The Odyssey of Ulysses S. Grant

After winning the Civil War and living in the White House, he decided to see the world.

HUMANITIES, May/June 2014, Volume 35, Number 3
Black and white photo of General Ulysses S. Grant standing next to a tree in a military camp.
Photo caption

General Grant as photographed by Mathew Brady in Cold Harbor, Virginia, in June 1864.

—Library of Congress

Black and white profile photo of Julia Dent standing in an ornate room.
Photo caption

Grant met his future wife, Julia Dent, while stationed at Jefferson Barracks, his first assignment following graduation from West Point. This photograph was taken at the portrait studio owned by Mathew Brady.

—Library of Congress

Liverpool was the first stop on Grant’s two-and-a-half-year trip around the world. After eight years in the White House, with no ancestral home to return to, Grant and his wife, Julia, decided to indulge their wanderlust and take a long-desired tour overseas. The trip also solved the immediate problem of what Grant, a spry man of fifty-five, should do after leaving the White House. He didn’t have a plantation to run like Andrew Jackson, nor did he want to design buildings or found a university like Thomas Jefferson. He’d turned down the chance to run for a third term. By leaving the country, Grant also believed he would be giving President Rutherford B. Hayes, who’d barely squeaked into the White House, a chance to govern without reporters constantly running to his predecessor for comment.

The Grants left Philadelphia in mid May, joined by Jesse, their youngest son, and John Russell Young, a veteran reporter from the New York Herald. James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the publisher of the Herald, was betting Grant’s adventures would make good copy and asked to send Young along. Grant agreed, understanding the value of keeping his name in the press. Young’s account of their travels, eventually collected into two volumes, reads like a gossipy travelog. For Grant’s take on things, you have to go to his letters. He wrote to his old Civil War colleagues generals William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan. He corresponded with General Adam Badeau, his former staff officer who was writing a military history of the Civil War. It wasn’t uncommon for Grant to arrive in a major city and find Badeau’s latest chapter ready for his commentary. Grant wrote to his sons, Fred and Buck, whom he chided. “I hope you will continue to write often because when your Ma is a week without letters from her worthless children she grows uneasy,” he wrote Buck.

Hero Worship

Invitations poured in from towns and individuals hoping to host him. Queen Victoria invited the Grants to stay at Windsor Castle. There were receptions and parties, and even quiet moments, like breakfast with Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, and Anthony Trollope. Grant characterized the sentiment as a sign of the resumption of friendly relations between the United States and England. He had worked hard during his presidency to resolve grievances that had lingered from the Civil War. “I appreciate the fact—and am proud of it—that the attentions I am receiving are intended more for our country than for me personally,” he wrote.

Grant was being disingenuous. The attention wasn’t for the United States, but for him. He was the closest thing America had to an honest-to-goodness hero. Mathew Brady managed to capture Grant’s essence in an iconic photo taken in June of 1864. Grant stands with his right arm resting against a tree, left hip and arm thrust forward, and hat tipped slightly back. Dust covers his uniform and boots, signaling that he’s no armchair general. His stance is defiant, almost cocky, yet he doesn’t engage the camera. He looks off into the distance, his eyes made old by the horrors he’s seen and ordered.

Brady’s photo was taken during the Battle of Cold Harbor, one of Grant’s worst outings. Despite having 108,000 troops to General Robert E. Lee’s 59,000, Grant lost the thirteen-day engagement and suffered 12,737 casualties, leading to his nickname “the Butcher.” It also wasn’t the first time Grant’s losses caused consternation. After his victory at Shiloh in 1862 left 13,047 soldiers dead or wounded, Abraham Lincoln was urged to remove him. The president refused. “I can’t spare this man,” said Lincoln. “He fights.” There were more victories ahead: Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Missionary Ridge. Soon Grant, who disdained the pomp of uniforms, sported three stars on his shoulder, only the second man to hold the rank of lieutenant general since George Washington. Grant prevailed again in the Overland Campaign, a bloody series of engagements that included Cold Harbor, but at a cost of more than 38,000 casualties and a good deal of Northern morale.

