[pg. 21] A LETTER OF JESSE GRANT *** On the eve of the Civil War, Jesse R. Grant, father of the future general, lived in Covington, Kentucky, which was to be his home for the rest of his life. His business interests elsewhere included a leather store in Galena, Illinois. In May, 1860, Ulysses moved from St. Louis to Galena to begin again in his father’s store. Jesse Grant was a successful businessman whose true love was politics, and there success eluded him.
We are indebted to Dr. Wayne C. Temple and the Department of Lincolniana of Lincoln Memorial University for permission to print a letter written by Jesse Grant to Cassius M. Clay from Galena on May 28, 1860. Clay, a fiery Kentucky antislavery advocate, was temporarily prominent in the Republican Party. Great personal courage and strength enabled him to attack slavery in a slave-holding state, and while he gained few local supporters, he was much admired in the North.
This letter raises as many questions as it answers. We do not know if Jesse Grant was as active in politics or so close to Clay as the letter suggests, although he obviously knew of Clay’s desire for the War Department. Clay strove for this post with his usual aggressiveness, and was persuaded to take the post of Minister to Russia only after skillful negotiation by Lincoln’s friend Edward D. Baker. A letter from Jesse Grant to Edward Bates, April 25, 1861 (Chicago Public Library) indicates that Grant was distressed by Clay’s patronage policies in Kentucky, but nothing else of their relationship is known.
[pg. 22] It is doubtful that Grant did meet Lincoln in Springfield, for he never spoke of it later. But there can be no doubt that Jesse did take the aggressive interest in politics that this letter suggests. It was ironic that political prominence came to Jesse from the direction least expected; and that his son Ulysses, as President, fearing his father’s extravagant talk, guarded against confiding in him.
Galena Ill May 28th ’60
Hon C. M. Clay
Dear Sir,Your letter dated 16th & post marked on the 19th at White Hall was recd two days ago. Passing over for the present what has been said about the New port Republicans, & the Republican State Convention, I will proceed to notice what is of much greater importance–the nominations.
I feel fully satisfyed that the nominations are as good & as available as could have been made. Seward may thank his most devoted friends for his defeat. The officious intermeddllng of the old free soil wing of the Republican party; and that Seward was the only Representative man among the Candidates, & to take such men as McLean Bates or Lincoln, was to go outside of the party for a Candidate, has prevented his nomination, & would have produced his ultimate defeat. The feelings out here are very strong for C.M.C. for the V.P. And if some eastern men had been at the head of the ticket, that name, It is thought would have been associated with it. But the idea of the War Department takes us well.
When I return home, I will take Springfield in my rout, & make the acquaintance of Mr Lincoln. And I am going to work for the success of the ticket. Until the result of the Baltimore & Richmond conventions is known, it will be difficult to determine what will be the best course of policy to pursue in Kentucky, to secure Republican success. My present opinion is that it will be best to push Bells & if possible prevent the Democracy from geting the State. As matters now stand in our District I would not ask any decent Republican to vote the ticket, & I certainly coul not do it myself. And especially when I consider that the more votes the ticket gets in the 10th District, the more it will be disgraced; for it is fully understood that all possible pains has been taken to prevent any but old Abolition free soilers from voting it.
[pg. 23] To show you why I feel so peculiarly sensative on this subject I will mention one incident. But first, it was on my suggestion that the meeting was called. I wrote to you & called on Hon. D. Fisher to address the meeting–wrote the notices & got published in the city papers for the meeting wrote a petition & layed before the city Council & got the use of the Hall by their special permission. Then when a large audience had convened, you had not come in & Fisher was there, I thought it best to have the meeting organized; and as I had understood that a caucus had agreed upon the officers of the meeting, I steped up to the Republican party & told him if he would tell me who was agreed upon for Chairmen I would call the meeting to order. he turned from me with the assumed importance of a monark & giving me a push with his elbow said “Ill attend to that” And then struting to an open space in the floor & spreading himself like a game chicken raised his powerful voice & proclaimed the meeting organized &c. In consideration of my age & experience on such subjects, & my standing morally socially and politically I really would not regarded myself very highly flattered to have been called upon to perform that duty but to be elbowed off by such a contemptable little fool was a little more than bargained for. However let that pass–
I am going to start in the morning to St Paul & have business at almost every town on the way, & shall a fair opportunity to talk politicks. I dont expect to get home before about the 1st of July. When I get home I will give you a grand history of matters & things generally.
I did not attent the Chicawgo Convention & from the date of your letter I suppose you did not.
J. R. Grant
WHAT HIS ENEMIES SAID OF GRANT *** Major General Ulysses S. Grant 3rd had made an interesting collection of comments on his grandfather by persons active in the Confederate cause. They will appear in several installments.
Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia, vice-President of the Confederate States of America, first met Grant on January 31, 1865, at City Point, Virginia, where Stephens and two other prominent Confederate officials had come to discuss terms of peace.
