More than you wanted to know: Ulysses S. Grant
Notes on one of the most fascinating figures in American history
I recently finished the biography “Grant” by Ron Chernow. Like most Chernow biographies, it’s a very thorough portrait of a fascinating historical figure. The text clocks in at about 670 pages, plus endnotes, and there isn’t a lot of fluff. The book gave me a new appreciation of a figure that I knew only a limited amount about. Going into “Grant”, I knew that Ulysses S. Grant was a general and eventual commander of Union forces during the Civil War and a two-term president. After finishing the book, I now view Grant as one of the most fascinating figures in American history. This post is long, far longer than I intended. There were just so many interesting things to mention. I urge you to read it all.
Econ Soapbox is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Hiram Ulysses Grant was born in 1822. So where does the name Ulysses S. Grant come from? Well, from the start he was always called by his middle name, Ulysses. Grant recognized he’d be teased for having the initials H.U.G. when he went to West Point, so he planned on telling everyone his name was Ulysses Hiram Grant. He even rearranged the brass letters embedded in his luggage to UHG. Upon arrival at West Point, however, he was told that he had been nominated to West Point under the name Ulysses S. Grant and that it couldn’t be changed.
The whole reason Grant was at West Point was because of the machinations of his meddlesome father, Jesse Grant. Jesse was a small business owner who was not impressed with his son’s motivations or skills, so without even telling Ulysses he wrote to the local congressman asking for a nomination to the US military academy. Unbeknownst to almost everyone, except the Grants and a few others, there was an open spot because another local boy had recently flunked out, a fact kept secret by the now ex-student’s well-to-do family. Thus there was no competition for the nomination. Grant did not want to attend West Point but was far too timid to stand up to his domineering father. This unique set of chance and opportunity would lead to Grant enrolling at West Point and change history.
After graduating in the middle of his class from West Point, Grant was assigned to St. Louis, at the time the largest military base west of the Mississippi. He originally planned to be a professor at West Point, but then tensions with Mexico erupted into the Mexican-American War. He served with distinction throughout the war, and his coolness under fire was soon noticed. Crucially, he also worked as a quartermaster during the Mexican-American War, learning that logistics were a key part of any successful military campaign. He would later say that Mexico had “A soil and climate scarcely equaled in the world…[it] has more poor and starving subjects who are willing and able to work than any country in the world. The rich keep down the poor with a hardness of heart that is incredible.”
After the Mexican-American war he was assigned to a post in California and then Oregon, becoming the first (future) president to visit the West Coast. The post was boring, and Grant soon took to alcohol. His drinking became such a problem that he eventually resigned from his position and returned to his young family in the Midwest.
Grant’s family life would be a microcosm for the nation during the Civil War. Grant’s father was a strident abolitionist. His wife, Julia Dent, came from a family of wealthy slave owners. This caused such friction that neither of Grant’s parents attended Ulysses and Julia’s wedding. James Longstreet, who would go on to become one of the most important Confederate generals, however, did, as one of Ulysses’ groomsmen. During the Civil War, the Grants would remain abolitionists and the Dents would remain unapologetic slave owners and Democrats. Even when Grant was president, Julia’s father would openly reminisce about the beauties of slavery and the Confederacy. This must have made family meals somewhat awkward since the elderly Dent spent his final years living with the Grants in the White House.
The interlude between military stints (1854-1861) was not the best years of Ulysses Grant’s life. He struggled in civilian life, failing as a farmer and not having much success as a businessman. He also kept several slaves, although he freed his final slave rather than sell him. It was during this time he briefly lived in Galena, Illinois, a town that later wanted to cash in on his fame by building and furnishing an entire house for him in the hopes that he would live in it. He never did, but did spend several weeks in it after his presidency. The “Grant House” can still be visited today.
The Civil War revived Grant’s fortunes. He would start the war as a Colonel in the Union Army but quickly moved up the ranks. After winning the Battle of Fort Donelson, Grant accepted a surrender from a Confederate officer after the commanding general had fled and abandoned his troops. Upon hearing the opposing General fled, Grant smirked and said, “If I had got him I’d let him go again; he will do us more good commanding you fellows.” It was during this battle that Grant demanded the "unconditional and immediate surrender" of the Confederates, leading to his nickname "Unconditional Surrender Grant". Grant would later issue the controversial General Order #11, which expelled all Jews from areas under his command. This caused an uproar in Congress and was quickly countermanded by President Lincoln, and would be a major stain on Grant’s record. Grant later called General Order #11 one of his greatest regrets.
