The Enigma of Ulysses S. Grant

A magisterial new biography fails to crack the mystery of America’s greatest general.

He is a strange character,” remarked William Tecumseh Sherman in 1879, trying to explain Ulysses Simpson Grant, his old chief during the Civil War and (by that time) president of the United States. “I knew him as a cadet at West Point, as a lieutenant of the Fourth Infantry, as a citizen of St. Louis, and as a growing general all through a bloody civil war. Yet to me he is a mystery, and I believe he is a mystery to himself.”

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American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald C. White Random House, 864 pp.

Grant has not proven any less a mystery since then, and it has been hard to connect the dots of the man’s qualities in a pattern that will explain how he became the greatest commanding general of the U.S. military forces in the nineteenth century and the conqueror of the fabled Confederate Robert E. Lee. Charles Dana, who was sent as a War Department observer to evaluate Grant’s aptitude for high command midway through the war, described him as “the most modest, the most disinterested, and the most honest man I ever knew, with a temper that nothing could disturb, and a judgment that was judicial in its comprehensiveness and wisdom”—just the sort of thing that could be said about almost anyone in shoulder straps in 1863 who was not a complete idiot. On the centennial of Grant’s death, in 1985, John Leo wrote a partly humorous tribute to Grant that seemed to spear the man exactly, saying that Grant was the sort whose first words upon being introduced would be “Meet the wife.”

It did not take long, even during the Civil War, for puzzled critics to assume that there was no pattern to the dots at all. They concluded that Grant suceeded as a general only because he tapped the enormous manpower resources of the North and just threw them at the Confederates, regardless of the cost in blood. They railed at Grant the two-term president (from 1869 to 1877) as an incompetent for protecting corruption and allowing the Reconstruction of the South to fizzle. Moreover, Grant set two unhappy precedents in American history: that of second-term presidents whose administrations collapse in scandal, and that of great generals who make for bland politicians. Grant’s presidency, complained Henry Adams, “avowed from the start a policy of drift.” Grant himself was “inarticulate, uncertain, distrustful of himself, still more distrustful of others.” He “should have lived in a cave and worn skins.”

Ronald C. White’s American Ulysses is the seventh doorstop-sized biography of Grant to be published in the last thirty-five years, following William McFeely (1981), two volumes from Brooks Simpson (1991 and 2000), Geoffrey Perret (1997), Jean Edward Smith (2002), and H. W. Brands (2013). This puts quite a burden on White, a former seminary professor and historian of the Social Gospel who rocketed to prominence in 2002 with the first of three well-received books on Abraham Lincoln. But White’s fundamental take on Grant is to stress the basic decency of the man. White’s Grant disliked war, politics, and slavery (more or less in that order). “I am called a man of war,” Grant complained in 1878, “but I was never a man of war.” He was no student of military science, either, like his great contemporary Helmuth von Moltke, and once reduced the essence of strategy to a sound bite: “Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.” He protested to Otto von Bismarck that “I am more of a farmer than a soldier. I take no interest in military affairs. . . . I never went into the army without regret and never retired without pleasure.” He was devoted to his wife, his family, and his horses. (The rare moments when Grant emerged from his customary stolidity into raging fury were the ones in which he witnessed mistreatment of animals.) He never used profanity and was a lifelong Methodist. Not surprisingly, it is on that last point that White wants to dwell, since in all the other Grant biographies, “Grant’s religious odyssey has been overlooked or misunderstood.”

John Keegan, in The Mask of Command, observed that Grant possessed two great virtues as a general: he had the coup d’oeil (the ability to size up terrain and know instinctively what to do on it) and a clear, brisk style of communication that never left his subordinates in doubt of his wishes. (This may not sound like a remarkable talent, but the American military on the eve of the Civil War had no general staff and no established pattern for field communications, and much of the Civil War was pockmarked by bad decisions prompted by unclear or vague orders.) These were, however, virtues that required a circumstance to draw them into view, and the trouble Grant had in his first thirty-eight years was being found by such a circumstance. Born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, in 1822, he was packed off at the age of seventeen to West Point by his father, mostly for the benefit of a free education, and served creditably as a junior officer and quartermaster in the Mexican War. He filled a variety of small posts in the years afterward, until he was finally dispatched to Fort Humboldt on the Northern California coast. There, separated from the support of his wife, Julia, he took to drink and was compelled to resign his commission in 1854. Having hit bottom, Grant proceeded to bump along that bottom for the next six years, finally ending up as a clerk in his father’s leather-goods store in Galena, Illinois.

