In my hometown, there is a statue of Ulysses S. Grant. The former President and Civil War General Grant spent his boyhood years in Georgetown, OH, just a few blocks away from my childhood home. However, it wasn't until fairly recently that the people of Georgetown erected a statue to their favorite son. It stands as a tribute, however long overdue, to an American hero. If any person deserves to be immortalized as a statue, then Ulysses S. Grant is one such person. We build statues to honor those men and women who left the world a bit better than they found it; usually at heavy personal cost. We build statues to men and women who children can look up to, cities can take pride in, and future generations can use as a source of inspiration. We don't build statues to men and women, because they are perfect. On the contrary, usually they are far from it. However, mortal as they might be, those we choose to honor with a place of prominence in our parks and squares, are generally there because when faced with the defining issues of their time, they tried to do what was right. For all of his faults, Ulysses S. Grant, both as general and President, tried to do what was right.
As an student at Alverda Reed Elementary, I remember taking an across town field trip to visit Grant's boyhood home. I remember learning that his father's tannery was once located nearby the house. I don't remember learning what a tannery was. A few blocks away was the Grant schoolhouse where the future president once attended. In fact, much of the surrounding area is often referred to as the "Land of Grant." In celebration of General Grant's service to our country during the Civil War, the first annual U.S. Grant Days celebration was organized in Georgetown in 1997. However, as a child I don't remember hearing much of anything about the fact that Ulysses Grant was once President of the United States. A quick review of usgrantboyhoodhome.org makes few references to his 8 years in the White House. The reason is simple: Grant's presidency was a failure. This is what I remember learning in high school. This was the predominate view of our 18th President for many years. However, as the decades have passed, the longstanding view of U.S. Grant as one of our worse presidents has been challenged. The truth is, Grant is finally getting the credit he rightfully deserves.
The years of 1854 - 1860 are some of the most difficult and trying times in American history. Slavery was spreading. A massive economic recession crippled the nation. There were riots in the streets of Northern cities as slave catchers from the South began to round up runaway slaves. Shameful legislation such as the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the infamous Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court, emboldened the slave powers and Southern radicals. A miniature Civil War broke out in Kansas over the issue of slavery. A radical Christian terrorist named John Brown murdered numerous people and tried to lead a slave rebellion against the U.S. government. A Southern Congressman, Preston Brooks, nearly beat Senator Charles Sumner to death with a cane on the Senate floor for besmirching the character of Dixie. The nation was falling apart. Congress was filled with a mixture of extremists, ideologues, and a severe lack of courage. The White House was home to over matched, weak, southern apologists. Ulysses Grant was experiencing hardship as well. He attempted to become a farmer. He failed. He started businesses. They failed. It seemed that the only life that suited him less than the military life, was the civilian life.
After the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, southern states began to secede from the Union and the Confederate States of America was formed. When southern soldiers opened fire on Fort Sumter, Grant made the decision that was change the course of his life; he volunteered to, once again, enlist in the army. To Grant, there was no debate; the cause of the Union was just, and the war must be won. Grant made his feelings clear when he wrote his father "There are but two parties now, Traitors and Patriots."
Those who know much about the Civil War, know that the early day of the war saw a series of victories by the Confederacy and a series of military blunders by the Union. President Lincoln promoted a host of generals, only then to fire each one after devastating losses and displays of timid leadership. In the eastern theater of war, the weaker Confederacy, under the leadership of Robert E. Lee, was threatening to actually win the war. There were those in the North who were ready to negotiate with the South, end the war, and allow the slavery to endure for generations.
The West was a different story. In Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi the Union was showing promise and Grant was moving up the ranks. Grant understood, what Lincoln knew, the North was far stronger than the South and this fact needed to be made known on the battlefield. Grant was willing to send wave after wave of Union soldiers at the Confederate lines in order to overwhelm the rebels and win the day. Such an aggressive fighting style led to heavy casualties, leading many in Washington to call for Grant's dismissal. Lincoln's response was simple: "I can't spare this man - he fights!"
In early 1864, Lincoln gave Grant command of all Union armies. Grant traveled east to face Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Lincoln expected Grant to destroy Lee, break the South, and end the crisis with the same tactics that had earned him the nickname "Unconditional Surrender" Grant. The General would not disappoint. Grant dispatched General William Tecumseh Sherman to wage total war on the Confederacy's ability to make war. Meanwhile, Grant relentlessly pursued Lee throughout the Virginia wilderness. By early 1865, southern cities were crumbling. Once grand plantations were overgrown, if not burned to the ground. Southern railroad lines had been pulled from the ground and twisted around trees. General Lee's army was beaten, starving, and desperate. Lee sent word to Grant that he was ready to talk.
Grant and Lee met at McLean house in Appomattox Court House. When Grant wrote the terms of surrender, as ordered by Lincoln, Lee was shocked at the generosity. In short, Grant ordered Lee to stop fighting, turn over their weapons, and go home. There would be no punishment, no vengeance, just peace. Grant even let Lee's men keep their horses and mules. These were no longer weapons of war, now they would return to the southern farms to rebuild lives. The Confederate soldiers were granted parole, fed, and sent on their way. The war was over.
As soon as the guns fell silent on the battlefield, the nation was thrust into a new crisis: Reconstruction. The final casualty of the Civil War and first casualty of the new conflict was President Abraham Lincoln; killed by a southern extremist on April 15, 1865. The next decade of Reconstruction would prove to be the only event in American history to rival the Civil War in terms of divisiveness.
For his part, Grant favored amnesty for most Confederate leaders, but also believed that the South must be remade economically and socially. He favored legal protections for recently freed slaves (freedmen) and generally sided with the Republicans in Congress by supporting their Reconstruction Acts. Congress promoted Grant to the rank of General of the Army of the United States, making him the highest ranking military officer in American history to that point.