But ten months later, on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, ending the Civil War. Grant received a new epithet: savior of the Union. In writing out the terms for unconditional surrender, Grant added two sentences that allowed the soldiers of the Confederate army to return to their homes. There would be no attempt to round them up and try them for treason. Grant believed amnesty—not revenge—would put the country on the path to healing. His Civil War service helped propel him into the White House for eight years, becoming the only president to be elected to two consecutive terms between Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson.

It wasn’t a former president that the citizens of Liverpool, London, and soon Paris, Berlin, and Rome, turned out to see. It was General Grant, whose exploits they had followed from Shiloh to Vicksburg and finally to Appomattox through vivid newspaper reports filed by the foreign correspondents who braved the battlefields. They wanted to lay eyes on—and, if they were lucky, shake the hand of—the man who had preserved the great democratic experiment. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t wearing a uniform or that his auburn hair now sported more gray than red or that he was no longer lean from field rations and days in the saddle. He was still General Grant, savior of the Union.

In early July, the Grants hopped the English Channel. In Brussels, King Leopold hosted a grand banquet in Grant’s honor—and gave him the use of his private railway carriage for the trip to Cologne. After touring western Germany, the Grants headed down through the Black Forest to Switzerland and the Italian Lake District.

“My visit thus far has been exceedingly pleasant,” he wrote his friend Adolph Borie. “But I have seen nothing to depreciate my own country or countrymen by comparison. Centuries of cultivation and improvements has made much to see which we cannot show. But we can improve more and do more in one year than any country on this side of the water can in three.”

By late September, Grant had formed a love-hate relationship with the public ceremonies and dinners. “It has been very gratifying to me—though very irksome to one so little inclined to speaking—to see our country so respected as it is abroad, and as the people, of all classes, shew it on all occasions,” he wrote. The fact that he was known to be a poor speechmaker diminished some of the pressure to perform, but it didn’t make delivering six speeches in one day any less exhausting. “I would rather be kicked—in a friendly way—than to make these replies,” he told Buck.

Grant started to decline engagements, opting to spend more time with his family. The Grants stayed for a month with their daughter Nellie, both in London and in Southampton at the ancestral estate belonging to her husband. In the spring of 1874, Nellie had married Algernon Sartoris, a profligate Englishman, in the East Room of the White House before a makeshift altar, an array of flowers, and a resigned father. The couple had fallen in love while making the crossing from London to Philadelphia. Uneasy about the match—Nellie had always been his favorite—Grant took the extraordinary step of writing to Sartoris’s father asking about his son’s “habits, character and prospects.” The resulting marriage had not been entirely happy, as Sartoris liked to drink and chase women. There were, however, two grandchildren to dote on and more to come.

Balancing Act

“We had Nellie with us the last three weeks in England. She is very well but a little thin,” Grant reported to Buck from the Hotel Bristol in Paris in late October. The Grants arrived in Paris during a parliamentary crisis, which made socializing difficult. Neither the Monarchists nor the Republicans wanted to share the same room—but they all wanted to meet Grant. “I have nothing to do with their party differences of course, but their papers keep a watch, and attack, no matter where I go in a public way. I am indifferent as to what they say of me, but I do not like to be the cause of attack upon others,” he wrote Sherman.

Less time spent at receptions allowed Grant more time to explore. After a month, he boasted that he knew Paris “like a native.” He haunted the galleries of the Louvre, studying its paintings and sculptures. While a student at West Point, he found solace from the rigors of military discipline by learning to draw and paint. Grant and the other cadets were supposed to be mastering how to sketch terrain, but their professor encouraged them to explore their artistic interests. Now Grant’s travels gave him the chance to see works by artists he’d only read about.