Grant hadn’t originally been enamored of Lincoln. He didn’t vote for him in the 1860 election, and in the first year of the war had cautiously refused to harbor fugitive slaves behind Union lines.

Then came the war, and the desperate need for anybody who had at least some small bits of military know-how. Grant was handed command of the 21st Illinois Volunteers, and from that moment he went nowhere but up. Promoted to brigadier general, he organized a joint Army-Navy expedition up the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers in February 1862, which knocked aside the western Confederacy’s barrier forts, Henry and Donelson. This feat, and his blunt demand for the unconditional surrender of Fort Donelson, earned him quick national celebrity. (U. S. Grant became “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, and earned him the first of many boxes of the congratulatory cigars that eventually killed him.) Grant almost threw it all away when he was caught napping by the Confederates at Shiloh that April. But he redeemed himself by managing a superb, light-footed campaign against the Confederacy’s citadel on the Mississippi River, Vicksburg, in mid-1863. He then pivoted militarily, and won a tremendous come-from-behind victory at Chattanooga later that year. That was enough to convince Abraham Lincoln that Grant was the general who could win the war. Waving aside insinuations that Grant still had a drinking problem, Lincoln had him promoted to lieutenant general and gave him a mandate to crush the main Confederate army, under Robert E. Lee.

Curiously, Grant hadn’t originally been enamored of Lincoln. He didn’t vote for him in the 1860 election, and in the first year of the war had cautiously refused to harbor fugitive slaves behind Union lines. However, keeping a finger in the political winds became a Grant specialty. Soon enough he pivoted politically as well, publicly endorsing Lincoln’s emancipation policy and quieting any fears on Lincoln’s part that he had political ambitions of his own.

The Overland Campaign that Grant devised against Lee in 1864 was not, as Grant’s enemies often whined, a war of brute attrition. To the contrary, it was a war of the most nimble maneuvers, with Grant consistently outfoxing Lee until he had pinned Lee’s army into a siege around the Confederate capital of Richmond. Lincoln and the politicians had badgered Grant from the start to look for a knockdown fight with Lee’s army. Grant knew better. Warfare in the nineteenth century had become too large scale to be settled by Napoleonic set-piece showdowns. Once it became clear at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor that Lee could not be overcome by mere head-down fighting, Grant did what he had wanted to do all along, which was to cross the James River and grasp Richmond and its rail-junction neighbor, Petersburg, in a remorseless headlock. Lee understood all too well what Grant was up to, and knew it spelled the end. The siege isolated Richmond and demoralized and exhausted Lee’s army. When Richmond’s defenses finally collapsed in April 1865, Lee was only able to flee as far as Appomattox Court House before Grant caught up and compelled his surrender without the need for any final, bloody climax.

This might have been the happy ending for Ulysses Grant. Instead the political vacuum created by Lincoln’s murder the week after Appomattox sucked Grant in. Lincoln’s vice president and successor, Andrew Johnson, as politically inept a president as has ever taken the oath, descended into a swift spiral of conflict with Congress that ended in his impeachment in 1868 (which Johnson survived by just one vote in the Senate). Grant was at first supportive of Johnson. But by 1866, Grant’s finger in the wind had steered him to the congressional side, and in 1868, Lincoln’s Republicans enthusiastically adopted him as their candidate for president.

Alas for Grant, his presidency undid in peace nearly everything he had accomplished in war. Congress expected him to do as Johnson had not, and apply the severe measures for Reconstruction that Congress had embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment and the three Reconstruction Acts of 1867. Grant was only too willing to do so. He became an ardent defender of civil equality for the freed slaves, and when southern irredentists resorted to terror to nullify black votes in the South through the Ku Klux Klan, Grant’s attorney general, Amos Akerman, prosecuted the Klan with the hand of an avenging angel.

