Pre-service occupations: officer (1842-1854), farmer, clerk, salesman, general (1861-1865), general in chief (1864-1869)
Key events during his administration: Reconstruction (ended 1877), “Black Friday” (1869), Treaty of Washington (1871), battle of Little Big Horn (1876), formation of the Justice Department (1870), 15th Amendment added to the Constitution (1870), veto of the inflation bill (1874) and signing of the Specie Resumption act (1875), Colorado added to the Union (1876), Centennial Exposition (1876), Office of Surgeon General created (1871), establishment of first national park at Yellowstone (1872)
Presidential rating: Somewhat successful and popular
Amuse yourself with a little quiz: ask family, friends or even random people what they think of when they hear the name President Ulysses S. Grant. Most likely—if they give you an opinion—you’ll hear some variation of “incompetent, drunk and corrupt.”
Such is the power of the historian and the political enemy to rewrite history.
President Ulysses S. Grant was not incompetent, was not drunk in office, and his administration was not corrupt. My proof? The actual historical record. During his time he was revered in the same breath as Washington and Lincoln, but historians, scholars and political enemies succeeded in trashing what was truly one of the better presidencies. His political enemies, including the hypocritical “reformers,” the self-anointed intellectual elite (like Henry Adams), racist Reconstruction historians (such as the Dunning school) and highly judgmental and arrogant modernist historians (such as William McFeely) together succeeded in creating a portrait of President Grant that is a flat-out fabrication.
Some of these historians and intellectuals were biased against Grant because they opposed him personally. Some neglected to use Grant’s actual papers! Some built upon the previous erroneous works of others and compounded the errors. Some were actually bored with their subject! But mainly they trashed him because of Grant’s enforcement of Reconstruction and a real failure to understand Reconstruction both in the context of the Gilded Age and Grant’s strong belief in Reconstruction. For example, the Dunning school of thought from the 1910s and 1920s tore Grant’s presidency to shreds in part because they—like the so-called “reformers” and of course the Democrats before them—despised Reconstruction and blacks and therefore Grant. But latter-day historians, like William Gillette in his Retreat from Reconstruction, 1868-1879, (1982) attempt to paint Grant as an obstacle to Reconstruction, and it is his inattentiveness and lack of a coherent policy that caused Reconstruction to fail! It’s an odd thesis, particularly because Grant was that rarest of presidents: a politically courageous man who did the right thing even in the face of mounting hostility from all sides, especially the racist Democrats, as well as many in his own party who were more concerned about the dawning new age than the detritus of the Civil War.
The violence done to the history, character and presidency of Ulysses S. Grant is stunning and amazing. It’s as if they have a standard for excellence in some areas and a “Grant standard” for the 18th president. Many liberal scholars trash Grant because they want to trash anyone in power connected with the Gilded Age—which, of course, leaves them writing incoherently about one of the greatest champions of human rights in that era.
I want to be clear: Grant would never be ranked as a great or near-great president. But he definitely deserves a place among the above-average presidents, perhaps even at the upper end. Even the late Stephen Ambrose and dean of Civil War historians James McPherson say that Grant’s presidency deserves a much more positive evaluation. So does Lincoln’s most celebrated modern biographer, David Herbert Donald. (Ambrose’s comments are found in his final book, To America.)
Grant definitely had faults, chief among them being his nativity with people and his military style, which often ill-served him as president.
But he succeeded in ways that have not been truly appreciated until the last decade or so. These areas are: Reconstruction and the pursuit of black rights; international relations, including arbitration with England through his superb secretary of state, and avoiding war with Spain over Cuba; preventing the genocide of the Plains Indians; amazing fiscal responsibility; and maintaining the peace in 1876.
I won’t forget the scandals, but they just aren’t what they appeared to be. If you think Grant’s administration was nothing more than eight long years of incompetence and corruption, you are in for one heck of a surprise.
I am a partisan for Ulysses S. Grant, and it will probably show in this report. I make no apologies for my defense of Grant, because the way professional men of letters and self-anointed elite have treated this man just plain stinks. They should hang their heads in shame.
Important note: A little drink
The charge persists to this day that Grant was a drunk—a persistent slosh. He wasn’t! He was an alcoholic who 1) knew he had a problem and 2) got it under control. Drinking cost him his first Army career in 1854. When he rejoined the Army in 1861, he brought with him a friend from Galena, Ill., named John Rawlins, whose primary job was to keep him “on the wagon” (e.g., sober). There were a couple of times he fell off the wagon, but it was never during a battle. (He was NOT drunk at Shiloh.) Almost every single report about him being drunk during the war, or after, is false and usually malicious in nature, spread by jealous rivals for command or political enemies. Any contemporary or modern caricature you see of Grant as a drunkard is a vicious slander and ignorant lie.
Even innocent modern characterizations of Grant as a drunk are just wrong, coming as they do from badly sourced biographies. For example, Shelby Foote, whose writings I greatly admire and whose Southern drawl greatly elevated Ken Burns' The Civil War documentary, said during that documentary that Grant "went on a true bender during the Vicksburg campaign." However, the veracity of that claim and similar wartime drunkenness is highly dubious (see Smith for more).
In Hans L. Trefousse's 1989 biography on Andrew Johnson he claims Grant had to be sobered up during Johnson's "swing around the circle," repeating claims of Grant's enemies, but modern Grant biographers dispute this and similar claims.
Grant’s civilian life is usually portrayed as failure with a big capital “F.” Even many admirers say that Grant failed at everything except the army. Hogwash!
Grant always kept food on the table, a roof over his family’s heads and clothes on their backs. Does that sound like a failure? Sure, he went from farming to collecting debts to working in his father’s tannery and even sold firewood on the streets, but the point is he didn’t give up. He always made sure his family was provided for. Even at the end of his life, after a swindler of a business partner snookered him out of a ton of money, Grant refused to settle for charity and instead wrote his incredible Memoirs, the profits of which kept his family comfortable long after his death.
The man never gave up and always found a way to provide. That’s not a failure in my book.
First Army career
Grant’s first Army career began at West Point. Suffice it to say Grant wasn’t all that thrilled about some aspects of the academy, but he proved superior at horsemanship—better than any of his classmates, in fact. Although Grant would never serve in a cavalry unit, his prowess with and knowledge of horses would follow him the rest of his life. Normally a shy man around strangers (which lead some people to foolishly think Grant was dull-minded), Grant could talk your ears off concerning the subject of horses.
He graduated in the middle of his class and at his first posting met the woman he would eventually marry: Julia Dent, daughter of a Missouri slave owner. Grant was assigned to Zachary Taylor’s Army of Observation in Texas. As he wrote years later, he thought the Mexican War wrong, but went anyway because it was his duty to do so.
Grant liked Taylor immensely and copied his leadership style: loose and informal, but pointed. Grant would even copy Taylor’s style of dress during the Civil War: like Taylor, Grant eschewed pompous uniforms and wore simple trousers and a private’s blouse. There’s another reason why Grant gladly abandoned formal Army wear: as a freshly minted first lieutenant, young boys apparently made fun of him with the familiar childhood ditty, “Solder, soldier, will you work? No, indeed, I’ll sell my shirt!”
Lieutenant Grant earned citations for bravery under fire during the Mexican War, especially for bring supplies to his men. He ended the war as a brevet Captain (a field promotion) and settled into peacetime army routines. It was not easy for him. The long, boring postings away from his wife, especially to the Pacific coast, led him to drink, which finally ruined his career in 1854.
