Ulysses S. Grant: An American Hero

As time passes and collective morals change, the legacies of prominent figures in American history often evolve. The context in which these individuals earned their place in American memory becomes increasingly difficult to uncover.

While Abraham Lincoln and George Washington continue to be celebrated for their enduring legacies, Ulysses S. Grant is facing growing obscurity as his accomplishments and examples fade from public prominence.

Ulysses S. Grant

was the rare combination of a military general and twice-elected President of the United States.

As a general—during the Civil War—he earned the respect of his commander-in-chief, Lincoln, and the praise of people throughout the Union for his determination and resolve which yielded victories over his adversaries.

Grant’s pragmatic approach was similar to Lincoln’s, recognizing that the war would end, and the Union needed to be reconciled. When he forced Robert E. Lee to surrender, Grant secured his position as a military hero. By 1868, the Republican Party and the Union citizens looked to him to lead as the presidential candidate. Although his presidency may not have been revolutionary, Grant served with dignity and a steady hand.

Ulysses S. Grant As President

Despite the three years that passed between Lincoln’s death and Grant’s election, the reverence for Lincoln had only grown stronger in the northern states.

Therefore, with his victory in the election of 1868, Grant was able to carry forward the spirit of Lincoln, making him the only man who could have done so. Lincoln was seen as the nation’s second father, remembered for his immortal honesty and charity, which extended even to those who sought to destroy him. [i]

After Lincoln’s assassination, Grant represented a continuation of Lincoln’s presidency, which had weathered the Civil War and served as an example of moral leadership.

However, the administration of President Andrew Johnson was a stark contrast to the greatness of Lincoln. Johnson lacked the eloquence and erudition of his predecessor and did not have a vision for the country’s post-war reconstruction. It was in this context that Grant emerged as a leader who could bring “strength, order, and harmony” to the country. As a defender of the cause of the humble and the poor, Grant was uniquely positioned to guide the country through its turbulent post-war period. [ii]

It was through Grant’s approach that the South would come out from a “corrupt and ignorant oligarchy.” [iii]

Grant, who was leading the Republicans, had a clear vision for the future. He aimed to “promote modesty, frugality, and self-restraint among officials,” while encouraging voters to carefully evaluate candidates for office. In addition, he sought to use education and knowledge to combat political and moral decline and eliminate European prejudices with advancing intelligence. By implementing these ideas, Grant believed that he could create a better future for the country. [iv]

Despite the presence of Southern orators promoting “tyranny and slavery” in Northern cities like New York and Philadelphia, including those from Georgia or Louisiana, and the continued advocacy for “the rule of the slave-holders over the working men of the South,” Grant emerged as the leader of a party that strongly opposed these demagogues and their beliefs. [v]

Having originated from England or Scotland, Grant’s family had a long history of living in the colonies and states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut. However, even before his birth in 1822, they settled in Clermont County, Ohio. As a child growing up in this county, Grant’s experiences and surroundings greatly influenced his upbringing. [vi]

Despite the argument that childhood traits do not necessarily reflect adult ones, an anecdote about Grant’s childhood suggests otherwise. According to reports, Grant exhibited qualities like an imperturbable temper, persistence, and a fondness for firearms, and horses as a child. However, it is worth noting that these characteristics were common among sturdy boys on the frontier during that time. [vii]

As a student, Grant wasn’t particularly skilled, but a turning point in his life came when Ohio State Representative Thomas L. Gamer proposed that Grant be enrolled at West Point Military Academy at the age of seventeen. Grant’s father accepted the offer, and this decision set him on a new course. [viii]

Grant, born Hiram Ulysses, attempted to enter West Point as Ulysses Simpson—using his mother’s maiden name—but instead, he was processed as his name being simply Ulysses S. Grant. [ix]

He would keep this as his name for the rest of his life.