Grant had a very uneasy relationship with President Johnson following Lincoln's assassination. Johnson's leniency toward the South, lack of support for freedman, and hostility toward Congress made it difficult for Grant to remain supportive of his Commander-in-Chief. Eventually, Grant privately supported the efforts by the Republicans in Congress to impeach the embattled President.
In 1868, Grant was nominated overwhelmingly by the Republicans to be their presidential candidate. In the North, Ulysses Grant was viewed as a war hero and savior of the Union. In the South, he was viewed as a conqueror and butcher. Grant benefited from tremendous support in the North, but also nearly unanimous support from African Americans in the South who were able to vote for the first time. It also helped that several Southern/Democratic states had not yet been readmitted to the Union and therefore could not vote. Grant won in landslide. At 46 years old, he became the youngest person ever elected President to that point in history.
As President, Grant tried to do the right thing. His campaign slogan was "Let us have peace" and he meant it. This meant peace between the North and South, between whites and blacks, between the U.S. government and Native Americans. The degree to which he succeeded is still a matter of debate, but he should be given credit at least for trying to be on the right side of history.
Grant was a strong supporter of the proposed Fifteenth Amendment which would prevent discrimination at the ballot box on the basis of race, ethnicity, or previous condition of servitude. He took steps to ensure that the voting rights of blacks were protected, but also that former slaves were represented in southern legislatures. When the newly formed Ku Klux Klan began terrorizing blacks in the South, Grant, working with Congress, empowered his Justice Department to prosecute Klansmen. In regards to civil rights and equal protection under the law, President Grant was quite progressive for his time. Members of the Klan would disagree.
Grant also pursued a policy of peace toward Native Americans in the western frontier. For decades the American government had signed hundreds of treaties with dozens of Native American tribes. The majority of Native American land hand been unfairly seized and tens of thousands of people had been forced onto reservations. Administration of reservations was overwhelmed by corruption and greed. Grant hoped to clean up the corrupt administration by pointing a member of the Seneca tribe as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Unfortunately for Grant, decades of mistrust, broken promises, and mistreatment by the U.S. government proved to be too much for any administration to overcome. Settlers and the U.S. Army came into repeated conflict with Plains Indians. Often times this conflict arose from white settlers encroaching on land promised to various Indian tribes. In response, the Indians fought back and were in turn often slaughtered by the U.S. Army. It was during Grant's tenure in the White House that General George A. Custer's cavalry was massacred on the banks of the Little Bighorn River. This Indian victory was an exception to the overwhelmingly one-sided, devastating military campaign by the U.S. government aimed at taking land away from Native tribes. Despite his early ambitions, Grant's administration was simply one in a long line of administrations that slowly stripped American Indians of their homes, land, and way of life.
Grant's time in office also suffered from a financial disaster known as the Panic of 1873. A banking collapse on Wall Street led to the bankruptcy of dozens of railroads, high unemployment, and foreclosures. This, combined with low agricultural prices which were hurting western farmers created a recession that would last the better part of the next decade. Grant, like all politicians at the time, had little idea what to do and had little success instilling in confidence in the American worker. Boom and bust economies was a hallmark of the United States in the 1800s and Grant's administration was no immune to the instability of our nation's financial system.
Grant left office in 1877, politically wounded from his 8 years in the White House. He and his wife Julia set out on a world tour that would last nearly 3 years. Grant visited with nearly every leader in Europe. He dined with Queen Victoria, met with Otto Von Bismark, and discussed politics with the Czar of Russia. The Grants toured the Middle East and concluded their travels in China and Japan. Grant returned home in 1879 to a hero's welcome. Much of the Republican Party had forgiven Grant for his lackluster Presidency and were nostalgic for the days when their party, led by Lincoln and Grant, had saved the Union. His political reputation having been repaired, Grant became the first person in American history to seek a 3rd term as President. Unfortunately for Grant, his nomination cam up a bit short at the Republican convention as the GOP nominated former Civil War General, Congressman James Garfield of Ohio.
Years after leaving public life, Grant invested his savings in an investment firm started by his son and his business partner Ferdinand Ward. It wasn't long before the firm went bankrupt due to unwise and illicit business practices by Ward. The firm failed and Grant lost everything. The former President was essentially penniless. In an attempt to save the family from financial ruin, Grant began writing articles for a magazine. The articles became so popular that the magazine asked Grant to write his memoirs. The magazine didn't offer much money, but luckily for Grant, Mark Twain stepped in and offered Grant far more money if he would allow Twain's company to publish the memoir. Grant agreed.
Around the same time, Grant's received devastating news. The ex-President had throat cancer. Considering that Grant was known to smoke as many as 20 cigars a day, this came as no surprise. For the better part of a year, Grant's health deteriorated. Despite being in almost constant agony, Grant was determined to finish his memoirs in hopes of providing for his so-to-be widowed wife. Grant finished his memoir in mid-July 1885; days later he died.
Grant's memoir went on to be a critical and commercial success. The proceeds provided a comfortable life for his late wife for years to come. The book is still widely read and highly regarded today, setting a precedent that many former presidents have followed. Grant was laid to rest in New York City and was remembered a the savior of the Union for his service in the Civil War. No doubt the years of 1861-1865 were the the ones in which U.S. Grant contributed the most to our nation. However, as the years pass and we are able to see the progressive stances President Grant took, particularly in the area of civil rights, his presidency is being viewed in a new light. Though he certainly was mediocre at many aspects of governance, President Grant tried to stand on the right side of history. For that, and his selfless leadership during the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant deserves that statue in Georgetown, OH.
Derek Trent Ashcraft
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