Tuesday Johnson’s Historical Indulgences is one of my all-time favorite Tumblr sites, and I have followed few people for as long and have enjoyed even far fewer sites as much as I have enjoyed Tuesday’s. If you’re not following Tuesday, you don’t know how to use Tumblr correctly.
Tuesday is also an unabashed fan of General Grant, and you owe it to yourself to go see her Ulysses S. Grant tattoo, which should be famous in its own right. Did I mention that you should follow her?
Awesome, I’m glad to hear that! I’m fortunate enough to get a ton of great books to review for AND Magazine, so I love being able to share my thoughts and make recommendations for my fellow history fans.
Everyone is welcome to connect with me on Goodreads, as well. Since I don’t always have the time to write a full-scale review on all of the books that I read, I’m going to try to remember to at least use Goodreads to post a short review (or a star rating at the very least!). I’m training myself to go to Goodreads daily so that I am consistent about it, but you’ll have to be patient with me because, as anyone who follows me on Facebook and (especially) Twitter knows, I tend to go through phases.
You made a solid choice with The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (BOOK•KINDLE). I think it was one of the best books of the year, and that’s no surprise since H.W. Brands always delivers. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that it’s the best book written about Grant other than the one that General Grant wrote about himself.
The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace
Hardcover. 718 pp.
October 2, 2012. Doubleday.
There is a phrase that critics — both book critics and movie critics, but mostly book critics — use so frequently in their reviews that it’s almost funny to come across it now. When a critic comes across an epic story or film, they love to describe it as a “sweeping, magisterial” work. Seriously, take a second to go right now to do a focused Google search in quotes of “sweeping, magisterial” — every single result that the search returns for several pages is either a book review or a film review! The phrase is so overused that it’s almost become a parody, like the voice-over actor who uses his deep baritone at the beginning of a movie trailer to intone, “In a world where…”. When I started reviewing books regularly, I decided I that I wanted to be careful to never use the “sweeping, magisterial” phrase as a crutch in my reviews, and I don’t think I have. Yet, I wouldn’t be honest to my readers if I didn’t admit that, as I sat down to write the review for H.W. Brands’s new book, The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (Doubleday, October 2, 2012), the first adjectives that came to my mind were “sweeping” and “magisterial”. And for that, I put the blame squarely on H.W. Brands and this comprehensive, supremely readable new biography about the quiet and unassuming General who stood nine inches shorter than Abraham Lincoln but was just as much of a giant of the dangerous and trying times that they lived in.
H.W. Brands, one of our finest historians, is no stranger to epic, penetrating biographies of American icons who are pillars of our nation’s historical architecture. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Benjamin Franklin, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (BOOK•KINDLE), as well as his biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Traitor To His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (BOOK•KINDLE), Brands has also brought us other great works such as American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 (BOOK•KINDLE), Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times (BOOK•KINDLE), The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream (BOOK•KINDLE), and TR: The Last Romantic to name just a few. By no means is that Brands’ full bibliography, either. Despite the fact that each of his books are meticulously researched, masterfully structured, and elegantly written, Brands is also astonishingly prolific, especially considering the depth and breadth of each of his books.
With The Man Who Saved the Union, Brands examines the life of the enigmatic Ulysses S. Grant, a man whose importance to the preservation of the nation through the Civil War is equal to Abraham Lincoln’s and who came from similarly obscure roots and faced personal failures and depressions much like Lincoln did prior to his election as President. What is most extraordinary about Ulysses S. Grant seems to be how very ordinary he was. No one ever expected much out of Grant and despite graduating from West Point and serving ably in the Mexican War, Grant didn’t do much during his first 40 years to prove those doubters wrong. Some missteps with alcohol while Grant was stationed thousands of miles from his family in lonely military outposts in California and Oregon following the Mexican War ended a military career that had become stagnant anyway. Reunited with his family, life for Grant remained difficult and frustrating as business failures and bad luck kept him drifting from one job to another before finally forcing him to seek work with his father’s tannery and leather goods business — the last place the squeamish, animal-loving Grant wanted to end up at.
