Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from American National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 31 March 2023

Grant, Ulysses

(27 April 1822–23 July 1885)

Grant, Ulysses

(27 April 1822–23 July 1885)
  • James M. McPherson

Ulysses S. Grant.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-13018 DLC).

Grant, Ulysses S. (27 April 1822–23 July 1885), Union army general and president of the United States, was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, the son of Jesse Root Grant, a tanner and farmer, and Hannah Simpson. Baptized as Hiram Ulysses Grant, he was called Ulysses from infancy. When he was a year old, the family moved to Georgetown, Ohio, where Ulysses attended local schools and worked in his father’s tannery, a job he hated, and on the farm. Shy and reticent with people, Ulysses loved horses and developed extraordinary skills of gentle discipline and command over them. At the age of seven he was driving a team; soon he took over much of the hauling for the tannery and plowing on the farm.

A hard-driving, self-made man who had risen from poverty, Jesse Grant expanded into the wholesale and retail leather trade and became a leading citizen and mayor of Georgetown. A Whig, Jesse opposed the annexation of Texas and the expansion of slavery, and Ulysses absorbed many of his father’s opinions.

In 1839 Grant was appointed to West Point, where he registered as Ulysses Hiram Grant, transposing his given names because he did not want to be known by the initials H. U. G. In haste, the congressman who nominated him to the academy had misstated Grant’s given names as Ulysses Simpson. An adjutant at the academy refused to correct the error; Ulysses Simpson was the name on the official appointment paper, and Ulysses Simpson it would remain. Grant’s classmates inevitably turned his new initials into “Uncle Sam,” and his nickname became Sam.

Grant’s four years at West Point were distinguished mainly by his horsemanship. He could tame the most obstreperous beast; he set a jumping record that stood for decades. Yet when he graduated in June 1843 (ranking twenty-first in a class of thirty-nine) the army in its wisdom assigned him to the Fourth Infantry.

With little taste for a military career and hoping soon to secure appointment as instructor of mathematics (his best subject) at West Point, Grant joined his regiment at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis on 20 September 1843. One day he rode five miles south to the home of his classmate Frederick Dent, Jr., to fulfill a promise to visit Fred’s family. There Grant argued politics with Fred’s father, Frederick Dent, a substantial slaveowner, planter, and Democrat. Grant’s visits nevertheless grew more frequent because of Julia Dent (Julia Dent Grant), with whom he shared a love of horses. During their rides together this mutual passion ripened into love. Before he could overcome Dent’s opposition to his daughter’s marriage to an impecunious second lieutenant, Grant’s regiment was ordered in May 1844 to join the army being assembled by General Zachary Taylor near the Texas border to intimidate Mexico into acceptance of U.S. annexation of Texas.

The Mexican War

When Congress approved annexation, Taylor in July 1845 moved his force to Corpus Christi at the mouth of the Nueces River. While Mexico and the United States bickered over the southern border of Texas (Mexico insisted on the Nueces and the United States claimed everything to the Rio Grande), tensions mounted. Grant’s sympathies lay with Mexico, but President James K. Polk ordered the army to the north bank of the Rio Grande in March 1846. An attack by Mexican cavalry on U.S. dragoons north of the river on 25 April prompted a declaration of war by Congress on 13 May. By then Taylor had driven across the Rio Grande and won two victories, at Palo Alto on 8 May and Resaca de la Palma the following day. In command of his company part of the time, Grant exhibited the coolness under fire that became his hallmark at every subsequent level of command. He also demonstrated the same unpretentious control of men that he had previously shown with horses.

The Americans then pushed 150 miles deeper into enemy territory and attacked the Mexican stronghold at Monterrey. The exhausting march across barren wasteland at the height of summer demanded all the logistical prowess Taylor’s small army could muster. Assuming that Grant’s skill with horses would work equally well with mules and other apparatus of supply, his colonel appointed him regimental quartermaster despite Grant’s protest that he wished to remain with his company and share its dangers.