Rather than be court-martialed, Grant resigned. He tried his hand at the afore-mentioned professions, living for a time at a farm he called “Hardscrabble” (you can see his home on the Grant’s Farm park owned by Anheuser-Busch, near another home where he and Julia lived for a while, called White Haven).
At times he was penniless, and he couldn’t make a go at anything—but he always kept his family fed. When the war began, he was working in his father’s tannery in Galena, Ill.
Call to arms
Grant’s generalship has received far more attention than his presidency, of course, and his reputation has found favors and disfavor over the last 150 years. Currently, he is enjoying a favorable re-evaluation. I’m not qualified to judge whether he was the best of the war, or if Sherman, Lee, Jackson or some other general was, beyond making general observations. I’ll leave that for the military historians. See the Resources section below for in-depth examinations.
He got a second start in the army in 1861 when the Illinois governor placed him in charge of a regiment. As a West Point graduate, he soon gathered a few other regiments under his command, was promoted to brigadier and never looked back. After fighting a sharp battle at Belmont, Missouri, in November of ‘61, he won the critical battles of Forts Henry and Donnellson in Tennessee the following February, which triggered the collapse of the entire Confederate defenses in the West (and opened the northeastern reaches of that state to the Union for the rest of the war).
In April, Grant fought and won the terrible bloody battle at Shiloh. The butcher’s bill and (false) charges of drunkenness derailed his career for a while, but the battle changed his outlook. Before the fight, he thought the war would end with a few more good pushes; after Shiloh Grant became convinced the war could only be won by conquest of the South. During and after the Shiloh campaign, Grant forged his lifelong friendship with William T. Sherman, who explained their friendship in two different ways: “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk.” (Both charges against the men were false.) And: “I’m a damn sight far smarter than Grant. I know a great deal more about war, military histories, strategy and grand tactics than he does; I know more about organization, supply, and administration and about everything else than he does; but I'll tell you where he beats me and where he beats the world. He don't care a damn for what the enemy does out of his sight, but it scares me like hell."
Grant explained that last statement in a roundabout way in his Memoirs. Early in the war, Grant was tasked with capturing a rebel camp in Missouri. Though greatly afraid, he marched on the camp only to find it deserted. He determined that the rebel leader had been just as afraid of Grant as Grant was of him. He never forgot that lesson.
Armchair general that I am, I think Sherman is wrong, though. Sherman was the better tactician, but Grant was the better strategist. Anyway, Grant got back on track later in the year when he made plans to destroy the army defending Vicksburg, Miss. It was a long and tortuous road that had many setbacks—and some legitimate criticism. But in one of the masterpieces of modern warfare, Grant out-maneuvered the Vicksburg defenses and captured the defending army after a siege, on July 4, 1863. He then defeated the major Confederate western army (The Army of Tennessee) at Chattanooga that November. By then, President Lincoln knew Grant was the man he needed to win the war.
Lincoln brought Grant east to command all Union armies in early 1864. Grant reassured Lincoln like no other general had, largely because Grant told Lincoln that regardless of what happened from then on, it wouldn’t be from lack of support from the government. In other words, Grant was literally the first Union general to actually assume responsibility for what he was about to do, and told Lincoln ahead of time that he had no intention of blaming the president for anything. Lincoln must have loved hearing that.
Grant has long been attacked (starting during the war itself) as a butcher who sacrificed lives needlessly, and as an untalented general who used blunt force to have his way. Such criticism seems overwrought and done to elevate Lee while denigrating Grant. And certain facts cannot ever be denied. Grant won decisively because he had a plan and stuck to it, found and promoted competent and loyal lieutenants such as Sherman and Sheridan, and had a willingness to abandon failed approaches, such as he did when he quit the direct, bloody confrontation with Lee. Grant knew how to whip Lee and the Confederacy and did it. It is argued that Lee was the better general because of his string of brilliant victories, whereas Grant faced poorly led and ill-equipped western armies. Yet practically nothing Lee did advanced his cause decisively. And Lee also faced an often poorly led army, whose weaknesses he took advantage of to deadly effect. Grant’s efforts, however, continually brought the Union closer to victory, at Forts Henry and Donnellson, Shiloh, Vicksburg and Chattanooga. Grant never retraced his steps, and wherever he was in charge, the Union cause didn’t either. Grant’s casualties were also proportionately less than Lee’s. Lee himself refused to hear any criticism of Grant, for when his lieutenants complained that Grant foolishly wasted lives, Lee silenced them by saying he believed Grant had admirably conducted his affairs. (This is not to say Lee wasn’t a great general; he was – but he did, in fact, lose, whereas Grant won.) Lee always sought the decisive battle, but Grant came to understand that the way to beat the South was through a war of exhaustion. (Meaning, he could win the war regardless of whether he won the set battles.)
Grant was also the only the only general to eliminate three entire armies from the field: at Donnellson, Vicksburg and Appomattox.
Finally, one more thing about Grant as general: The keys to Grant’s amazing successes are many. His enemies—and they were legion—credited his successes to mere chance and luck: a foolish drunkard who happened to be at the right places at the right times. But it was Grant’s character, his fortitude, his rejection of any possibility of defeat and his ability to see the “big picture” that gave him success. Grant, of course, had some vanity—what general doesn’t – but his vanity honestly took second place to winning the war. Chief among Grant’s qualities was his ability to generate loyalty in chief lieutenants and his men—and he did this through smart delegation of duties, a decided lack of military pomp and the always-constant drive to press on. And Grant was always in the thick of things, whether placing demoralized or reinforcements into line at Shiloh, or personally moving men and material through the swamps to begin his great flank march on Vicksburg, or disengaging from the Wilderness and putting his men back on the road south. Robert E. Lee’s post-war supporters may have heaped all of the glory from the war on his shoulders, but it was Grant who won it. Not by flash and expensive offensives, but by following this maxim, which he told to his wife Julia shortly after Donnellson: “The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.”
There was, of course, so much left out of that summary of Grant’s military career, but you have a general idea, and the story of the Civil War is familiar enough. (See Resources below for more.)
But just before it ended—and just before Lincoln’s life ended—Lincoln met with Grant, Sherman and Rear Adm. David Porter on a steamer at City Point, Va., Grant’s headquarters. This March 1865 meeting is so critical to understanding Grant’s presidency that is it amazing that historians have overlooked it for so long.
During this meeting, Lincoln talked about what he expected to happen next, after Confederate armies finally surrendered and their men paroled. Lincoln had a desire to “let ‘em up easy” and get the Confederate states back into the Union quickly, but fairly. He wanted the newly freed slaves to play an important role as well.
The meeting left a profound impression on Grant and Sherman, as played out in the quite generous terms each dictated to his foe at the Appomattox and Durham Station surrenders, respectively. But Lincoln’s desire for a reunited nation left an even deeper impression on Grant, in that he would spend his entire time in office enacting, in effect, what Lincoln’s second term would have been. Of course, there may be some serious disagreement here, as some Lincoln scholars would argue that we don’t quite know what Lincoln’s second term would have entailed for the South because Lincoln himself wasn’t so sure. However, Ulysses S. Grant was sure, and his understanding of what Lincoln wanted for the South was that the “verdict” of Appomattox must never be overturned.
