18 Things I Learned About Our 18th President – Ulysses S. Grant

I am a son of the South. Growing up in Georgia in the 1950s and 1960s, I became fascinated with the Civil War and all its history, so much of it having occurred in my home state. With the carving on nearby Stone Mountain displaying images of Robert E.Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis, Southern military heroes took on an almost iconic, if not mythical, stature. Likewise, any mention of Yankee Generals like Grant and Sherman usually resulted in moans, groans, boos, and hisses.

Yet as I grew older, despite the romanticization of Confederate heroes, something inside me knew the insidious evil that was slavery had to be addressed and the Union had to be saved. There is always a Judgment Day for evil and my beloved Southland suffered the consequences of supporting such a heinous institution. While I had come to realize the immoral foundation of the Confederacy, my imagination, fired by my Southern heritage, still found it hard to respect any Union Generals, especially those named Grant or Sherman.

Not so anymore.

Ron Chernow’s book titled Grant provides a comprehensive and detailed view of this complicated man who led the Union to victory and later was elected to two terms as President. This 959-page tome is well written, and despite its length, is an easy read. I can say without equivocation that this book not only filled gaps in my knowledge of that volatile period of American history but also changed the way I view so much of what happened during and after the so-called War of Northern Aggression so (inappropriately) named by Southern history revisionists.

I invite you to set aside all your preconceptions about our 18th President and read the book. Until then, here are 18 specific items about Ulysses S. Grant that I found to be fascinating and insightful.