In mid December, the Grants boarded the USS Vandalia in Nice, beginning a five-month tour of the Mediterranean. Lt. Commander Albert G. Caldwell wasn’t keen to have the Grants aboard. “We are to take the great ring-master about the Mediterranean,” he wrote his family. “Cruising on the Mediterranean in winter is no fun—I hope we will get heavy gale on his first visit & then he will leave for good & all.” It irked Caldwell that the Grants were essentially traveling for free, a common occurrence since their arrival in Europe. There always seemed to be someone arranging a special train, coach, or boat for their use.

But after a month, Caldwell wrote, “[M]y opinion of old USG has changed wonderfully—he is as pleasant & jolly as can be & I can see now how he had friends who stuck to him through thick & thin—One thing that makes me like the whole party is the affection existing between all them—the Boss & Jesse are as kind and attentive to the mother as if she were a sweet girl of 18 summers—she must have been a good mother & wife to have held on to their affection so strongly through all the temptations of their high life & that too against odds for she is very cross eyed.”

Julia Dent, a vivacious St. Louis debutante, had met the earnest young Ulysses when he was assigned to Jefferson Barracks in Missouri. Grant had shared a room with Fred Dent at West Point, and Dent encouraged Grant to visit his family sometime for a home-cooked meal. The Dents, a well-to-do slave-owning family, lived on a sprawling plantation just outside St. Louis. And visit Grant did, getting to know Julia, Fred’s sister, over walks and rides through the surrounding countryside. Grant didn’t realize he had fallen in love with Julia until he received orders for Texas and became anxious at the thought of being away from her. After four years of separation, owing to Grant’s service in the U.S.–Mexican War, they married in August 1848. James Longstreet, Julia’s cousin, attended the wedding. Lieutenant General Longstreet, Lee’s second-in-command, would also surrender to Grant at Appomattox.

The Grants sailed for Italy, where they climbed Mount Vesuvius and visited Pompeii, and celebrated Christmas in Palermo. Getting out of Paris suited Grant, and he began to think about extending his trip, provided his modest investments continued to perform. He had struggled with money over the years, its absence frequently fueling his notorious drinking problem. But, unlike before the Civil War, when he had cashiered out of the army and floundered as a farmer, he was not only solvent, but also making money, thanks to some wise investments made by Buck on his behalf.

The first week of 1878 found them in Alexandria, Egypt. “All the romance given to Oriental splendor in novels and guide books is disipated by witnessing the real thing,” wrote Grant. Disappointment turned to rapture as they sailed up the Nile to see the Valley of the Kings. The khedive of Egypt arranged the trip, providing a boat, a tour guide, and a German Egyptologist who could read the inscriptions on the temples and tombs. “I have seen more in Egypt to interest me than in all my other travels,” Grant wrote his son Fred. West Point had trained him to be a civil engineer, and he marveled at the “strength, muscle and mind” required to build the pyramids. “One thing I forgot to mention: your Ma balances on a donkey very well when she has an Arab on each side to hold her, and one to lead the donkey. Yesterday however she got a little out of balance twice, but claims that the saddle turned. Of course it did.”

As the Grants continued their tour of the Near East, newspapers at home speculated about the political motives behind his travels. Grant, who read the papers at each new stop, found the idea laughable. “I have been under the impression that I was carrying out a long cherished desire to travel and see as much of the old world as possible before settling down in a home where to spend the remainder of my days in quiet,” he wrote a friend. Ever since he’d been a boy in Georgetown, Ohio, he’d had a desire to travel. When his father informed him that he would be attending West Point, Grant did not want to go, but consoled himself with the prospect of seeing Philadelphia and New York. Now, he was roaming through Europe and the Near East.

When the Grants arrived in Constantinople, they found the Russian army camped eight miles outside the city gates. The Russo-Turkish War, which had begun in April of 1877, was in its final days. Yet Sultan Abdul Hamid II feted Grant and, knowing his fondness for horses, extended an invitation to tour his private stables. Grant spent an entire afternoon surveying the sultan’s stock of purebred Arabians. When the sultan offered to gift two horses, Grant declined, worried about the logistics of getting them back to the United States—until he was convinced it would be rude to refuse. The two stallions, Leopard and Lindentree, helped sire the first successful Arabian breeding program in the United States.