Grant’s first major victory was at the Battle of Shiloh, which prevented the Confederacy from being able to hold the Mississippi Valley. He was first hailed as a hero, but the nearly 24,000 casualties shocked the nation. That exceeded the total of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican-American combined. Some called for Abraham Lincoln to demand his resignation, to which the president famously replied, "I can't spare this man; he fights.” Grant would later be appointed Lieutenant General, a rank that had only been held by George Washington. He would lead the Union Army to victory after several years of vicious campaigns and force General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865. When the time came for Lee to sign the surrender documents, he was surprised to see Ely Parker, a Native American, on Grant’s staff. “I am glad to see one real American here,” Lee said to Parker. Parker replied, “We are all Americans.”
Grant’s conduct during the war is still subject to diverging views. Some consider him a butcher and a drunkard, others a sound military tactician who kept his drinking under control. His military acumen has been confused by decades of revisionist historians promoting the “Lost Cause” myth that the Civil War was not centered on slavery. These historians claim the cause of the Confederacy was just, Confederate Generals were heroes, and Union Generals were butchers. More modern scholarship has noted that all generals in the Civil War would preside over battles of massive scope and use tactics that made troops cannon fodder for modern weaponry. Grant wasn’t even present at the two bloodiest battles of the Civil War, Gettysburg and Chickamauga. He did make several crucial errors during his generalship, especially at the Battle of Cold Harbor, but also led well-run campaigns that resulted in numerous victories. Once, when he was asked if he was sure of a decision he replied, “No I am not. But in war anything is better than indecision. We must decide. If I am wrong we shall soon find it out and can do the other thing. But not to decide wastes both time and money and may ruin everything.” It was this attitude that made Grant far better than previous Union Army commanders, who often did nothing but wait. It’s also worth noting that except for Gettysburg the Union Army was fighting in enemy territory against a force that was devoting everything to battle; there were going to be extraordinary casualties as soon as the South committed itself to total war regardless of who was in command. As Chernow accurately summarizes, “The plain fact was that six Union commanders before him had failed, with the same men and material, whereas Grant had succeeded.”
His problems with alcohol will always be up for debate. He definitely was an alcoholic who battled his addiction for decades. According to Chernow, he would drink heavily while not in the field but during his Civil War command. So it was a problem. At the same time, Grant’s political and personal enemies recognized they could use his drinking to their advantage and would frequently claim he was drunk, without evidence, when he was likely sober. Grant’s wife Julia and his lifelong aid John Rawlins fought tirelessly to keep Grant away from alcohol and appear to have been largely successful. It was in their absence that he would often relapse. Grant also largely kicked his addiction by the time he was president. I came away with the impression that because Grant’s alcoholism was usually private and in secret, we will never know exactly how it affected his career. It is likely, however, that he was never drunk during battle. He was more of a binge-then-abstain alcoholic, who would routinely go on day-long benders but also stay sober for weeks at a time.
In an event that will keep historians saying “What if?” for ages, Ulysses and Julia Grant were invited to the White House for a social meeting with Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln after Robert E. Lee surrendered. Mary Todd acted as if the Grants were beneath her, likely aware that Ulysses Grant was the one man whose fame could eclipse her husband’s. The Grants found the experience so uncomfortable that they declined Lincoln’s offer to accompany them to the theater that week. Yes, this was the trip to the theater that Lincoln was assassinated. As if that wasn’t a close enough call, Julia Grant noticed a suspicious-looking man at dinner that night who would later ride by and look into her and Ulysses’ carriage as they were leaving Washington. The rider was Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Was Grant the intended target of Booth’s plot? Could a military man like Grant have prevented the killing had he been in the booth? We will never know. At any rate, only Lincoln was in the box that fateful night at Ford’s Theater, and it would be his last.
After the Civil War Grant was forced into the world of politics, a world he did not understand and was woefully prepared for. His fame as the man who won the Civil War meant that both Democrats and Republicans wanted him on their side. After Lincoln’s assassination, the presidency went to Andrew Johnson, a Southern Democrat who had no desire to continue with Lincoln’s policies. Relations between Johnson and Grant soon frayed, especially as Johnson realized Grant’s popularity made him a likely contender for the White House.
In 1968 Grant was nominated by the Republican Party to be president of the United States. He would win relatively easily and serve two terms. His record as president has been the subject of discussion ever since. He presided over one of the most corrupt administrations in history, although even his detractors acknowledge he was unaware and never personally benefited from the schemes. This originally led a lot of historians to look down on his ability as president. He also became obsessed with annexing the Dominican Republic, which would lead to several Congressional showdowns that Grant always lost. Recently attention has been drawn to his devotion to equality and historians have reappraised his tenure. While president he appointed numerous Black and Native American men to high positions in government. In sharp contrast to his General Order #11, he also appointed a number of Jews to office and was the first sitting president to attend the consecration of a synagogue. The great Frederick Douglas went so far as to say, “To Grant, more than any other man, the Negro owes his enfranchisement.”