  1. Ulysses S. Grant was not his proper name: Grant was born in 1822 and named Hiram Ulysses Grant. His family called him Ulysses or Ulys. His father approached their Ohio congressman and sought a nomination for Ulysses to West Point. The congressman nominated him but mistakenly used Ulysses S. Grant. When Grant discovered the error, he did not change it and adopted that name as his own. Some thought the S stood for his mother’s maiden name, Simpson. During the Civil War, thanks to his early victories, his first two initials achieved widespread fame in the northern press with the moniker of “Unconditional Surrender.” The truth is that the S means absolutely nothing but S.
  2. A Champion Horseman: Grant was considered an average, if not lackluster student at West Point. However, he did excel at math, map reading, and horsemanship. He could ride a horse better than most men, so much so that when cadets competed in jumps, attendants would raise the bar a full foot higher for Grant. Cadets considered “it as good as any circus to see Grant ride.”
  3. The Mexican War Experience prepared him for the Civil War: Graduating from West Point in 1843, Grant served as a Second Lieutenant during the Mexican War (1846-1848). Despite his horsemanship skills, he was not assigned to the cavalry but instead was ordered to the Quartermaster Corps. Disappointed with the assignment, only years later did he realize the invaluable knowledge he gained about supplying large armies over long distances. He also developed an in-depth understanding of fellow — future Confederate – officers that twenty years later would serve him well in anticipating their battlefield actions.
  4. Married a Missouri Woman who had Slaves: Grant’s wife, Julia, came from a Missouri family that owned slaves. When they married, Julia’s father gave her four slaves. Grant’s family were abolitionists, but Grant’s attitude toward the slavery issue evolved over many years until he finally insisted that Julia grant her slaves their freedom. Exactly when that occurred is uncertain but is thought to be some time early in the Civil War. Grant, himself, actually owned a slave from 1857 to 1859 when he gave the slave his freedom.
  5. Often mistaken for others: Grant did not present a striking physical presence and was often mistaken for someone else when met for the first time. He was of average height, 5’ 8,” and only weighed 135 pounds during the Civil War. He would add considerable weight after the War.
  6. Magnanimous in Victory: In his first victory of the Civil War at Fort Donelson, Grant displayed a generous and merciful approach to prisoners. Despite his demand for unconditional surrender from the Rebel leaders, Grant demonstrated a respect for the Confederate troops that foretold his treatment in future engagements. He provided the captured Confederates food and made no distinction between the Blue and Gray in tending to the sick and wounded. He further avoided shaming the captured troops by avoiding any show of celebration.
  7. Integrating the Army: The use of “colored” or “negro” troops in the Army evolved under Grant. Following the victory at Fort Donelson, Grant said: “we want laborers, let the negroes work for us.” He initially used escaped slaves as common “paid” laborers to assist in supporting the military. But by March 1863, he began to arm, train, and organize them into regiments. By the end of the war, 179,000 black soldiers, mostly escaped slaves, served in the Union Army, winning the praise and admiration of Grant.
  8. Battlefield Strategy and Vision: Grant had an uncanny sense of the battlefield. He could anticipate his enemy’s weaknesses and usually was able to predict enemy moves. Confederate General Robert E. Lee has long been perceived as the better strategist. Historians, however, have begun to appreciate Grant’s military strategy. While Lee had a singular focus on the battle at hand, Grant held to a long-term strategy and eroded enemy supply lines and infrastructure. General Sherman compared the two by saying, “while Lee attacked the front porch, Grant would attack the kitchen and the bedroom.”
  9. Lee and Grant at Appomattox Courthouse: Anyone familiar with the Civil War knows of Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. Yet before the official surrender, Lee was skeptical of how Grant would treat the Confederate troops. It was Longstreet, an old friend of Grant, and Lee’s most trusted General who convinced Lee that Grant would “behave honorably and not inflict humiliating conditions.” Lee arrived at Appomattox dressed impeccably. Unable to change clothes before meeting Lee, Grant appeared in a more rumpled manner; his mud-splashed uniform offered quite a contrast to the spotless gray uniform of Lee. Grant, true to form, did not want to humiliate Lee or his troops. He offered for them to keep their sidearms and horses. Grant’s terms also stipulated that so long as the soldiers would honor the terms of their parole, they would not be subject to any further punishment. This was significant as it negated any possibility of later charges of treason. Grant chose not to ask for Lee’s sword and offered to provide food for his hungry troops. As Lee left, Grant tipped his hat as did other Union officers. The Confederate forces present long remembered Grant’s respectful treatment of their leader at that historic moment.
  10. The Reluctant General and President: Grant did not want to go to West Point, but his father gave him little choice. Later, after the debacle of the Johnson Presidency, he still refused to campaign for the Presidency but did not resist the efforts of others to nominate him. He easily won two terms as President mostly due to his Civil War record.
  11. Drunkard? Grant had a problem with alcohol. He could never take just one drink. His excesses early in his military career would haunt him throughout his life, as his enemies never let anyone forget his alcoholism. Yet he never drank in the presence of his wife. His military, and later his presidential, chief of staff served as his watchdog. While he still had an occasional bender from time to time, he managed his alcoholism well enough that it did not adversely impact his military success or Presidential responsibilities.
  12. Friendship with Confederates: James Longstreet, one of the Confederacy’s foremost generals and the primary subordinate under Robert E. Lee, was also a good friend of Grant. Longstreet served as Grant’s Best Man at his wedding. After the War, Grant appointed him to several government and diplomatic positions. John Mosby called the Gray Ghost during the war, pioneered guerrilla warfare against Northern troops in Virginia. After the war, he and Grant became friends and Mosby served in the Department of Justice and also as American Counsel to Hong Kong. Hearing of Grant’s death in 1885, Mosby declared: “I felt I have lost my best friend.”
  13. Ford’s Theater: Grant and his wife Julia had been invited to join Lincoln and his wife Mary as their guest at Ford’s Theater the fateful night of April 14th. Grant decided not to accept the invitation primarily due to Mary Lincoln’s disrespectful behavior towards him and his wife on earlier occasions.
  14. No Presidential Pension: When Grant left the White House, He was most concerned about how he could afford to live. There was no Presidential pension (and would not be one until the Eisenhower Administration).
  15. World Wide Trip Diplomat: After two terms as President (1869-1877), many of Grant’s supporters wanted him to run for a third term. Grant was tired and looked forward to a break. He instead decided to take what would become a historic and eventful trip around the world. His unintentional, unofficial role as American diplomat resulted in rave reviews in the States. Everywhere he went, thousands turned out to see him. He was even asked to serve as a mediator between Japan and China who were almost at war over control of the Ryukyu Islands. This effort made him the first ex-President to conduct personal diplomacy abroad.
  16. Third Term? Almost. When Rutherford B. Hayes chose not to seek a second term, Grant decided to allow his name to be nominated at the 1880 Republican Convention in Chicago. The first ballot saw him receive 304 votes of a needed 379 to win the nomination. Thirty-six ballots later, Grant lost the nomination to James Garfield. Garfield would later win the Presidency only to be assassinated six months after taking office.
  17. Death by Cigars: Grant was a pipe smoker for most of his early years. After gaining fame for the first Union victory of the Civil War at Fort Donelson, newspaper reports made note of Grant holding an (unlit) cigar — one given to him by Admiral Foote. He was soon inundated with gifts of cigars from all over the North. As many as ten thousand cigars were received. The tension of war soon found Grant smoking on average 20 cigars a day creating an ultimately fatal addiction. After the war, his routine slowed to only 10 cigars a day. He died of throat cancer at the age of 63.
  18. His Dying Gift for His Wife – His Memoirs: Following the War, many military leaders wrote their memoirs and tried to cash in on their fame. Grant initially declined, resisting any and all attempts to persuade him to write his own. However, in May 1884, Grant lost his fortune (approximately 1.5 million dollars) in a Ponzi scheme of a trusted friend. Left with only $80, he plunged into depression. Just four months later he was diagnosed with throat cancer — a death sentence in the 19th century. Fearful he would leave his wife destitute, he plunged into writing his memoirs. Mark Twain later made an offer for Twain’s publishing company to print his memoirs, awarding Grant an unheard of royalty fee of 75%. Despite immense pain, he worked tirelessly to finish his book and completed it only 4 days before he died on July 23, 1885. The 336,000-word book was a literary success and earned his wife almost $500,000, a fortune in the late 19th century. As Chernow acknowledged, “The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, widely viewed as a masterpiece, is probably the foremost military memoir in the English language, written in clear, supple style that transcends the torment of its composition.”

