Welcome Home, General Grant

tags: presidency, Civil War, Reconstruction, Ulysses S. Grant, Charles Bracelen Flood

Originally published 10-12-11

Charles Bracelen Flood is the author of "Grant's Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant's Heroic Last Year" (Da Capo Press, 2011).

Ulysses S. Grant as president. Credit: Wiki Commons.


This year of 2011, marking the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, gives us an opportunity to see the difference between history as fact and history as perception.

No better example of this exists than the life of Ulysses S. Grant.  He died in 1885; to the end of the nineteenth century, there was one Ulysses S. Grant, based on fact and seen in that light.  During almost all of the twentieth century, he was the subject of various forms of "revisionism."  In recent years he is being restored to his rightful place in our history.

Grant sprang from the American yeomanry; his father operated a small tannery, and he was born in Ohio.  In his splendid Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, he begins by saying, "My family is American, and has been for generations."  He went to West Point reluctantly, but fought with bravery and skill during the Mexican War, a conflict of which he disapproved, but one in which he felt duty compelled him to serve.  Grant married Julia Dent, the highly intelligent, vivacious, cross-eyed daughter of a pre-Civil War slaveholding Missouri family.  (The Civil War historian Bruce Catton called their marriage "One of the great romantic American love stories.")  Separated from Julia while serving in a remote Army post on the Pacific Coast, he was drunk on duty during a pay day in 1854; his colonel gave him the choice of facing a court martial, or resigning from the Army.  Grant resigned.

When the Civil War began in 1861, he returned to the Army.  Starting as commander of a regiment with less than a thousand men, he rose to become general-in-chief of the entire Union Army, a force of more than a million.  In the process, he became a transitional figure in the history of warfare.  At Shiloh in 1862, he was riding back and forth right behind the lines of his infantrymen who were firing at the nearby opposing Confederate ranks; by the time Abraham Lincoln brought him east in 1864 to command the entire Union Army and to oppose Robert E. Lee in Northern Virginia, he was communicating with his corps commanders by telegraph from his headquarters miles behind the front.  Contrary to the myth that he was often drunk, at no time during the war was he incapable of effective action due to consuming alcohol.

During his meteoric rise among Union generals, Grant not only developed enormous administrative skills, but became a great strategist.  More than any other general on either side, he understood that the rivers of the South were an integral part of a vast battlefield area, and could be used as avenues for cutting up the Confederacy.  Consistent with his practical approach to virtually everything, he said, "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."  Lincoln described him this way:  "Once Grant gets possession of a place, he holds on to it as if he had inherited it."

Grant was never an eloquent speaker, but he gave the embattled and often disheartened Union some inspiring resolute words, demanding the "unconditional surrender" of Fort Donelson in 1862, and saying of the bloody summer campaign of 1864, "I propose to fight it out along these lines if it takes all summer."

He had some ghastly days.  During the first hour of his attack at Cold Harbor in 1864—the one battle he said he should never have brought on—he lost what may have been as many as seven thousand men.  But in the weeks thereafter, when some Confederate officers spoke to Robert E. Lee of how Grant was recklessly piling up his casualties, Lee replied, "I think General Grant is managing things very well."  At Vicksburg, the man who Lincoln's wife Mary called an insensitive "butcher" was seen this way by a Confederate prisoner who was being herded to the rear in a group of men, all of them in wretched condition and some limping from wounds.  They were halted along the side of a road to make way for several Union generals and their staffs who were crossing a bridge on horseback.  "When General Grant reached the line of ragged, bloody, starveling, desperate prisoners strung out on each side of the bridge," the Confederate later wrote, "he lifted his hat and held it over his head until he passed the last man of that living funeral cortege.  He was the only officer…who recognized us as being on the face of the earth."

During the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House in April of 1865, Grant's thoughtful and generous treatment of Lee and his men set new standards of military honor.  That dramatic moment is known to most Americans, but many are unaware of what came next.  Lincoln's successor Andrew Johnson intended to have Lee tried for treason, a crime punishable by death.  Grant appeared at the White House and told Johnson that Lee was protected by the parole that he had given Lee and all his men at Appomattox.  As Grant described it later, "I spoke earnestly and plainly to the president."  He did indeed, informing Johnson that if Lee were arrested, he would immediately resign from the Army in protest.  Johnson and the federal prosecutors did not intend to argue with the enormously popular victorious commanding general of the United States Army, and quietly halted the treason proceedings, without dismissing them; Lee was never arrested.  As Grant put it, "The matter was allowed to die out."  For the remaining five years of Lee's life, he never allowed a word against Grant to be spoken in his presence.

