Hiram Ulysses Grant was born in a small town 25 miles south of Cincinnati along the Ohio River. His father was a tanner, but Ulysses was not interested in following in his footsteps. Military service was in his blood with a great-grandfather who died in the French and Indian War and another who fought in the Revolution. Grant asked his Congressman to nominate him for admission to West Point, which he did, mistakenly under the name Ulysses S. Grant (his mother’s maiden name was Simpson). Grant was not enthusiastic about the military academy. He was excited about seeing Philadelphia and New York City on the trip there, but “would have been glad to have had a steamboat or railroad collision… by which I might have received a temporary injury sufficient to make me ineligible.” The collision did not materialize and the seventeen-year old arrived at West Point in May 1839 where he met his roommate Fred Dent.
|Grant was not always the large man|
we typically picture him as. During
his younger years he stood 5'7"
and less than 140 lbs.
After four years at West Point, Grant was stationed at Fort Jefferson near St. Louis. Coincidentally, Fred’s family lived very close to the fort allowing Grant to visit. He fell in love with Fred’s younger sister, Julia however the Mexican American War took him away from Fort Jefferson and in to General Zachary Taylor’s command in Mexico. Grant was made quartermaster and commissary officer of his regiment. While he wasn’t happy with his post, it was a crash course on how to supply an army in the field which Grant would draw on during his Western Campaign in the Civil War.
Grant learned another lesson in Mexico which he applied during the Civil War. When Taylor took the City of Monterrey he allowed the Mexicans to march out under their own commanders, with their muskets and horses. Taylor was criticized mightily by the American populace and President James Polk for this action. However, Grant would mimic this sign of respect when accepting General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
The Mexican American War was discussed in enough detail in the posts about Polk, Taylor, Pierce, and Jefferson Davis that I don’t want to discuss the particulars of the war. However, as it relates to Grant, Grant’s father was a Whig and Grant would later win the presidency on the Republican ticket. Therefore, if you have an idea about 19th century American politics, it is not surprising that Grant’s wartime letters to Julia support his later claim that he “bitterly opposed” the war.
Upon returning from Mexico Grant married Julia. His best man was future Confederate General James Longstreet while his groomsmen included Cadmus Wilcox and Bernard Pratte. All three would surrender to Grant at Appomattox seventeen years later. Grant and Julia’s early married life involved moving first to Sackets Harbor in upstate New York, before being transferred to Detroit. They were then back in Sackets Harbor. This was at the height of the California gold rush and Grant’s infantry was soon ordered to reinforce a barracks near San Francisco. They had been married four years and Julia was eight months pregnant with their second child. She could not make the trip and returned to her parent’s home in St. Louis. Grant’s time in California was lamentable. The posting was remote giving Grant time to get involved in numerous poor financial investments and hard drinking. Grant was probably an alcoholic. From what we understand, he was a binge drinker who could and would abstain for long periods of time, but when depression took hold he would go on “sprees” as a close Army friend observed. Grant resigned from the Army while in California. It is believed he was offered the opportunity to resign in lieu of a court martial related to a drunken episode. Despite later accusations to the contrary, it is not generally believed that his drinking interfered with any critical decision making during the Civil War.
Grant returned to St. Louis with no prospects. He failed at farming and resorted to selling firewood before resorting to a job at his father’s tannery. The Grants were in their mid-thirties, with four children, poor and without much to look forward to. The outbreak of the Civil War was a blessing for Grant. Grant recruited a company of men and brought them to Springfield, Illinois where he was given a commission to recruit more volunteers. What Grant really wanted was reinstatement in the Army and he was eventually given command of the rowdy 21st Illinois from Eastern-Central Illinois. Grant was quickly promoted to Brigadier General and given his first tests as a military tactician.
Grant attacked Confederates at Belmont, Missouri (without permission) and Fort Henry (with permission) finding success at both. Following Fort Henry Grant moved quickly against Fort Donelson (without permission). Donelson was a difficult battle and Grant lost more than 500 men, however Grant’s forces took the blows and after several days of fighting General Simon Bucker, an old friend of Grant’s, asked for terms. Grant wrote back, “…no terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” About three months had passed from Belmont to Donelson and Grant went from an unknown to hero-status in the North, nicknamed Unconditional Surrender Grant, playing off his initials. More importantly, the victory at Fort Donelson discouraged wavering European nations from entering the conflict.
Two months after Donelson, Grant’s men fought the deadliest battle to-date on American soil, Shiloh. Although the Union troops won, they suffered more than 13,000 casualties. On top of the casualties, rumors of Grant’s drinking resurfaced and he was removed from command. William Tecumseh Sherman, serving under Grant at the time, convinced him not to resign. The decision proved fortunate, Lincoln soon ordered Grant’s reinstatement saying, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.”
Between Shiloh and the battles leading up to the Vicksburg, Grant made an unpopular decision which became a black mark on his military career. General Orders No. 11 expelled all Jews from his military district, The Department of Tennessee. The order was a ham-handed attempt to root out the illicit cotton trade in his district. Northern speculators followed the Union Army and often worked with soldiers to smuggle cotton across the battle-lines. This activity undermined the Union blockade of the South’s cotton trade. Most of the speculators were not Jewish. However, several visible operators in Grant’s district were Jewish, making them a target. The order followed Grant for years and he was forced to acknowledge and renounce it during his run for president.