After enrolling in West Point Military Academy, Grant fought in the Mexican-American War, where he gained valuable experience that later served him in the Civil War. He absorbed the prevalent military strategies, saw them in action, and met men who would fight alongside him or become adversaries in the Confederate army. Following the war, he married Julia Dent, the sister of a former classmate, in St. Louis. Although his military career was still developing at this point, Grant’s skills were developing and would eventually elevate him. When he was deployed to Oregon to pacify the Native American population, he had to travel through Panama during the hot summer months of a cholera outbreak. Amidst the pestilence and panic, Grant demonstrated “imperturbable coolness and unremitting energy in time of difficulty. [xi]

Following this event, it appeared that his military career was coming to an end, and he relocated to Missouri with his wife. They had three sons and a daughter, obtained a farm, constructed a log house, and named their land Hardscrabble, reflecting his view of life as a constant struggle to survive. [xii]

After leaving the presidency, Grant envisioned spending time with his family and managing his land, yet he faced difficulties in generating a steady income. Despite these challenges, he found joy in caring for his family and property, as well as his love for animals. In fact, during his time in the military, he developed a special bond with a lamb that a guard had captured and raised into a sheep, and he was fiercely protective of it. [xiii]

And when one colonel “had a cat that was a great favorite with the head-quarters, Grant loved it and petted it as much as any” of the other men. [xiv]

His life had already given him blessings, even if he had been struggling to carve out the stable living he wished to achieve.

The bottom line was that civilian life challenged him. Although he wanted to be a success in business, it didn’t come easily to him. In this way, when the Civil War came, it created an opportunity for Grant to return to what he had known as a career and put his life’s energy into achieving his potential. When the war started up, then-Captain Grant gathered up a group of volunteers and made their way to join the fight. [xv]

By this time, one volunteer remembered, Grant was a “little chubby, sandy-haired, freckled-faced” man whose “associations with his brother officers were like those of a father to a family of grown-up and trusted children.” [xvi]

He was unpretending in his appearance: he “was the least conspicuous in dress” with his clothes being “generally rough and soiled with marching, and his only sign of rank was his shoulder straps.” [xvii]

Early battles provided Grant with opportunities to establish himself as a capable leader, and he seized them. Although Grant’s victories in the Western theater were considered minor compared to the more significant battles in the Eastern theater, they were achieved with minimal costs.

As an example, in 1862, as a then-Brigadier General, Grant led a successful campaign at Fort Donelson in Tennessee, where he outnumbered his opponents. His legendary straightforward approach to their surrender plea was, “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works. [xviii]

He left his opponents no option. The Confederates gave up their fort, with its “garrisons, guns, and stores.” [xix]

It was a victory for Grant and one that stood out: other Union generals were not recreating these types of victories; Grant was promoted to Major-General of Volunteers. [xx]

Although Grant continued to demonstrate his skills as both a soldier and a military leader, his reputation continued to grow. However, it was during the critical summer of 1863, which marked a turning point in the war, that he made a name for himself at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Additionally, his success at Vicksburg paved the way for his promotion to command the Union Army.

In the face of Confederate forces threatening to push into northern territory and potentially capture Washington, Grant’s leadership at Vicksburg played a crucial role in securing a Union victory in the West.

After starting and continuing to carry out a siege against the city, a difficult battle given the potential for Confederate reinforcements and the time it could take to break the will of those under siege, Grant emerged victorious at Vicksburg, Mississippi. This turning point of the war was crucial in securing a Union victory in the West, and Grant’s reputation as both a skilled soldier and military leader only continued to grow. On July 4, the same day as the Union’s success at Gettysburg, the Confederates surrendered Vicksburg to Grant, resulting in the loss of 45,000 men and 200 guns. In contrast, Grant lost fewer than 12,000 men in the battle. [xxi]

As General, Ulysses S. Grant was tasked with leading the Union army to victory in the eastern theater of the Civil War. He faced off against Robert E. Lee, who had been unbeatable until then. Grant’s relentless will to fight and incisive nature proved to be what the Union army needed to finally defeat Lee. Under Grant’s leadership, battles such as the Battle of the Wilderness and the Battle of Petersburg became filled with gravity, with casualties on both sides. However, Grant continued to press forward, striking at the heart of the Confederacy and taking on their best men. Eventually, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, marking the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. Grant’s victory secured his place in history as perhaps the greatest general in the country’s history. [xxii]

Grant’s humility and introspection were apparent in his expression of sadness and melancholy at the defeat of a valiant foe. He recognized that the Confederate soldiers had fought bravely and endured significant hardships for a cause that, in his opinion, was one of the worst for which a group of people had ever fought. [xxiii]

While opinions differ on the impact of generals on wars, Ulysses S. Grant’s role in the Union’s victory during the Civil War is undisputed. Despite criticism that any general could have achieved the same success given the Union’s resources, Grant’s strategic decisions and leadership were crucial in securing victory. His legacy as a military hero is well-deserved.

