Ulysses Grant was a great man whose accomplishments far exceed most people who have ever lived but his struggles and life experiences match those of most who have ever lived.
With the name U.S. Grant it would certainly seem that he was destined to save the Union. Few know that the General and President was born Hiram Ulysses Grant and the initials HUG provide an apt description of the tenderhearted man.
Grant grew up in a modern-day middle class family, he did not struggle as a child but lacked personal ambition. Without his knowledge, his father arranged for their local congressman to nominate Grant to West Point. The Congressman submitted the appointment of Ulysses S. Grant to the academy and when Hiram arrived he tried to correct the mistake but was told it could not be changed. He became U.S. Grant forever.
The initials weren’t lost on his fellow cadets and they called him Uncle Sam. Grant wasn’t an exceptional student at West Point but he graduated and continued to pursue a career in the military.
In the Army, Grant was sent west where he met and fell in love with Julia Dent. A plantation owners’ daughter, Julia was accustomed to a life-style beyond what an officer could provide. But love won and Grant spent his life to ensure she had the comforts and care she required.
Early in their relationship Grant was sent to Mexico to fight in the war. It is an early example of his belief in equality. The Mexican-American War was a war of aggression, in which the United States stole territory from Mexico and attempted to take over the entire county. It was a war Grant was apart of but not a supporter of. He didn’t believe the U.S. had a right to take the land but he had to follow orders.
He wasn’t a high ranking officer but he was an efficient one. He handled logistics to ensure the army had supplies where they needed to be and on time. During the war he was able to observe the personalities and strategic planning of leaders he would later face in the Civil War.
After the war he was stationed in California. The trip to the west coast was arduous and deadly. He was forced to leave behind his family and living in isolated backwoods was difficult for him. To supplement his income to afford to send for Julia and their sons, he embarked on multiple failed business ventures and investments that left him duped by people he trusted. Eventually, he resigned from the military and returned to his wife and children as a pauper – reliant on his father and father-in-law for assistance as he performed backbreaking and fruitless work on a farm.
Grant moved his family to Illinois at an integral time in American history. The Civil War was brewing and he crossed the Mason Dixon line onto the right side of history. He wasn’t a political man but he believed wholeheartedly in the Union. As a West Point graduate and military veteran he knew he could be of value to an under-prepared Northern Army. He passionately advocated for a commission into the Army and his successful efforts changed everything.
During the first few years of the Civil War, the Union army went through a rotation of arrogant and incompetent generals. We learn most about battles on the eastern front, like Gettysburg, but the victories were happening on the other side of the Appalachian Mountains under the leadership of Grant. His battles weren’t expected to be turning points in the war but they were. Not only that, they were massive victories. It was strategy, his keen understanding of his enemy and his persistence in holding the line that provided fuel and confidence for Americans living in the North to keep fighting. These victories also helped sustain Lincoln as he shifted the wars objective to include ending slavery.
Grant wasn’t an ardent abolitionist but he was a good man who believed that equality made sense. He understood that humans are humans and deserved to be treated as such. When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Grant not only accepted the order but actively carried out its intent.
Grant freed slaves as he took over the South. But more than just freeing them he provided them with food, clothes, territory to establish their new life and protection from former owners. He also enlisted former slaves as volunteers in the Army to prove that black men were as capable as their white counterparts. This is significant because elsewhere, other generals may free the slaves but they were not offering them provisions to sustain their livelihood. Grant’s efforts are so important because freeing someone is great but without providing means to survive it is futile.
His victories in the West propelled him to the head of the Army and the military rank only previously held by George Washington. Within a year he wins the war. It was a cataclysmic rise in stature and responsibility and Grant didn’t flinch at accolades thrusted upon him. Through it all he maintained his stoic, no-nonsense personality.
Men followed Grant into battle because he was in the battle, supporting and encouraging his men and knowing everything that was happening on the field. Some have called him a butcher but he was anything but. Grant understood that if the North didn’t use its manpower to hold the line and push forward, public support would wane, Europe’s confidence shutter and the South could win by default.
The compassion and sense of humanity he felt for freedman, he felt for his Confederate opponents. Although he would only accept the terms of an unconditional surrender, he wanted to stem resentment and provided food and provisions to the former enemy and allowed men to keep their side arm, horses and dignity. Instead of taking prisoners, he offered parole with faith that the men would not again take up arms against the Union.