Vicksburg was a major victory for the Grant and the Union. For Grant, the campaign consisted of several seemingly risky troop maneuvers which paid off. Grant’s success in Vicksburg led to his promotion to head the entire western theatre. For the Union, the fall of Vicksburg gave the Union control of the Mississippi River. Further, the fall of Vicksburg came a day after the Battle of Gettysburg, dealing the Confederacy back-to-back blows. During the Vicksburg Campaign rumors of Grant’s drinking swirled which encouraged Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton to send someone to keep an eye on him. He reported back to Stanton that Grant would occasionally commandeer a steamer overnight and get “as stupidly drunk as the immortal nature of man would allow; but the next day he came out fresh as a rose, without any trace or indication of the spree he had passed through.”
Vicksburg was followed by a campaign toward Chattanooga, Tennessee which spelled disaster for the Confederate Army in the West. With the West won, Lincoln gave Grant control over the entire Army with the understanding that Grant would lead the offensive against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Grant and Lee’s armies fought a series of battles in the early-Summer of 1864. These battles were bloody and are often used as evidence when people accuse Grant of being a butcher who sacrificed mass casualties for victory. Despite some setbacks and the high body count, Grant’s army pushed on toward the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia with the decisive battle taking place at Appomattox Station.
|The surrender at Appomattox. Lee on the left and |
Grant on the right writing out the terms of surrender.
As it became apparent the Confederacy’s position was untenable, Grant and Lee began exchanging letters in which Grant allowed Lee to select the location of their meeting. The Appomattox Court House was chosen. Lee arrived first, dressed in his military finest; Grant arrived later dressed like common infantry. The two spoke for some time before addressing the elephant in the room. As far as terms of surrender Grant offered parole to the entire army provided they didn’t again take up arms against the United States. Artillery and small arms were to be “parked and stacked.” Soldiers were permitted to retain their side-arms, private horses, and luggage. “This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by US authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they reside.” Specifying that laws that would govern these parolees would be “the laws in force where they reside” codified a protection from potential federal harassment. Furthermore, Grant intervened vigorously on Lee’s behalf to prevent a trial for treason against Lee or any of his men, going so far as threaten resignation from the Army. Grant’s magnanimity in victory undoubtedly went a long way to begin the country’s healing.
Grant and Julia famously declined Lincoln’s invitation to attend a showing of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre less than a week after Appomattox. As Andrew Johnson took the presidential reins, Grant remained in command of the Army. Grant and Johnson began to clash over Reconstruction and then over Johnson’s desire to replace Secretary of War Stanton with Grant in violation of the recently enacted Tenure of Office Act. The Secretary of War issue permanently damaged their working relationship. It also established Grant as a frontrunner for the Republican ticket in 1868. Grant easily won the Republican nomination before soundly defeating Horatio Seymore in the general election.
|Grant as we typically picture him and|
as he is pictured on the $50 bill.
Grant went on to serve two terms as president. While his presidency is often viewed dimly, it was not all bad. Grant was a terrible judge of people. This was true of him his whole life, plainly evident in his California financial woes. The worst elements of the Republican Party were entrusted to various posts within the government leading to years of corruption and scandal. While the taint of corruption never reached the president directly, his private secretary, Secretary of the Interior, Vice President, and even his brother-in-law were implicated in various scandals. The post-Civil War years were an exceptionally corrupt time in American history, yet the Grant years stand out for their unbelievable governmental malfeasance.
The corruption is what tends to be focused on when studying Grant’s presidency. However, Grant did a lot of good as president notably in regard to the government’s treatment of former slaves and Indians. Grant was the first president to unequivocally advocate universal black suffrage. The atrocities being committed against Freedmen in the South, which he witnessed, convinced him of this necessity. Grant pursued the perpetrators of these atrocities, the Ku Klux Klan, with forceful legislation. Grant also instituted a rethinking of the government’s policies toward Indian tribes in the West. This was symbolized by the ending of the treaty system of dealing with native tribes. Grant was also a loud voice in support of the separation of church and state at a time when the burgeoning Catholic population was clashing with established Protestant communities. Gains made these areas were sadly reversed by subsequent administrations obscuring the progress Grant made.
Late in Grant’s second term there was increasing talk of the possibility of a third term. Grant made no public announcements until he was formally endorsed by the Pennsylvania Republican Party. Grant composed a letter announcing his intention not to stand for another term. He then called his cabinet to the White House on a Sunday evening and read it to them, already having submitted the letter to the New York Times for publishing the next day.
Grant lived eight years after leaving the White House. He spent that time traveling Europe and Asia, meeting with world leaders as a tourist, informal diplomat, and bonafide living legend. There were efforts made to nominate Grant again in the election of 1880, however James Garfield won the nomination. Grant’s poor judge of character struck one last time in his final years as he lent his name and money to Ponzi-schemer named Ferdinand Ward. The decision bankrupted the former president. Broke, and now dying of cancer, Grant began writing his memoirs in an attempt to support Julia after his death. Literally writing until days of his death Grant penned what is generally considered the finest presidential memoirs. The book was a huge success earning significant royalties for Julia.