The outbreak of the Civil War provided Grant with an opportunity to reenlist in the U.S. Army and The Man Who Saved the Union follows him as he helps organize militia in Illinois and then quickly rises from colonel to brigadier general. While the Union Army struggled in the East and President Lincoln frustratingly sought a commander who would actually fight in that theater of the war, Grant’s tenacious fighting and singular focus on victory gave the Union much-needed successes in the West. Brands recounts Grant’s leadership and vividly describes the battles that helped the Union gain control of the Mississippi River and resulted in Lincoln — and the entire nation — taking notice of the quiet, cigar-smoking general who actually fought, unlike the commanders in the East that Lincoln constantly prodded and poked and eventually fired.
By the beginning of 1864, Grant was a national hero and in recognition of his successes, abilities, and the Union’s need for his continued leadership, President Lincoln appointed him lieutenant general. The man who couldn’t hold on to a job a few years earlier was now sharing the highest military rank given to that point in American history with George Washington. Grant was given command of the entire Union Army and took personal charge of the underachieving Army of the Potomac in the East while one of Grant’s best friends, General William Tecumseh Sherman, took over in the West. Sherman is one of the highlights of The Man Who Saved the Union because of his passion, his candor, and his fascinating character, and his personal friendship and professional partnership with Grant is one of the important aspects of the Civil War. Fortunately for us, Brands spotlights their relationship and lets the two generals help carry their story through their letters to each other, reports to the War Department, and their respective autobiographies, which are two of the finest books written by major American historical figures.
In many ways, 1864 is the toughest year of the Civil War and Brands puts the reader in the middle of the brutal Wilderness campaign where Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee threw tens of thousands of soldiers at one another in some of the bloodiest battles in history. At the same time, Lincoln is seeking a reelection that is not only uncertain but, at times, seems unlikely. The Man Who Saved the Union reveals how Grant shot down calls for him to run for President against Lincoln and how Union victories in the late-summer and fall helped swing the election to Lincoln.
The war comes to a close in April 1865 and Brands does a great job with the dramatic surrender of General Lee to General Grant at Appomattox. Less than a week later, Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew Johnson became President. With the Civil War ending, The Man Who Saved the Union shifts into the second half of Ulysses S. Grant’s public career. Now that Grant has saved the Union, he decides that he must do whatever is necessary to help preserve it. Still the commanding general of the United States military, Grant was now overseeing soldiers flung throughout the nation — at frontier outposts battling Native Americans and occupying the former Confederate states of the South in order to protect newly-freed slaves, install loyal officials in state and local governments, ensure the rule of law, and complete Reconstruction. With Lincoln dead and Johnson in the White House, Radical Republicans battled the new President over the details of Reconstruction and Grant was often caught in the middle. As a subordinate, Grant refused to disobey or disrespect his commander-in-chief publicly, but privately, he disliked Johnson and was fed up with the President. Brands does perhaps the best job that I’ve read in describing the tension between Johnson and his Cabinet, as well as Johnson and Grant, and then the final break between President Johnson and General Grant.
Johnson had no chance of being elected President in his own right in 1868 and Brands notes that it was clear to everyone in the country that Ulysses S. Grant would be the next President. It’s interesting to read about Grant’s shift from a military man to a political leader in The Man Who Saved the Union, and Grant’s eight years as President are frequently overlooked. For decades Grant has been considered one of the worst Presidents in American history, but in recent years, that opinion has somewhat softened, particularly due to Grant’s progressive civil rights stance, which resulted in Grant signing the only civil rights legislation until 1957. Brands examines the Grant Administration in great detail and touches upon the scandals which tainted Grant’s Presidency despite no wrongdoing on the President’s part. While Grant certainly was a far better soldier than politician, Brands makes a solid case through his research that his record as President may deserve a closer look by historians.
In retirement, Grant and his wife, Julia, take a long-needed and well-deserved vacation that turned into a trip around the world which lasted over two years. Returning to the U.S., Grant nearly won the 1880 Republican Presidential nomination at a wild Republican National Convention before James Garfield was eventually nominated. In his final years, Grant looked to earn some money so that his family could live comfortably, but the bad luck in business that tormented him during the years prior to the Civil War returned. A crooked financial partner bilked Grant out of nearly every cent the general owned. Brands reveals the lengths that the aging American hero went to in order to find a way to provide for his family and details Grant’s dramatic final act of heroism. After Mark Twain worked out a lucrative deal for Grant to write his autobiography, Grant races to finish the book even though he is dying from throat cancer. Grant’s health rapidly deteriorates, but he continues to write, focused on the goal of finishing the book before his death so that his family would be able to live without financial worries. In July 1885, Grant — weighing less than 100 pounds and no longer able to speak — finished the book and it remains perhaps the best autobiography ever written by a former President (although it doesn’t cover his political career). A week after finishing the book, Grant died in New York and the country — North and South, Blue and Gray, Union and Confederate — turned out to mourn The Man Who Saved the Union.