[pg. 24] …I will say, in the first place, that I was never so much disappointed in my life, in my previously formed opinions, of either the personal appearance or bearing of any one, about whom I had read and heard so much. The disappointment, moreover, was in every respect favorable and agreeable. I was instantly struck with the great simplicity and perfect naturalness of his manners, and the entire absence of everything like affectation, show, or even the usual military air or mien of men in his position. He was plainly attired, sitting in a log-cabin, busily writing on a small table, by a Kerosene lamp. It was night when we arrived. There was nothing in his appearance or surroundings which indicated his official rank. There were neither guards nor aids about him. Upon Colonel Babcock’s rapping at his door, the response, “Come in,” was given by himself, in a tone of voice, and with a cadence, which I can never forget.His conversation was easy and fluent, without the least effort or restraint. In this, nothing was so closely noticed by me as the point and terseness with which he expressed whatever he said. He did not seem either to court or avoid conversation, but whenever he did speak, what he said was directly to the point, and covered the whole matter in a few words. I saw before being with him long, that he was exceedingly quick in perception, and direct In purpose, with a vast deal more of brains than tongue, as ready as that was at his command.
We were here with General Grant two days, as the correspondence referred to shows. He furnished us with comfortable quarters on board one of his despatch boats. The more I became acquainted with him, the more I became thoroughly impressed with the very extraordinary combination of rare elements of character which he exhibited. During the time he met us frequently, and conversed freely upon various subjects, not much upon our mission. I saw, however, very clearly, that he was very anxious for the proposed Conference to take place, and from all that was said I inferred–whether correctly or not, I do not know–that he was fully apprised of its proposed object. He was, without doubt, exceedingly anxious for a termination of our war, and the return of peace and harmony throughout the country. It was through his instrumentality mainly, that Mr. Lincoln finally consented to meet us at Fortress Monroe, as the correspondence referred to shows.
But in further response to your inquiry, I will add: that upon the whole the result of this first acquaintance with General Grant, beginning with our going to, and ending with our return from Hampton Roads, was, the conviction on my mind, that, taken all in all, he was one of the most remarkable men I had ever met with, and that his career in life, If his days should be prolonged, was hardly entered upon; that his character was not yet fully developed; that he himself was not aware of his own power, and [pg. 25] that if he lived, he would, in the future, exert a controlling influence in shaping the destinies of this country, either for good or for evil. Which it would be, time and circumstances alone could disclose. That was the opinion of him then formed, and It is the same which has been uniformly expressed by me ever since.
General Richard Taylor in Destruction and Reconstruction (1879) bitterly indicted the Grant administration, but also gave this account of his trip to Washington in the summer of 1865 when he sought to obtain the release of Confederate officials from federal custody.
The officers of the army on duty at Washington were very civil to me, especially General Grant, whom I had known prior to and during the Mexican war as a modest, amiable, but by no means promising, lieutenant In a marching regiment. He came frequently to see me, was full of kindness, and anxious to promote my wishes. His action in preventing violation of the terms of surrender, and a subsequent report that he made of the condition of the South–a report not at all pleasing to the radicals–endeared him to all Southern men. Indeed, he was in a position to play a role second only to that of Washington, who founded the Republic; for he had the power to restore it. His bearing and conduct at this time were admirable, modest, and generous; and I talked much with him of the noble and beneficent work before him. While his heart seemed to respond, he declared his ignorance of and distaste for politics and politicians, with which and whom he intended to have nothing to do, but confine himself to his duties of commander-in-chief of the army. Yet he expressed a desire for the speedy restoration of good feeling between the sections, and an intention to advance it in all proper ways.
The following conversation of General Robert E. Lee is taken from the biography of Grant by James Grant Wilson.
Within a few weeks of Grant’s death, a member of General Lee’s staff said to a friend, who had mentioned Hancock’s high opinion of his old chief: “That reminds me of Lee’s opinion of your great Union general, uttered in my presence in reply to a disparaging remark on the part of a person who referred to Grant as a ‘military accident, who had no distinguishing merit, but had achieved success through a combination of fortunate circumstances.’ General Lee looked into the critic’s eye steadily, and said: ‘Sir, your opinion is a very poor compliment to me. We all thought [pg. 26] Richmond, protected as it was by our splendid fortifications and defended by our army of veterans, could not be taken. Yet Grant turned his face to our capital, and never turned it away until we had surrendered. Now, I have carefully searched the military records of both ancient and modern history, and have never found Grant’s superior as a general. I doubt if his superior can be found in all history.'”
Albert D. Richardson, in A Personal History of Ulysses S. Grant (1868), reported a conversation of Confederate General Richard Ewell, early in the Civil War.
There is one West Pointer, I think In Missouri, little known, and whom I hope the Northern people will not find out. I mean Sam Grant. I knew him well at the Academy and in Mexico. I should fear him more than any of their officers I have yet heard of. He is not a man of genius, but he is clear-headed, quick, and daring.
NEWS NOTES *** The Grant Association recently elected three new members to its editorial board: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Executive Director of the National Historical Publications Commission; Harold M. Hyman, Professor of History at the university of Illinois; and Bell I. Wiley, Professor of History at Emory University. Other members of the editorial board are Allan Nevins, E.B. Long, Bruce Catton, Orme W. Phelps, and T. Harry Williams. *** An oil portrait of General Grant by S. Jerome Uhl has been acquired by dealer Paul North, of Columbus, Ohio. A large canvas, dated 1881, and possibly done from life, it is currently awaiting a purchaser in the Mohawk Gallery, 188 Lansing Street.