Our 18th U.S. president served his country with honor and distinction.
This is the third in a series of columns about U.S. presidents who served in the military, following our profiles of our first president, George Washington, and our seventh, Andrew Jackson.
The best way to briefly describe Ulysses Simpson Grant is to say he was an American soldier and politician who served as the 18th president of the United States from 1869 to 1877. Before his presidency, Grant led the Union Army as Commanding General of the United States Army in winning the American Civil War. As president, Grant worked with the radical Republicans in the reconstruction of the Union while dealing with corruption in his administration.
Unlike Washington and Jackson, Grant was the first of two presidents who attended the U.S. military academy at West Point where he graduated in 1843. The second was Dwight Eisenhower.
Grant served with distinction in the Mexican-American War. In 1848, he married Julia Dent, and together they had four children. Grant abruptly resigned his army commission in 1854 and returned to his family. He was accused of drinking on duty and rather than face a court martial, resigned his commission. For seven years, he struggled to make a living with little success as his family lived in poverty.
With the onset of the Civil War, Grant joined the Union Army in 1861, and it was in war that Grant began to demonstrate his ability as a military leader and a brilliant strategist. He came to Lincoln’s attention and respect when on April 6–7, 1862, he decisively won the Battle of Shiloh.
O. Edward Cunningham detailed Grant’s success in his book, “Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862,” stating that his engagement “changed the entire course of the American Civil War.”
When the fighting stopped, the casualties totaled nearly 24,000. As Cunningham wrote, “(Grant) forever buried the still lingering notion that the Civil War would be a short conflict.”
In 1863, Grant led the Vicksburg campaign, which gained control of the Mississippi River. General William Tecumseh Sherman praised Grant’s virtues as a military leader, saying, “Grant is now deservedly the hero. He is now belabored with praise by those who only months ago accused him of all sins in the calendar.”
One journalist traveling with Grant’s army summed up his new stature this way: “Nothing like this campaign has occurred during this war. It stamps General Grant as a man of uncommon ability—proves him the foremost in the west; if not in the nation.”
On March 9, 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to lieutenant general and made general-in-chief of the Union armies. In this position, Grant would ultimately prove the person most responsible for the Union victory in the Civil War.
One could also say he understood that the Civil War should not be fought as wars were fought in Europe when standing armies opposed each other on the battlefield to exhaustion. He instructed his leading generals, such as Sherman, to engage in total war. That meant to destroy the ability of the opposing Confederacy of the means to make war by burning centers of industry and commerce, much in the same way we did in World War II.
For 13 months, Grant fought Robert E. Lee during the high casualty Overland Campaign and at Petersburg. On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. A week later, Lincoln was assassinated and was succeeded by Andrew Johnson as president. Jackson subsequently promoted Grant to General of the Army in 1866. Later, Grant openly broke with Johnson over reconstruction policies; Grant used the Reconstruction Acts, which had been passed over by Johnson’s veto, to enforce civil rights for African freedmen.
A war hero but a reluctant politician, Grant was unanimously nominated by the Republican Party and was elected president in 1868. As president, Grant stabilized the post-war national economy, created the Department of Justice, and prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan. He appointed African Americans and Jewish Americans to prominent federal offices. And in 1971, he created the first Civil Service Commission. The Liberal Republicans and Democrats united behind Grant’s opponent in the presidential election of 1872, but Grant was handily re-elected.
Unfortunately, corruption in the executive branch became notorious during Grant’s second term. Several cabinet members and other appointees were fired or resigned. The Panic of 1873 plunged the nation into a severe economic depression, resulting in the Democrats winning the House majority. In the intensely disputed presidential election of 1876, Grant facilitated Congress’s approval of a peaceful compromise.
In the final year of his life, facing severe financial reversals due to a financial adviser with whom he entrusted with his money, who then engaged in fraudulent activities, Grant lost all his money.
Mark Twain was a good friend of Grant’s and had encouraged him to write his memoirs. Twain indicated that he would publish the work and give 70% of all royalties to his wife Julia. The sum she received was quoted as $450,000 in 1885. In today’s currency, that is the equivalent of $11 million. Thanks to Twain’s efforts, Grant published a work of brilliance, hailed by many. It also encouraged all succeeding presidents to write their memoirs upon leaving office.
While writing his book, Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer, caused by the thousands of cigars that he smoked. At the time of his death, he was memorialized as a symbol of national unity.
Historians have recognized Grant’s military genius, and his modern strategies of warfare are featured in military history textbooks. Historical assessments of Grant’s presidency have improved over time. Grant was ranked 38th in 1994 and 1996, and 21st in 2018 by historians. You can say that when it comes to competency, Grant ranks in the top half of U.S. presidents. His ranking keeps improving as historians dig deeper into his life and times.
Historians cite Grant’s presidential accomplishments, including the Alabama Claims settlement with Great Britain, protection of black and indigenous people, and the first Civil Service Commission, for his standing among all U.S. presidents.
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