For many of the major figures in American history, legacies change as generations pass. As the collective morals of the country change, so do understandings of those who came before: they had their different ways of living, and for those who come after, as time passes, it becomes more difficult to uncover the context in which men and women from days past earned their merit—and their place in the American memory. Some, like Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, maintain legacies filled with high repute and esteem as generations of Americans come of age learning about these titans, visit memorials and monuments bearing their names, and celebrate the country’s good fortune to have them as forebearers. But there are other figures whose accomplishments and example become obscured—not overshadowed—as time passes. This is the category in which the legacy of Ulysses S. Grant resides.
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. It was during this time that he would become known for his matter-of-fact reports of progress on the battlefield and his will to fight that turned—when his opponent surrendered—into a will to mend, a will to reconcile. He was purposeful and pragmatic. And he came to embody the same approach as Lincoln: an approach that recognized that the war would not go on forever and that, if his side was fortunate enough to prevail, there was an obligation to then see to reconciling the Union and fostering brotherhood. When victory came, with Grant forcing the hand of the seemingly invulnerable Robert E. Lee, Grant secured his legacy as a military hero for the Union. By the time the next presidential election came, in 1868,—at a time when candidates did not openly announce or conduct campaigns—the Republican Party and people throughout the Union looked to Grant. He was sure to serve with dignity and with a steady hand. Although his presidency would not be a transformative one, few are.
As President, Grant was a man—the only man, in fact—who could have and did carry forward the spirit of Lincoln. In the three years that had passed between Lincoln’s death and Grant’s victory in the election of 1868, those in the northern states had only further developed a reverence for the nation’s second father, Lincoln: he was “beaming with immortal honesty, and touched by a charity that might have warmed even toward his destroyers.”[i] Grant represented a continuation of Lincoln’s presidency, and Lincoln’s presidency had not only weathered the Civil War in its entirety but had earned victory at the ballot box twice and served as one of the country’s foremost moral examples. However, following Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson’s administration was a contrast to the greatness of Lincoln: he was neither eloquent nor erudite in the way of his predecessor, and he lacked a vision for how the country could be brought back together following the war. Particularly in light of that fact, it was Grant who would bring “strength, order, and harmony” to the country as he had “firmly defended the cause of the humble and the poor.”[ii] It was through Grant’s approach that the South would come out from a “corrupt and ignorant oligarchy.”[iii] As reported at the time, it was the Republicans—led by Grant—that were seeking to “spread knowledge from the Atlantic to the Pacific; to educate the whole nation in honesty and virtue; to inculcate industry; to expel European prejudices by the force of advancing intelligence; to promote modesty, frugality, and self-restraint among officials, and careful scrutiny among voters as to the qualities of every candidate for office; to blend all the powers of literature, of education, and of rising knowledge in one ceaseless war upon all the sources of political and moral decay.”[iv] It was a time when “orators of the rebellion came from Georgia or Louisiana to speak for tyranny and slavery in the streets of New York and Philadelphia,” and there were some who continued to fight for “the rule of the slave-holders over the working-men of the South,” but Grant would lead a party that indulged none of these demagogues.[v]
Born in 1822 to a family originally hailing from England or Scotland but long living in the colonies and then the states—including Massachusetts and Connecticut and then Ohio—Grant grew up in Clermont County, Ohio.[vi] Regardless of whether one’s childhood self reflects one’s adult self, an anecdote of Grant was that he was a child “tending to show his imperturbable temper, his persistency, and a fondness for fire-arms and for horses; but these are not uncommon qualities among sturdy boys on the frontier.”[vii] He was not an especially adept student, and the first pivot point of his life came when Ohio State Representative Thomas L. Gamer offered Grant’s father to enroll Grant, then seventeen years old, at West Point Military Academy; an offer which Grant’s father accepted.[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.