Grant lived up to expectations as quartermaster. However, at the battle of Monterrey on 21–24 September 1846, he could not stand to remain behind in camp. He rode forward into the fighting and won temporary appointment as regimental adjutant when the regular adjutant was killed. During the next two days he distinguished himself as a combat officer, leading a successful charge and volunteering to ride back through sniper-infested streets to bring up ammunition. He accomplished this dangerous task without a scratch, galloping through intersections lying American Indian–fashion on the off side of his gray mare Nellie, which also came through safely.

When most of Taylor’s regulars were transferred to General in Chief Winfield Scott for an invasion to capture Mexico City, Grant went with the Fourth Infantry to Veracruz, again as regimental quartermaster. Again he could not bring himself to remain in the rear when his regiment went into action. He was in the thick of the fighting at Molino del Rey outside Mexico City on 8 September 1847. Five days later, at the decisive battle of Chatultepec, he led volunteers in several dashes under fire and wrestled a cannon up a church tower to get an enfilading fire on Mexican defenders. For these feats he won promotion to first lieutenant and to a brevet captaincy. Yet his experiences confirmed Grant’s abhorrence of the human wastage of war and regret for his part in aggression against Mexico.

Grant remained with his regiment until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, yielding half of Mexico to the United States, was ratified in the spring of 1848. His four-year separation from Julia Dent had only made both hearts grow fonder. Grant’s triumphant return to St. Louis overcame her father’s opposition to the marriage, which took place on 22 August 1848. Captain James Longstreet was best man. The union produced four children.

Grant decided to remain in the army despite his distaste for military life. No civilian prospects offered equal security for the newly married couple. Stationed at army bases in Sackets Harbor, New York, and Detroit from 1848 to 1852, Grant took part in the convivial drinking of bored peacetime army officers, but in the spring of 1851 he took the cold-water pledge and joined the Sons of Temperance. In 1852 his regiment was transferred to the Pacific Coast, where explosive growth following the 1849 California gold rush required the enforcement of law and order.

Posted first to Fort Vancouver in Oregon Territory, Grant was promoted to captain and transferred to bleak Fort Humboldt in northern California in September 1853. Even a captain’s pay did not enable him to bring Julia and their two sons. Grant tried several business and farming ventures on the side to supplement his salary. They produced only losses. Desperate with loneliness and frustration, he resumed drinking, more heavily this time. Rumors circulated of binges while on trips to San Francisco.

Resignation from the Army (1854)

Truth is difficult to separate from legend in the matter of Grant’s drinking. He apparently could not hold his liquor as well as many officers. He exhibited classic symptoms of alcoholism, which was then considered a moral defect. Grant himself so considered it and struggled to overcome a condition that shamed and humiliated him. With Julia at his side, he succeeded, but in the spring of 1854 Julia was not at his side. In April Grant resigned from the army. Whether he did so voluntarily or to avoid a court-martial for drunkenness has never been clear. In any case he returned to the family he had not seen for more than two years.

Grant turned his hand to farming the sixty acres south of St. Louis that his father-in-law had given Julia as a wedding present. The most valuable crop he produced on this land was firewood, which he sold in the city. To help him he hired free blacks whom, to the consternation of neighbors, he paid more than the prevailing wage. He stopped drinking, worked long hours, and named his farm “Hardscrabble.” A hard scrabble it was, and by 1858 Grant recognized that he could not support his family by farming. He tried selling real estate and collecting rents in St. Louis, also without notable success. His downward mobility and sense of failure caused him to resume drinking, though without disastrous consequences.

Grant in March 1859 manumitted a slave he had acquired from Dent, though the money the man could have brought at auction would have solved Grant’s financial problems. Nevertheless, he voted for James Buchanan in the presidential election of 1856 and considered himself a Douglas Democrat, because he feared that Republican victory would break up the Union.