To Grant, according to his understanding of Lincoln’s wishes, the peace was immutable: the Confederate states would come back to the Union fold, slavery was dead and the newly freed slaves would become citizens. As president, Grant would work to secure that vision—to his eventual despair.
It is a huge mistake, though, to separate the story of Ulysses S. Grant into everything leading up to Appomattox and everything after, because to do so fails to take into account Grant’s increasingly strong desire—his mission, if you will—to preserve the fruits of that victory. He fought hard for that victory and he was not about to see it thrown away. But during the Johnson years, Grant came to believe that those fruits were in danger of being lost.
For the next four years, Grant continued serving as general in chief. He was undoubtedly the most celebrated and honored man in the country. He was still primarily a military man, but events would force him to become politically involved. Before the war, he had been a Democrat, but he identified now with the Republican Party primarily because of Lincoln and the war.
Grant never got along with President Johnson. Early in his term, Johnson (and the Radicals) wanted to punish high-level Confederates, including Robert E. Lee, both by refusing them clemency and putting them on trial. Trying Lee for treason (something Lee was not afraid of) offended Grant because of the terms he had given at Appomattox. Grant was mad—and he had a reputation for never losing his cool. He all but shouted at Johnson “If I had told him and his army that their liberty would be invaded, that they would be open to arrest, trial and execution for treason, Lee would have never surrendered, and we would have lost many lives in destroying him.” As long as Lee and his officers never violated their parole as laid out at the surrender, Grant would never consent to their arrest. He would resign his command first. (Smith, p.418)
Grant had Johnson, and the president knew it. Grant was far too popular for Johnson to have him as an enemy. But probably from that moment on, Johnson knew he needed to either control Grant or neutralize him. He tried, but his own mistakes couldn’t override Grant’s character and popularity.
Relations between commander in chief and general in chief got worse. Grant abandoned the president’s entourage during Johnson’s disastrous 1866 “swing around the circle” when it became clear Johnson was just using Grant to make it appear he supported Johnson’s policies. And Grant was angered by Johnson’s vindictive words against the Radicals.
Strangely, though, things were getting so bad between Johnson and Congress during the fall of 1866 that Grant actually began to fear that Johnson would initiate a coup. It seems fantastic now—almost feverish—but it seemed logical to Grant. After all, Johnson was talking about a Congress that was operating “illegally” and “unconstitutionally.” His suspicions were fueled by Johnson’s desire to send Grant to lead a diplomatic mission to the newly restored Mexican government (a show of force by 50,000 of Grant’s troops just after the war had convinced France’s puppet government under Maximillian to quit Mexico). Grant adamantly refused to go, because it was a job for diplomats, not soldiers, and the president could not order him to do it. (He was right.) The coup of course never materialized.
Johnson and Grant fought even further when Congress initiated Military, or Radical, Reconstruction by dividing the ex-Confederacy into five military districts. Johnson, reluctantly, appointed five generals named by Grant to lead these districts (see the report on Johnson for the battle between the president and Congress over Military Reconstruction). Grant named his protégé, Phillip H. Sheridan, to command the district based in New Orleans, but Sheridan’s blunt style led to outcries that bent the ear of the president. He (probably gleefully) removed Sheridan over Grant’s protest.
The final showdown between Grant and Johnson came when Johnson tried to use the general in the events that led to impeachment. By now (1868) Grant was the assumed Republican candidate, and Johnson, still holding on to the dreams of party building, sought to damage Grant. Grant actually handled matters badly; among other missteps, he didn’t meet with Johnson when he said he would—and Johnson immediately pounced on Grant to “expose” him as a liar. Nobody really believed him, though.
Republicans had begun to look at Grant as their possible candidate for the White House because Grant was tremendously popular. In today’s language, Grant was a superstar. And the Radical Republicans thought Grant would be just want they needed: an easily pliable, very popular war hero in the White House who would let them enact their program of vengeance against the South. Republicans were again doing with Grant what the Whigs—some of them even the same men—had done with Zachary Taylor 18 years earlier.
Reluctantly, and against the advice of Sherman, who abhorred politics (despite his brother John, the senator) Grant accepted the nomination. He quelled party infighting with “Let us have peace,” a statement which became his campaign slogan. He easily won the election, squashing the Democrats’ Horatio Seymour in a commanding victory. However, it was closer than the Republicans thought it would be, given Grant’s popularity, but the Republicans had suffered because of impeachment (sound familiar?) and other issues.
Why did Grant run for president? It’s simple, really. Grant didn’t want the job, but leaving the nation and the war’s legacy in the hands of the likes of Johnson, hard-core and racist ex-rebels and others threatened to wreck what had already been gained. During the second half of the Johnson years, though, Grant moved from a man of pure military thinking to one of political thinking, as well. This movement is illustrated by his involvement in the Military Reconstruction bill:
“When the Reconstruction bill went into conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate versions, Grant worked closely with Sherman’s brother, sponsor of the bill in the Senate, to fashion a measure that would provide for black suffrage and at the same time indicate to the Southern states how military occupation could be ended [Big Mo note: adoption of the 14th Amendment]. Grant’s role was widely reported…So, as both Grant and the Radicals were about to find out, things wouldn’t go as planned. Grant, for all his personal and supposed political nativity, proved to be a much different president than they expected. And the Radicals would not get to mercilessly crush the South like they wanted to.
… What was most surprising was Grant’s endorsement of black suffrage. Throughout 1865 and 1866 he had been skeptical of enfranchising the freedmen, at least immediately. But continued resistance on the part of white Southerners to granting legal equality to African-Americans, combined with the increasing violence in the South, convinced him that black suffrage was essential. Only by weaving the freedmen into the political fabric of the nation could past injustices be corrected and the current wave of violence be brought under control.” (Smith, p.433)
If Grant had one personality flaw that hurt him in his presidency—and throughout his life—it was his naivety with people. Quite often, Grant would trust someone unquestionably unless and until that person proved himself to be a snake. On such occasion, that person was never trusted again, with rare exception. In the Army, Grant’s instincts and judge of character served him quite well. But in the world of politics, where chameleons ruled and Grant’s instincts on character were less sharp, Grant was initially like a babe in the woods and got caught by some skunks.
Immediately the Republicans sought to control him, mainly through his cabinet appointments and the usual flurry of offices; but like his hero, Zachary Taylor, Grant would prove to be his own man and appointed whom he would. And like Taylor’s, not all of his appointments were good. For example, he made his old Galena friend, John Rawlins, the secretary of war, which naturally angered party members who expected the office to go to someone else. But Rawlins was deathly ill and died later in 1869.
His longtime political patron, Elihu B. Washburne, served as his secretary of state for a mere 12 days before heading to France as ambassador for the next eight years. It was supposed to be temporary to let Washburne have the title added to his portfolio, but it did not—nor should it—reflect well on Grant.
These early appointments cause Grant political embarrassment and exposed a level of political incompetence in certain people’s minds that Grant was never able to shake. It wasn’t an auspicious beginning.
But most appointments were quite good. Grant’s most spectacular cabinet officer was former New York governor and senator Hamilton Fish as secretary of state (replacing the short-lived term of Washburne). Grant consulted absolutely nobody over the appointment—not even Fish himself! Fish received notice in the mail, and he accepted; reluctant at first, he soon warmed to the job. It’s a good thing, too, because Fish became one of the most celebrated secretaries of state in the nation’s history, on even par with George Marshall. He served throughout the administration. More on him later.
