civil War. When he talked about Grant, he said he was really a great horseman, a really one of a kind horseman, but otherwise he was really a failure in almost all other areas of his life. And you know he was only barely in the first half of his class at West Point. He was a good family man, but otherwise in all other areas of his life he just totally bombed. If you look at his life in the 1850s or 1860s there was nothing that was going to tell you he would be such a… can I say megastar?
Sorrels: Okay there was nothing that was going to tell you he was going to be a tremendous megastar later on in his life. He was just constantly underestimated and eventually he triumphed.
Q: So you felt some kind of kinship with Grant because of similarities between his situation and your own?
Sorrels: Yeah, I do. And also we’re both white.
Q: (Laugh) Okay. I assume you’re joking about that.
Sorrels: Yeah, that’s just a coincidence. But there was kinship, you know? It’s just assumed. He’s dead, but…
Q: What are some common things people say to be spiteful to Grant?
Sorrels: Well, there is sort of a kind of apathy that is indirectly spiteful to Grant. People who don’t realize what an amazing person he is. To me that’s spiteful.
Q: Yes, but there’s also a direct, very strong hatred, almost a detest of Grant among some people, right?
Sorrels: That all comes from the Lost Cause mode of thought that comes from people angry about the South’s loss in the Civil War. People who are really angry about the outcome and have never been able to come to terms with the fact that the South had an all-encompassing defeat. And the Lost Cause people, for the most part, elevate Lee’s status. Clearly Lee’s a brilliant general, but they elevate his status from brilliant general to essentially demigod on earth. Then if you want to follow this argument through you have to say how the South had virtually no chance of winning, had no odds. I mean you have to say how they were fighting an impossible battle against the North that possessed so much manpower, so much resources that there was no chance they were going to win. And they posit that Grant was essentially a butcher in the end, putting scores and scores of men up against Lee’s guns and finally it was just manpower that brought the South down. But it’s not really true. You can see that in Grant’s plans when he gets promoted to take over the army. Grant had a five-point plan. He would take control of the army of Potomac and hammer down on Lee so he could keep him distracted and he could do what he wanted. Sherman went down south. Other generals were supposed to help out as well, but they bombed. Anyway, Grant just doesn’t get the credit he deserves. When it was clear he had a lot of plans.
Q: Okay that’s a long argument about the Lost Cause, but what are some short pot-shots people throw at Grant?
Sorrels: Butcher. They claim that he just slaughtered a bunch of men. Incompetent. Just a simpleton. That he was in way over his head. That he was a drunk. They say he was drunk all the time. It was just obviously not true.
Q: What kind of argument would you give back?
Sorrels: The five-point plan. Grant did not just use a huge mass of troops. He had a lot of method behind his strategies. In terms of his drinking, it was obvious that he probably did have a bit of a drinking problem. But it was blown completely out of proportion by people who were jealous of him. He was getting increasing influence with Lincoln, and he was winning a lot of battles when no one else was. People would always use the drinking as an excuse, and that became unfortunately something that stuck with him.
Q: It seems it’s easy for people to categorize Grant in these extremes. People hate him, and then some people worship him as a hero.
Sorrels: Well that isn’t surprising at all. Certainly we’re not living in an internal war situation so I don’t think we can realize how deep the gravity of the situation would be. We can’t understand how this nation would be tearing itself apart. Just in terms of the impact the Lost Cause has had on the teaching of history, the North had things going for it, and the South had things going for it. Just the Lost Cause people have had so much influence on teaching our kids. They’ve sort of reigned unchecked for a long time, the Lost Cause sympathizers.
Q: What are some of the most ridiculous things that have been written about Grant?
Sorrels: I don’t know about Grant, but in terms of Lee, there are so many books written about him just worshipping him. One of them is about Lee through the eyes of his horse Traveler, written as if it were by the horse. And obviously it’s in English. It’s not in Horse. But it’s absurd, the idea that someone would write that book about Lee. There’s a book about Grant that’s a historical narrative made up by the author. I remember reading a quotation from it saying how, “And then he looked in the mirror reeking of vomit, looked at his face which looked so disgusting.” The quote trails off saying he reeked of alcohol and Grant was looking at himself in the mirror. I take it as an insult. It’s clearly ridiculous if you’ve read any somewhat revisionist history.
Q: What do you think about Grant’s Presidency?
Sorrels: Well, admittedly I know very little about Grant’s Presidency except that it was a failure, and I’ve heard it was characterized by a corrupt cabinet. I would imagine his Presidency failed because he had people around him who were not sincere, and he couldn’t thrive in that sort of political setting. But for me, the fact that he saved the Union and the country eclipses his unsuccessful Presidency in terms of historical importance.
Q: So where do you think this love of Grant is going to take you?
Sorrels: Well I’ve accepted the fact that he is dead and there is no way we can be partners or anything. But I think I could conceivably see myself naming a pet after Grant, a dog or maybe a kid. If I ever become a filmmaker I can make a movie about Grant and show a more sympathetic, realistic view of him. But I’d say obsessive naming. That’d be probably the only thing it’ll come to.
Q: Do you have any plans to fight the Lost Cause movement or do you think you’ll stop at naming?
Sorrels: I don’t want to endanger a lot of people but there is a movement to stop the Lost Cause, and we have a lot of representation in a lot of cities. I don’t want to endanger a lot of people but slowly but surely it’s an underground movement that we’re working on.
But seriously, you know, on peaceful terms there are a lot of books discussing how Grant had faults but certainly wasn’t as bad as the Lost Cause has made him out to be. And that Lee, clearly a brilliant general, still was not godly.
It just seems like people who care about it take into account books written at the time of the Civil War not books written ten years later, where people are just reflecting back, remembering Lee turning water into wine. There is some narrative about Lee raising a solider who’d been dead for a long time from a cave. He brings the soldier back. All that seems kind of far-fetched.