Civil War

In the spring of 1860 Grant moved to Galena, Illinois, where he went to work in his family’s leather store, perhaps with the idea that he would take over its management when his brother Samuel, dying of consumption, had to step down. Tasting success in this work, he again stopped drinking, but as his prospects rose, those of the nation fell. When the Civil War erupted, Grant knew that he must again leave his family. To his father-in-law, who was leaning toward the Confederacy, Grant wrote on 19 April 1861 that “all party distinctions should be lost sight of, and every true patriot be for maintaining the integrity of the glorious old Stars and Stripes, the Constitution and the Union” (Papers, vol. 2, p. 3). Two days later he wrote to his father that, despite his preference for a domestic life, “having been educated for such an emergency, at the expense of the Government, I feel that it has upon me superior claims, such claims as no ordinary motives of self-interest can surmount” (Papers, vol. 2, p. 6).

Grant helped recruit a volunteer infantry company in Galena but declined election as captain because he believed his experience qualified him for command of a regiment. He went to Springfield to help organize the troops pouring into the capital. His remarkable knack for unostentatious leadership brought order out of chaos. Grant refused to pull political strings to obtain a colonelcy, so his Galena friends, including Congressman Elihu B. Washburne and the prominent lawyer John A. Rawlins, pulled them in his behalf. In June he was named colonel of the Twenty-first Illinois Volunteer Infantry.

Grant turned the unruly farm boys of the Twenty-first into a disciplined fighting force. He soon learned his first—and perhaps most valuable—lesson of combat command. Ordered to attack the camp of Confederate guerrillas in Missouri, Grant experienced great anxiety. He had seen plenty of action in Mexico, but now he was in command; he was responsible. As the Twenty-first approached the enemy camp, Grant wrote, “My heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything to be back in Illinois.” He kept on to discover that the enemy had fled. It dawned on Grant that his adversary “had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before” (Personal Memoirs, vol. 1, p. 250). It was one he never forgot.

In August Grant was promoted to brigadier general, an appointment obtained through the influence of Congressman Washburne. Assigned to command the troops assembling in Cairo, Illinois, he found himself at one of the most strategic points in the war, the confluence of four major rivers: the Cumberland, the Tennessee, the Ohio, and the Mississippi. When Confederate General Leonidas Polk occupied the heights above the Mississippi at Columbus, Kentucky, in early September, thereby violating that state’s “neutrality,” Grant immediately countered by dispatching troops to Paducah and Smithland, where the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers entered the Ohio.

In early November Grant received orders to create a diversion to draw off Confederate troops from another Union operation. He converted the demonstration into a full-scale attack on the Confederate outpost at Belmont, Missouri, across the Mississippi from Columbus, which the Confederates had fortified to block any Union traffic down the river. The whooping Illinois troops routed an enemy force of equal size on 7 November but were counterattacked by Confederate reinforcements ferried across from Columbus. Grant was in a tight spot, for the enemy threatened to cut him off from the steamboats that were his only means of retreat to his base at Cairo twenty-five miles upriver. Some of his officers panicked and advised surrender. With typical coolness, Grant responded, “We had cut our way in and could cut our way out” (Personal Memoirs, vol. 1, p. 276). So they did, with Grant the last man to embark.

Grant’s close call at Belmont enabled Confederates to claim victory, but the battle fixed Confederate attention on defense of the Mississippi to the neglect of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. They turned Columbus into a bastion they proudly labeled “the Gibraltar of the South,” while work languished on Forts Henry and Donelson on the two rivers just south of the Kentucky-Tennessee border. Grant recognized these forts as the key to the enemy heartland. Supported by Andrew H. Foote, commander of a fleet of new ironclad river gunboats, he sought permission from the Union commander of the Western Department, General Henry W. Halleck, to attack Fort Henry.

Ulysses S. Grant

In uniform with the rank of major general. Photograph from the Brady National Photographic Art Gallery, c. 1862.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-B8172-6371 DLC).