One of the most shocking things about Grant’s time as president was how devoted the South was to reinstating slavery, or at least reinstating a system as close to it as possible. The Ku Klux Klan was founded shortly after the end of the war, and terrorized communities throughout the South. The less-known but equally violent White League also formed chapters across the South. Hundreds of Blacks and Republicans were brutally murdered in acts of horrendous violence for years. There were repeated mass killings of men, women, and children across the South. As Adelbert Ames, the final Republican governor of Louisiana until 1992 put it, the South could be characterized in this way: “In one phrase - hostility to the negro as a citizen. The South cares for no other question. Everything gives way to it. They support or oppose men, advocate or denounce policies, flatter or murder, just as such action will help them as far as possible to recover their old power over the negro.”
Grant spent real political capital fending off these attacks and attempting to secure Black rights. Union troops were dispatched across the south and numerous perpetrators were brought to justice. The hatred, however, was too deep. As Grant’s presidency progressed, public support for continued federal involvement in the civil strife convulsing the South waned. Eventually, many Northerners were ready to move on from Southern issues. The South outlasted the North and established a system of abhorrent treatment for Black Americans. As many noted at the time, Blacks now counted as full individuals for congressional apportionment, compared to 3/5ths of a person before the Civil War, but they were still banned from voting. The result was that the White South obtained an even greater outsized voice in American politics. After a few years of free elections where Blacks were elected to both state and federal positions across the South, Southern Democrats reestablished a system of submission and degradation. In an act of breathtaking doublethink, claims were already being made that the Civil War was not fought over slavery, even as rights were being explicitly denied to Blacks across the South. Grant did his best to stop this under his watch, however, and recent historians have applauded his stalwart commitment to fighting white supremacy.
Grant’s other major achievement as president was to peacefully settle a serious dispute with the United Kingdom. British shipbuilders had built numerous ships for the Confederacy, the most infamous of which, the CSS Alabama, had sunk over 60(!) Union ships. Many Americans thought England should have to pay enormous reparations, and some thought the United States should seize Canada as compensation. Instead, the American and British governments agreed to abide by the findings of an international commission made up of American, British, and neutral members. That’s not a big deal today, but at the time was unprecedented. According to one scholar, the resulting 1871 Treaty of Washington was “The greatest treaty of actual and immediate arbitration the world has ever seen." Britain agreed to pay $15.5 million (equivalent to almost $400 million today) in restitution. This helped mend lingering grievances between the two countries and set the stage for one of the greatest international alliances that persists to this day.
After his second term as president, Grant retired and went on a several-year trip around the world. Part family vacation, part US diplomatic public relations push, he was feted in capitals around Europe, and would later help solve a diplomatic dispute between Japan and China. The trip was a tremendous success, and Grant was keenly aware that his popularity would perhaps let him run for a third term as president, something that had yet to be done. After seeing the world, Grant said this of Americans: “The fact is we are the most progressive, freest, and richest people on earth, but don’t know it or appreciate it. Foreigners see this much plainer than we do.”
After returning to the United States, Grant began a whistle-stop tour of the United States. At the time people didn’t openly campaign for the presidency, but everyone knew what Grant was doing. At the 1880 Republican Convention, it looked as if Grant might get his wish to return to the White House, but the delegates deadlocked, in part because it was thought unsuitable for a president to serve a third term. Eventually, after three dozen rounds of ballots, James Garfield was chosen as a compromise candidate. He would win the general election but was assassinated only six months into his presidency.
Despite all his success, Grant was not financially secure. To run for president he resigned his military commission, so he was not receiving a pension. There also was no pension for ex-presidents at the time. Well-wishers and private citizens raised enough money for him to be modestly comfortable, but not wealthy. He eventually went back into business with a man named Ferdinand Ward, who at the time was called “The Napoleon of finance”. Unfortunately, Ward was running the largest Ponzi scheme in US history, and Grant lost everything. At one point he estimated he had less than $100 to his name.
In an event that today seems surreal, Mark Twain came to the rescue. Twain had met Grant several times and openly admired the general. After hearing that Grant was planning to write his memoirs for a modest sum, Twain intervened. Believing that Grant’s memoirs could be a bestseller and potentially sell a quarter million copies, Twain promised the Grants he would do right by them if they chose him as publisher. Unfortunately, Grant was dying of throat cancer, the product of his ever-present cigar. Despite being in great pain and barely being able to eat for months, Grant wrote as much as possible. He somehow produced a two-volume work totaling 336,000 words, delivering the manuscript less than a month before his death. Twain made good on his promise. After the memoirs sold a record-shattering 300,000 copies, Julia Grant was paid $450,000 in royalties, securing her future. As Chernow puts it, “Clearly Grant had emerged victorious in his last uphill battle”.
What a life.