As was typical for men with a military background at the time, Grant went to fight in the Mexican-American War. Between his time at West Point and in the Mexican-American War, he would come to obtain experience that later served him in the Civil War as he absorbed the military strategies prevalent at the time, saw them in action, and he would come to know men who would fight alongside him and others who would join the Confederate army and be his adversaries. After his time in Mexico, he married Julia Dent—the sister of a former classmate—in St. Louis.[x] His military career had reached a nascent stage and was still developing the skills that would elevate him: when he was deployed to Oregon to pacify the Native American population and had to travel through Panama from the east to the west—during the hot summer months when cholera had flared in the area—he showed, amidst pestilence and panic, “his imperturbable coolness and unremitting energy in time of difficulty.”[xi] It seemed that his military career was coming to a close after this, and he settled in Missouri with his wife, had three sons and a daughter, acquired a farm, built a log house, and would call his land Hardscrabble—a nod to how he viewed his lot in life, scratching out a living however he could.[xii] He had come to see himself spending his time with his family and his land but struggling to develop a reliable income. He had family and land to love and also had his love of animals: after all, once, in the military, a guard had caught a lamb and raised it into a large sheep, and Grant “took a kind interest in it, and he would have heartily resented any injury to 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 presented opportunities for Grant to prove himself a capable leader, and he took his chances: he obtained victories with minimal costs; they were minor wins in the western theater at a time when the eastern theater was the theater seeing weighty battles near the two capitals. But Grant had wins—small as they were. And one of those wins occurred at Fort Donelson in Tennessee, 1862. Then-Brigadier General Grant had his opponents outnumbered, and his straightforward approach to their plight—when they sought to negotiate some sort of defeat less than absolute—became legend: “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]
His star continued rising. Vicksburg, Mississippi would be the situs where Grant would show his capability as not just a soldier but a leader in the military and turn his name into a household name. The summer of 1863 was the climax in the war: in the east, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the Confederates were making a major push into northern territory for the first time in the war; the Confederacy was in a position to not only take land from the Union but to potentially make a move toward an underdefended Washington—a move that would have likely yielded terms for peace highly favorable to the Confederacy or perhaps even the Confederate takeover of Washington altogether. In the west, at Vicksburg, Grant had started and continued to carry out a siege against the city—a difficult fight to win given how long it may take to break the will of those under siege and given the potential for Confederate reinforcements to arrive and force an end to the siege. But this was a victory that would belong to Grant, and on July 4—the same day as the Union holding off the Confederates at Gettysburg and sending them back to the South—he secured his victory when the Confederates surrendered Vicksburg. The Confederates surrendered not only the city of Vicksburg but lost 45,000 men and 200 guns; in all, Grant lost fewer than 12,000 men.[xxi]
Then came his promotion to being General and the task of moving from the western theater to the eastern theater—to take on who had been, up to then, the deftest general fighting in the war: Robert E. Lee. Lincoln had finally found his general. So often, Lincoln was the one urging on his general to push against Lee, and so often, the general found excuses not to; no longer. Grant began prosecuting the war without fear of Lee or Lee’s reputation for outmaneuvering and outthinking his opponents. Grant, in striking at the heart of the Confederacy and taking on its best men, was on his way to becoming perhaps the greatest general in the history of the country; this was made easier by the fact that Grant’s predecessors, in their fights against Lee, lacked the incisive nature, the relentless will to fight, that was required to topple Lee, but Grant’s approach was the one that his army had desperately needed. In the eastern theater, the casualties climbed under Grant’s leadership, and the battles—the Battle of the Wilderness, the Battle of Petersburg, and so on—became filled with gravity as the outcomes brought the Confederacy closer to its demise. When the end came, with Lee surrendering at Appomattox—with Lee’s six-foot frame, standing erect and “in full-dress uniform with sash and jeweled sword” meeting with Grant with his stooped shoulders and “usual private’s blouse with mud-spattered trousers tucked into muddy boots”—the contrast was clear.[xxii] Grant was not proud or boastful but reflective of the moment: he was “sad and depressed 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.”[xxiii]
Whether fair or not, Grant received an extraordinary amount of credit for the Union’s victory in the Civil War. Some, such as the writer Leo Tolstoy, have called into question whether a general makes any difference in a war. After all, wars are fought by soldiers using resources managed by officers with knowledge of logistics who are then overseen by even more officers; wars are a morass of details and variables, and no one general can hope to oversee—let alone manage—such a situation. One thinking like Tolstoy would say that any general—not just Grant—could have sat on top and watched the Union win: it outmatched its opponent in resources and men; the result wasn’t in doubt: to lose would have come from a reckless mismanagement of the Union’s resources and a squandering of many opportunities. But, in the American Civil War, Grant was the man present at the helm and for many of its most consequential moments. And he served with distinction and class, integrity and valor. Perhaps these are the only facts that matter.