But Congress’s Reconstruction strategies were severe only by comparison with doing nothing; after only three years, even under congressional rules, most of the old Confederacy had been reintegrated into the Union without sufficient safeguards to protect the freedpeople. Congress displayed even less wisdom in managing financial affairs, and was swallowed up in 1872 by the Crédit Mobilier scandal, which saw members of Congress standing in line for what amounted to bribes from the railroads. When a financial panic struck the nation in 1873, an enraged electorate ripped away the Reconstruction majorities Grant had relied upon in the House of Representatives, and for the remainder of his second term, the enforcement of federal voting rights laws was handicapped by an unsympathetic opposition on Capitol Hill.

Grant’s capacity to anticipate events seemed to desert him, especially when it came to dealing with corruption within his own administration. Eager to be appreciated as one who stood by his friends, Grant appointed old Army cronies to positions everywhere from post offices to cabinet departments. Like Grant, many of them had never known anything before the war except genteel poverty; unlike Grant, they could not resist the manifest opportunities that political power offered them for graft. Grant saw the chair of his Indian Commission, his personal secretary, his secretary of war, and his secretary of the interior all forced into resignation over financial chicanery. Grant himself was unsullied by any charges, but it cost him respect, a cost made worse by his propensity to cling to his friends far longer than their misdeeds warranted. The month after he left office, the last Reconstruction governments in the South collapsed, and the steady road to Jim Crow was open.

White narrates this mud-daubed life with palpable sympathy and no small skill. The book is handsomely written, and it is accompanied by a brace of extraordinarily fine maps, including ones that chart Grant’s post-presidential world tour. Moreover, White has taken the trouble—and how many biographers short-change this part of the process!—of visiting the places Grant lived and worked in. But White never quite moves us to conviction about the single most unusual aspect of his biography, and that is Grant’s religion. From time to time, we are reminded that Grant rented a pew in this or that Methodist church in Galena or Detroit, that he listened attentively to the “feeling discourses from the pulpit” of his Galena pastor, John Heyl Vincent, or that he endorsed John Wanamaker’s Sunday School Times with a letter that urged its readers to “hold fast to the Bible as the sheet-anchor of your liberties; write its precepts in your hearts, and PRACTISE THEM IN YOUR LIVES.” These are, as White rightly complains, aspects of Grant’s life that most of the other biographies miss entirely.

Grant became an ardent defender of civil equality for the freed slaves, even when southern irredentists resorted to terror to nullify black votes in the South through the Ku Klux Klan.

But beyond this, even White finds it nearly impossible to detect in Grant the sort of mental anguish on religious subjects that marked Abraham Lincoln. In 1862, Grant issued a general order banning “the Jews, as a class” from his military department for “violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury,” only to rescind the order under pressure from Lincoln, and to spend the rest of his life apologizing for it. In 1875, he endorsed the Blaine Amendment, legislation proposed ostensibly to reserve religion “to the family altar, the church, and the private school,” but designed in practice to defund Catholic parochial schools. It does not appear that Grant was baptized until he was dying of cancer in 1885—and even then, he was unconscious. “From many years of my acquaintance with General Grant I cannot recall an instance of a reference to theological opinions upon controverted topics of faith,” remembered George S. Boutwell, who served as Grant’s secretary of the treasury. “He disliked controversy even in conversation.” His posthumously published Personal Memoirs contain only two direct references to God, and both are mere bromides (“Man proposes and God disposes”). Julia Grant’s memoirs were substantially more forthcoming about religion, but not about her husband’s beliefs.

And so Ulysses Simpson Grant remains as much a mystery as ever Sherman found him. In British history, military heroes have been eccentrics—sometimes, highly religious eccentrics, like Orde Wingate, Henry Havelock, or Charles George Gordon. But Americans are only amused by their eccentric generals; they rarely give them top command. White takes, as the trope of his title, the comparison of Grant with a very different kind of soldier, his classical namesake Ulysses. To the extent that Grant turned into quite a world tourist after 1877, it is true that he really could not “rest from travel”; to the extent that he was a foil for Sherman, the Civil War’s Achilles, he was an American Ulysses. But he was certainly not an American Caesar or an American Cincinnatus, and in truth, he may only have been an early Eisenhower.

Allen C. Guelzo

Allen Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, where he serves as director of the Civil War Era Studies Program.