A MOST EXTRAORDINARY ORDINARY MAN:
PROFILE OF AN AMERICAN HERO, ULYSSES S. GRANT
by Ralph G. Newman
The achievement of great leadership in the democratic world is accomplished by a combination of the mind and knowledge, character and experience, together with courage and devotion. It requires an ability to identify with the people, and calls for a vision and imagination that rises far beyond the concern, the frustration, and the pressure of the hour. Man’s character, as John Drinkwater says In the epilogue to his play, Abraham Lincoln, can endure, because it is “a token sent always to man for man’s own government.”
One hundred and fifty years have passed since the birth of Hiram Ulysses Grant, whom we and history now know as Ulysses S. Grant. Eighty-seven years have elapsed since his death. Yet, until comparatively recently, much about his life, his actions, his accomplishments, his talents, and his personality, has been obscured in legend and myth and by biased or uninformed writers. Now, with many new works interpreting his life and with the aid of much new source material–a major multi-volume biography; the publication of his Papers, four volumes of which have already been issued–the man is replacing the myth. We can see in the life of this quiet, brave, dignified soldier and President living proof of the credo so peculiar to America, that freedom can produce greatness and that
[pg. 22] there is in man himself a dignity that can transcend while it shapes events for time and in eternity.
Americans are often prone to exaggerate. Our heroes are occasionally too brave; our statesmen are often too noble; our victories seem to be always overwhelming. Sometimes in this enthusiastic hyperbole the truth is liable to be shaded or hidden, and perhaps this is particularly true with Ulysses S. Grant.
Bruce Catton tells us that “most men who saw U. S. Grant during the Civil War felt that there was something mysterious about him.” Catton points out that, while Grant looked very much like an ordinary man, the things he did were most definitely out of the ordinary, so “that it seemed as if he must have profound depths that were never visible from the surface.” Perhaps this was a great mystery to many, but to those who have studied the character and accomplishments of the man–scholars including Catton, Allan Nevins, T. Harry Williams, Lloyd Lewis, and others–the solution is simple. Grant possessed an inordinate degree of common sense and like his Civil War contemporary, Abraham Lincoln, was able to convey his thoughts and plans clearly, simply, and understandably. No matter how complicated the situation, you knew what Grant thought and wanted, because he could convey his thoughts and wishes directly and easily.
Not verbose, he used only enough words to cover a given situation. He was truthful, imperturbable, modest. When he speaks for himself, as he does in his dispatches, his letters, and his autobiography, his simplicity is deceptive. You are really not fully aware of the great skill with which he communicates until you reflect back on the content of his writings. Direct, precise, and carefully constructed, there is little possibility of misunderstanding them. He says what he should say, and in a manner to make the reader know it immediately.
The late Lloyd Lewis, one of the great Civil War scholars of this century, was so impressed by Grant’s Memoirs that he wrote, “His soul is in the Memoirs—
[pg. 23] one of the swiftest narratives in military history–it drives right through from beginning to end–it has his movement. Outwardly he looks like the statue upon which patience sits forever more, and he could be patient and wait but only by great self-control.” It is significant that after immersing himself in the Grant story, his writings and his career, Lewis would write, “I conclude that Grant is one of the few great horsemen in the whole world to have great horsesense.”
His simple early story is well-known. Born in the little southwest Ohio village of Point Pleasant on the Ohio River, the son of a tanner, Jesse Grant, he received his early education in Ohio and in an academy in Kentucky. His father was responsible for his appointment to West Point, and Ulysses was reluctant to embark on a military career. Thrifty Jesse Grant saw the military academy as a fine opportunity to provide a good education for his son at no cost. An undistinguished cadet academically, he was by far the best horseman in the institution. He graduated twenty-first in a class of thirty-nine. He spent most of his early military career in the West and in the brief war with Mexico. When the Mexican War was over he returned to the East and was married to Julia Dent and then in 1852 was ordered to the West Coast. But he was lonesome and missed his wife and two children (one of whom he had never seen). On the same day that he was notified of his promotion to captain he submitted his resignation from the army. He lived for nearly a year with his wife’s parents on their farm near Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, and on another family farm until he completed the building of his own home on sixty acres of land near St. Louis which Julia Grant had received as a gift from her father. His farm experience was a disaster. By 1858, with four children now in the family, he rented out his farm and moved to
[pg. 24] St. Louis and entered the real estate business. Things had been so rough that in December, 1857 he pawned his watch so that he could buy Christmas gifts for his family. His real estate career was a failure, and in May, 1860 he moved to Galena, Illinois, to take a clerkship in his father’s leather goods store. It was while he lived in Galena that civil war came to the country. Grant immediately sought to return to the service. He found temporary employment as a clerk in the adjutant’s office of the State of Illinois. He was not successful in his application to the adjutant general of the United States Army for a commission or in his attempt to obtain a staff appointment from General McClellan, and he finally accepted an appointment by Governor Yates as Colonel of the Seventh Congressional District Infantry, eventually to become the Twenty-First Illinois. In July, 1861, President Lincoln, upon the recommendation of a caucus of Illinois congressmen, appointed Grant a brigadier general of volunteers and on August 5 the appointment was confirmed and dated back to May 17. This gave him seniority over many other appointees, and he was ready for his rendezvous with history.