There is a major difference between a “historian” and a “writer”, unless your name is H.W. Brands. The Man Who Saved the Union is a magnificent book that once again leaves me wondering how Brands is so thorough and prolific. The book also leaves me with a better understanding of Ulysses S. Grant. Americans know what Grant did and they see his face on the $50 bill, but this book truly helps reveal who Grant was and how this unlikely hero, bruised by failure and tested by disappointment, focused, fought, and became the savior of the Union.
The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H.W. Brands is available now from Doubleday. You can order the book from Amazon, or download it instantly for your Kindle. H.W. Brands has written numerous best-selling books and has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is currently the Dickson Allen Anderson Professor of History at the University of Texas in Austin. His website is www.hwbrands.com and he is on Twitter @hwbrands.
No, I’ve been slacking on my writing. I have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to actually writing my reviews.
The reading is going just fine. Last night, I finished H.W. Brands’ new book The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (BOOK•KINDLE), which will be released on October 2nd. Today, I started Burton I. Kaufman’s The Post-Presidency from Washington to Clinton, which hits stores on November 11th. The Brands book is a must-read, especially if you’re a fan of the Civil War-era or General Grant. I’m enjoying the Kaufman book so far, as I suspected I would, considering its from the University Press of Kansas — one of the best (and most prolific) publishers of books about Presidents and all aspects Presidential history from people, politics, and elections to focused studies of specific Presidential policies and/or Administrations.
ULYSSES S. GRANT
18th President of the United States (1869-1877)
Full Name: Ulysses Simpson Grant (Born: Hiram Ulysses Grant)
Born: April 27, 1822, Point Pleasant, Ohio
Term: March 4, 1869-March 4, 1877
Political Party: Republican
Vice Presidents: Schuyler Colfax; Henry Wilson
Died: July 23, 1885, Mount McGregor, New York
Buried: Grant’s Tomb, General Grant National Memorial, New York City, New York
Ulysses S. Grant has long occupied space near the bottom of most rankings of Presidents, but in recent years he is one of those leaders who seems to be inching his way up the ladder as historians begin to view his Presidency differently. Grant will never be considered a great, or probably even a good President. His portrait is on the $50 bill because of what he did during the Civil War, not what he did in the White House. President Grant was a victim of the corruption that infected Washington during his Administration; in no way was he complicit other than perhaps being too loyal or too trustworthy with people who never hesitated to take advantage of the great General’s generosity. The United States at the time of Grant’s Inauguration was by no means United. The Civil War had only ended four years earlier and the country had struggled since Appomattox with Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, and a painful Reconstruction. Where Grant shines in retrospect is Civil Rights. When historians look at instances where Presidents used the power of their office to the fullest, they usually stop at Lincoln during the Civil War, specifically with his suspension of habeas corpus. Many tend to overlook the fact that Grant also suspended habeas corpus as President in his effort (largely successful) to crush the Ku Klux Klan. Grant protected the rights of African-Americans, especially those recently emancipated and living free in the South. Not only did the Grant Administration shepherd the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, but they also used the power of the Presidency and the military to enforce Civil Rights laws and ensure voting rights for blacks. President Grant was the last President to sign major Civil Rights legislation until another great American General-turned-President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1957.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: 28 of 29
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: 30 of 31
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: 30 of 38
1990: Siena Institute: 37 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 34 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 33 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 29 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 29 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 23 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 26 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 29 of 40
Happy 190th Birthday to Ulysses S. Grant, 18th President of the United States and the victorious commanding General of the Union Army during the Civil War. Grant was born Hiram Ulysses Grant on April 27, 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio. When Grant was appointed to West Point, he found out that the Ohio Congressman who had helped him get into the United States Military Academy gave the name “Ulysses Simpson Grant” (Simpson was Grant’s mother’s maiden name) instead of “Hiram Ulysses Grant”. Since Grant thought the initials “U.S.G.” would look a lot better than “H.U.G.” on his equipment, he kept the name, although most of his close friends called him “Sam”.
Had PETA been around in the 19th Century, General Grant might have been their poster boy. Grant loved animals, especially horses. His father owned a tannery, and that may have been the reason that Grant hated the sight of animal blood (rare steak literally made him sick to his stomach), despised hunting, and wouldn’t eat chicken or turkey or “anything that went on two legs”.