His selections for treasury and attorney general were also excellent. It was a mixed cabinet at first, but historians who seem to dismiss the Grant cabinet as nothing more than a pack of corrupt toadies (with the exception of Fish) don’t know what they’re talking about.
Party leaders were certainly upset over the lack of consultation over cabinet choices, but in Grant’s defense, they should have thought of that before making a general their standard-bearer. A man who is used to giving orders and delegating responsibilities isn’t going to suddenly overnight develop a gift for politics, or see the need for stroking delicate egos in Congress. He’s going to simply get the job done.
But the appointments flap was just the beginning of Grant’s troubles with strong personalities in Congress, particularly the old abolitionist stalwart, Charles Sumner. Grant and Sumner should have been allies, and Grant thought that they would be. But Sumner “betrayed” Grant in a way that (I think) justified Grant’s subsequent treatment of the Massachusetts senator. Sumner believed that he would run foreign policy through his proxies in State and took it as a personal affront that Grant assumed that he and his secretary of state would do so. Worse, the night before the Senate was to vote on Grant’s plan to annex Santo Domingo, Grant had invited Sumner over to talk, and Sumner had assured Grant on his support—in typical politician-speak. In other words, he promised to the politically-naïve without really promising that he would support the treaty. The next day, when Sumner spoke against the treaty, Grant was aghast, and accused (correctly) Sumner of duplicity. Thanks in large part to Sumner’s opposition, the treaty failed—and Grant never forgave Sumner.
Grant was also not a strong speaker. With the written word, he was brilliant. It was said of Grant that his orders in battle were always clear and precise. No one failed to understand what he wanted. His messages to Congress were equally clear and brilliantly written. (If you read his Memoirs, you’ll understand why the great Mark Twain was so enthusiastic about them, and Twain knew a thing or two about the written word.) But when he was speaking, he wasn’t great or too memorable. Fortunately, he came to know his limitation, and kept it to a minimum.
What follows are the major things that happened in Grant’s presidency. Rather than list events chronologically, I’ve described them thematically for easier understanding of just why there is more to Grant’s presidency than you know.
The period in the South of 1863-1877 generally falls under the term of Reconstruction. It was not a happy period, but it saw, for a time, the elevation of black Americans to equal footing with whites. For the first time, black Americans were elected to local, state and federal governments. But the bitter fighting between Johnson and Congress soured the nation and the South on Reconstruction, so by the time President Grant took command of the situation, he had three primary goals in mind: with Congress in control of Reconstruction (with Grant’s assistance back when the law was passed), Grant was to enforce the law while protecting freedmen and Unionists from predatory violence of white supremacists, being fair to ex-rebels who sought re-union, and reuniting the Southern states to the Union. The formal condition of reunion was supposedly presaged on acceptance of the 14th amendment. Technically, Reconstruction could be said to have ended in 1871, when the last of the Southern delegates was finally seated in Congress. But President Grant still needed to enforce the law in the South.
In short, here’s how Grant handled Reconstruction:
Ulysses S. Grant was the original civil rights president. Not Lincoln, you say? The great Emancipator destroyed slavery and restored the Union to his great credit and the undying thanks of the nation. Grant, however, carried Lincoln’s vision even further, and was the greatest champion of black civil rights until Lyndon Johnson.
During Grant’s administration, he pressed for civil rights long after the country as a whole had tired of “waving the bloody shirt” in support of the freedmen. The general-turned-president spent his eight years in office making sure the “verdict” of Appomattox was not overturned. Grant and his cabinet formed the Justice Department specifically to enforce federal authority in the South and preserve the rights of the freedmen. Two of Grant’s attorneys general, Amos T. Ackerman and then George H. Williams, oversaw Grant’s presidential Reconstruction policies through the five Enforcement Acts and the Ku-Klux Klan Act. Through their actions—driven by Grant—they smashed the Klan and thereby rendered it impotent for 50 years. Thanks to Grant’s forceful actions, violence in the South against freedmen dropped, and it was only when the threat of reprisal was removed following Grant’s presidency that violence escalated again. The 14th and 15th amendments became law based on his full and unswerving support. He suspended habeas corpus and sent federal troops into Southern states to enforce suffrage for blacks, believing that the freedmen should enjoy the same political rights as anyone else. The 1872 elections, which Grant won in a landslide, were the fairest in the South until the 1960s.
He tried to annex Santo Domingo (modern-day Dominican Republic) not, as has been long thought, in a bungled attempt to add territory to the US. Rather, Grant sought to make the black-dominated island into three or four US states on the theory that if they were successful, then they would serve as models for successful, peaceful state governments dominated by blacks. The annexation effort of course failed, and whether it was noble or wrongheaded is beside the point: it was an example of novel thinking from someone often dismissed as a dullard.
Grant was the first president to fight for equal rights for blacks based on the simple belief that they deserved it no less than anyone else. He used the full weight of the federal government as much as he could during peacetime—and more than any other president in peacetime, ever (even Jefferson and the disastrous embargo of 1807-08)—to protect America’s most vulnerable people. But his fight was a doomed fight. (The best analogy I can think of is Atticus Finch defending the prejudged Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird.) Because racism was so ingrained in America at that time, what Grant sought to do was simply not possible—at least, not then. There are some historians like Gillette who believe that had Grant been a really slick politician, Reconstruction would have worked. But that, too, is hogwash, because even slick politicians can’t change deep-rooted attitudes and beliefs with mere political skills.
As the Republican-led Reconstruction governments fell and states were “redeemed” by Democrat (white supremacist) governments, the public eventually soured on reconstructing the South. The best analogy is to the war in Iraq: when Americans hear nothing but bad news, and are unclear of when the thing is finally over, they lose patience. Historian Josiah Bunting III, writing in 2004, explains:
“It is often a liability of democracy that its citizens cannot for a long time sustain support for policies and actions that, however noble their goals, do not demonstrate measurable progress. Moral stamina, as historians call it, is a perishable commodity in the American polity. Abraham Lincoln might urge that the nation take increased devotion to the cause for which the Union dead had given the last full measure of devotion, but citizens of neither 1863 nor 1875 could agree among themselves as to the real nature of that cause, and what labors were necessary, and right, to secure its final achievement. As the years wore on and the war edged further into the past, many northern citizens had had enough and were ready to move on. For them, this was the meaning of Grant’s famous injunction “Let us have peace.” (Bunting, p.109)
But despite Grant’s valiant losing battle, some people did notice and were grateful—and looked forward to a better day when there were more Grants in the country than white supremacists and Klansmen and Redeemers:
“To [Grant] more than any other man the negro owes his enfranchisement and the Indian a humane policy. In the matter of the protection of the freedman from violence his moral courage surpassed that of his party; hence his place as its head was given to timid men, and the country was allowed to drift, instead of stemming the current with stalwart arms.”
So wrote the great Frederick Douglass, who was absolutely right in his assessment of Grant and of the nation. Because when lesser men succeeded Grant as president, and Reconstruction was abandoned, black Americans essentially had to start over. Yet most historians have dismissed Grant’s efforts, and labeled him as a racist, a butcher and a dullard too stupid to be president.
Superb international relations
With Grant’s full support, Secretary of State Fish enacted methods of international arbitration that are still used and served as the foundational basis for the League of Nations and later the United Nations.
Have you ever heard of that?