His dignified military leadership earned him the respect of Southerners both during and after the war.
Grant was an ally and admirer in Abraham Lincoln and he had faith in the country’s future under his leadership. The assassination of Lincoln is well-known. What is not as well-known is the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln that included assassination attempts against Secretary of State Seward, Vice President Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant.
The Grants were invited to sit with the Lincolns at Ford Theater but Julia did not want to attend. Following the national tragedy, Grant recalled seeing his would-be assassin pass him on the street as his family made their way to the train station.
Lincoln’s death had a profound impact on Grant. He was not a political man but he could not sit by and watch the Chief Executive capitulate with the South and compromise the freedom of former slaves.
Grant was not a politician but he was a hero and when called to serve his country as president, he accepted.
Grant accepted the responsibility of president with the same steady determination he had as General. A brilliant man in some areas, Grant was naive in others and on more than one occasion trusted the wrong people. He was an honest man with integrity and good intentions who wrongly trusted others were guided by the same principles.
Great men would serve Grant cabinet but so would men who looked to take advantage of the administration and the president. They violated his trust and tarnished his reputation. We remember the bad and not the good.
He had many victories. He was the foremost protector of civil rights for black Americans, Jewish Americans and Native Americans. He tried to protect the lives of Native Americans by encouraging them to transition to reservations instead of free roaming that led to battles with settlers, militias and the army. An infamous order given during the Civil War against Jewish Americans is remember but not his apology, the relationships he developed, appointments he made and the community’s acceptance of his contrition. At no time did black Americans doubt the support they received from Grant.
Black Americans were allowed inside the White House and accepted as equals. Grant used all of his political capital to maintain the victories of the Civil War and protect blacks and white Republicans in the South from being murdered and tortured by the Klan. His relentless efforts to protect black Americans and white Republicans in the South wore on Northerners who were tired of fighting and hearing about black rights when they themselves were not particularly passionate about equality for a denigrated minority.
This played into the legacy of Grant as people grew weary of his attempts to hold the south responsible for its actions and accept a new status quo. The relentless stress of presidency had a greater toil on Grant than the vigor of war and he did not seek a third term.
Grant was considered the greatest general in the world but he didn’t bring military might to the White House. He resigned his commission as General (and lost his pension – which was more than what the presidency offered) and maintained a separation of civil and military authority. We take for granted the smooth transition of power and the fact that a man of more ego and unsteady temperament would not have been so willing to set down his laurels and pass the baton to someone new.
Without a war to fight or a country to govern, Ulysses and his family embarked on an international tour that paved the way for future post-presidential identity. He met with heads of state and became an unofficial ambassador for the United States and even stepped in to help negotiate a peace settlement between China and Japan. Grant’s presence in Europe and Asia introduced America as a growing power on the international stage.
For Grant’s third act, he was an author. The final months of his life were spent writing his memoirs – a 450 page book that was published by Mark Twain and sold hundreds of thousands of copies in its first few months. Grant never intended to become a writer but after he was publicly swindled and impoverished he needed to make money for his family – especially since he was dying of cancer.
Grant died slowly and painfully from throat cancer. Through it all he sustained himself through writing and the knowledge that it would be source of revenue for his beloved wife. The book is well-regarded but leaves out an important piece of the puzzle and what is sadly the thing that is most associated with him – alcohol.
The greatest injustice to Grant is this dominating public opinion that he was a drunk. Ulysses Grant was an alcoholic. Today, we consider alcoholism a disease – back then it was a person who was unable to control their liquor. The thing is Grant did control it. His drinking binges were short and never impacted his performance in the field and after the war, there are hardly any reports that he slipped up. In fitting form, Grant battled the bottle, held the line and won. Opposed to remembering that he struggled with a common weakness and overcame it, Americans have caricaturize his problem and that is a tragedy.
Locally, the house he lived in when stationed in Detroit has been abandoned for years but will soon be moved to Eastern Market for rehabilitation and public use. I hope that this restoration project helps raise awareness about Grant’s role in Emancipation and Reconstruction because in a region with a large minority population it is sad that most do not know the man who was integral in establishing former slaves status of American citizen and protecting it.