In 1864, Grant’s love for animals was clearly displayed to his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter, who also served as personal secretary to President Grant in the White House. Grant and a few of his staff officers were riding between camps in Virginia when they saw a man beating his horse in the face and head. General Grant immediately jumped off of his own horse, grabbed the man, and started choking him. Before leaving, Grant ordered that the man be tied to a fence, where he remained for the next six hours. Porter said it was the only time he personally recalled Grant losing his temper during the Civil War.
On this day in 1865, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant of the United States Army and General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate States of America’s Army of Northern Virginia gathered along with their officers in the parlor of the home of Wilmer McLean in Appomattox Court House, Virginia. After four bloody, tragic years and several punishing months that saw General Lee’s movements shadowed at every turn by General Grant’s Army, the venerable Confederate commander realized that further resistance was futile and began the long process of healing the broken nation by surrendering his beloved Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant.
When dramatic, world-changing events in history take place, we rarely get firsthand accounts from the principals involved. Fortunately for us, Ulysses S. Grant spent the last weeks of his life putting the finishing touches on his autobiography, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (BOOK•KINDLE), which spotlight many of the most important moments of the Civil War through the eyes of one of that war’s biggest heroes. Grant finished writing his book just a few days before he died in 1885, but what’s most amazing about Grant’s Memoirs is that, nearly 130 years later, they remain one of the most readable books ever written by an American President. Grant’s insight into the proceedings at Appomattox are valuable because it isn’t secondary material from a journalist, or the memories and a junior officer with opinion and prejudices that might cloud reality. Instead, the Memoirs are Grant’s remembrances of a monumental event in American History, and Grant’s honesty — for better and worse — has rarely been challenged.
In the Memoirs, Grant remembers suffering from a blinding migraine headache in the hours before his meeting with General Lee as representatives attempted to set conditions for the meeting between the two generals. As Grant later wrote, when an officer brought a note to from Lee that confirmed the Confederate general’s interest in meeting and setting terms for surrender, “the instant I saw the contents of the note I was cured.”
As Grant prepared to meet Lee at Wilmer McLean’s home, the Union commander almost certainly thought about the vast differences between him and his Confederate counterpart. Lee was 15 years older than Grant, and while they both attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, their records couldn’t have been more different. Lee wanted nothing more than to be a great career soldier, graduated 2nd in his class, and made it through four years at West Point without a single demerit. Grant had dozens of demerits, many of which came from refusing to attend church services, and graduated 21st out of 39 cadets in his class. That he graduated at all was an accomplishment in Grant’s eyes. As he later wrote, “A military life had no charms for me, and I had not the faintest idea of staying in the Army even if I should be graduated.”
After the men graduated from West Point (Lee in 1829, Grant in 1843), they embarked on military careers that took them to very different places, but on April 9, 1865, General Grant was thinking about the first time he had actually met General Lee. Their paths had crossed in the Mexican War (1846-1848) when they served together for some time under General Winfield Scott. Later in life, Grant was particularly outspoken about the injustice of the Mexican War, but he fought bravely during his time in Mexico under General Scott and, especially, under General Zachary Taylor. Grant and Lee were both decorated for their service in Mexico, along with many fellow junior soldiers whose names would become famous in the North and South during the Civil War. In his Memoirs, Grant wrote about his memories of his earlier meeting with Robert E. Lee, but doubted Lee would remember him:
“I had known General Lee in the old army, and had served with him in the Mexican War; but did not suppose, owing to the difference in our age and rank, that he would remember me; while I would more naturally remember him distinctly, because he was the chief of staff of General Scott in the Mexican War.”