Union Victories under Grant’s Leadership

The cautious Halleck authorized the attack in February 1862. Grant and Foote moved quickly. On 6 February Foote’s gunboats shelled Fort Henry into submission before Grant’s infantrymen, who were slogging through the mud from their landing point downriver, could get there. Grant then marched his troops across the twelve miles that separated the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers to invest Fort Donelson by land, while Foote took his fleet down the Tennessee and up the Cumberland to shell the fort from the river. The Confederate gunners crippled the fleet on 14 February, and the southern infantry launched a breakout attack the next morning, while Grant was several miles downstream consulting with the wounded Foote. Returning, Grant found his right flank routed, but he calmly reorganized this sector and ordered his left to attack, penning the Confederates up again in their defenses. Cut off from reinforcements, Confederate General Simon B. Buckner, a friend of Grant from West Point days and the Mexican War who had lent Grant money on his return from California in 1854, requested terms of surrender. Grant bluntly replied, “No terms except an unconditional surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.” These words made Grant famous; the phrase “unconditional surrender” gave new meaning to his initials U. S. He was promoted to major general, and Lincoln began to keep an eye on him; he had won the most significant Union victories of the war thus far.

The Confederate theater commander, Albert Sidney Johnston, then abandoned Kentucky and western and middle Tennessee and concentrated most of his forces at the rail junction of Corinth, Mississippi, just south of the Tennessee border. Grant commanded the forward movement of 40,000 Union troops to Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee, where he was to be joined by another Union force under General Don Carlos Buell for a campaign against Corinth. Johnston did not propose to await Union attack. Backed by General Pierre G. T. Beauregard, who had come from Virginia to be his second in command, Johnston intended to attack Grant before Buell’s troops arrived.

Having won decisive victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, Grant was overconfident. He did not entrench or dispose his army for defense. When Johnston and Beauregard attacked on the morning of 6 April, he was caught by surprise. Nevertheless, he remained cool through the long, bloody day, as his troops were steadily driven back from the initial point of contact near Shiloh Church, which gave its name to the battle. Grant ranged all over the field, shoring up his breaking lines, encouraging division commanders, and forming a last-ditch line of artillery and infantry stragglers on the heights above the landing. A superb performance by one of his subordinates, General William T. Sherman, whose division bore the brunt of the initial attack, won Grant’s admiration and cemented a partnership that would eventually win the war.

As dusk closed in on 6 April, Union forces held. General Johnston had been killed during the afternoon. The first reinforcements from Buell’s army were arriving, but Grant’s men had suffered such heavy casualties that some officers advised retreat. Grant replied, “Retreat? No. I propose to attack at daylight and whip them” (Catton, Grant Moves South, p. 241). So he did, decisively aided by three of Buell’s divisions. Beauregard, in command since Johnston’s death, broke off and retreated to Corinth.

However, victory at Shiloh won Grant few plaudits. The 13,000 Union casualties shocked the North. Grant incurred censure for having been caught by surprise, and baseless rumors of drunkenness rekindled. Lincoln parried pressures to remove Grant with the words, “I can’t spare this man; he fights.” Halleck had lost confidence in Grant. He came personally to Pittsburg Landing to take command of the combined and reinforced armies and gave Grant the meaningless designation as second in command. In a cautious campaign, Halleck captured Corinth on 30 May but allowed Beauregard’s army to escape. Depressed by his empty role, Grant considered resigning but was talked out of it by Sherman.

The Battles at Vicksburg

When Halleck went to Washington, D.C., in July 1862 to become general in chief, Grant resumed command of the District of Western Tennessee and Northern Mississippi. The principal responsibility of his scattered forces was to administer and defend this area of 12,000 square miles against Confederate counterthrusts and guerrilla operations. One of his tasks was to devise a policy for the thousands of “contrabands” (former slaves) in this region. In November 1862 he appointed army chaplain John Eaton as superintendent of contrabands. Eaton worked to create as equitable a system of labor relations, education, and medical care for the freedpeople as was possible under wartime conditions, a system that established precedents for the Freedmen’s Bureau after the war.

