The passage of time often allows us to look at the past with a clearer perspective. Sometimes, however, time obscures the truth, as in the case of Ulysses S. Grant. While recent biographers like Ron Chernow, Ronald C. White, and Jean Edward Smith have begun to restore his reputation, far too many people still think of Grant as a drunken military butcher and an incompetent president.
His contemporaries knew better. Indeed, when he died most Americans believed Grant belonged right next to Washington and the martyred Lincoln in the pantheon of our nation’s greatest heroes.
In fairness to Grant detractors, his early years did present a mixed record, offering little evidence of future greatness.
He was born as Hiram Ulysses Grant on April 27, 1822. Ironically, considering his later fame as a general, Grant was not set on a military career, preferring to imagine himself as a teacher. He attended West Point at the insistence of his father. When he arrived, he became Ulysses S. Grant due to a clerical error he was too shy to correct.
Grant was a middling student, excelling only at mathematics and horsemanship, preferring to spend his time reading novels rather than studying. After graduating 21st in a class of 39 in 1843, he began his career as a soldier. Within a few years he’d get his first taste of combat during the Mexican War. Although he served valiantly, he was bitterly opposed to the war. He later wrote, “I am always ashamed of my country when I think of that invasion” and described the war as “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”
After returning home, Grant married Julia Dent of St. Louis, a woman he had begun courting while stationed at Jefferson Barracks before the war. When his regiment was transferred to the West Coast in 1852 Julia was pregnant and unable to accompany him. Desperately lonely without his family, he began drinking. Although his work was unaffected, he was threatened with a court-martial unless he resigned. While some of his friends thought he should agree to a court-martial, predicting he’d be acquitted, Grant was unwilling to face the humiliation of a trial. He resigned his commission and returned home to Julia.
Over the next six years he unsuccessfully tried his hand at various professions. At one point, in order to feed his family, he resorted to selling firewood on the street. Even at this low point, however, his moral character shone through. In 1859 he was gifted a slave by his father-in-law. While slaves were valued at up to $1,000 (roughly $30,000 in today’s money), Grant was unwilling to own or sell a fellow human being, choosing instead to free the slave he’d been given.
The Civil War turned Grant’s life around. Like many loyal Americans he was determined to protect the Union. What’s more, he felt a sense of obligation to the government that had funded his education. Entering the Union Army as a colonel, he demonstrated real military ability at a time when it was desperately needed.
In July 1861 he was tasked with driving Thomas Harris’s band of guerrillas from northern Missouri. As he approached a hill, behind which he expected to find Harris, his heart was in his throat. When he crested the hill, however, he discovered that Harris had already fled and realized the rebel leader “had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him.” With this realization Grant grasped a fundamental truth, one of several that guided his actions throughout the war:
- The enemy was as afraid of him as he was of them.
- Delaying to give his army more time to prepare gave the enemy more time to prepare as well.
- His mission was the destruction of Confederate armies, not the capture of Confederate cities
- Because the rebels had the advantage of interior lines of defense, the Union had to coordinate its operations across every theater of war.
By the fall of 1861, Grant was a brigadier general responsible for the vital region of southeastern Missouri and western Kentucky. Rather than simply defend the region, he itched to go on the offensive.
With his keen grasp of grand strategy, he recognized that two rebel fortifications in northwest Tennessee – Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River – formed the linchpin of the Confederate line in the West. When he was finally given the go-ahead, he moved quickly. He set out on February 2, 1862. On February 6 he captured Fort Henry. He then trapped the Confederate army defending Fort Donelson. After failing to breakout, the rebels asked Grant for terms of surrender on February 16. His terse reply turned him into a Union hero overnight: “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.”
With the loss of the two forts, the rebels were forced to abandon Tennessee and fall back on Corinth, Mississippi. After licking their wounds, they counteracted on April 6, striking Grant’s army at Shiloh. While reports that Grant was caught by surprise were wildly exaggerated, it is true that he was not fully prepared. Despite being driven back, however, he never panicked. That night he was approached by William Sherman, one of his subordinates, who remarked, “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we.” Grant puffed at his cigar and replied, “Yes. Lick ‘em tomorrow, though.” Bolstered by reinforcements, Grant did just that the next day.
Grant’s masterpiece was undoubtedly his campaign against Vicksburg, the Confederacy’s “Gibraltar of the West,” in the spring and summer of 1863. Cutting himself off from his supply base, he crossed the Mississippi River to the south of Vicksburg on April 30. As he was undertaking this risky maneuver, he drew rebel attention away from his main force by ordering Sherman to make a feint attack to the north. Once he was across the Mississippi, Grant confounded Confederate expectations by turning inland towards Jackson, Mississippi rather than marching northwards to Vicksburg. He captured Jackson May 14 and then turned to strike Vicksburg from the west. After a decisive victory at the Battle of Champion Hill, he settled down to besiege the rebel stronghold on May 18. All told, over the course six weeks, Grant and his army had marched almost 200 miles, fought five major battles, and inflicted 7,200 casualties on the Confederates at the cost of only 4,300 men to the Union. His monumental triumph was completed on July 4, when Vicksburg and its 30,000 defenders surrendered. With the fall of Vicksburg, control of the Mississippi River fell to the Union, thus cutting the Confederacy in two.