Ulysses S. Grant wouldn’t make it easy for General Lee to recognize him, either. One of the only positives to come out of the Mexican War for Ulysses S. Grant was his admiration of Zachary Taylor, who was Grant’s commanding general for most of the war. Taylor — later the 12th President — was nicknamed “Old Rough and Ready” and remembered fondly by his soldiers for his casual, comfortable manner. General Taylor was a sloppy dresser who often wore an odd mix of military dress and civilian clothing, loved to shade his face a large sun hat, and was unorthodox in almost every manner. While Grant may not have been a good student at West Point, he had no problem picking up on the lessons he learned from General Taylor. Robert E. Lee was always impeccably dressed, much like his Mexican War commander, General Winfield Scott. In fact, Grant’s comparison of Scott and Taylor would just as easily work with Lee and Grant:
“I had now been in battle with two leading commanders conducting armies in a foreign land. The contrast between the two was very marked. General Taylor never wore uniform, but dressed himself entirely for comfort. He moved about the field in which he was operating to see through his own eyes the situation. Often he would be without staff officers, and when he was accompanied by them there was no prescribed order in which they followed. He was very much given to sit his horse side-ways — with both feet on one side — particularly on the battlefield. General Scott was the reverse in all these particulars. He always wore all the uniform prescribed or allowed by law when he inspected his lines; word would be sent to all division and brigade commanders in advance, notifying them of the hour when the commanding general might be expected. This was done so that all the army might be under arms to salute their chief as he passed. On these occasions he wore his dress uniform, cocked hat, aiguillettes, sabre and spurs. His staff proper, besides all officers constructively on his staff — engineers, inspectors, quartermasters, etc., that could be spared — followed, also in uniform and in prescribed order. Orders were prepared with great care and evidently with the view that they should be a history of what followed…But with their opposite characteristics both were great and successful soldiers; both were true, patriotic and upright in all their dealings. Both were pleasant to serve under — Taylor was pleasant to serve with. Scott saw more through the eyes of his staff officers than through his own. His plans were deliberately prepared, and fully expressed in orders. Taylor saw for himself, and gave orders to meet the emergency without reference to how they would read in history.”
While Robert E. Lee was not insufferable like Winfield Scott, he was still, even after several brutal weeks of fighting, dressed in a way that would have led any outside observer to believe he was receiving the surrender on that day. The messages that Grant and Lee had exchanged that day had resulted in a meeting quicker than Grant had expected, so the Union general was wearing his usual battlefield dress as he prepared to meet the dashing General Lee. In his Memoirs, Grant acknowledges feeling a bit self-conscious about his “rough garb”. “I was without a sword,” Grant remembered, “as I usually was when on horseback on the field, and wore a soldier’s blouse for a coat, with (only) the shoulder straps of my rank to indicate to the army who I was.” If the war had been decided with a fashion contest between Grant and Lee, we’d all be singing “Dixie”. According to Grant:
“General Lee was dressed in a full uniform which was entirely new, and was wearing a sword of considerable value, very likely the sword which had been presented by the State of Virginia; at all events, it was an entirely different sword from the one that would ordinarily be worn in the field. In my rough traveling suit, the uniform of a private with the straps of lieutenant-general, I must have contrasted very strangely with a man so handsomely dressed, six feet high and of faultless form.”
Upon entering McLean’s home, Grant and Lee shook hands and the officers who accompanied the two generals were silent. Grant, who had been elated earlier to meet with Lee and bring the war to a close, found himself feeling “sad and depressed”. “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.” Grant had so much respect for Lee that simply meeting him face-to-face in such a moment left the Union general nervous. As they sat in the silent and still parlor of Wilmer McLean’s home, Grant tried to break the ice by mentioning their previous service — on the same side — in Mexico. To Grant’s surprise, Lee remembered him well:
“We soon fell into a conversation about old army times. He remarked that he remembered me very well in the old army; and I told him that as a matter of course I remembered him perfectly, but from the difference in our rank and years (there being about sixteen years’ difference in our ages), I had thought it very likely that I had not attracted his attention sufficiently to be remembered by him after such a long interval. Our conversation grew so pleasant that I almost forgot the object of our meeting.”
General Lee didn’t forget, however. Lee steered the conversation back towards the terms of his army’s surrender. Grant’s initials “U.S.” had gained him the nickname of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant throughout the war, but the truth was that he didn’t have a template for the conditions required of his vanquished opponents. Grant was aware of President Abraham Lincoln’s hope for a smooth reconciliation as the country began healing in the wake of the Civil War. With this in mind and his deep respect for General Lee’s leadership, Grant set terms so generous that Lee was surprised. Lee’s soldiers would have their names recorded, surrender any weapons that were supplied by the Confederate government, and take an oath to not take up arms against the United States. After doing that, they would be free to return to their homes peacefully and without threat of prosecution for insurrection or treason. When Lee mentioned that most of the horses in his army were the personal property of the soldiers who rode them, Grant allowed soldiers to take any horses or personal belongings back home with them. Grant even allowed the defeated Confederate soldiers keep their sidearms. When General Lee saw the generous terms set forth by General Grant, he was astonished. With emotion, he thanked Grant for his generosity, telling the Union commander, “This will have a very happy effect on my army.”