Union forces under Grant defeated Confederate efforts to regain territory in northern Mississippi at the battles of Iuka and Corinth on 19 September and 3–4 October. These victories prompted Grant to go on the offensive in a campaign to capture Vicksburg, the strongest remaining Confederate bastion linking the eastern and western halves of the Confederacy and blocking Union control of the Mississippi River. Grant’s first Vicksburg campaign began in November 1862 with a march south from Memphis by 40,000 troops under his direct command and a river-borne move down the Mississippi by another 30,000 under Sherman. This campaign came to grief when cavalry raids in Grant’s rear commanded by Nathan Bedford Forrest and Earl Van Dorn destroyed Union supply depots and communications, forcing Grant to retreat. Uninformed of these events because Forrest had cut the telegraph, Sherman attacked Chickasaw Bluffs above Vicksburg and was repulsed.

Grant brought his army downriver to regroup. Through early 1863, Union forces sought to penetrate the maze of bayous and swamps around Vicksburg to gain high ground east of the city. Nothing worked. Typhoid and dysentery claimed an alarming toll of Union soldiers, and clamors against Grant as an incompetent drunk rose in the North. Lincoln again refused to yield to such pressures. “What I want,” said the president, “is generals who will fight battles and win victories. Grant has done this, and I propose to stand by him” (Foote, vol. 2, p. 217). With one or two possible exceptions (neither of them during active military operations), there is no reliable evidence of Grant drinking to excess during the war. His chief of staff John Rawlins and his wife, when she was with him, zealously guarded him from temptation.

In mid-April 1863 Grant set in motion a campaign that won acclaim as the most brilliant of the war. Because of its high risks, Sherman and other subordinates opposed his plan, but Grant, like Robert E. Lee, was a great commander because of his willingness to take risks. He sent Union cavalry under Colonel Benjamin Grierson on a raid through Mississippi as a diversion. He ordered Union gunboats and transports under Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter to sail directly past the Vicksburg batteries to a point thirty miles south, where they could ferry the troops, who had toiled through the swamps down the west bank, across the river. Most of the fleet got through, and once across the river, Grant’s army cut loose from anything resembling a base of supplies. They had to live off the country until they could fight their way back to contact with the river above Vicksburg.

Instead of driving straight north toward Vicksburg, Grant marched east toward the state capital of Jackson, where a Confederate army was being assembled by General Joseph E. Johnston. Grant then intended to turn west and invest Vicksburg, defended by another Confederate force under General John C. Pemberton. During the next three weeks Grant’s men marched 130 miles, fought and won five battles against separate enemy forces that, if combined, would have nearly equaled Grant’s 45,000, and penned the enemy behind the Vicksburg defenses.

The Capture of Vicksburg (1863)

These defenses were formidable, however, and enabled Pemberton to repel two Union assaults on 19 and 22 May. Grant reluctantly settled down for a siege, drawing the net ever tighter until Pemberton surrendered 30,000 half-starved men on 4 July. As a consequence, the 7,000 troops in the Confederacy’s only remaining fort on the Mississippi, at Port Hudson, also surrendered four days later. Grant had cleaved the Confederacy in twain and opened the whole river to Union shipping. As Lincoln phrased it, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.” Combined with other Union successes in that summer, especially the epochal victory at Gettysburg, the capture of Vicksburg was a crucial turning point in the war. “Grant is my man,” said Lincoln, “and I am his the rest of the war” (T. Harry Williams, p. 272).

Much hard fighting lay ahead, and Grant would be in command of most of it. At the battle of Chickamauga on 19–20 September 1863, the Confederates dealt a sharp setback to the Union Army of the Cumberland’s theretofore triumphant advance into northern Georgia. Driven back to Chattanooga, the besieged northerners seemed unable to break out. In this crisis, which threatened to undo the Union gains of the summer, the Lincoln administration sent reinforcements to Chattanooga. The most important reinforcement was Grant, whom Lincoln named commander of all Union forces in the theater.

