THE LIFE OF ULYSSES S. GRANT
Ulysses S. Grant was born on April 27, 1822, at Point Pleasant, Ohio. The first child of Jesse and Hannah, he grew up in Georgetown in southwestern Ohio. Saddled with his unusual name, he was teased as “useless” by other boys, but early showed he was anything but through his exceptional skill with horses. In 1839, at age seventeen, standing feet one-inch tall and weighing 105 pounds, he entered the U. S. Military Academy at West Point. Four years later he graduated 21st out of 39 in his class, a standing that would contribute to the mistaken belief he was ordinary in intelligence. Grant later wrote of those years, “I must apologize; I spent most of my time reading novels”—tipping to his lifelong love of literature and the theatre.
Grant’s first assignment as a new officer was Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis. There, he met Julia Dent, a vivacious if plain-looking young woman, at White Haven, her family’s country home. The young couple was separated while Grant served in the War with Mexico, where he developed an enduring affection for Mexico and its people. He returned to the United States in 1848 to marry “dear Julia,” the start of a remarkable marriage and partnership. Grant’s next postings were peacetime assignments in New York and Michigan, which Julia could accompany him to, but in 1852 he had to leave his pregnant wife behind while he served at Fort Vancouver and then Fort Humboldt on the Pacific Coast. Lonely, missing his family powerfully, and drinking, he resigned from the army in 1854.
For the next seven years Grant struggled to support Julia and their four children: he toiled as a farmer, sold wood on the streets in St. Louis, and finally worked underneath his younger brother in the family leather goods store in Galena, Illinois. In 1859, he refused to sell a slave, William, bequeathed to him by his father-in-law, and instead signed manumission papers.
When the Civil War erupted at Fort Sumter in April 1861, Grant joined immediately and rose quickly within the Union Army. He first won national acclaim in February 1862 when, triumphant at the Battle at Fort Donelson in Tennessee, he told Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner (a West Point classmate), he would accept only “unconditional surrender.” Further acclaim came two months later, at Shiloh, when surprised by a Confederate attack on the first day, he rallied his Federal troops for a decisive victory on the second day.
In July 1863, Grant, supported by his best friend, William Tecumseh Sherman, captured the Confederate river fortress at Vicksburg. By seizing control of the Mississippi River, Grant effectively divided the Confederacy. Following his dramatic November victory at Chattanooga, President Abraham Lincoln made him Commander of all the Union Armies in March 1864.
Grant began a decisive spring campaign against Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee in May 1864. After a series of bloody battles—the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and a long operation at Petersburg–Grant forced Lee to surrender. On April 9 1865 at Appomattox, he offered Lee peace terms whose magnanimous spirit enhanced Grant’s reputation.
After Lincoln’s assassination, believing in the deference of the military to civilian leaders, Grant sought to work with new President Andrew Johnson. He finally could not. Embracing politics for the first time in his life, Grant aligned himself with Congressional Republicans’ efforts to initiate comprehensive Reconstruction policies, and used the power of the army to enforce Reconstruction amendments against resistant local and state forces in the South.
Grant was elected President in 1868, but won the popular vote only by virtue of the votes of 400,000 African-Americans, able to vote for the first time under the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment. The only president to be elected to two consecutive terms between Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson, the specter of the scandals of Grant’s second term has tended to demolish the memory of the accomplishments of both terms. But as President Grant vigorously defended the political rights of African-Americans, battled the Ku Klux Klan, reimagined a new Indian policy, and promoted a peace treaty with Great Britain that laid the foundation for a new relationship with the nation that would become America’s strongest ally.
Grant left office in March 1877 and embarked on a tour of Great Britain and Europe as a private citizen. To his surprise, he found himself toasted as an American ambassador. He extended his trip to the Middle East and Asia, where leaders in China and Japan asked him to mediate their dispute over long contested islands. He returned to America in 1880 to a hero’s welcome.
With the admiration of the nation behind him, Grant was a nominee at the 1880 Republican convention. He led for more than thirty ballots before a dark horse candidate, James Garfield, emerged to win the nomination.
Putting politics behind him, Ulysses and Julia decided to make their home in New York. Grant invested his savings in a Wall Street firm where his son Buck served as a partner. But his son’s partner, Ferdinand Ward, proved to be a crook. In one terrible day in the spring of 1884 Grant lost all his money.
Having previously turned away offers to write his memoirs, Grant now agreed to Mark Twain’s proposal to publish them, motivated by the need to provide for Julia and himself in retirement. In what would be his final campaign, after a diagnosis of throat cancer, Grant raced death to complete the book. He triumphed, finishing just three days before his death on July 23, 1885. His Personal Memoirs became an American literary classic and earned Julia $450,000.
Grant’s New York funeral procession brought out a million and half admirers, the largest gathering ever to take place in New York to that time.
Fifteen years later, in the first year of the twentieth century, Theodore Roosevelt declared, “Mightiest among the mighty dead loom the three great figures of Washington, Lincoln, and Grant.” In second rank, according to Roosevelt? Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Andrew Jackson.
But already Grant’s reputation was in decline. Former Confederate generals and academic historians, writing under the influence of the Southern “Lost Cause,” transformed the narrative of Lee and the Confederacy. In their retelling, Grant became the “butcher” who approved the slaughter of his soldiers to overwhelm by sheer numbers a courageous Southern army.
It is time to hear afresh the dramatic story of one of America’s greatest military leaders and most misunderstood president. This is the perfect moment to revise and refocus our understanding of American Ulysses.