US Grant was, in my opinion, one of the more intriguing and controversial figures in American history. I would characterize his life as having been marked by a series of “ups” and “downs,” successes and failures. On balance, while I would not place him on the “Mt. Rushmore” of historical figures, I think we should be mindful of and thankful for his historical contributions.
Hiram Ulysses Grant was born on April 27, 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio, the oldest of six siblings. By all appearances his family was middle class. His father was a tanner and a merchant. He could trace his ancestry back to before the American Revolution. Patriotism ran strongly in the family. One of his great-grandfathers fought in the French and Indian War, and a grandfather fought in the American Revolution.
The derivation of Grant’s name is interesting. Supposedly, at a family gathering prior to his birth various possibilities were discussed, and the name, “Ulysses,” was drawn out of a hat. Later, his parents added “Hiram” to placate his mother’s father, who had advocated for that name. Following Hiram’s secondary education his father got Representative Thomas Hamer to nominate him for admission to West Point. Supposedly, Hamer erroneously had submitted the name as “Ulysses S. Grant,” and once it had been submitted officially, the Army could not (or would not) change the name. In any event, from that point on Hiram was known as Ulysses S. Grant (nicknamed “Sam,” of course).
Grant was quiet and shy and made few friends, traits that were to impact him his entire life. Furthermore, he was an indifferent student, graduating in 1843 with a ranking of 21 out of 39, but he did demonstrate an affinity for riding and handling horses. In fact, while at the academy he set a high jump record that stood for some 25 years.
Grant was not exactly a “gung ho” soldier, more like indifferent. He once described military life as having “much to dislike, but more to like.” Originally, he had planned to resign his commission at the conclusion of his mandatory four-year enlistment, however, when he became engaged in 1844 his outlook changed. With a wife to support, he decided to remain in the army.
Grant fought in the Mexican War and distinguished himself at various battles, such as Vera Cruz, Resaca de la Palma, and Monterrey. Later, he served in Panama, California, and the Oregon Territory. He found peacetime army life to be tedious and boring. His postings were no place for a wife and family, and he missed having them with him. Likely, his shyness added to the tedium. Perhaps, it was at this time that he began to imbibe. Drinking and drunkenness were not uncommon among soldiers, given the long stretches of isolation and tedium, especially in peacetime. Some historians have postulated that Grant, who became known as an excessive drinker, was not any worse than many others; he was just unable to “hold” his liquor as well. In any event, his drinking would remain a stain on his reputation.
It was during his posting in the West that he became sympathetic to the plight of Native Americans. This was a rarity among soldiers and white settlers, in general, at the time. It was to become a significant issue later on.
Grant finally resigned his commission in 1854 to be with his family. He bounced around unsuccessfully. He tried farming, but like many farmers, he was wiped out in the Panic of 1857. Plus, his wife was not happy with that existence. Finally, he caught malaria, and that finished him as a farmer. Eventually, he went to work in his father’s leather goods business.
Grant’s mundane and forgettable existence changed radically with the advent of the Civil War in April 1861. Grant was very patriotic and wanted to fight for the Union. Like the rest of his family, he was strongly anti-slavery even though his wife’s family owned slaves. (His father held such strong anti-slavery sentiments that he had actually boycotted Grant’s wedding.) After several attempts to become recommissioned as a senior officer, through the efforts of a Congressman he managed to obtain a commission as a colonel.
Grant was a very successful commander, winning several battles, and rose quickly through the ranks. Despite his many faults, he is generally considered to have been a military genius, and many of his strategies are still featured in contemporary military textbooks. A series of decisive victories in Tennessee, particularly at Shiloh, brought him to Lincoln’s attention. As we know, in the early days of the war the Union Army had been plagued by a series of incompetent Commanding Generals who had displayed a frustrating reluctance to fight. This passivity was allowing the Confederacy to maintain the initiative, and against all odds, it appeared to be winning the war. In a stroke of genius, Lincoln overruled his advisors who had been critical of Grant, and put him in charge. He famously intoned “I can’t spare this man. [At least], he fights.” When cautioned about Grant’s excessive drinking his response was that maybe he should direct all his other generals to drink whatever he [Grant] was.