“The winter’s trip has been the most pleasant of my life,” wrote Grant from Rome. As he had done elsewhere, he walked the city from one end to the other, chomping on his cigar. He visited the Vatican Library and studied the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. On second thought, Grant would have preferred to visit Rome before visiting Egypt, after which everything was a letdown. “Here you see modern and comparatively insignificant ruins, not dating back many centuries before the beginning of the Christian era. On the Nile one sees grand ruins, with the inscriptions as plain and distinct as when they were first made, that antedate Moses by many centuries.”

After resting up in Paris, the Grants traveled through the Netherlands, Germany, and Scandinavia. In Berlin, the former general shocked his German hosts by declaring himself indifferent to watching a review of Prussian military units. “The truth is I am more of a farmer than a soldier,” he told Chancellor Otto von Bismarck during their interview. “I take little or no interest in military affairs, and, although I entered the army thirty-five years ago and have been in two wars . . . I never went into the army without regret and never retired without pleasure.”

In Russia, Czar Alexander II received Grant like an old friend. “[T]he Emperor met me at the door, or near to it, and took me by the hand in the most cordial manner,” wrote Grant of their informal chat. The Grants made their way back west via Warsaw and Vienna—“one of most beautiful cities in Europe if not the most beautiful”—before spending the rest of the summer in the Alps. Writing from Munich in September, Grant boasted to Buck, “I have fallen off twenty-five pounds and feel much better for it; that I can walk now like a boy—of sixty.”

Innocents Abroad

In November, Grant received a letter from the Secretary of the Navy, Richard Thompson, offering him the chance to tour Asia on the USS Richmond. Having noticed the interest generated by Grant’s travels, the Navy and State Department were keen to use Grant to promote American goodwill in the region. Grant dismissed the offer, having set his mind to returning to the States in the spring of 1879, but Julia and his friends urged him to continue on. In early December, Grant reconsidered and fired off a telegram to Thompson: “Accept passage on Richmond for Self and family.” Young also signed up again, making sure the American public would continue to read Grant’s own version of The Innocents Abroad.

Before heading to Asia, Grant made a last-minute dash to Ireland, the one country he had yet to visit. Upon being made an honorary citizen of Dublin, he mischievously told the crowd: “I am by birth a citizen of a country where there are more Irishmen, either native born or the descendants of Irishmen, than you have in all Ireland. I have had the honour and pleasure, therefore, of representing more Irishmen and their descendants when in office than the Queen of England does.”

When it became clear that the USS Richmond would not be arriving for a number of weeks, the Grants booked passage on a steamer to Egypt, where they would cross over the Red Sea. “It does seem to me the Navy was never up to time, except in war, and then only with some of the Commanders,” Grant wrote Sherman. By the end of January 1879, they were ensconced on a British steamer headed for Bombay.

From the moment they arrived in India, the British government rolled out the red carpet. At each stop—from Bombay to Calcutta—the local governor, or viceroy, hosted them, arranging dinner parties and receptions. Grant toured schools and temples, met with merchants and local officials, and rode an elephant. Britain’s charm offensive worked, and Grant left India with a good impression of British rule. “[W]hile progress in the direction of civilizing the natives has been very slow I believe that if the English were to withdraw the whole population would return to barbarism at one bound,” he wrote.

From India, the Grants made their way to Burma, Malaysia, and Siam. King Chulalongkorn, the twenty-five-year-old ruler of Siam, honored him with a banquet and a tour of his harem. It was a high honor to be given a tour of the harem, but one that the long-married Grant struggled to make sense of: “There seemed to be several hundred females in the harum, ranging from little children up to old gray headed women. Their life must be desolate. They are cut out from all outside view, and never see a male, except the King himself, only on occasions.”

