Personal Heroes: General Grant

General Ulysses S. Grant is one of my personal heroes. His life story fascinates me, and his personal character is very appealing. Like all men, he had his faults and he made mistakes, but his virtues were many and his life was ultimately crowned with spectacular success.


Grant’s life was one of those that read more like a novel than history. He was not exactly born into poverty, as his father ran a successful leather business, but his family was certainly neither rich nor powerful. They were just honest, hardworking Ohio farm folk, like hundreds of others. They got by through the sweat of their brow and the work of their hands. As he grew to manhood, he encountered failure after failure; he tried farming, civil service, real estate, and a handful of other business ventures, but none worked. He ended up working in his father’s leather shop, a job he loathed and had worked hard to try to escape, just to make ends meet.

Then came a war and everything began to change. He found himself in command of grander and grander armies, fighting harder and harder battles and emerging victorious more often than not. He was, in fact, the best commander the Union had, though no one realized it for a long time. He was pitted against the legendary Robert E. Lee and mauled his army until finally trapping the great commander and receiving his surrender in a picturesque scene of heroes meeting.

Following the war, Grant found himself swept into the White House, where he served two terms as one of the most popular Presidents in history. Despite this, his lack of political expertise meant his Presidency was not a success. After leaving the White House, he and his wife embarked on a world tour, where they were fetted and praised from London to Tokyo (Grant even had the unprecedented honor of meeting with the Japanese Emperor). Upon return, however, Grant’s fortune disappeared in a swindle at almost the same time as he learned he was dying of throat cancer. With heroic resolve and the encouragement and aid of his friend, Samuel Clemens (AKA Mark Twain), he spent the short remainder of his life in composing his memoirs, working himself almost literally to death to provide for his family one last time.

Grant, like Hector, was a devoted family man. It has been said of him that he only succeeded at two things in life: love and war. He adored his wife, Julia, and she returned the sentiment, though life with him often meant hardship and deprivations which she, as a well-off, socially conscious young woman, was unused to. He was devoted to his children too, and would play with them unreservedly. One Christmas found him pawning his watch to buy presents for his family.

His father, however, was a much different matter. Jessie Grant was a hard, difficult man. He considered his son a failure and never forgave him for leaving the military following the Mexican War. The choice, however, was an understandable one: Grant was stationed in San Francisco, then a destitute little port of desperate tedium. He was separated from his family and feared for the relationship with his wife. In desperation, he had, along with many of his comrades, turned to drink. The discovery of this fact had put the decision to leave the army out of his hands, though he was permitted to retire on his own volition. Jesse, who had been the one to get Grant into West Point, was disgusted, and refused to help his son in any of his subsequent endeavors, until he finally allowed his son to join the family business.

For most of his life, Grant lived amid failure and disappointment. He seemed destined for obscurity and poverty, a fact he accepted stoically, preferring to place his hopes in his children. But everything changed when war called again and it was he, the failed farmer and clerk, who saved the Union and defeated the great Robert E. Lee in open combat. It was he who was then elected to the nation’s highest office to oversee the reconstruction of the south.

But it’s not just his inspiring rise that draws me to him as a model. Grant was humble, honest to a fault, and devoted to his duty. He succeeded in war through dogged determination as well as intelligence. He learned early on that the enemy had just as much cause to fear him as he did his enemy, and he used this insight to stay in the fight long after other generals would have given up. Dogged determination is something I find more interesting and admirable than natural intelligence or skill. Grant strategy was bulldog confidence in his own superior position: he knew that he could afford to lose much more men than Lee could, and that it was far more important to destroy the Confederate Army than to capture their cities. He used this insight to force Lee into a series of brutal battles until the Confederate Army was forced to surrender.

He had not only great strategic genius (his crowning achievement, the Vicksburg Campaign, is still studied at military academies) but remarkable personal courage as well. During the Mexican War he volunteered to ride through the midst of battle-torn Monterey to bring much-needed ammunition to his men. During the war he could often be seen quietly smoking under fire and once while inspecting the battlefield accidentally found himself within mere feet of a Confederate patrol. Thick underbrush and a cool head were the only things that saved him from capture.

Grant stands out as quieter, more sensitive, and more likable than his friend Sherman (another one of my personal heroes). Sherman was a kind of human tornado, and about as easy to get along with. He was blunt, direct, and unmanageable. Grant was one of the few commanders who knew how to handle him, in part because he confined his command to general direction rather than specific orders. He simply told Sherman what he wanted done and trusted his friend to do it. Grant was much easier to like and much more politic (one wonders with amusement what kind of President Sherman would have made had he not memorably and unambiguously refused any political office).

For all his reputation as a butcher, Grant was a quiet, sensitive man who loathed the sight of blood so much that he hated even to have his steak too rare. His men admired him both for his refusal to accept defeat and for his willingness to be with them on the march, and his last message to them, dying of cancer years after war, was “I love you all as I love my children.”

