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The Rise and Fall and Rise of Ulysses S. Grant

By Lynn Fabian Lasner | HUMANITIES, January/February 2002 | Volume 23, Number 1

In less than two decades, Ulysses S. Grant made and lost a fortune, was spurned as a drunken fool, and saluted as a national hero. The peaks and valleys in the life of the man who became the winning general of the Civil War and then the eighteenth president of the United States are told in the documentary Grant, which airs on PBS this spring.

“His life is really like a soap opera,” says Margaret Drain, executive producer of American Experience, producer of the two-part series. “He’s filled with these great contradictions: He came from an educated family yet he wasn’t interested in and didn’t do well at school. He’s a man who hated the sight of blood, yet he developed a scorched-earth policy during the Civil War and was known as a brutal commander.”

His early life was unremarkable. The only distinguishable characteristic about the young boy was his uncanny way with horses. “To be a good person with horses,” says Grant biographer William S. McFeely, “one has to be calm and firm and quiet. And he was all three of those things.”

Worried that seventeen-year-old Ulysses was a mediocre student who showed little direction, his father, Jesse Grant, secured him an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Ulysses didn’t want to go. At five-foot-one and 117 pounds he didn’t think he could bear the rigors of military training. “I had a very exalted idea of the requirements necessary to get through,” Grant later wrote. “I did not believe I possessed them, and could not bear the idea of failing.” His record was no equal to that of the Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, who had gone through the program four years earlier. Grant was graduated twenty-first in a class of thirty-nine. Years later, a classmate remarked, “No one could possibly be more surprised than myself at Grant’s amazing success.”

Following West Point, Grant was stationed as a second lieutenant near St. Louis, Missouri, where he met Julia Dent, a plump eighteen-year-old with a slightly turned eye. Her outgoing and happy demeanor attracted Grant, as well as their shared love of riding horses. Julia had been raised with the pretensions of Southern aristocracy. Her father, who called himself “Colonel” Dent even though he had no military experience, owned twenty slaves -- a lifestyle alien to Grant, who was raised under his father’s stern abolitionist philosophy.

For his part, Dent was not thrilled about his daughter marrying a soldier with so few prospects. When Grant was sent to fight in the Mexican War in 1846, the courtship continued for the next two years through letters. Seven months after the U.S. victory, Colonel Dent finally agreed to their marriage. They were married at the family’s winter home in St. Louis, but without Ulysses’ parents in attendance. “Grant’s father, the abolitionist, really couldn’t forgive his connection to a slave-holding family. So it was a great source of tension,” says Max Byrd, author of Grant: A Novel. Within the year, Ulysses Grant freed the slave he had acquired through his marriage to Julia.

Grant resigned from the Army in 1854 -- it was rumored that whiskey had cost him his commission. Grant accepted an offer to farm on his father-in-law’s sprawling Missouri plantation. He built a home there and named it Hardscrabble. He tried to make a go of it, but the venture failed.

He abandoned Hardscrabble and moved his family to St. Louis. There, Grant worked as a bill collector and customhouse clerk. He was no more successful at business than he had been at farming. One bleak Christmas, Grant pawned his watch in order to buy presents for Julia and the children. Grant reluctantly accepted an offer to work as a clerk in his father’s tanning business and the family moved north to Galena, Illinois, where he devoted himself to his wife and children. Byrd tells the story of Grant’s arriving home to a pugnacious greeting from his son: “Mister, do you want to fight?” Grant would answer: “I am a man of peace, but I will not be hectored by a person of your size.” Then, father and son would wrestle until Ulysses surrendered to his little boy. Clearly, Grant seemed most comfortable in the company of his family.