He left a lasting impression through his actions, successes, and clear communication style. While he engaged in interesting conversations with familiar people, he was reserved around strangers, which some perceived as uninteresting. [xxiv]

He “spoke in a low conversational tone[,] . . . avoided metaphor and illustration, . . . [and] never descended into vulgarity, did not use slang.” [xxv]

He refrained from displaying anger and emphasized positive qualities in people during conversations. Even when mentioning their flaws, he would highlight their virtues or provide excuses for their shortcomings. [xxvi]

Additionally, he possessed an exceptional ability to extract information from others during conversations without them realizing that they were divulging it. However, he was always willing to admit his lack of knowledge whenever it was appropriate to do so. [xxvii]

Perhaps he was unsophisticated and prone to being persuaded of schemes that others would have seen for what they were. The time in which we live shapes us, our values, and our priorities.

Grant aspired to rise above his social class and take advantage of the booming economy, but he faced lifelong challenges in achieving this goal, including overcoming rumors of heavy drinking. While his reputation for drinking may have damaged his public image, there is no evidence that it affected his ability to fulfill his duties.

And if nothing else, Grant had earned a reputation for carrying out his responsibilities. As is often the case, when one achieves recognition throughout the country, talk of the presidency rises. By the end of 1867, there were already stirrings of Grant becoming the presumptive nominee for the Republicans in the election of 1868; in New York, a meeting led by the “prominent businessmen” of the day promoted this idea, and this was a general feeling that “spread spontaneously throughout the Northern States.” [xxviii]

By the time of the Republican convention in Chicago in May 1868, presumption became reality: on the first call of the states, the party had its nominee, and Grant accepted by letter; a letter which ended in perhaps his most famous words for they embodied the spirit of the time: “Let us have peace.” [xxix]

His opponent in that election, Horatio Seymour, had an uphill battle and lost 214 to 80 in the electoral vote count. [xxx]

Grant’s first term consisted of a continued effort to pursue Reconstruction policies, suppress the Ku Klux Klan, and begin the work of civil service reform—efforts that were noble but would remain unfinished. [xxxi]

The Fourteenth Amendment—crucial for securing civil rights throughout the states—was passed at Grant’s suggestion, it was part of a pattern of having the federal government become more involved in enforcing laws in the states and to “secure life, liberty, and property” in those states. [xxxii]

His re-election was virtually assured, and it came in 1872 against the newspaperman Horace Greeley. Although Grant had taken a hit to his reputation during his first term—with ardent Republicans insisting he was not doing enough to advance the party’s agenda and his administration being one made up of mostly inexperienced public servants—he endured the “abuse and slander,” as he called it, and won a second term. [xxxiii]

His second term would not be without controversy: the Crédit Mobilier scandal and the Panic of 1873 would test the administration. But the administration would carry out its duties, and it would prove to be an era that served as a contrast to the times before and after it: there would be peace, and while the economy developed into the largest in the world, its government would not yet see to regulating business on a grand scale—or any measurable scale at all. In essence, Grant executed the function of the office in line with the Lincoln approach but without the political genius that Lincoln embodied, and following Lincoln’s act was no easy feat. And so Grant concluded his two terms in office.