Grant went personally to Chattanooga in late October. Within a month he had cleared the enemy away from his supply line and off Lookout Mountain. He then drove the Confederate Army of Tennessee twenty miles into Georgia with a spectacular victory at Missionary Ridge on 25 November.

Grant was the man of the hour. Congress revived the grade of lieutenant general, last held by George Washington. Lincoln promoted Grant to this three-star rank and appointed him general in chief of all Union armies. In the spring of 1864 Grant decided to make his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac, whose offensive against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia would decide the outcome of the war. Sherman remained in Georgia as commander of the other principal Union army. Believing that in the past three years Union armies in various theaters had “acted independently and without concert, like a balky team, no two ever pulling together,” Grant devised a strategic plan for simultaneous and coordinated offensives on all fronts. Peripheral Union armies encountered frustration in Louisiana, southeast Virginia, and the Shenandoah Valley, but in a four-month campaign, Sherman captured Atlanta and prepared for his destructive marches through Georgia and South Carolina. Meanwhile in the bloodiest fighting of the war, Grant drove Lee seventy-five miles southward in a series of epic battles in May–June 1864 at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg.

Heavy Union casualties sapped the morale of the northern people. Some in the North denounced Grant as a “butcher” because of his pounding tactics and severe losses, but the armies commanded by Lee suffered a higher percentage of combat casualties than those commanded by Grant. It was Lee, fighting skillfully on the entrenched defensive, who had turned the campaign into a war of attrition.

During the nine months of stalemate in the trenches fronting Petersburg and Richmond, Lincoln steadfastly supported Grant’s strategy. “Hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew & choke, as much as possible,” the president wrote him (Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 7 [1952–1955], p. 499).

Lee’s Surrender at Appomattox (1865)

While Grant held on like a bulldog, Sherman’s thrust through the Lower South, General Philip H. Sheridan’s victories in the Shenandoah Valley in the fall of 1864, and Lincoln’s reelection in November weakened the Confederacy’s capacity and will to resist. At the beginning of April 1865 the Confederate defenses at Petersburg cracked. Abandoning Petersburg and Richmond, Lee raced westward, but at Appomattox Court House the Army of the Potomac caught up and surrounded him. Lee had no choice; he was the third Confederate commander to surrender an army to Grant.

Instead of elation, Grant felt “sad and depressed … at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought” (Personal Memoirs, vol. 2, p. 489).

After Lincoln’s assassination, Grant was the most popular man in the North and an almost certain Republican candidate for president in 1868, but first he had to navigate the treacherous shoals of Reconstruction. After Grant’s inspection tour of the South in November 1865, his report of southern acceptance of the war’s results became fuel for President Andrew Johnson’s lenient Reconstruction policy. Having promoted Grant to four-star rank in 1866, Johnson required him to accompany the presidential entourage on his “swing around the circle” in the congressional election campaign of that year.

Grant was disgusted by Johnson’s performance and increasingly concerned about southern Democratic violence against freedpeople, Unionists, and federal troops. His concern moved him closer to the Republican program of Radical Reconstruction. When Johnson suspended Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in August 1867, Grant accepted the position of interim secretary to forestall the appointment of a more conservative man. When the Senate (under the Tenure of Office Act) refused in February 1868 to concur in Stanton’s ouster, Grant incensed Johnson by readily yielding the office to Stanton. This action cemented Grant’s rapport with Republicans and ensured his nomination for president. In the first national election in which a majority of black males had the right to vote (nearly all of them voting for Grant), the general carried his reputation as savior of the Union into the White House.