During the war, England had manufactured several ships for the Confederacy that were easily converted to commerce raiders. The CSS Alabama (sunk by the USS Kersage of Le Harve in 1864) became the focal point of the dispute between America and England. The Senate had rejected a Johnson administration agreement with England. Fish, on the other hand, and with Grant’s full approval, brilliantly made peace with England over the Civil War claims, and also ended all outstanding border disputes and fishing rights disputes between American and England/Canada, thereby strengthening and deepening the ties between our two nations.
The Washington Treaty of 1871 remains a masterpiece of diplomacy, and was hailed in Washington. Alas, Grant gets no credit, but Fish would not have acted without his chief’s approval. However, it would be fair (well, almost) to say that our true friendship with England began during Grant’s presidency, because after these claims, we really had no more arguments with England. Grant also avoided war with Spain over Cuba—twice—despite enormous public and congressional pressure. He knew that the desire to add Havana to the Union was motivated by nothing more than greed. He offered to purchase Cuba, but did nothing more. Congress and certain segments of the public wanted America to intervene on the side of rebels in Cuba against Spanish rule, but Grant saw absolutely no reason for it. He offered America’s services as arbitrator, but no more.
Thirty years later the United States would fight the highly dubious Spanish-American War—and Grant probably would have disapproved, just as he disapproved of the Mexican War.
Elsewhere on the domestic front, Grant made a true effort to make peace with the Plains Indian tribes, thereby in all likelihood saving them from extermination. That’s a bold statement, I know.
And President Andrew Johnson had, to his credit, initiated a peace policy of his own. But Grant’s was much more substantive and carried some actual weight behind it—and Johnson’s fighting with Congress made his a non-starter, despite the truth behind his commission’s reports.
Western states supported Grant in 1868 on the mistaken belief that he—the man who destroyed the Confederacy—would eradicate the “Indian problem” once and for all. They were wrong. In the army in the 1850s Grant wrote to his wife Julia that he knew the Indians were getting shafted left and right, and when he became president, Grant reversed U.S. policy and promoted comprehensive reform designed to bring peace.
Of course, “Custer’s Last Stand” occurred during the final year of his administration, mainly because of the vainglorious Custer but also Sheridan’s aggression and Grant’s mistaken trust in Sheridan. I don’t discount the culpability of the Sioux and etc. who were on the warpath, but this was an avoidable disaster, and Grant took his eye off the ball.
But Grant’s policy usually was to punish those who did wrong while making fair and just peace with those who wanted peace. In fact, it’s very similar to Taylor’s approach to Indians and Mexicans, and George W. Bush’s approach to Islamic terror. What made the difference in Grant’s approach was that Grant believed in treating Indians as individuals instead of just tribes. In other words, seeing them as people, not problems. When the famed Red Cloud and other Plains chiefs visited Washington in 1870, Grant treated them just shy of visiting heads of state. Not for nothing did the Plains Indians refer specifically to Grant as “great white father.” He pressed for citizenship for Indians—a remarkably progressive stance for the 1870s and something no president had ever before done—and sought to treat them fairly by replacing corrupt Indian agents with (presumably) un-corruptible Quakers. The corrupt agents were one of the biggest causes of troubles on the Plains. He also created a blue-ribbon panel for Indian affairs to bypass the congressional logjam on Indian appropriations, and placed his longtime friend Ely Parker—himself a Seneca chief—in charge of Indian affairs. Alas, the panel folded before he left office.
Finally, Grant utterly refused to abandon his peace policy just to win votes in the west. Grant swept the west in 1872 except for Texas, which had to do more with Reconstruction than the peace policy.
Although Grant wasn’t entirely successful on this front, he sincerely believed that Indians deserved justice no less than anyone else.
Managing the nation’s money better than his own
Grant was bad with money—his own, that is. And it often got him into trouble. One of the primary reasons why he wrote his amazing Memoirs was because he hoped to provide for his family after he died (which he did).
But with the nation’s money, Grant and his chosen treasury secretaries proved up to the task. Grant prevented the greedy cornering of the gold market in 1869 by Jay Gould and Jim Fisk in a brilliant counter-stroke that flooded the market with government gold (instead of the small amount regularly scheduled to be sold).
At first, Grant was taken in by Jay Gould and Jim Fisk—his trusting nature got the better of him. But contrary to what history says, the actual paper record proves that Grant ultimately was not fooled by what Gould and Fisk planned and warned his treasury secretary a full two weeks in advance of what they were scheming and to prepare accordingly. Thus, Grant prevented a bad situation from becoming a serious crisis. While the episode does not reflect well on Grant—“laggard and uncertain” is how Josiah Bunting describes Grant’s handling—it is true that once he got wind of the scheme, he acted.
During his second term, the Panic of 1873 slammed the nation. The collapse of the Jay Cooke banking firm in Philadelphia precipitated the Panic, which was exacerbated by the collapse of many railroads. Unemployment ran as high as 14 percent by 1876. The president is criticized in modern times for not doing more to alleviate the crisis, but Grant did what he could with the tools he had. (Remember, this is still the time before the activist presidency, and before the time when the executive branch was looked to as the cure-all of the nation).
So what did Grant do? Contrary to “history,” Grant did not “do nothing,” nor was he confused and directionless. Grant single-handedly prevented the amazingly harmful inflation bill of 1874 from becoming law. Designed by a Congress and Wall Street desperate to do something to combat the Panic, the bill would have creamed the already-struggling economy while benefiting only a few through the release of millions of government “greenbacks” (paper currency). Immediately following that victory, Grant supported the Resumption of specie payment Act of 1875, thereby restoring US credit and avoided turning a financial crisis into a financial disaster. The Panic literally ended abruptly when the act became effective in 1879.
Years later, Grant explained that he took his time witing out the reasons to approve the bill. Republican party leaders were warning that a veto would destroy the party, especially in the west; so was his cabinet, except Fish, so the pressure on Grant was great. He wrote out elegant reasons for approving the bill, arguing that it it wouldn't mean inflation, that it wouldn't affect the country's credit, that it would help, not hurt:
"When I finished my wonderful message, I read it over and said to myself, 'What is the good of all of this? You do not believe it. You know it is not true.' Throwing it aside I resolved to do what I believed to be right, veto the bill! I could not stand my own arguments." (Smith, p. 581)The importance of that victory cannot be understated. Smith calls the veto "a seminal event in American history" (p. 581) because the nation moved away from Civil War soft money and a massive and necessary step toward the reurn of specie payments (money backed by gold). A triumphant Grant told Congress in December 1874 that unbacked paper currency had served its purpose in the war, but in order to restore economic stability, hard currency was needed, not hundreds of millions of more greenbacks that would lead to a more inflated dollar unable to compete with foreign currencies.
Sure, Congress' and Wall Street's inflation bill would have provided temporary relief across the country -- and Grant was fully aware of this. He knew full well what it was like to be poor and living from one meal to the next. But as the chief executive, he had to look at the bigger picture.
And he was right. It was a major victory and was actually hailed in the financial community , many newspapers and even by Republicans starting to take a dim view of the General in the White House, such as future president James Garfield.