Through his service, he had made his impression on his cohorts and on the people themselves. This wasn’t just through his actions and his successes. It was also about his communication. His writing, and perhaps his thought process, was clear, concise, and without frill. And his speech matched his writing, as one contemporary remembered. He “was a good conversationalist” with the men he knew but was “very reserved” with those he didn’t, “which gave him the reputation of being dull.”[xxiv] He “spoke in a low conversational tone[,] . . . avoided metaphor and illustration, . . . [and] never descended into vulgarity, did not use slang.”[xxv] He “never exhibited anger,” and when he spoke of men, he “always sought to speak of the good in men rather than the evil, and if necessary to speak of the bad qualities of a certain man, he would close his remarks with the mention of his good points, or excuses why he did not have them.”[xxvi] He also “had a wonderful power of drawing information from others in conversation without their being aware that they were imparting it, but he did not scruple to avow his ignorance whenever it was necessary.”[xxvii]
However, for all his talents, he lacked a business acumen. 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, on some level, could have felt insecure by others achieving remarkable success in an economy that was highly speculative. Making—or losing—a fortune is not based on one’s merit, and it is simply a fact that during his time, with new industries opening up and skyrocketing in value, Grant fancied his chances of doing the same and rising above the class of his birth. It would be a lifelong challenge for him just as it would be for him to come out from under a reputation for being a sot. While there may have been times when he indulged in alcohol, there would be persistent rumors of his days-long benders; whether these tales were contrived as a form of character assassination or whether these did occur—only to have men close to him hide the instances from public view—is a question that is lost to history. But as much as this reputation may have tarnished his public image, no one could say that any of his habits—alcohol included—affected his ability to carry out his responsibilities.
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 business men” 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 it 214 to 80 in the electoral vote count.[xxx] Grant’s first term consisted of a continued effort to pursue Reconstruction policies, to suppress the Ku Klux Klan, and to 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, and 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 to follow 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 to 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 then came back to Europe, to Germany, where he arrived for an interview with Otto von Bismarck, at the chancellor’s residence: “The General saunters in a kind of nonchalant way into the courtyard. . . . The sentinels eye him for just an instant, perhaps curiously, and then quickly present arms. Somehow or other these grim soldiers recognize at once, as the salute is returned, that it comes from a man who is himself a soldier. His visit had been expected, . . . but it was supposed that an Ex-President if the United States would have come thundering in a coach and accompanied by outriders, and not quietly on foot. The General throws away a half-smoked cigar, then brings up his hand to his hat, acknowledging the military courtesy, and advances in the most quiet way to the door.”[xxxviii] Grant and Bismarck had a protracted discussion, and Grant offered a sober analysis of the Civil War: “We might have had no war at all. But we cannot tell. Our war had many strange features; there were many things which seemed odd enough at the time but which now seem providential. If we had had a large regular army, as it was then constituted, it might have gone with the South. In fact, the Southern feeling in the army among high officers was so strong that when the war broke out the army dissolved. We had no army; then we had to organize one. A great commander like Sherman or Sheridan even then might have organized and put down the rebellion in six months or a year, or at the farthest two years. But that would have saved slavery, perhaps, and slavery meant the germs of a new rebellion. There had to be an end to slavery.”[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 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] Any semblance of fortune would not come to Grant, and one of his most prudent moves did not come from an investment of his money but from a recounting of his life: his memoirs, which he wrote in his distinctly concise style of writing, would provide a modicum of security to his family after his passing. 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] 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 ere war’s electric blaze
Streamed o’er his name,
When, through eyes with 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 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 round 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 its 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 friendly cheer.”[lxiii]
[i] Harper’s Weekly, Vol. XVI, No. 821, September 21, 1872, at 733.
[v] Id. at 734.
[vi] Harper’s Weekly, Vol. XXIX, No. 1493, Supplement, August 1, 1885, at 501.
[x] Id. at 502.
[xiii] Id. at 506.
[xviii] Id. at 502.
[xx] See id.
[xxii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 849.
[xxiii] Id. at 849-50.
[xxviii] Id. at 503.
[xxxii] See id.
[xxxiii] See id.
[xxxiv] H.W. Brands, The Man Who Saved the Union, Ulysses Grant in War and Peace, at 580.
[xxxv] Id. at 583.
[xxxvii] Id. at 583-84.
[xxxviii] Id. at 585.
[xxxix] Id. at 586.
[xli] Harper’s Weekly, Vol. XXIX, No. 1493, August 1, 1885, at 503.
[xlvi] Id. at 492.
[li] Harper’s Weekly, Vol. XLI, No. 2107, May 8, 1897, at 475.
[lvi] Id. at 476.
[lxiii] Harper’s Weekly, Vol. XXIX, No. 1493, Supplement, August 1, 1885, at 506.