After the election of 1876, Grant was of the mind that the new President, Rutherford B. Hayes, deserved to start his term without his predecessor looming. With technology beginning to annihilate distance and open up the world to travel, Grant became the first former President to take a tour of the world. From the Philadelphia waterfront, he departed by ship to Liverpool and arrived at docks “lined with as many of the population as could find standing room.” [xxxiv]

He traveled by train from there to London and then to Paris—a place that Grant had believed could not be capable of self-government but left believing the French to be “perfectly capable, and they will be satisfied with nothing less.” [xxxv]

from France, he went on south to Italy, the Mediterranean, and then to the Middle East; he stayed in Alexandria, Egypt, and found it to be more interesting than any other place he had visited. [xxxvi]

From there, Grant went to Jerusalem, to Constantinople, to Athens, and then Syria and Asia Minor. [xxxvii]

He later returned to Germany and interviewed with Otto von Bismarck at the chancellor’s residence. Despite the lack of fanfare surrounding his arrival, with Grant simply walking into the courtyard and acknowledging the military salute of the sentinels, his visit had been anticipated. The meeting between the two men took place in a calm and unassuming manner. [xxxviii]

During a discussion with Bismarck, Grant reflected on the Civil War, acknowledging that it could have been prevented but it was impossible to know for sure. The lack of a standing army at the beginning of the war and the strong Southern sentiment among high officers resulted in the army dissolving, forcing the United States to form a new army. Grant believed that Sherman or Sheridan could have suppressed the rebellion in six months to a year or two at most, but preserving slavery could have led to a new rebellion. Grant believed that slavery had to end. [xxxix]

Bismarck said, “It was a long war, and a great work well done. I suppose it means a long peace,” to which Grant responded, “I believe so.” [xl]

From Europe, Grant then sailed to India and made his way to modern-day Myanmar, Thailand, China, and Japan; he returned to San Francisco after nearly two years of travel around the world. [xli]

He may have been the only person up until that time who was met with such congratulation around the world, receiving “the highest tokens of admiration, being the guest of rulers and civic bodies, and attending innumerable receptions and banquets”—and certainly he was the first American President to receive such honors. [xlii]

Alas, his political career had come to an end. The election of 1880 briefly raised the prospect of a third term for Grant, but the opportunity was short-lived. And even if he didn’t want that to be so, as he began touring the country to take the political temperature, the people began to let it be known that there would not be a clamor for a then-unprecedented third term. He returned to pursuing financial success—which would never come to him: although he “had become interested in railroad projects in Mexico, in the inter-oceanic canal at Nicaragua, and the association of his name with other financial schemes was eagerly sought,” he would become a partner of a firm, Grant & Ward, but not realize the profits he hoped. [xliii]

In fact, his dealings were “disastrous to his hopes of financial prosperity.” [xliv]

Despite his lack of financial success, Grant’s memoirs would prove to be a prudent move, providing security for his family after his passing. His distinctively concise style of writing ensured that his memoirs would be a lasting legacy, offering a modicum of fortune where his other financial endeavors had failed. This was a timely development for his health became more precarious after his fall on icy pavement in front of his home on Christmas Eve in 1883, “which gave his system a shock from which it never recovered.” [xlv]

In his final weeks, Grant had difficulty with his speech and had taken to communicating in writing with those around him. His last written message was on July 22, 1885: Grant “leaned forward in his chair and signified a wish that a lamp should be brought. The nurse fetched a lamp and held it at the sick man’s shoulder, and at that moment the General turned his face toward the light and upward to bid his nurse bring his pad and pencil.” [xlvi]

A flickering candle cast a shadow on Grant’s face, revealing “strong, rugged lines broken down by suffering and pain.” [xlvii]

He had on a dark dressing gown with a crimson scarf nearby; the “gray of the close-cut beard seemed white, and the lines of the cheeks and forehead were deep.” [xlviii]

When he spoke, he “appeared strained and drawn” with his lips heavily moving and letting out a low, husky whisper. [xlix]

His last communication was written on the pad the nurse brought him, and it “was a private family communication, and when finished the sick man resumed his half-reclining position, with head slightly inclined and elbows on the side of the chair, while the fingers of either hand were interlocked each with the other beneath his chin.” [l]

The Dedication of Grant’s Tomb: Honoring the Legacy of a Great American Leader on the 75th Anniversary of His Birth

On July 23, 1885, Grant died. On the seventy-fifth anniversary of Grant’s birth, there was pageantry: it was to dedicate his permanent resting place: a tomb on Manhattan Island in New York City. That day, in 1897, was one of wind-blowing dust and biting cold for an April day, and it wasn’t the cold but the dust that those present would call “mortifying.” [li]

