American Ulysses, the biography of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald C. White, is a reconstruction of U.S. Grant’s standing in the pantheon of U.S. Presidents. Mr. White’s biography is more biased then most. After his death, the historical image of the Grant, both as a general and as President, was one who was inebriated and, particularly in his second term, corrupt. I have not read Ron Chernow’s recently well-received biography of Grant I found that he too fell in love with his subject in his biography of Alexander Hamilton. There is a pendulum in historical accounts of events and people that often swings too far in either direction.
While not a great biography, it is very readable and does shed interesting information to those who are not mavens of the Civil War period. The positive aspect of the book is that it encourages reading about this defining period of American history which our country continues to relive in subtle ways.
Perhaps most telling about the image of Grant is how the American public felt about him at his death in 1885 and afterwards at the dedication of the Grant Monument in Riverside Park, New York in 1897. Lincoln had a funeral procession in Washington D.C. that had 30,000 people participating. Grant’s procession was in New York City. It started at 10 A.M. and for nine and a half miles it stretched, the head of the procession reaching Riverside Park at one P.M., but the full crowed not arriving until 5 P.M. . The four leading pallbearers were his favorite Union generals, William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan, and two Confederate generals, Joe Johnston and Simon Bolivar Buckner. At the dedication of what today is known as Grant’s Tomb in Riverside Park, one million people showed up on a cold winter day. In the post-Civil War period, he was considered among the top 3 U.S. Presidents: Washington, Lincoln and Grant.
Grant was poor in business even when supported by his anti-slavery father and brothers and his pro-slavery father-in-law. This lack of skill and judgment was reflected in Grant’s second term, which hosted numerous corruption scandals. Grant never personally profited from these scandals. He was not above patronage, and but for houses that were bought for him by others, he as President, and afterwards, would have lived in abject poverty. Like his predecessors, Presidents were not financially supported by the government.
There are some interesting parallels between Grant’s time in office and politics today.
Up until Grant, the Attorney General of the U.S. was considered the attorney for the President. In 1870 the Department of Justice was established and then the role of the Attorney General began to change.
Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, had a Congress with an overwhelming Republican majority. Johnson wanted to end Reconstruction, particularly the use of the Army effectively exercising martial law in support of the 14th Amendment in the southern states that did not ratify that Amendment. Johnson, was also worried about Grant, who was a popular general and a potential political rival. Johnson also wanted to rid himself of Secretary of War Stanton, who through martial law, ignored Johnson as Commander-in-Chief. Congress sought to protect Stanton from being fired by Johnson and passed The Tenure of Office Act. It override Johnson’s veto of the law. The law provided that cabinet officers were to hold their offices for and during the term of the President by whom they were appointed. Stanton was appointed by Lincoln, whose term was continuing because he was assassinated and Johnson was serving the remainder of his term. Johnson sacked Stanton and asked Grant to replace him. Following chain of command Grant did. During Congressional recess Johnson decided to sack General Sheridan, as military head of the Louisiana District over Grant’s objections. Grant, under the Third Reconstruction Act issued Special Order 429 prohibiting Sheridan’s successor from making civil office appointments of persons who had been removed by his predecessor. In the mid-term elections of 1867 the Democrats did better than expected by distancing themselves from Johnson. Grant, now a thorn in Johnson’s side, wanted to replace him as War Secretary, but did not tell Grant, encouraging him to stay. The Senate Committee on Military Affairs voted to reinstate Stanton. Grant reading The Tenure in Office Act realized he would be fined $10,000 and given a 5 year prison term if he did not resign, was determined to resign. Johnson encouraged him to stay, knowing the consequences to Grant. Grant in private with Stanton resigned and at the Cabinet meeting so advised Johnson, who tried to portray him in the press as going back on his word that he would stay in office. Johnson was impeached, but not convicted by one vote, because there was no serving vice president and the Senate president pro tempore, Ben Wade, would become President. He was a Radical Republican that neither the moderate Republicans or Democrats wanted. Impeachments are political.
I am interested in reading Grant’s Memoirs, which are highly regarded. Mark Twain was instrumental in getting them published and assisted Grant in writing, but did not pen them. The publication of the Memoirs helped support Grant’s widow after his death.
One of the interesting facets of Grant’s life was that after his Presidency, with the financial support of his son, he was able to travel the world. This included not only Europe, but the Middle East and Asia. His entire life he was an avid reader and a lover of the theatre. It is not how Grant is usually pictured as an individual.
As a military leader I am reserving judgment. Fighting in the West he had the benefit of more incompetent Union generals in the East that captured more political and press attention. His Confederate counterparts were less than adequate. He benefited from learning logistics early in his career and tasting battle in the Mexican War. He was a strong supporter of Mexican independence, as he was in preserving the Union. He did not come to an anti-slavery viewpoint until later in the War, particularly after the enactment in 1862 of the Confiscation Act. This law provided that persons engaged in any rebellion or insurrection against the authority of the United States shall have their property confiscated including slaves who shall be deemed captives of war and shall be forever free. The Emancipation Proclamation which did not occur until 1863 had its precursor through military enforcement under the Confiscation Act. Unlike Sherman, who was not averse to slavery, Grant through obeying the law, began to look beyond the mere salvation of the Union. He was progressive about the rights of Native Americans throughout his life.
As a general, his soldiers suffered huge loss of life and devastating injuries under his command. The Union Army overwhelmed the Confederates in both people, equipment, and ultimately in food. General Lee played for time. He hoped that the losses would catch up to Lincoln, defeat him politically, and that a negotiated settlement could be reached. This Grant realized, and forced him out of Richmond, only to defeat Lee at Appomattox. The favorable terms of surrender given to the Confederates at Appomattox, on a relative scale, endeared Grant to them. It is an age-old question of war whether to vanquish your enemy and create subsequent resentment, or to be reasonable to promote future good relations, only for the enemy to later believe they were never defeated.
Civil wars are personal. General James Longstreet, the Confederate general, was a relative of Grant’s wife and was in their wedding party. At West Point, generals on both sides were cadets.
What is clear to me from all history that I have read is how little we were taught in school and, relatively, how little I know-or think I know. Most in generations younger than mine, know far less. Ignorance is dangerous.