ASU historian says to examine our past, take responsibility for our future

Brooks Simpson uses Ulysses S. Grant's struggle with equality as a mirror to our present-day issues


Brooks Simpson next to Civil War replica cannons on the Gettysburg battlefield.

Brooks Simpson describes the Battle of Gettysburg next to Civil War replica cannons on the Gettysburg battlefield. Simpson delivered the first Gabor S. Boritt Lecture on June 12 at the annual Civil War Institute Summer Conference at Gettysburg College.

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A middle-aged woman with dark auburn hair was the last person to ask Brooks Simpson, Foundation Professor of history at Arizona State University, a question after he delivered the first Gabor S. Boritt Lecture on June 12 at the annual Civil War Institute Summer Conference at Gettysburg College.

She tilted her head back to speak into the microphone that was slightly above her head. Her voice was weary, her frustration palpable.

“I’m from Buffalo, New York, and a month ago, people in my community were slaughtered simply for being Black,” the woman said. “President Grant rebuked Americans, white Americans, for not caring about activities such as that. What could have been done differently throughout history so that we wouldn’t be where we are today? I feel like we haven’t made any strides since the Civil War. I know that’s very fatalistic, but that’s how I feel since what’s happened in my community.”

“I understand,” Simpson said, nodding somberly and pausing before he answered her. “I can say that Grant’s observations about the state of race relations and how they can change, and why they didn’t, still have validity today. Instead of blaming the past for present ills, we should listen to President Grant, and act how he would have wanted us to act.”

Simpson, a faculty member in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at ASU's Polytechnic campus, had just finished his talk on “Ulysses S. Grant, Race, and the Formation of Military and Political Policy.” Understanding Grant’s position on race has been a part of Simpson’s research involving American politics, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and American military history.

Simpson has written 15 books and 67 publications and has made 21 national TV appearances sharing his knowledge on these topics. He recently spoke at the bicentennial of Ulysses Grant’s birth in a ceremony at Grant’s Tomb in New York City. He has also been a speaker at the Civil War Institute summer conference nine times.

The Civil War Institute conference took place a few weeks before the 159th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg; one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, it began on July 1 and lasted three days. According to an organizer, many participants are not professional historians, but are history enthusiasts and come from a broad range of backgrounds.

Over six days, attendees listen to lectures and visit the battlefields that surround the town of Gettysburg and the college. According to a promotional video on the Civil War Institute website, many people come to learn not just about the Civil War battles, but about the politics and social issues of the time.

Some, like the woman from Buffalo, are trying to better understand the past to make sense of the present.

Simpson says that when he was growing up, the Civil War centennial, the historic social changes of the 1960s and the Vietnam War all played a part in shaping his interest in American history.

“In the 1970s, especially in the wake of the Vietnam war, studying war was not something that everyone embraced,” Simpson said. “I wanted to figure out what did war mean? What did it achieve, and what did it not achieve?”

Simpson turned to the mid-19th century to address these questions.

“Studying Reconstruction and examining the life of Ulysses S. Grant provides a really good bridge between connecting why you fight wars, what you hope to achieve from them and do you achieve those objectives in peace,” Simpson said. “Reconstruction, to a large degree, determined what the Civil War did achieve, what it didn’t achieve and what was left to be done.”

The recent shooting in Buffalo and the killing of Black people at the hands of police are just a few examples of things still to be addressed. Simpson said that we need to be having the more difficult discussions that people are often afraid or unwilling to have.

In his talk at the Civil War Institute conference, Simpson said that Grant did try to have such discussions with white people in a post-slavery America. He laid out for the audience the different facets of Grant, making clear what it is we know and don’t know about him, derived from letters and speeches Grant wrote and gave, what he achieved in actual policy, and what others have said about him.

And while Grant’s actions were not perfectly consistent with his professed beliefs – such as the negative consequences of his peace policy with Native Americans – Simpson said that too often people embrace the inspirational messages from historical figures, but don’t really examine how complex that person was.

Grant, Simpson believes, is an example of a complex person who got some things right and some things wrong. Simpson said that while it can be impactful to examine people like Grant and how he dealt with issues of equality, eventually we have to take responsibility for the issues we are faced with today.

“We shouldn’t judge the past by present standards," he said. "We shouldn’t use our past to escape our present responsibilities, either.”

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