To summarize Grant's economic policy, Frank Scaturro writes:
"Grant pursued an economic policy that was singularly successful in the aftermath of the most serious fiscal problems the nation had ever faced. Under his administration, policies were pursued that reduced inflation, bolstered economic recovery from the mild depression of 1867-69, promoted economy in federal expenditures, and substantially raised the nation’s credit. Both taxes and the national debt were reduced during Grant’s presidency by approximately $300 million and $435 million, respectively; one-fifth of the national debt had been eliminated, and during Grant’s first year in office, [Treasury Secretary] Boutwell had successfully established a policy that (if it had been desirable to continue rather than reducing taxation) would have paid off the entire national debt in less than a quarter century. Annual interest rates were reduced by approximately $30 million under Grant’s policies, and the balance of trade was changed from over $130 million against the United States to over $120 million in the nation’s favor.” (Scaturro, p.49-50)In sum, Grant successfully pursued what today would be considered fiscally conservative policies.
Three other incidences that occurred during the Grant era merit mention. In addition to establishing the Department of Justice in 1871 under the attorney general, Grant added the office of the solicitor general. (The office of the surgeon general also began during Grant’s term, though it came about through an act of Congress.)
Grant also signed into law in 1870 the creation of the Weather Bureau, which would later become the National Weather Service.
Finally, Grant and Congress authorized the creation of the first national park in America. Based on reports from (and tireless efforts of) F.V. Hayden, more than 2,200,000 acres became Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming) in March 1872.
The “scandals” and corruption
Yes, there were scandals. And undoubtedly, “scandal” is the word most people continue to associate with Grant. But unlike some of Grant’s successors (including a certain turkey from Arkansas), Grant was not the epicenter of scandal. And many of the “scandals” actually occurred during Johnson’s unfortunate term and only came to light during Grant’s terms (as has happened to George W. Bush: the crimes of Enron actually took place during Clinton’s administration, but since they were exposed during Bush’s time, Bush gets blamed). Other scandals merely occurred during Grant’s terms but had nothing to do with him or his administration, such as Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall.
As for the worst of the “scandals”, it was Grant’s administration that helped expose them! Those were the Credit Mobilier scandal, which occurred before Grant became president, and the Whiskey scandal, which included some low-ranking members of his administration and would eventually bring accusations—proven unfounded—against his primary secretary, Babcock. Grant made sure that no one guilty would go unpunished—even longtime friends.
But when it became clear to Grant that his attorney general, Bristow, was aiming to destroy Grant’s aide and friend Babcock in a bald attempt to win the graces of the reformers and get elected president, Grant sheltered Babcock. Grant’s defense of Babcock, done in an unprecedented five-hour closed session, ended the matter and satisfied (at the time) many of his harshest critics. But these days his defense of Babcock has been taken as evidence of corruption by protecting a crony—but really it was shielding someone from an unjust witch-hunt. At the same time, the nature of some of the “scandals” are willfully misunderstood, as they involved the spoils system, which all presidents to that point had used without protest. Grant was the first president to press for the creation of a civil service to eliminate the spoils system. The so-called reformers, who supposedly longed for civil service reform, accused Grant of corruption primarily because Grant did not appoint them to posts! Grant abandoned the attempt late in his second term in the face of an unwilling Congress; it took the murder of President Garfield—himself a “reformer”—for civil service to be truly reformed under President Chester A. Arthur.
Alas, some of the corruption of Grant's people was real, but -- and this is really no excuse -- it was no different than existed throughout the era. Grant's second-term appointees were much weaker than his first. His men at Treasury, War, Justice and Interior at the beginning of the second term were all bad choices, and it is here that the charge of corruption has the most force. Their actions were either illegal, later declared illegal or merely grossly indiscreet. Fortunately most did not survive the term, but their damage was done.
Grant's loyalty to such men "went beyond prudence," Smith writes (p.554), and Grant hurt himself badly by holding on to men who were no good, both in their offices and in their abuses of thier offices. So, could Grant have handled the “scandals” better? Absolutely.
Worse for his reputation, Grant did not loudly and repeatedly condemn corruption and scandal when it was discovered. However, that wasn’t how he operated. When someone betrayed his trust or royally screwed up, President Grant privately offered that man a chance to make things right by resigning. In other words, he didn’t go for the political theater. Contemporary and modern critics use this as evidence of corruption by way of protecting cronies. To Grant, it was merely a way of one man offering another man a way to save face.
So, yes, he could have handled matters differently (i.e., better). But then he would not have been Ulysses S. Grant.
In the end, equating Grant with “scandal” and "corruption" almost to the singular exclusion of all else is, quite plainly, idiotic. There were far worse scandals in other administrations, but no one attaches that word to them as easily as they do to Grant. Not even Warren G. Harding. I’m not trying to set up an “everyone does it” excuse,” but rather argue that Grant does not and never has deserved to have this label attached to him. The scandal and corruption label has been way overblown and falsely—even maliciously—applied.
Maintaining the peace: the disputed election of 1876
By 1876, Grant had lost much of the support of the Republican Party, as the north was looking to move beyond Reconstruction. He was still popular personally, but a third term did not seem likely. Republicans decided on former general and rising star Ohio Governor Rutherford Hayes as their standard-bearer.
For eight years Grant had shepherded the nation through an intensely complex era that immediately followed on the heels of a decade of tremendous upheaval. His era would end with his calm and non-partisan handling of the election crisis of 1876, where Democrat Tilden won the popular vote but the electoral college vote was in dispute. Grant’s handling of the crisis was different than Bill Clinton’s in 2000. Clinton was a non-entity during his crisis, which is understandable considering his chosen successor was one of the candidates, and Clinton inserting himself into the Florida recount probably would have made that explosive situation worse. In 1876, Grant made sure order prevailed and the transition was peaceful, and inserted himself into the crisis in order to solve it because, to use a modern term, he didn’t have a dog in the fight.
Grant already knew that, one way or another, Reconstruction was finished. He naturally preferred a Republican victory, but he wanted a fair outcome. Grant recommended a commission to Congress to settle the election, which Congress did, certifying the results shortly before Hayes was inaugurated. He even quietly ordered troops assembled in Washington in case there was trouble. True, it’s easy to overplay Grant’s role in this dispute, but to his credit, he made sure there was a peaceful transition.
Around the world—and a third try
When he left office, Grant was still as much of a hero as he was in 1865. The political class didn’t think so, nor did the self-anointed intellectuals and “reformers.” But Grant didn’t care. Grant and Julia packed and left on a celebrated, two-year, worldwide tour. They visited England, Prussia, Italy, Egypt, Russia, Burma and Japan. Everywhere he went, he was regarded as a conquering hero, and addressed as “general.”
In Berlin, he stunned Chancellor Bismarck by simply walking to the imperial palace on his own, rather than arriving with a full—and pompous—entourage. In the Holy Land, he talked for hours about his favorite subject, horses, with a powerful sultan. In Japan, he was actually asked to settle a border dispute between Japan and China, and did so, “ruling” in favor of Japan. In Venice, Italy, he cracked that the city would be nice except for all the flooded streets. Unkind bashers have used this remark as evidence of his supposed dullness.
A reporter accompanied the Grants and later published his writings. The book is particularly valuable because Grant gave many impressions to the reporter that he didn't relate in his Memoirs, especially of his presidency and various Confederate generals. For example, Grant didn’t fear Robert E. Lee, but was always wary of Joseph E. Johnston, whom he thought was the better general. And he expounded on various political leaders and defended the actions he took as president, such as the critical veto of the inflation bill.