He had, as has often been noted, a drinking problem. Or rather, he couldn’t drink at all without drinking too much. However, he had enough self-discipline to avoid the most of the time. He only drank under two conditions: one, when nothing was going on (his most notable slip during the Civil War was in the long, tedious weeks of the siege of Vicksburg) and two, when he was separated from his family. Still, the story of his drunkenness in California never left him and it threatened his reputation throughout the war. Every time he encountered a setback, someone would bring up the old story and mutter that he had been drinking again. But, for all that, there is no evidence that his drinking ever affected his performance either during the war or afterwards. It was a weakness, but a weakness that he could account for.

Socially, he was shy and introverted. At West Point he had much preferred reading novels to his textbooks, which fact he later attributed his lackluster grades to (I can certainly relate). His personal honesty remained unquestioned throughout his life, to the point that he ventured to offer some advice to the Japanese Emperor on how to deal with a dispute with China, including the recommendation not to trust any Western power to mediate the dispute. Like Sherman, he was willing to call things as he saw them, though much more gently.

As President, his administration was rocked by repeated scandals. Some of these he himself helped to shut down (notably the Gold Ring), but the sheer number of them killed his reputation as a politician, and he struggled to get his policies across. His greatest achievement as President was probably the suppression of the KKK. Pointing to the enforcement clause in the fifteenth amendment (ratified under his administration), Grant used the Army to smash the Klan and other, similar terrorist organizations in what amounted to a miniature war. Though he had not been an abolitionist (he had disliked slavery, but wasn’t especially concerned about it except as a wedge between the states) he fought hard for the rights of the freedmen, who adored him almost as much as they had revered Lincoln. He also tried to ensure the rights of the Indians, seeking to ensure peace through a policy of allotting lands to the Indians and encouraging them to become educated so that they could better their own lot. War broke out despite his efforts, but he disgustedly pointed out that it was the white man, not the Indian, who was most to blame. The Little Bighorn occurred during his Presidency, verifying his resistance to allowing George Armstrong Custer, whom he had always disliked as reckless and self-absorbed, to be given a command in the west.

The depression of the 1870s (which was considerably worse than the depression of the 1930s) also occurred during his administration, though he had the sense not to permit a bill to flood the market with paper money and so saving the nation from crushing inflation. Admirably, he came to this decision by writing a speech in support of the bill and deciding that it didn’t have enough to say in its favor (a fairly scholastic method).

Whatever his failures in politics, he remained popular enough that when he returned from his world tour he had a real shot at a return to power. The party, however, was divided and Grant couldn’t get the support he needed, resulting in the compromise candidate James Garfield being swept into the Presidency, only to be quickly assassinated by Charles Guiteau. Interestingly enough, Grant had actually met Guiteau, who came to him seeking office. Grant had found him obviously intelligent, but unstable and absolutely unsuitable for office. Guiteau had sought office for years, one of thousands of such men trying to take advantage of the spoils system of American politics, something Grant tried to remove without success during his own term as President.

As noted, he loved his family and adored his wife, Julia. There was a touching incident after the war in which Julia sought an operation to correct her uneven eyes, only to be told that she has missed her chance. When Grant found out, he asked what she had been thinking. She answered sadly that she felt too plain to be the wife of such a great man. Grant hugged her tightly and said “did I not fall in love with you with these eyes?”

His last act in this world was to spend his last strength to provide for his family after his fortune vanished in a scam involving his son’s business partner (part of the loss had been due to Grant’s taking out a loan to try to save his son’s business and insisting on repaying it). With the help of his friend Samuel Clemens, he produced his memoirs, which earned his family nearly four-hundred thousand dollars (Clemens generously offered Grant’s family three-quarters of the total profits and still came off with a tidy fortune of his own). The memoirs are some of the finest ever written by either a general or a President and have remained popular and admired to this day.

He died days later and was buried with great honors in New York City, where his wife now lived and could visit his tomb regularly. His pallbearers included two Union commanders (Sherman and Phil Sheridan) and two Confederates (Simon Bolivar Buckner and Joseph  E. Johnston), signifying the respect and admiration with which he was held even by his old enemies.

Grant was one of those towering figures who combined greatness of accomplishment with greatness of virtue. As his friend and former opponent James Longstreet said of him, “He was the truest as well as the bravest man that ever lived.” I admire him for his honesty, his humility and perseverance in the face of repeated adversity, and his unwavering, bulldog determination to do his duty, whether to his country or his family.

My favorite summation of Grant’s life occurs in one of my favorite films, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town as the title character (played by Gary Cooper) gazes on Grant’s tomb.

“To most people it’s a washout,” says his companion, Jean Arthur.

“That depends on what they see,” Cooper answers. “Me? I see a small Ohio farm-boy becoming a great soldier. I see thousands of marching men. I see General Lee, with a broken heart, surrendering. I can see the beginning of a new nation like Abraham Lincoln said. And I can see that small Ohio farm-boy being inaugurated as President. Things like that can only happen in a country like America.”



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