With the surrender signed, General Lee mentioned to Grant that many of his soldiers had gone without food except for dried corn for several days and were in bad shape. Grant immediately authorized enough food to feed 25,000 men and gave orders to a nearby quartermaster to provide Lee’s army with as much food as they needed for their return to their homes. After exiting the McLean home, Lee climbed on to his beloved horse, Traveller, and observers noted that Lee, for the first time anyone could remember, looked as if he was having a hard time controlling his emotions. Grant was preparing to mount his horse, Cincinnati, when the two generals locked eyes once more. In a show of deep respect, Grant removed his hat and saluted Lee — and every Union soldier in proximity followed their commander’s example. Lee raised his hat and saluted Grant and rode off.
Shortly after Grant and Lee parted ways, the news of Lee’s surrender began to spread throughout the Union encampments. Union soldiers began cheering and firing salutes while their defeated Confederate opponents were well within earshot. Grant immediately ordered an end to the celebration. “The Confederates were now our prisoners,” wrote Grant, “and we did not want to exult over their downfall.”
The next day, General Lee sent a brief, but eloquent, order to his Army of Northern Virginia in which he acknowledged that they had “been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources” and that he was “determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen”. Lee’s order informed the men of their freedom to return to their homes, and closed by thanking his soldiers for their service and bidding them “an affectionate farewell.” Before Grant returned to Washington, D.C. on April 10th for a meeting with President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, the Union commander stopped by where Lee’s army had set up camp. Grant and Lee sat atop their horses between the lines of their respective armies and talked for nearly an hour, both generals expressing their hope that the Confederate armies still in the field in pockets of the South would follow Lee’s lead so the nation could begin the difficult work of healing. Within a few hours, they were on their way home, heading in opposite directions, Grant to the North and Lee to the South.
Robert E. Lee died in 1870, and despite the cause that most people think he fought for (Lee abhorred slavery; the State of Virginia came before the Union in Lee’s mind), the Confederacy’s commanding general has largely become an American hero throughout the entire country. Maybe it was due to Lee’s support of the abolition of slavery or maybe it is because Lee is considered an American ideal of an honest and honorable warrior with quiet strength, but somehow Lee has made it to the Pantheon of American leaders that Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson will likely never reach. In the last five years of his life, General Lee served as the president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia — a school that was renamed Washington and Lee University after Lee’s death.
Grant lived until 1885, but his later life was a bit more star-crossed than Lee’s. Grant turned down a request to accompany President Lincoln to the theater less than a week after Appomattox. Lincoln was killed that night. Grant feuded with Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, after the Civil War, and sought the Presidency himself in 1868. Grant served two terms as President (1869-1877), and his Administration was riddled with corruption, although Grant himself was not personally corrupt. Grant’s reputation as President has begun to improve over the past few years due to his work on the only meaningful Civil Rights legislation passed until the mid-20th Century. After his Presidency, Grant went on a 2-year-long world tour with his wife and was greeted around the world by adoring fans interested in seeing an American President who also happened to be the hero of the Civil War. In 1880, Grant sought an unprecedented third term as President, but narrowly lost the Republican nomination to James Garfield. Sadly, Grant’s finances were liquidated by crooked financial partners in the 1880’s and he was forced to sell historic artifacts from his Civil War service in order to survive. In 1884, Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer, and became determined to make money for his wife’s benefit in case of his death. Mark Twain signed a deal with Grant to write his Memoirs, and Grant finished the book just a few days before his death in July 1885. Grant’s book was a critical and commercial success, and left his wife with financial stability.
We have so much information on Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee that we can piece together nearly every aspect of their lives, and often in their own words. Few Americans have affected the lives of so many people while also having such an influence on one another. There are hundreds of books about Grant, Lee, the Civil War, and dozens of combinations of subjects featuring those two great military leaders and their times. What most people don’t know is that Appomattox wasn’t the last time Grant and Lee saw each other.
