In the early 1900’s, Ulysses Grant was an American hero, right up there with Washington and Lincoln. His reputation then suffered at the hands of biased Civil War scholars, a shame because of his remarkable American story.
As the generations slip away, as the dust of conflict settles, and as through the clearing air we look back with keener wisdom into the nation’s past, mightiest among the mighty dead loom the three great figures of Washington, Lincoln, and Grant.
Grant loved horses and the outdoors, but not school. His father got him into West Point where a clerical error changed his name from Hiram Ulysses Grant (H. Ulysses Grant) to Ulysses S. Grant. He graduated in the middle of his class.
Grant fought in the Mexican War and then had a long posting out west. Separated from his family, bored, and likely depressed he drank on the job and had to resign. Drunkenness rumors persisted his entire life. Later, when he was a Civil War general achieving important victories, but struggling in his initial attempted takeover of Vicksburg, Lincoln responded to a team of abolitionists demanding Grant’s removal because of his rumored drinking by wondering where Grant got his whiskey so he could send a barrel of it to every general in the army.
Before the Civil War, Grant worked hard, but failed to keep his family out of poverty. At the war’s start, his checkered past kept him out of the Union army until his Illinois militia unit was swallowed into it.
Civil War Grant
Grant distinguished himself quickly. He won the Union’s first major victory at The Battle of Fort Henry on February 6, 1862. Grant captured Fort Donelson and a new nickname ten days later. When the opposing general asked for terms, Grant responded with unconditional and immediate surrender. Unconditional Surrender Grant.
A costly victory at the Battle of Shiloh came next. Grant was initially praised, but as the casualty count spread his reputation suffered. Some called him the butcher of Shiloh.
Hearing the criticism, Lincoln responded with “I can’t spare this man. He fights.”
Lincoln’s eastern generals were afraid to fight, and their inactivity created an existential risk for the Union. The public could grow weary with the war and elect a Congress and President with a mandate to negotiate peace.
It wasn’t until Grant’s incompetent superior officer Halleck was promoted to general-in-chief of the Union army to oversee the even more incompetent McClellan that Grant gained command out west. He could now implement his strategy to cripple the Confederacy by seizing the strategically important city of Vicksburg. Through a brilliant campaign and seige, Vicksburg fell, followed by another great victory in eastern Tennessee. Congress resurrected the rank of Lieutenant General, last held by George Washington, and Grant now commanded the entire army.
His multi-pronged strategy to defeat the Confederacy worked, and his graciousness to his defeated enemies helped prevent the Confederate army from devolving into guerrilla warfare.
After the war, Grant served for four years as commanding general of the peacetime army. Defying President Andrew Johnson, Grant used the army to protect African-Americans’ newly granted rights and overturn local laws targeting them. Over 1,000 African-Americans were elected to office.
President Ulysses Grant
The Republican Party nominated Grant instead of Johnson in the next presidential election. He won a landslide victory and at 46 years old was then the youngest person elected U.S. President.
The Ku Klux Klan’s rise in the South alarmed him. He lobbied aggressively for a bill that while formally called “An Act to Enforce the Provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment” was known as the Ku Klux Klan Act. It allowed Grant to employ military force and suspend habeas corpus to defeat the Klan. Without much political support, Grant utilized the Act and wiped out the Klan.
Unfortunately, the North grew tired of the South’s problems and the corruption by Grant’s administration (of which he was not guilty, only naive and trusting) limited his ability to continue intervening in the South. He never wavered, but much of the country did around him.
Once again poor late in life, since Presidents did not receive pensions yet and a family business tanked due to a Ponzi scheme, Grant was approached by Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) to write his memoirs before dying and rescue his family yet again from poverty.
For more on Ulysses Grant:
Books: Grant by Ron Chernow & The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H.W. Brands
TV: Grant History Channel 3 part mini-series
Further Reading: The Fourth of July – A brief look back at how we moved toward independence and why July 4th is the day we celebrate it