As Grant made his way through Asia, the old problem of what to do once he returned to the United States began to loom large. “I am both home sick and dread going home. I have no home but must establish one after I get back; I do not know where,” he confided to his friend Elihu B. Washburne.

After Siam, the Grants sailed up the Chinese coast, stopping in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tientsin. Grant found little to enchant him about Tientsin, but made a friend in Viceroy Li Hung-chang, whom he judged to be “probably the most intelligent and most advanced ruler—if not man—in China.” From Tientsin, they traveled by boat inland to Peking, which Grant deemed “not worth the trouble of a visit.” The Great Wall of China even failed to impress, as Grant found its sorry state distressing. The Chinese people, however, earned his respect. “My impression is that the day is not very far distant when they will make the most rapid strides towards modern civilization, and become dangerou[s] rivals to all powers interested in the trade of the East.”

In mid July, the Richmond, which had finally made it to Asia, ferried them to Japan. An outbreak of cholera limited where the ship could dock, but Grant found plenty to marvel at, passing through the straits between the Yellow and Inland Seas. “Nothing can be more picturesque than the scenery of the straits; narrow, deep, filled with islands large & small, all high out of water and green to their summit. Villages dot the whole picture. The waters are filled with small fishing vessels, and junks engaged in transporting the products of the country to a market,” he wrote in his travel diary.

In Tokyo, Emperor Meiji arranged for the Grants to stay in a summer palace as his guest. The Japanese government used Grant’s three months in Japan to showcase its ongoing efforts to modernize everything from the nation’s education system and military to its scientific efforts. There were honors as well, including a special performance of Kabuki and an evening lantern procession. “My visit to Japan has been the most pleasant of all my travels,” Grant wrote Badeau. “The country is beautifully cultivated, the scenery is grand, and the people, from the highest to the lowest, the most kindly & the most cleanly in the world. My reception and entertainment has been the most extravigant I have ever known, or even read, of.”

Grant also practiced a spot of diplomacy. While in China, Prince Kung and Viceroy Li Hung-chang had asked Grant to help resolve an ongoing territorial dispute over the Ryukyu Islands. Grant agreed, noting that “any course short of national humiliation or national destruction is better than war.” In a meeting with Emperor Meiji, Grant suggested forming a joint commission to study the situation. The commission never materialized, but Grant’s intervention temporarily defused a dangerous point of contention.

In early September 1879, the Grants said goodbye to Japan. As they traveled to the port of Yokohama, crowds waving American and Japanese flags lined the six-mile route wishing them farewell. When they sailed into the harbor of San Francisco, people packed the port waving American flags. “I cannot say I am not glad to get here, though the latter part of my tour has been extremely pleasant,” Grant told a reporter. “A year and a half ago I was thoroughly homesick, but the variation of scene and the kindness which I have met with have almost done away with that feeling.”

The hero of Appomattox returned from his odyssey only to find that settling down wasn’t so easy. The war, the White House, and the trip had given him a sense of purpose that he found difficult to replicate as a private citizen. He continued his travels, exploring the western part of the United States and Cuba. At the urging of supporters, he agreed to make another stand as a presidential candidate, this time for the 1880 election, only to be defeated on the thirty-sixth round of voting at the Republican National Convention. There would be no third term in the White House. He tried his hand at business, only to lose his life savings and be left $150,000 in debt after a stock panic in 1884.

In need of money, Grant wrote a series of articles for Century Magazine about the war, displaying the flair for writing that marked his letters. Encouraged to write his memoirs, Grant signed a contract with Mark Twain, who had started a publishing house. Twain gave him 70 percent—instead of the usual 10—of the net proceeds of the sale of the book. Personal Memoirs, which was sold by subscription, became a runaway hit, earning $450,000. Unfortunately, Grant experienced none of the accolades or the relief that came from restoring his family to solid financial footing. In terrible pain from throat cancer, he finished writing the final chapter only days before his death on July 23, 1885.