The crowds gathered and stretched from the east side, avoiding Fifth Avenue (which was too torn up to be used), and across the bottom of Central Park to the Boulevard (later to become Broadway) and up along the west side of the island up to the tomb—about 100 blocks—and there were a number of distinguished guests: President William McKinley, Vice President Garret Hobart, New York City’s Mayor, New York State’s Governor, and the former President Grover Cleveland. [lii]

Although the dedication of the tomb would be near Grant’s final resting place, the parade started in the morning at Madison Square, and as it made its way uptown, it gathered steam: it began with veterans and then included “letter-carriers, firemen, schoolboys, and civic paraders” until the parade swelled to 50,000 marchers. [liii]

There were at least a half million who came to Manhattan that day for the celebration, and they came by rail, ferry, and bridge, and the elevated rail in Manhattan alone carried over a million people; it would have carried even more if it had had the capacity. [liv]

Along the parade route, people stood on sidewalks and on the stoops in front of the buildings. [lv]

The crowds were thickest above Eighty-Third Street as “huge stands succeeded one another on the vacant lots bordering on the route.” [lvi]

Throughout the city—and along the route—were lavish decorations and flags flying. [lvii]

Spectators rained on the parade “bananas, oranges, sandwiches, and things edible from windows, balconies, stands, and sidewalks.” [lviii]

In all, those who stood throughout the parade passing by—from beginning to end—saw six hours’ worth of marchers. [lix]

Below, in the river, “there were battle-ships galore, decked with all manner of flags and manned by rows of sailors, all in sight—the New York, the Massachusetts, the Maine, the Texas, the Raleigh, the Puritan, the Amphitrite, the Terror, the British Talbot, the French Fulton, the Italian Dogali, the Spanish Infanta Isabella and Maria Theresa.” [lx]

The steamers whistled and “Boom! boom! boom! went the saluting guns of each man-of-war.” [lxi]

By seven o’clock, the last of the parade came through—public school boys—and passed the empty reviewing stand as people had swarmed the streets “most of them homeward-bound afoot.” [lxii]

The week after Grant’s passing, New York’s Harper’s Weekly published a poem celebrating his life. This is that poem:

“The Captain Is Asleep

Let the muffled drums mourn
Heavy and deep,
And flags with crape be borne;
The Captain is asleep.
On a hushed and solemn bed,
Alone he lies.
Tender words of him are said,
There are waiting for his hands
Love bouquets from many lands;
But he will not rise.

Never in his childhood days
Such slumber came;
Nor are war’s electric blaze
Streamed o’er his name,
When , through eyes watching dim,
His young mother bent o’er him,
Wreathing hopes upon his brow,
Did he sleep so well as now.

Let the silver horns trail
Anthems that weep:
Let them voice the early tale
Of the Captain asleep;
Tell the struggles that he knew
Ere his life work stood in view,
And the clouds that vexed his eyes
Ere his star flashed through the skies.

Men, you must his mourners be,
For he was brave.
Harvester of courage—he
Knew when to save.
Cruel as the tiger’s fang
Until the war was done,
He would soothe the smallest pang
When the fight was won.
Only death could conquer him,
And his fight with that was grim.
As in his best days of pride,
Here to the last, he died.

Women, holy in his eyes
Was the pureness that you prize.
Palaces around him had smiled,
Kingly shows his days beguiled;
But he loved and sought release,
Turned from lofty spire and dome,
Came for comfort and for peace
To the fireside of his home.

Fame, you have done your best
For the Warrior of the West,
Who, with grand, heroic rush,
Reached your regions at a leap.
Sound his praise again—but hush!
The Captain is asleep.
Slumbering early; but ‘tis best
That the weary man should rest.
He has had the care and strife,
Ten times over, of a life.

Grief, you came when Rest
Should have thrown her spell—
You were of rare barbs possessed—
Oh, you pierced him well!
It is brave to fall and die
With an arrow in the heart;
It is noble, great, and high
To live and bear is smart.
Sound so grand was never heard
As is pain without a word.

Let the muffled drums mourn
Heavy and deep,
And flags with crape be borne:
The Captain is asleep.
Warriors in the farther land,
Who once lingered here,
Grasp our Chieftain by the hand;
Give him a friendly cheer.”



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