First Term as President

Polls of historians regularly rank Grant as one of the worst presidents. With no previous political experience, he relied on advisers who sometimes exploited his prestige for self-serving purposes. Honest himself, Grant was too trusting of subordinates. He appointed former members of his military staff as well as several members of his wife’s family to offices for which they were unqualified. Some of them were later found guilty of corruption. His private secretary was involved in the infamous “Whiskey Ring,” a network of collusion among distillers and revenue agents that deprived the government of millions of tax dollars. His secretary of war was impeached for selling appointments to army posts and American Indian reservations; Grant naively allowed him to resign to escape conviction. An attorney general and a secretary of the interior resigned under suspicion of malfeasance. Grant’s inexperience permitted two notorious Wall Street buccaneers, Jim Fisk and Jay Gould, to manipulate him in an effort to corner the gold market, a misfortune narrowly averted when Grant and his secretary of the treasury recognized what was happening and flooded the market with government gold. In foreign policy Grant’s unwise effort to acquire Santo Domingo (now Dominican Republic) collapsed into a fiasco that split the Republican party. Though Grant appointed a civil service commission to reform the spoils system, his supporters in Congress undermined the commission and sabotaged its recommendations.

Yet the Grant administrations scored solid achievements that should modify the generally negative appraisal of his presidency. Some government departments took the first steps toward genuine civil service reform during his years in office. Grant’s ablest cabinet appointee, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, negotiated the Treaty of Washington in 1871 to settle the vexing “Alabama claims” that had poisoned Anglo-American relations for nearly a decade. Under this treaty an international tribunal awarded American shipowners $15.5 million for damages caused by the CSS Alabama and other Confederate cruisers built in British shipyards. Grant’s Treasury Department began the process of bringing the greenback dollar to a par with gold. In 1874 Grant vetoed a bill sponsored by antideflation congressmen to increase the amount of greenbacks in circulation. This veto set the stage for enactment in 1875 of the Specie Resumption Act, which by 1879 brought the U.S. dollar to a par with gold. Though controversial, especially in the South and West, where constraints on the money supply hurt farmers, these actions strengthened the dollar, placed government credit on a firm footing, and helped create a financial structure for the remarkable economic growth that tripled the gross national product during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

Reelection in 1872

The Fifteenth Amendment, banning racial discrimination in voting rights, was enacted and ratified during Grant’s first year in office. Congress also passed and Grant signed a civil rights act and three laws to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments that were stronger than anything done by the federal government again in the field of civil rights until the 1960s. In 1871–1872 the Justice Department used this legislation to crack down on the Ku Klux Klan, employing federal marshals and troops to arrest several thousand Klansmen, convict hundreds of them (most received suspended sentences), and send sixty-five to federal prison. Consequently, the national election of 1872 was the fairest and freest in the South until 1968, with a solid black Republican vote helping Grant to win reelection.

The “southern problem” proved intractable during Grant’s second administration. In accepting the presidential nomination in 1868, Grant had struck a responsive chord with his plea, “Let us have peace.” During his entire adult life there had been no real peace between North and South on the issues of slavery and its aftermath. With ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, millions of Americans, Grant among them, hoped that the strife was over. However, there was no peace. The level of counter-Reconstruction violence escalated again. Northern voters began to turn against Grant’s use of troops to enforce black voting rights. In 1874 Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives. It was the handwriting on the wall, signifying the end of Reconstruction. The eruption of several scandals late in Grant’s second administration accentuated the impression of presidential failure. The election of 1876 (Grant resisted pressure to run for a third term) resulted in disputed returns from three southern states that raised the specter of political instability. Grant kept the federal government on an even keel while Congress finally resolved the crisis in favor of the Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes.

Two months after leaving office, Grant embarked with his family on a trip to Europe that turned into a triumphal two-year circumnavigation of the globe. He returned home to a popular clamor, orchestrated by Republican “Stalwarts,” that he run for a third term. Unwisely he succumbed to the blandishments, only to be defeated on the thirty-sixth ballot at the Republican National Convention.

Grant settled down as a private citizen in New York City. He invested his life’s savings in a brokerage partnership with Frederick Ward, whose speculations crashed in a Wall Street panic in 1884. Grant was left $150,000 in debt. To keep bread on the table, in 1884 and 1885 he wrote three articles about his Civil War campaigns for Century Magazine’s “Battles and Leaders” series, revealing a previously unsuspected literary ability. In writing about the war, he employed the same straightforward, economical style that had made his written orders and dispatches models of clarity and conciseness twenty years earlier.