In 1869, four years after the war ended, Grant was sworn in as President of the United States, a position he held for two terms.  His first term was a success, but his second was not.  During his second term, his political opponents launched thirty-six investigations into corruption in his administration.  Despite their efforts, they could not demonstrate that he was involved in any of the scandals, many of them resulting from the politically naive Grant's misplaced trust in those he believed to be honest men.  Grant was also somewhat unfairly blamed for what became known as the Panic of 1873, an American economic crisis that in fact began with the seemingly unrelated collapse of a bank in Vienna, then the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Taking an action unique in American presidential history, in Grant's final Message to Congress (later called the State of the Union Address) he apologized to the nation's legislators, and through them to the American people, for his inadequacies as president.  Grant began with this: "It was my fortune, or misfortune, to be called to the office of Chief Magistrate without any political training…it is but reasonable to assume that errors in judgment must have occurred."  He added that he claimed “only that I have acted in every instance from a…desire to do what was right, constitutional within the law, and for the very best interest of the whole people."

Grant did not bother to list some of his accomplishments, which included his action in 1872 when he signed into law the bill creating Yellowstone National Park, which thereby began the nation's national park system, the first of the world's national parks.  He also wrote this, about the American Indians:  "It may be the Indians require as much protection from the whites as the whites do from the Indians.  My own experience has been that little trouble would have been had from them but for the encroachments & influence of bad whites." As for ending slavery, Grant paid this tribute to the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery.

A measure which makes at once four million voters who were heretofore declared by the highest tribunal in the land to be not citizens of the United States, nor eligible to become so…is indeed a measure of grander importance than any other act of the kind from the foundation of our free government to the present day.


    After his White House days, in 1879 Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia embarked on a two-year trip around the world.  Planned as a private sightseeing journey, it turned into an immense international tribute to Grant.  In nation after nation, crowds turned out to see him.  Beyond being personally attractive—despite all his time in the public eye, he always blushed when called upon to speak, and conveyed an innate humility to any and every listener—he symbolized the burgeoning post-Civil War America, an industrial and military power to be reckoned with.  He and Julia dined with Queen Victoria at Windsor Palace.  In Berlin, he spent two hours with Germany's "Iron Chancellor" Prince Otto von Bismarck, who treated him with great respect as a military and national leader who possessed firsthand knowledge he was eager to acquire.  When they visited China and Japan, Grant so impressed the leaders of both nations that they entrusted him with what proved to be the successful settlement of a boundary dispute involving the Ryukyu Islands.                     

    All this brought Grant and Julia to what neither of them thought would be the last chapter of his life. Living in New York in 1884, Grant and his son Ulysses S. Grant Jr. had become partners in a Wall Street investment firm known as Grant & Ward.  The moving spirit of this enterprise was Ferdinand Ward, known as "The Young Napoleon of Wall Street."  Trustingly, Grant had put all his money under Ward's management, and had encouraged all of his immediate family to follow his example.  At that moment, Ward was showing prospective investors papers indicating that the firm had a capitalization of sixteen million; on that basis, Grant had reason to think he was personally worth, as he put it, "nigh on to a million"—this at a time when household servants were paid five dollars a week.

    The financial catastrophe struck swiftly.  Overnight, in May of 1884, Ward's fraudulent financial house of cards collapsed.  He had been running what a later generation would call a Ponzi scheme.  Grant and his family lost all their money. As Julia later wrote, "Imagine the shock to us, who thought we were independently wealthy!…My sons had already ordered their summer supplies of groceries, wine, cigars, etc., and at once ordered them returned as they could not pay for them.  They had not enough money to pay for carfare."

    A description of Grant as he was at this juncture was left by Robert Underwood Johnson, a brilliant young editor on the staff of The Century Magazine.  Meeting with Grant at his and Julia's summer cottage in Long Branch, New Jersey, to discuss the possibility of his writing articles about his famous battles and campaigns, he found a man far different from the gruff warrior he expected to encounter.  Johnson wrote:  "The man who, we had been told, was stolid and reserved showed himself to me as a person of the most sensitive nature and the most human expression of feeling."  Grant "gave me the impression of a wounded lion.  He had been hurt to the quick in his proud name and his honor…He told me, frankly and simply, that he had arrived at Long Branch almost penniless."  (At Long Branch, Julia, who for eight years had the White House staff at her disposal, did all the cooking for her "Ulyss" and their family and guests.)

