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A Great General—And Not a Bad President Either: Jun. 2000

Reconsidering Ulysses S. Grant.

By From the June 2000 issue

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In honor of president's day, the Spectator will be republishing this week essays and reviews on our nation's best — and worst — leaders.


Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity 1822-1865
By Brooks D. Simpsons

Houghton-Mifflin/533 pages/$35

President Grant Reconsidered
By Frank J. Scaturro

Madison Books/137 pages/$35.50; $16.95 (paper)

The rise of Ulysses S. Grant is a tale Horatio Alger would have found incredible. In April 1861, Grant was a 39-year-old failure, burdened with a reputation for drinking and supporting a wife and four children on what he could earn working under his younger brother in his father’s leather goods store in the one-horse town of Galena, Illinois. Less than three years later, he would be the first man since George Washington to hold the permanent rank of lieutenant general in the U.S. Army. In seven, he would be elected president.

A compelling story, one would think. Odd then, that Grant has had such difficulty attracting a first-rate biographer. William McFeely’s 1981 Grant: A Biography is the historical equivalent of a Clintonian smear job, repeating all the old canards (drunk, butcher), while adding some new ones (perjurer, racist). Needless to say, this effort won its author a Pulitzer Prize. Geoffrey Perret’s 1997 Grant: Soldier and President is an improvement in that Perret endeavors to right some of McFeely’s wrongs, but he delves no more deeply than the published sources, and the work is littered with errors to boot.

Now come two books that might start Grant on the road to receiving his historical due. Brooks D. Simpson, a history professor at Arizona State University, is the author of a previous excellent book on Grant, Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction 1861-1868, which made the case for Grant’s political acumen. Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity 1822-1865, the first of a projected two-volume treatment, is a well-written, engaging biography of a man who started out least likely to succeed and ended up saving the Union.

“Adversity” indeed seemed to be the one constant in Grant’s life. Born Hiram Ulysses but known by his middle name, he had to struggle in his youth against the nickname “Useless.” Early on he demonstrated he had little head for business, foolishly telling a man in a horse trade what his top price would be before the transaction was completed. Perhaps this weakness, along with his love of horses and long rides far from home, is what convinced his father Jesse, a successful leather tanner, that his eldest son was better suited for the army. It was Jesse’s idea that Ulysses attend West Point, and his son offered no objection.

Grant acquired the name we know him by thanks to an error. The congressman who appointed him dropped the cadet’s given first name and substituted his mother’s maiden name of Simpson as a middle name. Grant quickly gave up trying to correct the error. Being known as a “U.S.” Grant—United States, Uncle Sam, and later, Unconditional Surrender—beat being known as “H.U.G.”

Critics have always made much of Grant’s supposedly mediocre record at the military academy (twenty-first in a class of 39 cadets in the class of 1843). Few note that the class started with 77 members and that academically Grant excelled in mathematics and horsemanship. His standing was lowered by poor grades in French (the grim reaper of pre-Civil War West Point) and a remarkable number of demerits for poor marching (he was tone deaf) and failing to observe military punctilio. Ever practical, Grant thought results more important than appearances.

His roommate senior year was Frederick Dent, son of a well-off slaveholding family from Missouri, and Grant married Dent’s sister, Julia, after a tumultuous four-year courtship that spanned Grant’s service in the Mexican War. Simpson’s portrait of their loving relationship—which survived and prospered despite meddling parents and in-laws, long periods of separation, differences over slavery, and Grant’s business reverses after he foolishly resigned his army commission in 1854—is vivid and moving.

Leaving the army was certainly his biggest mistake. It is curious that Grant did not follow his heart and seek employment as a mathematics professor at one of the Midwest’s many new colleges. Instead, he made his home among his in-laws in St. Louis and sought to make a living as a farmer (dubbing his farm “Hardscrabble”). But the economy crashed in 1857, and he began his notorious period as a debt collector, realtor, and firewood salesman. He probably drank too much.

Simpson makes a point about Grant’s lack of success that previous chroniclers overlooked: As a Northerner by birth, he wasn’t wholly trusted by Southerners. Northerners, meanwhile, viewed his marriage into a slaveholding family with suspicion. Thus, in a Willie Lomanesque way, Grant was liked, but not well liked in divided St. Louis as regional tensions reached the boiling point. His lack of success wasn’t entirely his own fault.

