The historical odyssey of Ulysses Grant

If you were to argue that the four greatest United States presidents are represented by the faces chiseled into the side of Mount Rushmore, few people would debate you. Chosen in the 1920s by sculptor Gutzon Borglum for their contributions to the preservation and expansion of our nation, the accomplishments of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt come easily for us.

But throughout history, there have been others considered great, as well.

In 1892, a medal produced for the Columbian Expo in Chicago featured the silhouettes of three American Presidents on its reverse side, along with the words “Father. Saviour. Defender.” The Father is George Washington. The Saviour is Abraham Lincoln. And the Defender? The Defender is Ulysses S. Grant.

So when America invited the world to its land to celebrate all that made the country and future bright, President Grant was one of faces represented to greet visitors (not in the flesh, he had been dead for seven years). Not Thomas Jefferson, who would later be chosen for inclusion on Mount Rushmore, but Grant.

The shift in the way Grant is considered as a figure in American history is interesting.

In a 1900 speech in Grant’s hometown of Galena, then-New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt declared his view that “Yet as the generations slip away, as the dust of conflict settles, and as through the clearing air, we look back with keener wisdom into the nation’s past, mightiest among the mighty dead loom the three great 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.” Included in the ellipses is a reference to men such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Alexander Hamilton as “merely national heroes.”

In a 2017 C-SPAN survey of greatest U.S. Presidents, Ulysses Grant ranked 22nd.  In 2009, he was 23rd. In 2000, he was also 23rd. (Oddly enough, Grant also finished 22nd in his West Point graduating class, that rank being out of 39 students) The Defender of our union, one of the mightiest among the mighty dead, a great man of all nations, of all time, is now considered a middle-of-the-pack President, behind George H.W. Bush and William McKinley. I understand that the “greatness” of Presidents can change for perfectly valid reasons and it happens in both directions. Wildly unpopular at the time of his departure from office, Harry Truman ranked 6th, 5th, and 5th, in that same survey. Our shifting sensibilities change how we interpret presidential actions; leaders prove to be visionaries, with the effects of once-derided policies fully realized and more favorable than first thought. And I also understand that this survey is regarding the men in their service as President, not on the body of their life’s work. But the survey does seem to speak to a broader disregard for Grant’s contributions to our country in all aspects. He simply isn’t viewed with the esteem he once was.

I believe that the general view of Grant goes something like this: Floundered through his life until, inexplicably, he shot to the top of the United States Army during the Civil War, rode military success to the Presidency, and was an alcoholic (and maybe that his mug graces the $50 bill). Consider the comments of President Dwight Eisenhower (a rather accomplished military man and President in his own right) to Walter Cronkite in 1964:

“I think Ulysses S. Grant is vastly underrated as a man and as a general. I know people think this and that about his drinking habits, which I think have been exaggerated way out of line. The fact is, he never demanded more men or material from the war department, he took over an army that had a long history of retreating and losing. That army had no confidence in their fighting ability and Grant came in as a real outsider. He had so many disadvantages going into the 1864 campaign, now 100 years ago. But he met every test and rose to the occasion unlike I’ve ever seen in American history. He was a very tough yet very fair man and a great soldier. He’s not been given his due.

“Grant devised a strategy to end the war. He alone had the determination, foresight, and wisdom to do it. It was lucky that President Lincoln didn’t interfere or attempt to control Grant’s strategic line of thinking. Lincoln wisely left the war to Grant, at least in the concluding moves after he came east. Grant is very undervalued today, which is a shame, because he was one of the greatest American generals, if not the greatest.”

When hearing about the military genius of Civil War generals, we often hear of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Maybe Bedford Forrest or William Tecumseh Sherman. But it was Grant who was the leader of the victorious side. Many Grant detractors quickly attribute the Union’s victory in the Civil War to the vast manpower advantage they enjoyed or the lack of recognition the Confederacy received from foreign governments. Or the fact that Grant had Sherman waging Total War through Georgia, destroying not only the Southern infrastructure, but also Southern will. But that would deny Grant’s accomplishments in taking Vicksburg or his head-to-head victories over Lee in Virginia after President Lincoln appointed him general-in-chief of the Union army in 1864.

As President, Grant secured two terms, taking office in 1869 and serving until 1877. That may seem like a rather common achievement, but considering his time, it is noteworthy. From the election of Martin Van Buren in 1836 to the election of Theodore Roosevelt in 1904, only two Presidents were re-elected: Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant. In fact, in his re-election campaign, Grant secured 55.6 percent of the popular vote, more than any other candidate since Andrew Jackson in 1828.

He not only possessed a great military mind, but also a heart for peace and people. He was instrumental in the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which secured voting rights for Americans, despite “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” He fought the Ku Klux Klan. Despite taking stances contrary to much of the South, his heart did not lead him to harm his former enemies. Grant supported generous surrender terms to the Confederacy, pushed for the passing of an amnesty act for former rebels, and supported federally-funded rebuilding of the South through Reconstruction.

He empathized with Native Americans, Grant biographer Ronald White told NBC’s Arturo Conde, in that he could see their position through their eyes. Consider this Grant quote to his wife in a letter following the Mexican-American War:

“My opinion [is] that the whole race would be harmless and peaceable if they were not put upon by the whites.”

His “peace policy” may have failed, but his motivations were to fight the corrupt Department of the Interior that was harming the native peoples of the Great Plains. Though his push to install Christian missionaries as reservation heads may have been misguided and led to interdenominational fighting, his heart was in the right place. Grant also supported, but was unable to implement, public works programs to aid the unemployed. Many of the causes Grant supported came with political danger, but he felt them to be the right course of action.

What I find odd about Grant’s slide down the historical rankings is that the traits he seemed to possess—a steely resolve in crisis, inspirational leadership, a compassion for people—are all traits that we claim to honor and hold dear today. He supported equal rights and advocated for the disadvantaged. He not only served to save the Union, but also led the effort to put the pieces back together. Grant fought bitterly to win, but had the graciousness to help his opponent off the mat. He had a litany of faults, much as we all do, but I suggest that as figure in our nation, Ulysses Grant deserves a closer look.

  1. Spencer Collection: Politics and Political Science In Medals Washington, Lincoln & Grant, Columbiana, 1892. (n.d.). Retrieved May 19, 2017, from https://coins.www.collectors-society.com/wcm/CoinView.aspx?sc=273835
  2. Presidential Historians Survey 2017. (n.d.). Retrieved May 19, 2017, from https://www.c-span.org/presidentsurvey2017/?page=overall
  3. Grant’s Genius. (n.d.). Retrieved May 19, 2017, from http://www.empirenet.com/~ulysses/index.htm
  4. Profiles of U.S. Presidents. (n.d.). Retrieved May 19, 2017, from http://www.presidentprofiles.com/Grant-Eisenhower/Ulysses-S-Grant-Domestic-affairs.html
  5. Conde, A. (2017, February 20). How the Mexican-American War Inspired President Ulysses S. Grant. Retrieved May 19, 2017, from http://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/how-mexican-american-war-inspired-president-ulysses-s-grant-n723296
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