    With Johnson guiding him, Grant began to write about Shiloh, the first of four articles describing his victorious battles.  He found that he enjoyed it, and Johnson was the first to discover that the same man who could write the clearest, most direct orders and after-action reports was capable of transporting a reader into the middle of gunfire and the neighing of cavalry horses.  As Grant focused his prodigious powers of concentration on his four articles for The Century, he began to think of expanding this initial effort into what became his massive and powerful Personal Memoirs.

     It was now that his friend Mark Twain entered the picture.

    At the moment, they were the two most famous men in America.  Twain, already well known for his Adventures of Tom Sawyer and other works, was about to publish The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Grant was on his way to being the most photographed man of the nineteenth century.  Twain made Grant an offer that was both generous to Grant and, although speculative, potentially very lucrative for himself.  He would publish Grant's memoirs through a small publishing firm run by his nephew Charles Webster, and give Grant $200,000 as an advance on the venture.  Twain, always a man for images, described the arrangement this way:  "If these chickens should ever hatch…General Grant's royalties will amount to $420,000, and will make the largest single check ever paid to an author in the world's history… If I pay the General in silver coin at $12 per [English] pound it will weigh seventeen tons."

    As Grant continued writing in the summer of 1884, he suffered increasing pain and discomfort in his mouth.  By late October, this had been diagnosed as cancer, primarily of the tongue—the result of smoking literally thousands of cigars.  This was in fact a death sentence.  The dramatic question now facing Grant and the American public was, could he complete his memoirs before he died?  As Grant, back in his house in Manhattan, pushed himself ever harder, the people of both the North and the South, while still divided concerning postwar political issues, began to come together in an example of the American respect for courage, and the native instinct to pull for the underdog.

    Mark Twain had been right in thinking that Grant could recount his Civil War experiences effectively, but he was bowled over by what he now saw and read.  Averaging a production of 750 words a day while in a condition in which he likened a drink of water to "molten lead," Grant was putting on paper a work of remarkable literary quality.  Twain compared these memoirs with Caesar's Commentaries, saying:

    …the same high merits distinguished both books—clarity of statement, directness, simplicity, manifest, truthfulness, fairness and justice to friend and foe alike and avoidance of flowery speech…General Grant's book is a great, unique, and unapproachable literary masterpiece. There is no higher literature than these modern, simple memoirs. Their style is flawless…no man can improve upon it.

      Aware of the coming summer heat in Manhattan, arrangements were made to take Grant to a cottage high in the hills above Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York.  At what was known as Mt. McGregor, a big new resort hotel named the Balmoral had been built, and this cottage was down a slope some two hundred yards from it.  Here Grant dug in for what was literally a do-or-die effort.  Finding that writing with a pen and ink exhausted him in his weakened condition, he resorted to dictating as he neared the end of his massive two-volume work.  At one point he had a brief discussion with his oldest son Frederick, concerning the dedication.  Grant had it as, "These volumes are dedicated to the American soldier and sailor."  Frederick suggested that this should be changed to specify that he meant the soldiers and sailors who had fought for the North.  Grant replied, "It is a great deal better that it should be dedicated as it is…As it is the dedication is to those we fought against as well as those we fought with.  It may serve a purpose in restoring harmony."  He added this:  "It looks as if my sickness has had something to do to bring harmony between the sections [North and South.]  Apparently I have accomplished more while apparently dying than it falls to the lot of most men to be able to do."

      Grant felt a quiet passion for the nation he had fought to preserve.  In what proved to be the last weeks of his life, his mouth and throat choked with mucus and bleeding from cancer, he sometimes dictated in a barely audible hoarse whisper, revised his manuscript with a pencil, and finally resorted  to writing his thoughts on pieces of paper.  On one of these, he wrote a summation of his feelings to former Confederate general Simon Bolivar Buckner, who came to see him at Mt. McGregor.

      I have witnessed since my sickness just what I wished to see since the war; harmony and good feeling between the sections…We may now well look forward to perpetual peace at home, and a national strength that will secure us against any foreign complication.  I believe myself that the war was worth all that it cost us, fearful as it was.  Since it was over I have visited every state in Europe and a number in the East.  I know, as I did not know before, the value of our inheritance.