As soon as the Civil War broke out, Grant sought a commission in the U.S. Army. But his reputation as a drinker caused him difficulty. General George B. McClellan, who knew Grant from West Point, refused to see him. Grant was finally given command of an Illinois regiment so unruly that it had driven its first commander into retirement. Grant drilled and disciplined the group quickly. The regiment’s first victory was against a rebel troop in Missouri -- the enemy decamped and ran before Grant’s soldiers arrived. Within months, President Lincoln promoted Grant to brigadier general of the Union Armies. A string of military successes followed, as Grant began to take hold of the Confederate waterways through victories at Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. When Simon Bolivar Buckner, the Confederate commander of Fort Donelson, asked Grant for his terms of surrender, he replied: “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” The writer Mark Twain liked the line so much, he carried it in his wallet for years. Grant’s nickname, “Unconditional Surrender,” for his initials U. S., was born.

On April 7, 1862, near a Tennessee church called Shiloh, Grant and General William Tecumseh Sherman scored a major victory for the Union, but the price was the bloodiest battle that America had yet witnessed -- twenty-four thousand men killed, wounded, or missing during two days of fighting. Amid rumors of drunkenness and negligence, Grant was relieved of his command. He considered resigning from the army but his friend Sherman persuaded him to stay.

Back in command by the end of the summer, Grant’s goal was to capture the fortified town of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. He led troops of eager Midwestern farm boys through pestilent swamps where they drank water contaminated with human excrement. The editor of the Cincinnati Commercial stated, “Our noble army . . . is being wasted by the foolish, drunken, stupid Grant. Grant will fail miserably, hopelessly, eternally.” Ulysses Grant expressed his sentiments in a letter to his wife. “Mrs. Grant,” he wrote, “I will move upon Vicksburg and will take it, too. . . .” True to his word, Grant’s army marched 180 miles in three weeks, fought and won five battles on the way, and besieged the city for forty-eight days. On the fourth of July, 1863, the thirty thousand defenders of Vicksburg surrendered. “The Confederacy is divided . . . the Mississippi River is opened . . . and General Grant is to be our next President,” an exuberant Union captain wrote to his wife.

Grant had no intention of getting into politics. Yet, after President Lincoln was assassinated, Grant felt called to pull the country together. He deplored the argumentative pro-white and anti-black policies of President Andrew Johnson. By March of 1868, Johnson was impeached for, among other things, not enforcing the Reconstruction Acts. While his impeachment trial was under way, the Republicans nominated Ulysses S. Grant as their presidential candidate. He accepted. His campaign slogan echoed the sentiments of most Americans: “Let us have peace.”

“He presided over that crucial, wrenching period in our history, and he’s had a bit of a bum rap,” says Elizabeth Deane, executive producer of the film. “This is not the failed president that many people think he was. This is a man who held the country together at a time when it could easily have come apart, and who stood up for the rights of African Americans during those terrible, violent years.”

Grant looked for solutions to the violence. He tried to annex the independent nation of Santo Domingo to become a haven for African Americans who would want to emigrate; the Senate defeated the treaty. He took on the Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina, sending in federal troops to halt violence following the election of 1870. “Possibly the most massive Klan action anywhere in the South came four months later, when five hundred masked men assaulted the Union County jail and lynched eight prisoners,” says historian Eric Foner. That event led Congress to pass the Enforcement Act that declared the Klan’s activities as a rebellion against the government. In October 1871, Grant sent federal troops into nine counties in South Carolina, making hundreds of arrests and forcing thousands of Klansmen to flee the state. In all, more than three thousand indictments were handed down from federal grand juries. Foner says the tactics “produced a dramatic decline in violence throughout the South.”

Grant’s victories as president are often overlooked because of the abundant corruption in his administration. In 1869, Grant was lured unwittingly into a scheme to corner the gold market by some new associates -- the result was “Black Friday,” when the price of gold fell nearly thirty points. In his second term, two of Grant’s staff members were involved in financial scandals. “The feeling was, among people who were sympathetic to Grant, that Grant’s friends were taking him down,” explains historian Donald Miller. In private, Grant would say, “I don’t see how I can ever trust anyone again.” Publicly, he stated: “Mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit.”