The Grants returned home to a hero’s welcome in 1879, when Grant was talked into making another try at the presidency. Unfortunately, Grant was interested and actively pursued getting his old job back. He came within a stone’s throw at the 1880 convention, but enough of the party decided that two terms of Grant was enough, and nominated James Garfield instead on the 36th ballot.
Ruin, cancer and final victory
Grant went into business one final time in New York City as a broker, but his partner proved to be a skunk and bankrupted the company—leaving Grant broke once more. Worse, all of the cigars Grant had smoked since the fall of Fort Donnellson in 1862 had given him inoperable throat cancer. (Grant had not smoked cigars before then, but after the spectacular victory, he received so many cigars as presents he decided to just start smoking them.)
Grant, now virtually penniless again, needed a way to support his family. Century magazine had approached him about writing an article about the Battle of Shiloh as part of the magazine’s new series, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. (This is a great series written entirely by the participants. Any public library worth its salt should have a copy of the four-volume series.) Grant wrote a dry account, which was not at all what the editors wanted. They asked him to try again. So, he did, and he soon found himself writing not just about Shiloh, but his whole life.
By then Grant had made friends with the humorist Mark Twain, and Twain, hearing of Grant’s problems, worked out a deal where Grant would write his life’s story and Twain would see it published. Grant and his family would get 75% of the profits and Twain would get the rest.
Moving to Mount MacGregor in upstate New York in 1885, Grant worked diligently on the Memoirs while the cancer sapped his life. He finally finished five days before he died on July 23.
The Memoirs sold incredibly well and brought in $450,000 for Julia, which more than made her comfortable. Twain declared them the best military memoirs since Caesar’s, and at least on this one point, most Grant critics agree.
Few other presidents faced as deep and profoundly diverse crises upon entering office as Grant. (The others were Lincoln, Andrew Johnson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.) That fact needs to be appreciated, as Scaturro writes:
“More important than the observation that certain [new and unprecedented] issues began to face the country when Grant was president was how he handled them: whether the issue was economic policy, foreign affairs, or civil rights, Grant established a record on the questions he encountered with a decisiveness that towers above the record of other presidents. His stand on monetary policy effected a party realignment and set the stage for future debate, and his successors through the nineteenth century never achieved their own economic goals as clearly as Grant did through the Resumption Act. …Grant’s own record on civil rights stands alone in his era, a fact that is largely intertwined with Reconstruction’s repudiation, and even the repudiation could not endue after the government passed measures nine decades later to recover the legal framework of civil rights that had been either created or otherwise realized under Grant.Grant was the only president between Lincoln and McKinley to win re-election to back-to-back terms. He won re-election in a landslide, counting among his supporters the western states, most every single black man and progressives. He crushed the liberal-Republican/Democrat alliance arrayed to defeat him—as effectively as he crushed Rebel armies in Tennessee and Virginia. (Biographer Jean Edward Smith plays up this theme often.)
…The notion that Grant was a president without policies stands in stark contrast to a record that indicates strong leadership (even if that leadership was sometimes manifested in “hidden hands”-style interaction with congressmen). Grant’s period, which occurred during a period of unprecedented growth, which began in the face of so many unanswered political questions, and which ended having answered virtually every question facing it, established the foundations of modern America largely in the same way Washington’s presidency shaped the earlier establishment.” (Scaturro, P.117-118)
So why does President Grant have such a lousy reputation? It’s because the history of his presidency was written by and large by his political and personal enemies. Grant became a victim of “the Lost Cause,” wherein the Confederates were the natural inheritors of the Revolutionary mantle and were overwhelmed by Lincoln’s “illegal war.” Grant’s contemporary enemies proved far more prolific with their condemnations than his supporters were with their praises. Grant’s 1872 victory, vigorous enforcement of Reconstruction and lack of appointments to hypocritical “reformers” soured Grant before the intellectual class—including historians. White supremacists, redeemers and Lost Cause-sympathizing historians naturally trashed Grant’s presidency. William Dunning and his students became the leading authorities on Reconstruction and the Gilded Age from the early 1900s through the 1940s. They elevated Andrew Johnson and viciously attacked the Radicals, Grant and Reconstruction, and by extension, blacks. They viewed Reconstruction with utter contempt, and therefore Grant himself. This view is the predominant view that continues to this day. (To see this in action, read The Tragic Era by Dunning student Claude Bowers. Then read W.E.B. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction in America, written as a response to the Dunning school. Then read Eric Foner’s definitive 1987 Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, although Foner does not give Grant his due.)
Later New Deal Democrats and liberals, who despised anyone in power during the Gilded Age, took an equally dim view of Grant and played up the so-called “scandals.” And latter-day bored, unthinking, uncritical or Lost Cause-sympathizing historians have accepted their biased verdict without question. (McFeely admitted he was bored with the monetary aspects of Grant’s presidency.)
You still see this gross bias and character assassination at work today, in biographies of other presidents (the most recent Rutherford Hayes biography repeats the tired “corruption” theme) and even on the White House’s official history page. The Wikipedia entry on Grant is terrible and full of Grant bashing. I don’t blame Wikipedia—I blame what the author of that post used as source material, including Hesseltine and McFeely. You can even see it in works on other presidents of that era, who cite how much the public was “tired” of the “scandals” of the Grant era.
However, the last decade’s worth of research on Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency has revealed that Grant’s good sense displayed on battlefield after battlefield did not desert him in the White House. As a president, Grant has long since deserved much better treatment than he’s gotten from historians and elites.
In sum: Grant saved the Union three times. First by winning the war, second by winning the peace at Appomattox, and third by preserving the peace as president. He is under-appreciated, underestimated, misunderstood and undeserving of his presidency’s lousy reputation. If there were such a creature as historical justice, Grant would be immortalized on Mount Rushmore.
Presidential rating: somewhat successful and popular. Had Reconstruction actually succeeded, then it would be possible to call Grant our greatest president behind Washington and Lincoln.
Grant’s reputation has enjoyed a renaissance during the past decade. The best recent resources are:
Josiah Bunting III, Ulysses S. Grant (2004), is one of the absolute best of the short biographies in the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr’s The American Presidents Series. Jean Edward Smith’s Grant (2002) is the best one-volume synthesis of Grant’s entire life ever written. He doesn’t introduce anything new on Grant’s war career, but his exposition on Grant’s presidency is fresh and refreshing. Frank Scaturro’s President Grant Reconsidered (1998) is a necessary book for anyone interested in understanding the violence done to Grant’s character and presidency over the past century.
Geoffrey Perret’s Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier and Patriot (1998) is not a biography I recommend, because the presentation is much weaker than the later works (and I am just not a fan of Perret’s work). He’s too much of a cheerleader and too easily explains away Grant’s flaws and mistakes.
And lest you think I’m too much of a cheerleader for Grant, read a current negative assessment, Michael Korda’s Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero (2004). Korda agrees with Bunting on Grant’s military career but does not buy the new thinking on Grant’s presidency.
William McFeely’s Grant: A Biography (1982) is definitely not my favorite Grant biographjy, despite its Pulitzer Prize. While well written, McFeely's work boottle up Grant as a racist and a butcher and a failed incompetent president, a judgemnent I obviously and strongly disagree with.
For Grant’s military career, you can still find no better treatment than the trilogy begun by Lloyd Lewis in Captain Sam Grant and completed by Bruce Catton in his superb Grant Moves South and Grant Takes Command. However, Brooks Simpson’s Ulysses S. Grant: Tragedy and Triumph, 1822-1865 is also an excellent and recent one-volume (of a planned two-volume study) treatment. His earlier study, Ulysses S Grant and the Politics of Reconstruction, which takes Grant up to 1868, is also valuable and portends good things for the second volume of his biography.