        On July 20, 1885, Ulysses S. Grant finished the last changes he wished to make in his manuscript.  Three mornings later, with all those nearest to him surrounding his bed, his last moments began.  He died with Julia holding his hand.

        A temporary resting place for Grant had been selected in Riverside Park, on Manhattan's cliffs high above the Hudson River, and a circular brick mausoleum had been built there.  On the day that Grant's coffin, now closed, was brought up there from where he had lain in state downtown in Manhattan's City Hall, the largest crowd ever to assemble on the North American continent—estimates ranged from half a million to one and a half million people—lined the five-mile route of the funeral procession.  What they witnessed was the United States showing the world how to honor a national hero.  Thousands of carriages followed the massive catafalque on which Grant's coffin rested.

        The crowds saw President Grover Cleveland, past presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester Arthur, and the justices of the Supreme Court.  The governors of every state went by, in the order in which their states had come into the Union.  On the military side, there were a galaxy of generals; 40,000 troops passed, including the West Point Corps of Cadets, wearing black armbands.  Music was provided by 250 bands and drum corps.  Proof of how Grant had brought the nation together was the fact that Confederate generals Joseph E. Johnston and Simon Bolivar Buckner were among the honored participants.  The last large segment of the enormous parade, a democracy's tribute to the tanner's son from Ohio, was a column of eight thousand elected and appointed officials from all over the United States.  The parade's combination of military strength and the representatives of constitutional law would have pleased Grant, who believed so firmly in the prosperous future he foresaw for the country he had served.

         In addition to the public outpouring of respect and affection, those who knew Grant well had their more private reactions.  On the day Grant died, Mark Twain wrote in his notebook, "He was a very great man and superlatively good."  On their own, many citizens, North and South, realized that somehow they already knew that it was possible to be a sometimes ineffective president but a great man nevertheless.


        In the fifteen years that elapsed between Grant's death and 1900, his place in the nation's mind and heart continued to grow.  His memoirs were published to great acclaim, and the sales that Mark Twain had hoped for guaranteed that Julia would live very comfortably for the rest of her life.  Another writer who spent considerable time with Grant left this picture of him:

        No one, indeed, can understand the character of General Grant who does not know the strength of his regard for his children.  It was like the passion of a wild beast for its cubs, or the love of a mother for a suckling child, instinctive, unreasoning, overweening; yet, what everyone can appreciate, natural, and in this grim veteran touching in the extreme…this feeling, lavished on his own children, reached over to theirs.  No parent ever enveloped his entire progeny in a more comprehensive or closed regard.

        Nothing was more heartfelt than Julia's lyric memory of her "Ulyss."  She wrote, "I, his wife, rested in and was warmed in the sunlight of his loyal love and great fame, and now, even though his beautiful life has gone out, it is as if when some far-off planet disappears from the heavens; the light of his glorious fame still reaches out to me, falls upon me, and warms me."

        It remained for Theodore Roosevelt to place Grant in the very first rank of Americans.  Agreeing that men like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson deserved to be regarded as enormously valuable citizens, he saw Grant as something more than that.  In 1900, he paid him this tribute.

        As we look back with keener wisdom into the nation's past, mightiest among the mighty dead loom the figures of Washington, Lincoln, and Grant…these three greatest men have taken their place among the great men of all nations, the great men of all time.  They stood supreme in the two greatest crises of our history, on the two great occasions when we stood in the van of humanity and struck the two most effective blows that have ever been struck for human freedom under the law.


          With the twentieth century, the biographical counterattack upon Ulysses S. Grant began.  The prelude to it, in ways illogical but certainly understandable, had started soon after the close of the Civil War.  Victors tend to go on about their business, and the vanquished often go to great lengths in licking their wounds.  The South had right at hand the story of Robert E. Lee, a strikingly handsome, graceful, gifted blueblood, a man of fine character who had shown enormous military talent.  He and Grant had been the two most aggressive generals who fought in the war.  It was satisfying to cast him in the role of the gallant hero of the "Lost Cause," a brave and noble man who inspired a nearly fanatical loyalty unequalled by any other general on either side.