If Grant’s victory at Fort Donelson had made him a hero, the fall of Vicksburg turned him into an icon. After adding to his laurels by organizing the Union’s victory at the Battle of Chattanooga in November, his star rose even higher. With President Lincoln’s backing, Congress passed legislation reactivating the grade of lieutenant general, a rank which up until then had been held only by George Washington (as well as Winfield Scott in an honorary capacity). Everyone understood that the promotion would go to Grant, as well as the responsibilities of general-in-chief.
On March 8, 1864, Grant arrived in Washington to accept his role. Entering Willard’s Hotel in a dirty coat, his teenage son his only escort, he approached the desk clerk to check in. Informed that only a small room was available, the humble general raised no objections and signed the hotel register “U.S. Grant and son, Galena, Ill.” Recognizing the name, the clerk changed course and gave the general the best room in the hotel. When the other hotel guests realized Grant was in their midst, all wanted to meet him, much to the shy westerner’s embarrassment.
While it was widely expected that Grant would base himself in D.C., the new general-in-chief chose to make his headquarters in the field, with the Army of the Potomac. In the spring of 1864 he fought a series of bloody but indecisive engagements with Robert E. Lee. Unfamiliar with the Union’s eastern army and unsure of its quality, he chose to forego his usual brand of rapid and complex maneuvers, instead launching a series of frontal assaults, thus giving rise to the false image of a simplistic butcher.
Once he had familiarized himself with the Army of the Potomac, he launched one of the most audacious movements of the entire war. After suffering a repulse at Cold Harbor, outside Richmond he quietly disengaged from Lee’s army, crossed the James River, and began attacking the city Petersburg from the south. For several days Lee had no idea where the Union army was or what it was doing. If not for poor leadership by several of Grant’s subordinates, Petersburg as well as Richmond would likely have fallen before Lee had time to react, leaving the rebel army cut-off and ripe for destruction. As it was, Grant was forced to settle in for a lengthy siege. While all of this was ongoing, he was simultaneously overseeing the operations of every other Union army, making him responsible for a force of a million men fighting a war on a continental scale.
In the spring of 1865, Grant’s men finally broke through Lee’s defenses around Petersburg and Richmond, forcing the rebel general to flee. Over the first week of April Grant pursued the rebel general while fighting a series of running battles before finally trapping Lee at Appomattox Court House. While he demonstrated magnanimity in victory, Grant refused to accept the moral legitimacy of the Confederate cause. He later wrote, “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”
Like Lincoln, Grant had come to see the Union war effort as a struggle not just against treason, but also as a crusade against slavery. After Lincoln’s assassination, Grant fought to uphold his fallen leader’s legacy, championing the rights of the freedpeople. As general-in-chief under Andrew Johnson he was plunged into a complex and dangerous political situation, forced to undermine the president’s agenda of white nationalism and state’s rights without permanently damaging the principle that the military was subordinate to civilian authority. That his efforts resulted in real gains for African Americans without also producing an open clash between the military and civilian authorities was testament to his leadership.
Celebrated as the savior of the Union, Grant was easily elected to the presidency in 1868. He dedicated his time in office to the cause of civil rights, pushing for the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which stated, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” He was also responsible for the creation of the Department of Justice, which he tasked with aggressively enforcing his Reconstruction agenda. He even sent federal troops to crush terroristic white nationalist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the White League, both of which were largely made up of Confederate veterans. Because of Grant’s efforts (as well as their own courageous activism), African Americans experienced a relative golden age of justice and equality that would not come against until the 1960s.
Grant’s presidential achievements were not limited to the issues of Reconstruction. In foreign policy he reduced tensions with Britain, preventing a third Anglo-American war and paving the way for a lasting alliance. He also used America’s diplomatic influence to advocate for the rights of Jews oppressed by the governments of Romania and Russia. At home he appointed an unprecedented number of Jews, African Americans, and women to government posts. He also tried to do right by the Native Americans, appointing Seneca chief Eli Parker to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs. he even pioneered the cause of conservation by establishing America’s first national park: Yellowstone.
After leaving the White House, Grant and Julia embarked on a two-year world tour, traveling through Europe, the Middle-East, India, Japan, and China. Disgusted by the conduct of major European powers in Asia, Grant reflected that “I have never been so struck with the heartlessness of Nations as well as individuals as since coming to the East.”
When he returned home, Grant’s allies attempted to secure the 1880 Republican presidential nomination. Imagining a third term, Grant wanted to focus his foreign policy on forging strong relationships with the nations of Asia while rededicating the federal government to the cause of civil rights at home. It was not to be. After failing to secure the nomination he entered into an ill-fated business partnership with Ferdinand Ward, a young Wall Street financier. Unbeknownst to Grant, who was naive and overly-trusting when it came to money, Ward was operating what is now known as a “Ponzi scheme.” When the deception was discovered in May 1884, Grant and his family were left destitute.
To make matters worse, Grant learned several months later that he was dying of throat and tongue cancer. Desperate to restore his family’s financial security, he began his final heroic battle: the writing of his memoirs. Working through pain so excruciating that he was often unable to speak, Grant completed his two-volume work on July 16, 1885. He died a week later.
When they were published, Grant’s Personal Memoirs became a sensation, gaining recognition as one of the great literary achievements in American history. Mark Twain, who handled the marketing and publication of of the work dismissed rumors that he had ghostwritten the book, remarking that “No man can improve upon it.”