Despite the pressures and criticism of the presidency, Grant and his wife were not eager to give up that life. In Washington they had been the center of the social world for eight years. “I think that they felt terribly homeless,” says McFeely, “not knowing where they should go or what they should do with themselves.” Luck intervened. Grant had invested in a Nevada mining operation that finally paid off. His shares were worth twenty-five thousand dollars. Ulysses and Julia set off to see the world for “as long as the money holds out,” in Grant’s words. Everywhere they went, they were treated as celebrities. More than a hundred thousand people greeted the Grants as they arrived in England. Queen Victoria invited them to dinner at Windsor Castle.

“The Grants did this amazing American thing,” tells McFeely. “They brought their Jesse, their youngest kid with them. This was a totally unthinkable thing at Windsor and the whole place was in a terrible turmoil. . . . At the last minute, they rustled in a couple of Victoria’s own children so there would be other children at the table. And somehow this terrible social gaffe was covered up.”

When they arrived back in the United States after two and half years of traveling, the Grants were right where they had started: short on money and without roots. Rich friends and supporters came to their rescue. They situated the Grants in a furnished New York City brownstone. Grant went into the brokerage business with his son Buck and Ferdinand Ward. Ward’s early financial successes had earned him the nickname, “the young Napoleon of Wall Street.” Grant persuaded his old army buddies to invest. His name gave credibility to the firm -- enough for hundreds of admiring veterans to invest their pensions. Dividends flowed in and Grant and his family were finally living the good life.

Unbeknownst to Grant, the firm was a scam. “Ward never invested any of it,” says writer Max Byrd. “He had a wonderful estate in Connecticut with lots of horses and huge grounds. He lived beautifully at a townhouse in New York . . . and out of the money he received, he simply paid back dividends to the investors who thought they were doing very well.”

In spring of 1884, Ward told Grant the firm was short on cash and asked him to borrow money from his friend and railroad financier, William Henry Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt wrote Grant a check for $150,000, which Grant handed over to Ward in the belief that the short-term problem was solved. Days later, angry investors caught wind of trouble; they rushed the offices of Grant & Ward, demanding their money back. Ferdinand Ward was nowhere to be found. The Grants and many of their old friends lost everything. Grant was mortified. He turned over to Vanderbilt the deeds to his house, his beloved horse farm, and all of his prized memorabilia. The items of historic value, Vanderbilt gave to the Smithsonian; he gave the rest back to Grant, saying he considered the debt repaid. But Grant’s reputation was ruined.

Then, with his life already in a desperate strait, sixty-two-year-old Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer. He would spend his remaining days in a race to write his memoirs as a way to leave Julia and the children with some financial security. He struck a deal with Mark Twain, who had just formed his own publishing company. In great pain and unable to talk, Grant spent every moment he could writing, sometimes foregoing pain-killers in order to stay lucid. At the advice of Grant’s doctors, the family moved from the city to Mount McGregor, New York, a resort in the Adirondacks.

Union veterans made pilgrimages to see Grant. They would file past the house where he sat and wrote on the front porch, saluting and hoping that he would look up from his work. Even former Confederates came to pay their respects. Among them was General Simon Bolivar Buckner. Grant was unable to speak to him, but he wrote in a note, “I have witnessed since my illness just what I have wished to see ever since the war, harmony and good will betweenthe sections.” Both Union and Confederate generals would be his pall bearers.

Grant finished his memoirs on July 18, 1885; on July 23 he died. His funeral procession stretched for seven miles through the streets of New York City. President Grover Cleveland led the proces-sion and a million people lined the route. It was a testament to the loyalty that Grant had inspired. His successes and failings had been easy for the ordinary American to relate to. Historian Donald L. Miller says, “You’ve got to remember this. Grant, not Lincoln, is the most popular man in the nineteenth century.”

Lynn Fabian Lasner is a writer in Mill Valley, California.

WGBH-Boston received $800,776 in NEH support for the production of Grant, which will air on The American Experience on PBS in April.