Fifty years ago on the occasion of the Grant centennial, A. W. Vernon, writing in “The New Republic,” said, “There never was a plainer hero.” Today there would be those who would say that he lacks charisma. He was ordinary looking. Lloyd Lewis likened him in appearance to Harry Truman. People arriving at headquarters would invariably pick out some staff member as Grant. Hotel clerks, railroad conductors, ticket agents, never seemed to recognize him. He had a matter-of-fact courage, but it was not colorful. He was not a soldier-showman like Custer, MacArthur, or Patton. “I can recall only two persons,” recalled his aide, Horace Porter, “who
[pg. 25] throughout a rattling fire of musketry, always sat in their saddles without moving a muscle or winking an eye; one was a bugler, the other was General Grant.” William Tecumseh Sherman, who probably knew him as a soldier better than anyone else, said: “He don’t care a damn for what the enemy does out of his sight …He uses such information as he has according to his best judgment; he issues his orders and does his level best to carry them out without much reference to what is going on about him.”
Allan Nevins reminds us that a catalogue of Grant’s virtues tends to dullness, and there have been too many who have written about Grant in a fulsome vein. Nevertheless, he was indeed generous, honest, brave, and a humanitarian. He also was very human and possessed many human shortcomings. Although customarily cool and deliberate, he could be impetuous. He could lose his temper and did develop a hatred or at least a strong dislike for some men. Nevins reminds us of his “put-down” of the pompous Charles Sumner of whom it was said that he did not believe in the Bible. “Completely understandable,” said Grant, “he did not write it.” He was furious when he saw a teamster administer a brutal beating to a horse. And he did have a problem with drink, though it has been much exaggerated. His rise was a dazzling one. In ten years he rose from a man who resigned from the army under a cloud, a failure, to the most successful military leader in the world. In another three years he was to become President of the United States.
Though identified with the military and war, he was a man of peace. He really did not like soldiering but regarded it as a necessary evil. Once the military job was over, he wanted what the nation wanted, peace and tranquility. And just as the nation was not really willing to make all of the needed and sometimes painful readjustments, so was he not ideally equipped to lead us. It was not really his fault. He had in a way accomplished a
[pg. 26] miracle. He had succeeded where others had failed, and the war was won for the Union. But he could not produce the miracle of a return to a condition this country would never know again. The war had changed us; we were facing a period of gross materialism. Catton and Nevins both remind us that war creates more problems than it solves, and once a war is ended, all these problems demand attention at once. We turn to someone we can trust for this solution, a man. In this case it was Grant, in whom we had an unquestioning confidence.
In retrospect his administration did accomplish much. The country was put back together again. There were many injustices, but a solid basis was established for our economy, industrial development boomed, our national budget was balanced, and the “conquered province” theory of dealing with the South was abandoned.
True, Grant was betrayed by some of his friends. He learned what Harry Truman knew, that you cannot delegate either authority or responsibility as President. The people of the United States wanted someone to carry their load for them. During the war they thought Lincoln and Grant had done this. Now in peace they were to learn it doesn’t work that way. The people and the President must make their progress together.
History could have been kinder to Grant. Had his life ended as Lincoln’s did at his peak at the end of the war, he too would have been elevated to virtual sainthood. Had his life ended with the Presidency, with all the problems of his eight years in office, the faults and errors would have been overlooked. But he lived on. He suffered through a brief and disastrous business career, in which his name was used to cause many of his fellow soldiers to lose their savings. He was reduced to virtual poverty. But out of this came another victory. Dying of cancer, he fought and won his last battle, mustering his last strength so that he might finish his personal story and provide funds for his family.
[pg. 27] Eighty-seven years ago as he completed his Memoirs, General Grant wrote, “I feel that we are on the eve of a new era …I cannot stay to be a living witness to the correctness of this prophecy; but I feel it within me that it is to be so. The universally kind feeling expressed for me at a time when it was supposed that each day would prove my last, seemed to me the beginning of the answer to ‘Let us have peace.'” Nations and peoples seem to be willing to make more sacrifices for war than for peace. Events and actions in our time indicate that our attitude has changed. We still long for peace, and in his as in our generation we have learned from bitter experience that peace is not a gift, it is not produced by a miracle, but comes from the joint efforts of the people and our leaders. It is never an easy goal, but like the dying soldier of 1885, can we suggest a better one?
NEWS NOTES *** Ralph G. Newman, president of the Ulysses S. Grant Association, delivered the address printed above at ceremonies sponsored by the National Park Service at the General Grant National Memorial, New York City, on April 27, 1972, the 150th anniversary of Grant’s birth. *** The Grant Association has received a grant of $12,000 from the National Historical Publications Commission covering the current fiscal year. *** At a Grant Association board meeting held in April, T. Harry Williams, chairman of the editorial board, was elected to the board of directors. Three new members were added to the editorial board: Roger D. Bridges, assistant editor of Volume 4 of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, now director of research for the Illinois State Historical Library; Grady McWhiney, professor of history, Wayne State University; James B. Rhoads, Archivist of the United States. *** Bruce Catton has given the Grant Association the notes assembled by Lloyd Lewis for his biography of Grant. Lewis completed the first volume, Captain
[pg. 28] Sam Grant (1950), before his death, and Catton drew on notes for the Civil War period in his Grant Moves South (1960) and Grant Takes Command(1969). Catton’s own notes are also included in this gift, which represents about four file drawers of material in all. The Lewis-Catton notes will be sorted and inventoried in the near future and opened to researchers. *** E. B. Long’s massive new book, The Civil War Day by Day: An Almanac 1861-1865, prepared with the assistance of his wife, Barbara Long, has been chosen as a selection by five book clubs. “This man knows more facts about the Civil War than any other man who ever lived,” says Bruce Catton of Long, and now anybody who wants concise and reliable Civil War information can draw on this knowledge quickly through the superbly-indexed Almanac. *** The Illinois State Historical Society plans to sponsor a Grant conference at Northern Illinois University, De Kalb, next April. The program will soon be announced.