On May 1, 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant welcomed the president of Washington College, Robert E. Lee, to the White House. Lee had considered inviting President-elect Grant to visit Washington College before Grant was inaugurated, but Lee didn’t want to make a request that his busy former adversary felt obligated to accept. After Grant was inaugurated in March 1869, he learned of Lee’s interest in visiting with him, and the President invited Lee to the White House. Unfortunately, there are no definitive answers to what was said between President Grant and General Lee. They two men only spent about 15 minutes together, and one observer suggested that there was a bit of sadness when the two men saw each other. Perhaps it was because of what they put each other through five years earlier, but perhaps it was the fact that the two former generals were older and in much different places.
What’s remarkable about the short meeting is that Robert E. Lee may have been the only American in history to visit the White House after being stripped of his citizenship. A bill to restore General Lee’s American citizenship was passed by Congress in 1975 — 110 years after the Civil War ended — and President Gerald Ford signed off on the restoration of Lee’s citizenship in a ceremony at Arlington House, the home that Lee lived in before it was occupied by Union soldiers during the Civil War and turned into a National Cemetery.
After just fifteen minutes on May 1, 1869, President Grant and General Lee once again parted ways. We don’t know what they said or how they felt or what they thought as they parted. The two men who had been such a huge part of each other’s lives would never see each other again. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that Grant and Lee could come together at all after chasing each other throughout the country and killing thousands of Americans while trying to destroy each other. It’s a tribute to the two men that they were living in a country still needing time to heal, and they stepped forward — leading the way just like they did while waging war — to model for Americans how to wage peace.
Harding and Nixon. Many of the people in Grant’s Administration were corrupt, but I don’t think he was personally. Grant did appoint crooked people and was surrounded by some dirty friends and family, so he is ultimately responsible for that.
Well, Taylor died in office and both he and Grant were political neophytes. Taylor was President in the midst of the sectional crises and died as Congress was working on the Missouri Compromise. Grant dealt with Reconstruction, post-Civil War racial tensions throughout the country, rampant corruption in the U.S. Government, and wasn’t much of a leader when he wasn’t on the battlefield.
Eisenhower, however, was a monumental figure even amongst his fellow Presidents. No one has ever denied his ability to lead, both on-and-off of the battlefield. Eisenhower’s military career required far more political maneuvering than Taylor’s or Grant’s because of the era that he served and the people he served with. Eisenhower had large reserves of the political intuition that both Taylor and Grant sorely lacked.
I hope you had a wonderful Hanukkah.
In my opinion, the worst President was James Buchanan because the nation literally fell apart during his term. Sure, divisions had been running deep for decades and had become particularly violent during Franklin Pierce’s Administration (which directly preceded President Buchanan’s). However, states seceded from the Union during Buchanan’s term and he did nothing about it, basically claiming that his hands were tied and he didn’t have the authority to prohibit or prevent secession. The actual act of secession isn’t the reason he is the worst President; instead, it is his complete failure to take any actions whatsoever that place him solidly at the bottom of my list. I doubt Buchanan could have changed anything, but he should have tried. Instead, he made a half-assed attempt to stop an avalanche by throwing snowballs at it.
Grant was also a bad President, but not one of the worst. Grant had a corrupt term and he was a horrific judge of character when it came to his Administration, but as you said, he was personally honest, incorruptible, and loyal to a fault. While his Presidency was marred by scandals and the worst depression in the first century of American History, Grant’s signing of the Specie Act in 1875 strengthened American currency and rebuilt confidence in the American economic system. Grant’s failures (besides the scandals) also include the ongoing Reconstruction efforts in the South following the Civil War — efforts which bred the Ku Klux Klan and dismantled the Freedman’s Bureau. Grant exerted quite a bit of executive power with his Reconstruction policies, but there were excesses, including the threat of martial law, a harsh occupation of the South by Federal forces, the suspension of habeas corpus (that’s right…Grant did it, too), and mass arrests of former Rebels and/or their sympathizers.
Obviously, Grant was a poor President by the track record I just explained but I would still list him above Pierce, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Warren G. Harding, maybe Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter. If I included the Presidents who served short terms before their untimely deaths, I would also rank Grant above William Henry Harrison and James Garfield since the latter two Presidents did very little in their brief time in the White House.
I think the best are Grant’s The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (1885), Nixon’s The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (1978), and Bill Clinton’s My Life (2004).
I’m looking forward to reading George W. Bush’s Decision Points when it’s released in November to see how it compares with the autobiographies of Grant, Nixon, and Clinton.
Also, I know it was a memoir released long before he ran for President but President Obama’s Dreams From My Father is a beautifully-written, wonderful book.