Most military historians, Chernow included, agree that Ulysses S. Grant was the most successful of the Civil War generals on both the Confederate and Union sides. Grant’s origins, however, were humble. He started out working as a tanner in the small Illinois town of Galena, along the Mississippi. The author of this long biography disagrees with most historians in his evaluation of Grant’s two terms as the US President from 1869 to 1877.
Grant was as professionally trained as any military commander could be in nineteenth-century America. Appointed to West Point in 1839, he served with distinction in the Mexican War and in 1863 won one of the most important battles of the Civil War, the siege and surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Grant’s contacts at West Point were later important to his rise within the Union Army. He claimed that he knew how Confederate generals – also West Point graduates – would respond to situations as they arose on the battlefield.
Much has been made of his drinking problem, and Chernow acknowledges that at times Ulysses drank whiskey to the point of inebriation (got dead drunk). Chernow even allows that at times his drinking may have adversely affected his generalship. Though there were commanding qualities that out-weighed this infrequent condition.
The Confederate states believed the Civil War to be a testing of the right to secede from the Union. And, yes, secession was the issue when the war began, at least for Abraham Lincoln and others in the Lincoln Administration. But by 1863 both Lincoln and Grant thought the War to be the opportunity to end slavery adding, emancipation to secession. General Grant argued for the incorporation of blacks into the Union Army, especially after the draft riots in New York showed that there would be resistance to conscription.
Grant believed the War would be won, not by occupying cities but by defeating Confederate armies and then pursuing them as they retreated. Lincoln was relieved to have found a general who agreed with his war strategy.
Grant found that these black volunteers made good soldiers. They should be recruited to share in the battle for their freedom. The South, on the other hand, looked upon black soldiers as runaway slaves (most of them were) and should suffer the fate that absconding slaves had always suffered.
Later when Grant began the negotiations with General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, one of his concerns was the protection of the Negro from white racism. In the early negotiations Lee insisted that, as part of any agreement to end the war, the North should agree to return freedman to their former masters. Would this be for an appropriate punishment? Grant did not consent to this condition.
In December 1862 Grant made what he considers to have been his greatest mistake during his command of the Army of Tennessee. He issued General Order # 11 expelling all Jews in his military district. As a commander of the Army, Grant was responsible for the licensing of traders. His order was intended to deal with the ‘Israelite profiteers’ who were obtaining contracts to supply Southern cotton to the New England and European mill industry through “corruption” – a black market. The order was immediately rescinded.
Perhaps Chernow spends too much time on Grant’s wife, Julia. She and Mary Lincoln did not get along. When Lincoln invited General and Mrs. Grant to attend a play at Ford Theater, it was politely declined. The afternoon before the performance Mrs. Grant noticed that a horseman was peering into their carriage. It turned out to have been John Wilkes Booth. There is some evidence that Booth was “stalking” both President and General. Was Grant slated to be assassinated as well?
Grant is praised for his generosity to the defeated foe at Appomattox. Both he and Lee wished to prevent the Confederate army from breaking up into bands of raiders, waging guerrilla warfare. Ulysses S. Grant was also positioning himself to run for the presidency against Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s Vice-President.
Chernow hopes to persuade us that much injustice is done to Grant’s two Presidential terms. They were besmeared by the corruption of the post-Civil War administrations, Andrew Johnson’s and then his own as well.
Almost immediately with the surrender, race riots broke out in Memphis, New Orleans, and elsewhere. The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups began their intimidation of the black voters and jurists. Lynching, burning black churches and homes, intimidation of witnesses when perpetrators were brought to trial, and other acts of violence against the new freedmen were common throughout the old Confederacy. A caste system evolved with its black codes which we collectively call Jim Crow. President Johnson was criticized for doing nothing about the violence. His impeachment was defeated by a single vote.
A two-term presidency was an easy win for Grant. He considered a third, unprecedented term at his wife’s urging. But he was ready to go home.
Grant inherited the violence and dealt with it as he could – with opposition from states’ rights advocates. He turned to weaving the three Post-War amendments into the fabric of our constitutional structure. And he never forgot what the author calls the spirit of Appomattox.
A Civil Rights Act passed in 1875 was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1883. And not passed until 1957 and 1964.
Ulysses Grant was also a strong supporter of Native Americans and white-settler resistance to encroachment in Dakota Territory. Were he around today Grant would be a strong supporter of the new Crazy Horse Monument being carved near Mount Rushmore. Grant would also probably have agreed to the four presidents to be carved on Mount Rushmore. Perhaps we should add a second team to the Rushmore first team. Certainly Woodrow Wilson would be included. Would Ulysses S. Grant?