(While Grant’s military prowess has enjoyed a renaissance of late, Lee’s has taken a severe hit. Edward H. Bonekemper III wrote A Victor, Not a Butcher: Ulysses S. Grant’s Overlooked Military Genius (2004), a companion to his earlier book, How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War. Both are highly charged and debatable, but seem to be typical of the emerging thought on both generals. Lee’s stock as a general has been slowly falling since the publication in the early 1990s of Alan T. Nolan’s highly critical Robert E. Lee Considered, written from the premise that Lee had never before been considered—at least honestly. However, such arguments over who was the better general never seemed to matter to the actual generals in question.)
And of course, you should read Grant’s own Memoirs of U.S. Grant. (Note: one of the many scurrilous attacks against Grant is that Twain actually wrote them, but Twain never claimed this and I doubt he ever would. Besides, all you have to do is compare the clarity of Grant’s wartime orders with the clarity of the Memoirs AND his written presidential messages, and you can easily dismiss this ridiculous charge.)
It is a crying shame that military history is considered such a revolting subject on today’s wimpified university campuses; few military historians find tenure anymore. However, military history is the most popular historical subject among lay people—who seem to know better than the sneering self-anointed intellectuals who look down on men like Grant.
All illustrations are in the public domain and taken from the Library of Congress Photographs and Prints Division unless otherwise noted.
1. This is my favorite photograph of Grant as president. It shows his strength—and a little weight gain now that he was no longer living off of Army rations.
2. Lt. Sam Grant as he appeared before the Mexican War. This drawing appears as the frontpiece for the 1885 illustrated edition of Grant’s Memoirs.
3. A chromolithograph of Ulysses S. Grant surrounded by nine (sometimes fanciful) scenes of his entire military service. Clockwise from bottom left: West Point graduation in 1843, artillery crew in the Tower of Chapultepec outside Mexico City in 1847; drilling volunteers in 1861; Fort Donelson in February 1862; battle of Shiloh, April 1862; Siege of Vicksburg 1863; battle of Chattanooga, November 1863; appointment by Lincoln as commander in Chief, 1864, and Lee’s surrender, April 1865. Apparently this was published by L. Prang & Co. of Boston in 1885 on the occasion of Grant’s death. (This image replaces the detail from The Glorious Fourth, a painting by Mort Kunstler, which showed Grant entering Vicksburg, Miss., on July 4, 1863. Kunstler is one of my favorite artists, but I realized I could have been violating copyrights by reproducing even a detail of the image on my site. See it here.)
4. Edwin Forbes sketched Grant (on horse, center) as he orders the Army of the Potomac to disengage from the bloody battle of the Wilderness and continue marching south. It was the first time after a defeat that that army had pressed forward, and it marked a momentous shift in the war. Combat artists were an integral component of reporting the Civil War, and Forbes, Alfred Waud and Winslow Homer were the best.
5. Grant at Cold Harbor. This is a haunting photograph, because it was taken after 40 days of continuous fighting between the Army of the Potomac and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Grant lost 50,000 men while Lee lost around 30,000. You can see the strain on Grant’s face. (The Ulysses S. Grant Information Center).
6. Alexander Gardner photographed Grant c.1865.
7. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant was photographed by F. Gutekunst of Philadelphia.
8. General Ulysses S. Grant, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and President Andrew Johnson pose together on Aug. 31, 1866, in Auburn, New York, at the home of former Governor Enos Throop during Johnson’s disastrous “swing around the circle.” This photograph was donated to the Ulysses S. Grant Association by Doris C. Baker, great-great-great-niece of Governor Throop, and is believed to have never been previously published anywhere before appearing on that organization's web site. (Ulysses S. Grant Association)
9. Grant’s secretary of state, Hamilton Fish, was surprised when the president offered him the job. Yet he served faithfully and brilliantly throughout the entire administration. He’s rated one of the best ever.
10. Alfred Waud drew this scene of a three different black men—an artisan, a businessman and a soldier—casting votes for the first time. Published in Harper's Weekly on Nov. 16, 1867. Grant would spend his entire presidency fighting to keep such scenes from disappearing in the South.
11. President Grant signs the Ku-Klux Force Bill with Secretary Robeson and Gen. Porter at the Capitol on April 20, 1971, as shown in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, May 13, 1871.
12. The Fifteenth Amendment. Celebrated May 19th, 1870, from an original design by James C. Beard. This was one of several large commemorative prints marking the enactment of the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteeing the right to vote regardless of race and showing the grand May 19 celebratory parade in Baltimore. Noteworthy in this print are some of the vignettes around the edges: President Ulysses S. Grant and Vice President Schuyler S. Colfax occupy the upper corners. In the top center are Martin Robinson Delany, author, pre-war agitator and the first black major in the U.S. Army; famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass; and Mississippi senator Hiram Rhoades Revels. At the sides are (left, top to bottom) a young black man reading the Emancipation Proclamation, three black men with Masonic sashes and banners (“We Unite in the Bonds of Fellowship with the Whole Human Race”), an open Bible (“Our Charter of Rights”), and a bust portrait of Lincoln. In the lower left corner is a classroom scene in a black school, labeled “Education Will Prove the Equality of the Races.” In the lower right corner a black pastor preaches to his congregation, with the motto “The Holy Ordinances of Religion Are Free” below. To the right of the central scene are (top to bottom): two free blacks who “till our own fields;” a black officer commanding his troops (“We Will Protect Our Country as It Defends Our Rights”); a bust portrait of John Brown; and a black man reading to his family (“Freedom Unites the Family Circle”). The bottom row shows three more scenes (left to right): a black wedding ceremony (“Liberty Protects the Marriage Alter”); a black man voting (“The Ballot Box Is Open To Us”); and Senator Revels in the House of Representatives (“Our Representative Sits in the National Legislature”).
13. Frederick Douglass was an outspoken supporter of President Grant. (Although he was actually nominated to be Virginia Woodhull’s running mate 1872 on the Equal Rights ticket, Douglass never campaigned or acknowledged the honor.)
14. President Grant greets Red Cloud, Spotted Tail and Swift Bear during a visit of the Indian delegation with Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Ely S. Parker (not the other man in the picture), in 1870, as drawn for the June 18, 1870, Harper’s Weekly by C.S. Reinhart.
15. This medallion, created in the early 1870s, is titled Defender, Martyr, Father - U.S. Grant, A. Lincoln, G. Washington. Despite the negative—and untrue—views of intellectuals and historians, Grant remained close to the hearts of his countrymen for at least a generation.
16. Julia Dent Grant, taken sometime in the 1870s. Grant adored his wife, and she brought much class and dignity to the White House.
17. The penalty of being an American statesman of the first magnitude, a c.1913 cartoon addressed to Theodore Roosevelt, illustrates that at least 35 years after he left office, Grant was often still ranked with the greats. (Certain restrictions may apply to this picture: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-90145])
18. Grant’s tomb overlooking the Hudson River in upper New York City is often the butt of the joke “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” Grant and Julia Grant are, of course. The tomb was recently restored. It forever faces south and is emblazoned with Grant’s misunderstood 1868 campaign slogan, “Let us have peace.” (Grant Monument Association.)