          All of that was accurate, but the corollary to that proved to be this: to elevate Lee as a great figure, Grant must be discredited.  That soon began, predictably at first in the South.  It was true that Grant had indeed thrown his forces headlong into battle—in May of 1864, as the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, Grant lost 17,000 men in his first two days of fighting Lee in The Wilderness.  The growing number of his Northern detractors also chose to dwell on the casualties.  Those who wanted to diminish Grant found many ways to do it. Grant's long siege of Petersburg and Richmond, protracted by Lee's skillful defense, was a precursor to the trench warfare of 1914-1918, and some students of history in the 1920s chose to draw a line from that to the disillusionment following "The War to End All Wars."  With their understandable aversion to the large numbers of casualties Grant's forces suffered, the critics of his military performance looked past the fact that both Grant and his principal subordinate William Tecumseh Sherman believed, with reason, that practicing "total war" would bring a quicker end to the bloodshed for both North and South.

          In the intellectual-political arena, a now forgotten professor at Columbia named William Archibald Dunning began what came to be known as the Dunning School of thought about the Reconstruction era.  Beginning in the early twentieth century, he influenced scores of scholars who came to share his belief that the freed slaves had proved incapable of voting and holding office in a responsible fashion.  His racist views, which permeated much scholarly thinking for the entire first half of the twentieth century, were paralleled by the southern historian E. Merton Coulter, who glorified the antebellum South, praised all Confederate leaders, and described the black population in an altogether negative way.

          In the midst of all this, Grant's reputation was obscured; he was misrepresented, and in many ways seen as irrelevant.  Dunning portrayed him as a man who liked killing for its own sake, and went on to characterize him as a morally deficient individual who created the corrupt carpetbagging aspects of the Reconstruction era and the years that became known at the Gilded Age.  While there were those who challenged these views, they persisted.  In recent years the Princeton professor Sean Willentz, a leader among the able biographers now reestablishing Grant in his deserved place in American history, noted that as late as 1992 the respected Civil War historian Charles Royster said of Grant's life, "Sensitive intellectuals, then and since, have looked at Grant's career and marveled that he could hold up his head without shame or remorse."

          The most astonishing calumny of the several "revisionist" decades was the repeated indictment of Grant as a racist.  In fact, he had to walk a tightrope between the Radical Republicans determined to impose a punitive peace on many white Southerners, and white Southerners who were appalled by the idea that black men should be allowed to represent them in Washington.  As Grant could see while he was still general-in-chief of the United States Army, soon after Appomattox and three years before he was nominated as a candidate for president, Southern whites were enacting "Black Codes" to ensure that there would be one law for the whites and one that discriminated against blacks.  

          In the immediate postwar years and as president, Grant used the Army to enforce much of the Republican plan for Reconstruction, frequently foiled the Ku Klux Klan, and supported civil rights for the freed slaves.  His expressed enthusiasm for the idea that the Thirteenth Amendment not only freed four million American slaves but made all of them voters as well was not to become a reality for a long time, but Professor Wilentz says of Grant, "The evidence clearly shows that he created the most auspicious record on racial equality and civil rights of any president from Lincoln to Lyndon B. Johnson.  He also formulated some remarkably humane and advanced ideas on subjects ranging from federal Indian policy to public education."

          There is reason to hope that Ulysses S. Grant has arrived in his proper place in American history.  He understood what was at stake in the war in which he rose to fame.  During the months before his death, he received a communication from the "Nineteenth Annual Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic, assembled in the city of Portland, Maine."  This convention of his veterans—he called them his "Boys in Blue"—sent him a message that said in part

          …In this, the first hour of our assembly, we tender to the distinguished comrade, soldier and statesman, General Ulysses      S. Grant, our profound sympathy in his continued illness, and extend a soldier's greeting to our beloved Commander and Comrade, who has for months endured unspeakable agony with that characteristic fortitude that has challenged the admiration of the world.

            Grant had his son Frederick reply, "General Grant wishes to take this occasion to also thank them for their splendid services which have resulted in giving freedom to a race, peace to a continent, and a haven to the oppressed of the world."  In the final pages of his memoirs, he said of the Civil War, "We must conclude, therefore, that wars are not always evils unmixed with good."  He saw this as well, concerning the future of American democracy. "…our republican institutions were regarded as experiments…monarchical Europe generally believed that our republic was a rope of sand that would part the moment the slightest strain was put upon it."  To the contrary, Grant said:  "The United States has shown itself capable of dealing with one of the greatest wars ever made."  As for what lay ahead, he foresaw this:

            To maintain peace in the future it is necessary to be prepared for war…growing as we are in population, wealth, and military power, we may become the envy of nations who led us in all these particulars only a few years ago; and unless we are prepared for it we may be in danger of a combined movement being made some day to crush us out.

              Through his deeds and his words, Grant made his own reputation. All we need to do is to present him as he was.         

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