Marshalltown community theater veteran Pete Grady portrays Ulysses S. Grant in the show he wrote, ““Unconditional Surrender: An Afternoon With President Grant,” Sunday at the Carroll Recreation Center theater.
Marshalltown community theater veteran Pete Grady portrays Ulysses S. Grant in the show he wrote, ““Unconditional Surrender: An Afternoon With President Grant,” Sunday at the Carroll Recreation Center theater.
September 17, 2013

He was a Civil War hero who gets poor marks for his presidency and is pictured for hard drinking and smoking. However, Pete Grady believes Ulysses S. Grant deserves much more credit and understanding.

Grady, a community-theater veteran in Marshalltown is doing his best to deliver that message, which he brought to the Carroll Recreation Center theater Sunday afternoon in his performance of "Unconditional Surrender: An Afternoon With President Grant."

This was about the 15th time Grady has presented the show since he debuted it last December. Carroll County Attorney John Werden attended one of those performances at Okoboji, and recommended Carroll County Historical Society host Grady. In fact, Werden sponsored the performance fee, and the event was a fundraiser for the Historical Society's completion of renovation of the Little Red Schoolhouse in Graham Park.

In an interview following his show on Sunday, Grady said that a friend's unusual observation - that Grady's appearance resembles Grant - started him thinking about the "Unconditional Surrender" show. Further, Grady already had what he calls a passionate interest in the U.S.-Mexican War, in which Grant played a key role, and the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, which marked Grant's presidency.

Grady said of Grant, who commanded the Union troops to victory in the Civil War and later served two terms as president, "He's a character who everybody knows something about him but they don't know a lot about him. He has a lot of interesting stories to tell."

Grady began exploring those stories about Grant following the friend's Grant-resemblance observation.

Grady, who is an assistant in the Iowa Attorney General's office in Des Moines serving as prosecuting attorney coordinator, recalled, "I said, 'That's an odd thing to say to someone.' But I thought maybe I could do some kind of show on him. I started looking around, and there were no shows about Ulysses S. Grant. So I thought, 'I'll just write one myself.' I really enjoy it. It's gotten good reception."

Grady said he wrote the show drawing heavily upon Grant's book "Memoirs and Selected Letters," as well as other historical references. Grant finished final editing of "Memoirs" and sent the final version to the book's publisher, Samuel Clemens, on July 11, 1885. Grant died 12 days later, July 23, at age 63.

"It's still one of the greatest-selling books in American history," Grady says of Grant's memoirs, noting, "His family received a half million dollars from the royalties, and Clemens (aka Mark Twain, a very good friend of Grant) made a ton of money as the publisher."

Grady says of Grant's book, "You'd be amazed at how lucid and clear he is in his writing. It's really a pleasure to read. I read that and other things (about Grant). The final ace in the hole was when I read another source where somebody mentioned Grant's perfect speech. That tied it all together.

"(Grant) didn't like to talk. He'd give a speech and then leave. He didn't like to talk to people, so I figured that was a good way to start it and to finish it. It tied it all together."

Grady's performance begins and ends by portraying Grant in the final stages of life when he's willing to open up and pour out experiences and thoughts.

"He (Grant) was just so quiet and formal, but you just can't present it that way," he says. "If Grant were up there himself, he'd be lecturing, and he'd never change the tone of his voice. I just had to make him into a dying old man whose emotions were on his sleeve. Then that made it very possible for me to become emotional. Grant was never emotional. But since he knew he was dying it made it possible for him to be emotional about the things he'd seen and done."

Grady says that unfortunately history has focused on turmoil in Grant's presidency and not given him proper credit for some amazing accomplishments.

Grady says he's long been fascinated with history of both the U.S.-Mexican War, during which Grant was a junior officer and his experience made a lasting impression on him, and Reconstruction of the South following the Civil War.

Grady says of the Reconstruction, "I could never figure out how the North let it go, how they just stopped and let the blacks become re-enslaved. Grant worked very hard to keep that from happening. By the end of his second term of office (he served as president from 1869 to 1877) he was the only one left who was willing to stand up for the rights of the freedmen (former slaves)."

As part of Reconstruction, Grant's presidency saw ratification of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bars federal and state governments from denying the right to vote based on citizens' race, color or previous condition of servitude.

"He'd commanded all these people who'd given their lives, and basically the Southern Democrats wanted a white world back, and the Northern Republicans decided they weren't willing to fight them," Grady observes.

"Imagine within three years of passage of the 15th Amendment there were no blacks voting in some states and that's because there was no federal muscle there to enforce it. ... So it always struck me that we lost a great opportunity for racial equality with the loss of Reconstruction," Grady adds.

Grady's performance is a production of Marshalltown Community Theater, and his approximately 15 performances have included the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown, the State Historical Museum in Des Moines, his hometown of Waukon, Riceville, a Yankee Doodle Pops Program in Des Moines, and the Minnesota State Historical Museum in St. Paul on July 4, marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Vicksburg, a pivotal Union victory that Grant commanded.

Grady has both acted and directed in community theater in Marshalltown. He will be directing a show in December.

He says of participation in community theater, "It's like being a heroin addict. You're in a play, then you have to be in another play and then another one."

Carroll County Historical Society president Barb Hackfort says she's interested in promoting events that commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Two years ago the Historical Society sponsored a Civil War re-enactment group from Wall Lake, which it hopes to bring back at the close of the commemoration. So Grady's show was a natural fit.

Carroll County Attorney Werden says he often consults with Grady about cases and Grady is a frequent speaker at criminal-law trainings.

"Pete is a one of my professional idols," Werden says. "I saw the production this summer and was moved by the presentation. President Grant had a an important role in the post-Civil War era which is little-known. Pete ably brought out the humanity of this great military leader, who like all great generals hated war. I also particularly enjoyed the Iowa history component about the influence in naming Iowa counties and cities from the Mexican-American War. It was my pleasure to sponsor his performance in Carroll, and I hope to see the show again the future."

At the Little Red Schoolhouse, Hackfort said, the Historical Society next will be replacing the lower half of each of the building's six windows - part of the long-term refurbishment. Last year the building's exterior was repaired and repainted. Following replacement of windows in the classroom, supports will be placed under the entryway floor.