Ulysses S. Grant, the years have been kind to you.
By Bob Simpson (Writer)
History does strange things to a person’s reputation. The interpretation of events in American history, though the country is still relatively young compared to others, has been eschewed just as flagrantly as the histories of Europe, Asia, etc. She is a fickle beast, that Spirit of History, remembering those who shouldn’t be remembered, while disregarding those that shouldn’t be forgotten. She can elevate a man far beyond his personal achievements, simply because the man was in the right place at the right time.
Or, She can turn a common man into a god.
Such is the case with the next President in our pre-election series, and the last of our War Hero Presidents, Ulysses S. Grant. If you’ve missed out on the last few weeks, please feel free to check out my articles on James K. Polk, Millard Fillmore, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor.
I’m going to tackle this week’s article differently than the last few weeks, as the point of this entire series is to highlight unknown or terrible Presidents. Ulysses S. Grant, though a terrible President, is anything but unknown, and I’d like to, instead of focusing on his history, focus on the myth and alleged genius of Grant.
Grant and The Civil War
Grant started out by commanding and recruiting groups of volunteers, leading assaults on Ft. Belmont (defeat, but a moral victory), Ft. Henry (victory) and Ft. Donelson (victory). Grant’s success at Ft. Donelson against heavy Confederate resistance made him a national celebrity during a time in the war when Union victories were rare.
It was at the Battle of Shiloh when the Grant we’ve all come to remember began to take shape. Two days of bloody and heavy fighting, with little to no gains convinced Grant that the Confederates could only be defeated by the complete annihilation of its army.
Here’s where myth takes over, as two of the most highly regarded Generals in American History, Grant and Robert E. Lee, went head-to-head. From here, Grant fought a war of attrition against Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, which up to this point, had been nearly unstoppable, and here is where I’d like to make my analysis of Grant as a general.
Grant was not a genius.
There, I said it, and I know people will hate it, but it’s done. I can’t erase it now. Instead, let me explain why.
While the war on the western front had been proceeding well for the Union forces, the eastern front was a completely different story. The Union experienced defeat after resounding defeat, and I’d like to make the claim that these defeats rested solely in the hands of the Union commanders. McClellan, Burnside, Hooker, Pope and Meade all had one thing in common: indecisiveness. Despite overwhelming superiority in materiel and manpower, these generals seemed reluctant to use these to their advantage. Even after Gettysburg, the first major defeat of the Army of Northern Virginia, George Meade refused to pursue the wounded army, allowing Lee to retreat and regroup.
Grant was different. Grant was a pragmatist. Not a genius, a pragmatist. Here’s what Grant knew:
- The Union had a larger force to employ.
- The Union had a more robust economy and growing industrial sector, allowing for easier production and replacement of equipment.
- The Union had better access to railroads and, with the opening of the Mississippi River, waterways.
- The Union had a far superior navy.
Put all that together, add in the fact that Grant had three of the best generals in the war serving under him in William Tecumseh Sherman, George H. Thomas, and Philip Sheridan, and the strategy was obvious: fight a war of attrition. Keep hitting Lee’s army in the mouth, disrupt their supply chains, destroy their railroads, and let them suffocate to death.
That’s why Grant and the Union won. They fought Lee hard, and lost just as much as they won, but they could afford to lose. They could afford to have casualties. Lee could not.
There it is. It’s not genius. It’s grit, determination, and clarity of purpose.
Full disclosure, I think there are only 3 men in the history of this country that could be called brilliant generals, and all of them fought in the Civil War: Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and William Tecumseh Sherman. The other great generals in our history, from George Washington to Grant to Patton, fit into that Grant formula. They knew what had to be done to win, and they did it.
Okay, that was a lot to read, I know, but let me change tones now. As clear of purpose and determined as Grant was, it may come as a surprise to many that as President, Grant was pretty terrible.
Seriously terrible. Like, one of the worst Presidents ever.
Not that he had any trouble getting elected twice, and let’s make that point clear: this is probably the only President in this series that actually served two terms.
We’ll get to the bad stuff in a moment, but I want to highlight the good as well, and as horrible as Grant was, he did do some great things while in office. First of all, his administration helped to stabilize the country after the turbulence of the Reconstruction years. He won passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave blacks the right to vote, but more importantly, he fought for that right to be more than words on a page. He viciously attacked the Ku Klux Klan, effectively shutting them down for years. During Grant’s administration, the first black members of Congress were elected in 1870.
So, not all bad, right? Sure, his administrations had their bright spots, but Grant’s terms were also mired in corruption and ineffectiveness.
Probably the most damning criticism of Grant’s Presidency is with regards to the Panic of 1873. After the Vienna stock market crashed that year, the world was thrown into a global depression which lasted for 5 years in the US. Banks stopped making payments, the New York Stock Exchange shut down for a full 10 days (basically a lifetime), wages were depressed by 25%, businesses failed, and unemployment rose to 14% (we thought 8% was bad).
The cause of the depression in the United States is a familiar tale: over-expansion, lack of regulation on Wall Street, growth on borrowed money, and unforeseeable natural disasters. Grant, who knew nothing about finances, relied instead on the advice of bankers on how to turn the economy back around, which did not help. Grant did nothing to prevent the Panic, and when it occurred, responded far too slowly.
It was the numerous scandals within the Grant administration, however, that have served as the long-standing blot on his record. Grant faced financial corruption charges or scandals in every single federal department during his two terms. Grant’s fierce loyalty to his advisors and refusal to hold them accountable for their misdeeds led to the widespread scandals. Grant’s own secretary, Orville Babcock and Vice-President, Schuyler Colfax, were two of the biggest names involved in the corrupt administration. Basically, Grant had a major problem recognizing a person’s character.
The lack of success of Grant’s administration with regards to the depression and corruption turned the focus of the nation away from the Republican party, essentially blunting the bright spots mentioned in the previous paragraph. All efforts to enforce the African-American vote were abandoned, and the positive work done during the Reconstruction period to heal the nation was forgotten.
Remarkably, Grant attempted to run for a 3rd term as President in 1879, but lost the Republican nomination to James Garfield.
I want to make a point clear before wrapping up for this week. Although mostly inept as President, the evidence shows that Grant was not only an able commander, but a loyal and trusting person. I don’t think that’s a bad thing to have in a President, or in a General. I do think, however, that history has exaggerated his victories and marginalized his failures. Maybe, with time, we’ll get a better picture on who this immortal American was.
Some additional Grant Fun Facts:
- According to Grant, the “S” in his name actually stood for nothing.
- One of Grant’s common nicknames was Sam, which came from his days at West Point, since his first two initials could be taken as “Uncle Sam.”
- Another of Grant’s nicknames was “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, after his victory at Ft. Donelson.
- Was the 3rd man in history to be promoted to Lieutenant General, after George Washington and Winfield Scott (brevet promotion), respectively.
is a writer and lives in Los Angeles, where he works for an
entertainment company that he'd prefer to keep anonymous, should he
accidentally diss something they made. www.bobsimpsonblog.blogspot.com
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