Depicting Ulysses S. Grant as one of the most heroic figures in all of American history –right up there with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln – is a tall order, not to mention a thankless task.
Neither Grant’s physical stature nor his demeanor cries out “Hero!” in the glitz of the 21st Century. The scraggy general in his tattered blue long coat and mud-spattered boots didn’t dress like a military hero. His companions described him as introverted, humble and self-effacing, hardly what today’s image-centric society envisions as heroic.
So why did noted historian Ronald White take up the cudgels of a fading hero in his latest book, “American Ulysses”? Or more to the point, why did a man, who enjoyed such a gigantic heroic stature during his lifetime, fade from the public eye while others thrived?
That’s the unspoken question historian White attempts to assess in this thoroughly enjoyable biography of Lincoln’s most successful general, the man hailed upon his death as the nation’s savior, and the President who in the eyes of succeeding generations was a failure in the White House.
White’s most recent three books have been on Abraham Lincoln, and included the magnificent “A. Lincoln” (reviewed on these pages in February, 2009). White is an unabashed champion of Grant, stating in the prologue that Grant belongs in the top echelon of American heroes, sharing an exclusive position with Washington and Lincoln.
That’s exactly how Grant was perceived in the later 19th Century when popular gold medallions were struck depicting Gen. Grant and President Lincoln at Washington’s side.
Today, the unknowing must wonder at the monumental size and opulence of the tomb in Manhattan’s Riverside Park, even without knowing that in the summer of 1885, a million and a half people from all over the nation – whites, blacks and native Americans – walked in an all-day procession as witnesses to the honor of their deceased hero. Who would have suspected then that a 20th Century TV comedian would award his bubby prize to anyone who could correctly answer: “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?”
Who was this man who so captivated a generation of Americans?
White, in his usual smooth and flowing narrative, describes a West Point cadet from the Midwest, graduating somewhere near the middle of his class and assigned as an unknown quartermaster, a bookkeeper and paper shuffler, in the Mexican War.
After that, he was posted to Northern California and Oregon, just about the end of the earth in the 1850s.
It was there that in a fit of depression, exacerbated by the long separation from his new wife, he did some heavy drinking and gained a reputation that would haunt him the rest of his life, even though White cites numerous persons close to the general, and later the President, who insisted Grant was no more than a light social drinker.
After resigning his commission, he returned to Galena, Illinois, where he was a less-than-stellar businessman. Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Grant was chosen to command a group of Illinois volunteers, and from there, he slowly learned on the job how to command an army.
While the nation riveted its attention on the war in Virginia, Maryland and southern Pennsylvania – all within an easy ride of the capital – Lincoln’s attention was captured by the young Grant who led victories out West at places like Fort Donelson, Fort Henry, Shiloh, Vicksburg and Nashville.
Grant, like Lincoln, recognized the significance of the Mississippi River to the Confederacy. The river was its lifeline, and controlling the waterway, and then cutting rebel railroad lines to the Gulf of Mexico, marked the beginning of the end of the rebellion.
Historian White is at the top of his game in the 250 pages on the Civil War devoted to Grant’s campaigns. A good set of battle maps helps the reader understand the logistics of Vicksburg and Cairo, Ill., and the ever-changing path of the Mississippi. If you visit the Vicksburg battlefield today, you learn the Mississippi has changed course and the battlefield is no longer on a bluff overlooking the river.
White submits that most Union generals were “political generals,” while Grant and his two closest subordinates, William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan, were “military generals.” Lincoln was in desperate need of generals who would conduct a war instead of jockeying for political position. In 1864, one of Lincoln’s leading former generals was a candidate against him. Thus, the politically inspired criticism of Lincoln’s Army of the West and its commanding general.
Even as Grant’s reputation grew, he ate and slept with the troops. His headquarters often was a tent or a dilapidated farmhouse. He wrote his wife Julia: “Terrible battles are very good to read about for persons who lose no friends [in them], but I am decidedly in favor of having as little of it as possible.”
Of course, Grant went on to become commander of all Union armies and a confidante of Lincoln, learning his politics at the master’s elbow.
When Grant accepted Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the farmhouse in the Virginia hamlet of Appomattox Court House, and sent the defeated rebels home with their horses to tend their farms, he was carrying out the directive of his commander-in-chief.
Following Lincoln’s assassination, and nearly four years of President Andrew Johnson’s repudiation of much of what had been gained in the Civil War, Grant, as a national hero, was swept into the White House. He was re-elected four years later, and after rejecting a third term, he twice was nearly drafted by the Republicans.
The White House years are where the brilliance of the neophyte political leader begins to tarnish. White shines the best light on Grant’s presidency, but even the most sympathetic reader today would consider that presidency a failure. While never personally implicated, Grant surrounded himself with incompetence. Corruption, kickbacks, indictments and sackings at the highest levels of government followed.
But from a historical prospective, Grant’s failure is that as a national hero, he was unable to move the country in the direction he believed in, the direction pointed by Lincoln. Despite Grant’s deeply imbedded beliefs in the equality of all men, he was no political match for a split Republican Party, resurgent southern white Democrats, and shifting national ideals.
The nation had not bought in to Lincoln’s dream of the equality of all men under the law. By the time Grant left office, blacks were being systematically disenfranchised in the South – or worse yet, murdered by the Ku Klux Klan – and meaningful civil rights legislation would have to wait nearly 90 years to be enacted in 1964 under Lyndon Johnson.
Grant tried to carry out Lincoln’s dream. He sent troops into the South. He ordered the prosecution of federal violators. He sent legislation up the Hill. He lobbied Congress. But he failed, probably through no fault of his own beyond his inability to transform his military success into political accomplishment. One wonders if Lincoln would have done any better.
Even today there is backsliding. Some would go to great lengths to keep others from voting, from participating in full citizenship. White argues no reasonable person would blame Ulysses S. Grant. But heroes are not allowed to fail.
So no matter how eloquently White advocates for his hero, no matter how commendable and thoughtful his latest work, and this is a work well worth reading, a revival of Grant as one of the three heroic pillars of the nation appears to be a losing battle.
Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.
American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant
By Ronald C. White
826 pages, $35