As we know, Grant led the Union forces to victory after victory. He showed the defeated rebels no quarter. His terms of surrender were always unconditional, earning him the moniker “Unconditional Surrender Grant.” First, he captured Vicksburg to gain control of the vital Mississippi Valley. Then, under his command, General Sherman “marched to the sea,” devastating all in his wake, including the major city of Atlanta. Finally, he defeated General Lee in Virginia, which led to the end of the war.
Afterwards, Grant was a legitimate war hero. He was feted in Washington DC. In a quirk of history, President Lincoln had invited Grant and his wife to accompany him to Ford’s Theatre on the night he was assassinated. The Grants would probably have gone, but Mrs. Grant insisted that they decline the invitation as they had prior plans to travel to Philadelphia. Had they attended, who knows what would have happened. Would they have been assassinated as well, or, perhaps, would Grant, an experienced military officer, have thwarted the assassination attempt and saved President Lincoln’s life? Arguably, that innocuous decision changed the course of history. We will never know, but it makes for interesting speculation.
In the wake of Lincoln’s assassination and the resultant turmoil, the Republican party nominated Grant for the presidency, unanimously, and he was elected. On March 4, 1869 he was sworn in as the 18th President of the United States and the youngest up to that time. Grant served two terms, and even considered running for a third term. (At the time, there was no legal prohibition to do so, but all prior presidents, respecting the example established by George Washington, had declined to seek a third term.)
For many years, historians had ranked Grant as one of the worst presidents. His tenure was besmirched by cronyism, corruption, scandals, and fraud, and he was derided as a drunkard. Many of his friends, supporters, close advisors and even family members were guilty of these transgressions, and Grant, while not personally implicated, was criticized for failing to reign them in. Additionally, he was unable to deal with the Panic of 1873, which had been caused, in part, by corruption and cronyism. The dichotomy was that he was able to win a second term in 1876 anyway.
It should be noted that Grant did have some positive accomplishments. For example, he established the Department of Justice, supported Native Americans, advocated for the prosecutions of the KKK, and created the Civil Service Commission.
Following his tenure in office he and his wife embarked on a 2 1/2 year tour of Europe, and Asia, meeting with world leaders, such as Queen Victoria and Otto von Bismarck and dignitaries, such as the pope. He became the first president to visit the Holy Land. This was not entirely personal. President Hayes encouraged Grant to assume a diplomatic role, which he did successfully, demonstrating to the world that the US was an emerging world power.
By 1884 Grant knew he was dying of throat cancer. The family was nearly broke, and Grant wanted to provide for them after he was gone. So, he began to write his memoirs. He was assisted in this endeavor by the illustrious Mark Twain. They were a big commercial success and actually helped establish standards for future presidents’ memoirs.
Grant died on July 23, 1885 at the age of 63. Soon afterward, his reputation and legacy came under attack for the aforementioned corruption, cronyism, and scandals that had plagued his presidency. As successful as he had been as a general, most historians viewed him as one of our least effective presidents. It should be noted that one early supporter was historian, Louis Arthur Coolidge, who wrote in 1917 that “Grant’s success as president [was] hardly less significant than his success at war.”
More recently, Grant’s legacy has been rehabilitated. Many historians have come to recognize Grant’s personal integrity, efforts to treat the vanquished South fairly during Reconstruction, and sympathy towards native Americans, as well as the accomplishments noted above. Historian T. J. Stiles noted that a recent biography by Ronald White “solidifies [Grant’s] positive image amassed in recent decades blotting out the caricature of a military butcher and political incompetent.” A 2017 positive biography by Ron Chernow continued Grant’s rehabilitation and drew praise from former president Bill Clinton, with respect to Grant’s “significant achievements” during and after the Civil War.
Grant has been the recipient of a plethora of honors and memorials, such as Grant’s Tomb in NYC, the US Grant National Historical Site in St. Louis, and the Grant Memorial in Washington, DC. In addition, his likeness has been on the $50 bill since 1913. One may argue as to his effectiveness as president, but his significant contributions to the preservation of the Union at a crucial point in our history cannot be denied. Like I said, I am not advocating that we carve him a place on Mt. Rushmore, but I do believe he deserves to be remembered as a true hero of the Republic.