Ulysses S. Grant was a complicated and flawed man. That said, there was a humility, decency, and honor about him that few today know and appreciate.

In the final chapter of the book, Chernow described the response to the death of Ulysses S. Grant:

In southern towns and border states, veterans from North and South linked arms as they paid tribute to Grant’s passage. Black churches held “meetings of sorrow” that eulogized Grant as a champion of the Fifteenth Amendment and the fight to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan. Summing up Grant’s career, Frederick Douglas wrote “In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.”

I highly recommend Ron Chernow’s Grant for your reading pleasure. Just be prepared for some late nights.

And, if you are a Southern man like myself, prepare to surrender some preconceptions.

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  1. Hal Henderson

    Buddy, Good write-up… enjoyed your summary.  Those who took political office back-in-the-day certainly didn’t do it for wealth, that is for sure.  Biography of John Adams is another good book you might enjoy.  His biography was certainly themed around self-sacrifice for the common good versus his own fortune… another good book about pre and post-revolutionary struggles of leadership.  Since you liked this book, I thought I would recommend another one to you set during the civil war period… A Team of Rivals, a biographical study of Abraham Lincoln running for president and then bringing all of his political rivals onto his cabinet to run the country during the Civil War.  It’s a very thick book but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  So did my son Blake who initially put me onto the book. Hope things are well! Hal


    1. Buddy McElhannon

      Hal, Your book recommendations are top notch. I have already read “John Adams”. I have “Team of Rivals” but it remains in my to-read stack. Went to a Habit for Humanity store this weekend, they were selling hardbacks (my format of choice) for 50 cents a piece. Found six more books to add to my library of 4,000. I can’t die, I have too many books to read. 🙂 Buddy


  2. mcmcbroom



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