Still, it’s hard to imagine what would have become of Grant if the South had not attacked Fort Sumter. Once the war was on, he perked up noticeably. West Pointers were in demand and Grant eventually acquired a colonelcy and command of an Illinois regiment. Unlike many of his fellow Unionists, he was under no illusions that a good swift kick was all it would take to bring the Confederacy crashing down. “The South will fight,” he predicted.

But so did Grant. On the battlefield, he found the success that had eluded him in private life. He emphasized training and discipline, which helped him overcome initial setbacks. Much of this training in command came on the job. Unlike many Union officers, he showed an ability to learn from experience and never become wedded to plans for their own sake. He was always prepared to try something else if at first he did not succeed. He made some costly mistakes: He was surprised at Shiloh, though his coolness under fire enabled him to recover. He always regretted ordering the costly and futile charge that was Cold Harbor.

His reputation as “butcher of his own men” stemmed from the bloody Overland campaign against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia of May-June 1864. Grant was determined to keep pressure on the Confederacy, and not allow Lee as he had done before to use lulls in the fighting to transfer troops to other, more active areas. It turned out Grant lost proportionately fewer men than Lee.

The “butcher” tag also ignores such relatively bloodless Grant victories as the masterful Vicksburg campaign and the breaking of the siege of Chattanooga, not to mention the final dash to Appomattox. In the Western battles, Grant hardly possessed the “overwhelming numbers and resources” that Lee blamed for his own defeat. All the while, Grant battled enemies in his rear—jealous fellow officers and their powerful patrons in Congress who eagerly spread rumors of drinking and disorganization in Grant’s headquarters to advance their own interests.

I am not a politician, never was and hope never to be,” Grant said when the guns fell silent. But as Grant himself now knew better than most, men are not masters of their own fate. Forces greater than his own formidable will would pull Grant into the political arena. We will have to wait for Simpson’s treatment of Grant’s presidency. In the meantime, Frank J. Scaturro’s President Grant Reconsidered presents a long-overdue debunking of the mainstream historical view that treats Grant’s presidency as an unqualified failure.

A superb piece of historical detective work, Scaturro’s book is also a fine argument for the proposition that history is too important to be left to the historians. A New York attorney, Scaturro became interested in Grant when, as a Columbia undergraduate, he began visiting the neglected tomb of the 18th president and his wife. Indeed, Scaturro, who founded the Grant Memorial Association, is almost single-handedly responsible for the recent restoration and refurbishment of Grant’s Tomb.

Now he is hoping to do the same to Grant’s presidential reputation. Returning to examine the actual documents, Scaturro finds not the bumbling, corrupt, and weak president of legend, but an energetic, honorable, and, in many important respects, strong chief executive.

Scaturro, for example, argues that Grant had the best civil rights record of any president, Lyndon B. Johnson included. He formed the Department of Justice in 1870 to put teeth into the Reconstruction laws, and used it vigorously to indict and convict thousands of Ku Klux Klanners who were terrorizing and murdering the newly freed blacks and their white Republican allies. He steadfastly kept to this policy throughout two terms, even though it cost him considerable political support in both the North and South. He also defied popular pressure to inflate the currency after the panic of 1873 and insisted on putting the country back on the gold standard, thus setting the stage for the prosperity that lasted almost uninterrupted until 1929.

Corruption? Many of the scandals had their roots in the Andrew Johnson administration or in Congress and only came to light once Grant was president. When corruption did appear among his own appointees, Grant was energetic in rooting it out.

So why the bad reputation? Scaturro blames liberal historians and their agendas. Demonizing the “Gilded Age” and exaggerating its corruption is a good way to set the stage for the coming “Progressive” era and liberal heroes such as Woodrow Wilson. Harry Truman’s administration was marred by scandals for which the Missourian bore far more personal responsibility than Grant did in his, yet historians don’t prattle on endlessly about the “corrupt” Truman administration. Does anyone want to place bets on whether the historical profession, which unanimously sided with Clinton during the impeachment battle, is likely to write histories of the “corrupt” Clinton administration?

Fat chance. The man on the fifty-dollar bill has been systematically shortchanged by history. Thanks to Brooks D. Simpson and Frank J. Scaturro, maybe the debt is finally being made good. 

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About the Author

John A. Barnes is a writer living in New York.