Grant's Personal Memoirs (1885–1886)

While writing the Century articles, Grant learned that he had incurable throat cancer. He accepted this verdict with the same outward calm and dignity that had marked his responses to earlier misfortunes and triumphs alike. To pay off his debts and support his family after he was gone, Grant almost accepted a contract with Century to write his memoirs for the standard 10 percent royalty. Mark Twain, who had formed his own publishing firm, persuaded Grant to sign up with him for 70 percent of the net proceeds of sales by subscription. It was one of the few good business decisions Grant ever made. In a race against death that won wide sympathy, Grant turned out chapter after chapter, despite intense pain. His death in Mount McGregor, New York, came just days after he had completed the final chapter. It was his last and greatest victory. The Personal Memoirs (1885–1886) were an extraordinary success, earning $450,000 for Grant’s estate. Twain in 1885 and Edmund Wilson in 1962 judged them to be the best military memoirs since Julius Caesar’s Commentaries in 51 B.C. To read Personal Memoirs today with knowledge of the circumstances in which Grant wrote them is to understand the indomitable will and moral courage that were keys to his military success.

In Personal Memoirs Grant described qualities that he admired in his first commanding officer, General Taylor. In doing so, he may have been subconsciously describing himself; the description can stand as the best summary of Grant’s own character and qualities of generalship. “General Taylor never made any show or parade either of uniform or retinue.” Neither did Grant. “But he was known to every soldier in his army, and was respected by all.” So was Grant. “Taylor was not a conversationalist.” Neither was Grant. “But on paper he could put his meaning so plainly that there could be no mistaking it.” So could Grant. “General Taylor was not an officer to trouble the administration much with his demands, but was inclined to do the best he could with the means given him.” The same was true of Grant, a trait that Lincoln greatly appreciated. “No soldier could face either danger or responsibility more calmly than [Taylor]. These are qualities more rarely found than genius or physical courage.” So they are, and they explain why Grant has earned a reputation as one of the great captains of history.


No single substantial collection of Grant’s papers exists. Manuscript letters and other materials are located in various repositories, including the Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.; the Chicago Historical Society; the Illinois State Historical Library; the Library of Congress; the Missouri Historical Society; the Morris Library at Southern Illinois University; and the U.S. Military Academy Library. John Y. Simon, ed., The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant (18 vols., 1967– ), has brought together personal and official letters and documents from these and other collections and publications through 30 June 1868. The Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (2 vols., 1885–1886), are essential for any student of Grant’s military career. Adam Badeau, Grant’s aide, compiled a great deal of additional material in Military History of    Ulysses S. Grant (3 vols., 1868–1881) and Grant in Peace (1887). Horace Porter, Campaigning with Grant (1897), is a valuable account of Grant in the last year of the war. The most recent and the best biography is William S. McFeely, Grant: A Biography (1981). For the years before the Civil War, the fullest account is Lloyd Lewis, Captain Sam Grant (1950), while the richest narratives of Grant’s Civil War career are Bruce Catton, Grant Moves South (1960) and Grant Takes Command (1969). Important material on Grant’s generalship can also be found in Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative (3 vols., 1958–1974); T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and His Generals (1952); Kenneth P. Williams, Lincoln Finds a General (5 vols., 1949–1959); and J. F. C. Fuller, The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant (1929). For the political aspects of Grant’s military career, see Brooks D. Simpson, Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861–1868 (1991). A useful collection of essays is David L. Wilson and John Y. Simon, eds., Ulysses S. Grant: Essays and Documents (1981). For Grant’s presidency, two older studies are useful, William B. Hesseltine, U. S. Grant, Politician (1935), and Allan Nevins, Hamilton Fish: The Inner History of the Grant Administration (1936). They should be supplemented by William Gillette, Retreat from Reconstruction 1868–1879 (1979). An obituary is in the New York Times, 24 July 1885.