Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses Simpson Grant, the commander-in-chief of Union forces during the final years of the Civil War and subsequently the eighteenth president of the United States, was born on April 27, 1822, in a two-room cabin in the remote settlement of Point Pleasant, Ohio. His family, he proudly declared, had been American ‘for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral.’ When he was eighteen months old the Grants moved to the nearby village of Georgetown, where his father established a tannery. A taciturn, solitary child who loved horses, Grant received a rudimentary education at local subscription schools. He also attended the Maysville Seminary in Maysville, Kentucky, and the Presbyterian Academy in Ripley, Ohio. In 1839 his father arranged for him to enter the United States Military Academy at West Point. ‘If I could have escaped West Point without bringing myself into disgrace at home, I would have done so,’ Grant later confessed. But he excelled in mathematics and engineering, graduating with an overall academic standing that placed him in the middle of the class of 1843.
Commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the 4th Infantry Regiment, Grant reported to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, then the largest army base west of the Mississippi. He fought under General Zachary Taylor in the Mexican War of 1846, serving with many officers he would later command or fight against during the Civil War. Upon returning home in 1848 he married Julie Dent, the sister of a West Point classmate. Grant spent the next six years assigned to routine garrison duty in a succession of dreary military posts and began drinking heavily. He resigned from the army in 1854 with the rank of captain and went back to Missouri to seek employment. He failed miserably at several different occupations and finally ended up working as a clerk in his father’s leather-goods store in Galena, Illinois.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Grant re-entered the service as a colonel in the Illinois volunteer regiment and was soon appointed brigadier general. After leading expeditions that seized Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, the first major Union victories in the war, he commanded forces at the battle of Shiloh and later broke Confederate control of the Mississippi by capturing Vicksburg. President Lincoln promoted him to lieutenant general and named him commander of the Union army following the success of the pivotal Chattanooga campaign. The appointment seemed to support Grant’s own assertion that ‘it is men who wait to be selected, and not those who seek, from whom we may always expect the most efficient service.’ In spite of heavy losses in the bloody Wilderness campaign aimed at immobilizing General Robert E. Lee near the Confederate capital at Richmond while General William Tecumseh Sherman led the western Union army southward through Georgia, Grant eventually crushed the enemy and accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
In 1868 the Republican Party nominated the popular war hero as their presidential candidate, and Grant was elected with a narrow victory in the popular vote. Lacking an overall vision for the country, he proved ineffective as president while his cabinet of cronies and political contributors was both incompetent and corrupt. As Grant later confessed: ‘I did not want the Presidency, and I have never quite forgiven myself for resigning the command of the army to accept it.’ He won re-election in 1872 despite a series of financial scandals that forever tarnished his administration. A contemporary, the skeptical patrician Henry Adams, delivered a stinging indictment of Grant and Gilded Age politics that has become justly famous: ‘The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.’
Upon leaving the White House in 1877, Grant embarked on a two-year journey around the world. After a failed bid for a third term as president, Grant settled in New York City, where he became associated with an investment firm only to be swindled by his partner and left financially ruined. In 1884 he began to write reminiscences of his military campaigns for the Century Magazine. Though suffering from cancer of the throat, Grant signed a contract with Mark Twain to publish his memoirs and devoted the last months of his life to writing an account of the war in which he had played so large a part. Ulysses S. Grant died in Mount McGregor, New York, a summer resort in the Adirondacks, on July 23, 1885, less than one week after finishing work on the final proofs of Personal Memoirs. Issued posthumously, the book sold three hundred thousand copies, earning Grant’s widow roughly $450,000 in royalties.
‘No other American president has told his story as powerfully as Ulysses Grant did in his Personal Memoirs,’ judged biographer William S. McFeely. ‘The book is one of the most unflinching studies of war in our literature.’ Gertrude Stein admired it extravagantly, noting: ‘I cannot think of Ulysses Simpson Grant without tears.’ In Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War, Edmund Wilson wrote: ‘This record of Grant’s campaigns may well rank, as Mark Twain believed, as the most remarkable work of its kind since the Commentaries of Julius Caesar. It is also, in its way&–like Herndon’s Lincoln or like Walden or Leaves of Grass–a unique expression of the national character. . . . The capacity for inspiring confidence, the impression Grant gave of reserves of force, comes through in the Personal Memoirs without pose or premeditation. . . . What distinguished Grant’s story from the records of campaigns that are usually produced by generals is that somehow, despite its sobriety, it communicates the spirit of the battles themselves and makes it possible to understand how Grant won them. . . . He has also, without conscious art, conveyed the suspense which was felt by himself and his army and by all who believed in the Union cause. The reader finds himself involved–he is actually on edge to know how the Civil War is coming out.’ And Gore Vidal concluded: ‘It is simply not possible to read Grant’s memoirs without realizing that the author is a man of first-rate intelligence.’