Monday, January 31, 2011

Ulysses S. Grant

New York City, New York – Visited May 2001

My favorite Grant photo
Reader's note:  In doing posts on the Civil War I will include both Union and Confederate figures.  I would appeal that these posts be read as human interest stories, not as commentary on that difficult period in American history and the slavery that required such a tragic war to be fought for its eradication.

Back in the fall I gave Robert E. Lee prime position as my first Civil War soldier posted in the blog. There are a lot more to come, but it only seems fair to go Union and bring in Ulysses S. Grant. At the end of the war U. S. Grant was the most popular figure in the Northern States, and that includes Abraham Lincoln. He was the military savior of the country, the man who finally whipped Bobby Lee and brought a victorious end to the cataclysmic national nightmare of the Civil War.

Like so many great historical figures, U. S. Grant was a compellingly contradictory figure. He seemed uniquely designed to lead men into battle, but besides being an expert horseman, showed little else in character or talent that would seem to confer greatness.

Ulysses Hiram Grant was born into a working class family in 1822. He showed enough early promise to earn what became an undistinguished education at West Point, graduating in the lower half of his class. It is at the Military Academy that his name was mistakenly changed from Ulysses H. to Ulysses S. Grant, though there was never a name associated with the S. His first true success in his military career came with two citations for bravery in the Mexican-American War in 1846-48. He was married in the 1840’s to Julia Dent and the two ultimately raised four children together. The 1850’s found Grant retired from the military and generally unsuccessful at anything he tried in its place – except for drinking, for which he apparently had a knack.

Grant statue in Vicksburg
Grant was drafted back into the Army at the start of the Civil War in 1861, and quickly rose to the rank of general due to some solid military victories at a time where nobody else in the Union army could claim success. Eventually President Lincoln, fed up with ineptitude or failure of his established military leaders, brought Grant from the Western theater to Washington to oversee the entire Union Army. Grant’s strategic genius recognized that the war was not about territory, but about victory and defeat. He knew that to win the war he had to defeat Robert E. Lee and put his army out of commission. So in 1864 through the first part of 1865 General Grant simply made the effort to fight as often and as aggressively as possible, using his superior numbers in men and equipment to wear down the Confederate Army. Ultimately this strategy worked, resulting the effective end of the war with the surrender of Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, VA. Grant’s success against the South where others had failed may best be summed up in this quote: “In every battle there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten, then he who continues the attack wins.”

Composing his memoirs

Grant was a logical draftee for the presidential nomination after the disastrous postwar term of Andrew Johnson. However his two terms as president revealed that his political skills didn’t match his military ones. While he was never implicated, his presidency was marked by scandal in his administration. Though Grant is often numbered with the least effective presidents, one has to see his administration in objective light. He took over a country reeling financially from war, divided politically, geographically and racially, and sought to lead it through turbulent times. Choosing not to run of a third term in 1874, Grant retired with the intent on traveling and enjoying the life his public service had earned him. However he lost all of his money through financial mismanagement by his advisors, and was diagnosed with throat cancer. The last few years of his shortened life were spent trying to complete and publish his memoirs to provide income to his family. Completed literally days before his death in July 23, 1885 at the age of 63, the memoir became a best seller, securing his family’s future and earning a place as one of the great historic autobiographies in literature.

The funeral for Ulysses Grant was at the time the largest in American history. The procession through New York City was seven miles long. Both Union and Confederate commanders served as pallbearers. Grant was laid to rest in a prime spot overlooking the Hudson River. Twelve years later a massive tomb (still the largest in the country) was dedicated with over a million people attending to pay their respects.

Buddies at the tomb - Mick Burke, Paul Dooley,
Alf Lohman, Al Montello
Ulysses and Julia Grant

My venture to the tomb occurred with four friends when we took a weekend to New York. During the early part of the century the neighborhoods around the tomb had deteriorated and the structure itself had fallen into disrepair. But the National Park Service took it over and refurbished it, and it is now well worth the subway ride up from Manhattan to see it.

USG:  "I know only two tunes: one of them is "Yankee Doodle," and the other isn't."


  1. I was impressed by the way Grant treated the confederate army after their surrender. It tells a lot to mention that confederate soldiers served as some of his pallbearers.