ULYSSES S. GRANT—An Under-Appreciated Hero
By David A. Harper
Alejandro Grattan’s editorial (Ojo-August issue) on Mark Twain reminded me it was Twain who personally arranged for the publishing of Grant’s memoirs on terms so favorable to Grant and his family as to allow them to live well long after his death.
Ulysses S. Grant is the most under-appreciated president in U.S. history. Still today historians are revising previous opinions of him, his place in history and in particular his value to the nation at the time of reconstruction. Throughout his life Grant was dogged by detractors seeking to damage his image, as small minded men often do to giants of humble beginnings.
In 1868 he was elected president by a small majority. Four years later he was re-elected by an overwhelming majority. His funeral in New York City saw an enormous outpouring of public gratitude, mourning and affection. Yet ask Americans today what they know about Grant and you will more likely hear remarks referring to his time as the successful commander of the Union Forces in the Civil War.
Butcher and drunk seem to stick in people’s minds. You will not often hear about his clear thinking and his organizational ability. Lincoln appointed him Lt. General and Grant set off for Major General Meade’s command. He arrived quietly without aides, and a staff officer there wrote: “This unimpressive little man walked in, slouching and grubby, saying little but asking a few acute questions. So intelligent were his inquiries, and so pertinent his suggestions that he made a profound impression on everyone by the quickness of his perception.”
Another staff officer wrote of his skill in writing orders: “There’s one striking thing about Grant’s orders: no matter how hurriedly he may write them in the field, no one ever has the slightest doubt as to their meaning, or ever has to read them over a second time to understand them”.
He wrote his memoirs while dying of throat cancer and in pain. Determined to finish them, so that his family would be well provided for after his death, he handwrote between 25 and 50 pages a day from memory and journals, without editing. The clarity of those pages was often compared to Caesar’s commentaries. Twain himself said that:
“Their style is at least flawless, and no man can improve on it.”
He kept himself alive just long enough to complete them and died a few days later.
In war he was successful where others had failed and for this he was called a butcher because of the casualties his forces sustained in achieving victories. Grant was, by necessity, the aggressor often forced to drive his enemy from their prepared positions. To achieve results, heavy losses were inevitable. His predecessors had stood off to await a more favorable opportunity that rarely came.
Grant also suffered from comparison with his principal opponent, the aristocratic General Robert E. Lee who had the reputation of being a tactical genius, always having to make do with less. In protracted wars all generals will make errors of judgment and Lee also had his. “Pickett’s Charge” at Gettysburg was one of his worst. The Confederate troops were butchered after being ordered to attack a prepared Union position.
Lincoln was often approached by Grant detractors who recommended he be replaced. In one response to such urging Lincoln said of Grant, “I can’t spare this man, he fights.” His more famous response to reports of Grant’s drinking was “Find out what brand of whiskey he is drinking and I’ll send a barrel of it to my other generals.”
As President, it was Grant’s steadfast doggedness over universal suffrage for the former slaves and his use of the Army against the Ku Klux Klan to enforce it in the parts of the south that caused Frederick Douglass to say “To Grant more than any other man the Negro owes his enfranchisement and the Indian a humane policy.”
Lastly and particularly because we live in Mexico, it is worth mentioning that Grant, as a recent West Point graduate, saw his first action in the Mexican War. Of that war Grant wrote, “For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war which resulted as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”