An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States-Ulysses S. Grant

Mar 4, 2013 by

President Ulysses S. Grant

President Ulysses S. Grant

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Today we will look at Ulysses S. Grant, the eighteenth president of the United States. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-(during what time period or event or series of events?)

While we know him as Ulysses S. Grant, the eighteenth president of the United States was actually born with the name of Hiram Ulysses Grant on April 27, 1822, in Point Pleasant, Ohio. His family moved to Georgetown, Ohio, where he attended local schools. He also briefly attended a nearby Presbyterian Academy. When he was 17, his father convinced an Ohio congressman to secure for his son admission into the United States Military Academy at West Point. When the congressman put in the recommendation, he mistakenly stated Grant’s name as Ulysses S. Grant. When Grant reported to West Point and this name was called, Grant simply answered to it. To further complicate matters, Grant was called “Sam” by most of his contemporaries. This was because the initials for his new name were US, and his friends at West Point started to call him Uncle Sam. This was later shortened to Sam.

Grant graduated from West Point in 1843, ranking 21st in a class of 39. Grant had no interest in the military, having accepted the appointment to West Point because he couldn’t have otherwise afforded an education. Accordingly, he planned to serve the minimum service required of all West Point graduates (four years), and then resign. But in 1846 the Mexican War began, and Grant’s regiment was one of the first to go into action. Grant received two citations for bravery, at the Battles of Molina del Rey and Chapultapec.

After the war, he chose to remain in the military, and was assigned to a number of military posts. He was promoted to captain, and married the sister of his roommate at West Point. In 1853 he was assigned to Fort Humboldt in northern California, and left his wife and children with her parents when he went there. In the summer of 1854 Grant suddenly resigned from the army. It is widely believed that Grant had been binge drinking, and was offered the choice between resigning and facing a court-martial. For the next four years, Grant operated a farm in Missouri for his father-in-law, but was not able to make it profitable. From 1858 to 1860, Grant was a bill collector in St. Louis, but here again he was not successful. In 1860, he took a position as a clerk in his father’s business in Galena, Illinois. When the Civil War started, Grant offered his services to the US Army, but never received a reply. After the Civil War, his letter was found pigeon-holed in the War Department. We are not sure whether the letter was deliberately or mistakenly misplaced. While Grant waited for a response, he accepted an invitation from the governor of Illinois to help train Illinois volunteers before they were mustered into military service. Grant did such a good job that the governor appointed him as the colonel of the 21st Illinois Infantry Regiment. Soon after, President Lincoln decided to appoint a number of new brigadier generals, and asked members of Congress for recommendations.

An Illinois Congressman named Elihu Washburne, who was from Galena, recommended Grant.

Once he was promoted, Grant was given an assignment to make an assault on a Confederate outpost at Belmont, Missouri in November of 1861. Grant’s assault was initially successful, but he was forced by the end of the day to give up the ground he had taken. Even though he lost the battle, Grant gained high marks for his leadership and bravery under fire. In February of 1862, Grant was asked to capture Forts Henry and Donelson, two key Confederate positions in Tennessee. Grant succeeded, giving the Union its first major victories during the war. Two months later, Grant’s army was attacked by a Confederate force near Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River. Grant’s army suffered greatly on the first day of the battle (generally known as the Battle of Shiloh), but on the second day Grant launched a counterattack that swept the Confederates from the field.

A year later, Grant conducted a campaign to capture Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. In a brilliant campaign he succeeded in July of 1863 in capturing both the town and the 31,000 men defending Vicksburg. Grant followed that triumph up by relieving a Confederate siege of Union forces trapped in Chattanooga, Tennessee in November of 1863. Lincoln then appointed him as commander of all US military forces, and Grant took command of the main Union army (the Army of the Potomac). Under Grant’s direction, this force finally subdued the Confederate force led by Robert E. Lee, forcing his surrender in April of 1865. This in essence ended the Civil War.

After the war ended, Grant remained in command of the US Army, and as such he was responsible for carrying out the policies of the Republican-controlled Congress regarding Reconstruction. While careful not to openly challenge President Johnson, Grant was perceived to be a supporter of Congress. For that reason, the Republican Party saw him as a viable candidate for president, and in 1868 chose him as their candidate. Grant won, and was inaugurated on March 4, 1869.

2) What was he MOST known for?

Grant served two terms, and a number of important events happened during his presidency. Most, like the completion of the transcontinental railroad and the Battle of the Little Big Horn, would have happened regardless of who was in office. Unfortunately for Grant, the thing that he is most known for is the fact that his administration was among the most corrupt in our nation’s history. Indeed, eleven separate scandals occurred during Grant’s eight years in office. Perhaps the most infamous of these involved Grant’s Secretary of War, William Belknap. Implicated in a scheme to make money from awarding trading contracts at military posts, Belknap was the first cabinet member to ever be impeached. Although Grant was never accused of any impropriety, the corruption that surrounded him forever tainted his presidential reputation.

3) What would you say were his strengths?

Grant was a man of great personal courage. He was also very loyal to his friends. He believed in fair treatment for everyone, including those who had opposed the Union during the Civil War.

4) What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?

One of his strengths—loyalty—was also a weakness. He stood by his personal secretary, Orville Babcock, even after it appeared obvious that Babcock had personally benefited from his close association with the president. In addition, because Grant had spent his whole adult life in the military, Grant was used to having his orders obeyed instantly. As president, he assumed that his orders would be acted on in a similar fashion. That, however, did not turn out to be the case, and as a result a number of his directives were never carried through to fruition.

5) What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

Grant oversaw a difficult period in our nation’s history. We were dealing with the rebuilding of the nation during Reconstruction, and we were also facing conflicts with Native Americans over American expansion into the West. Grant may not have made decisions in these matters that historians would regard as the optimal ones, but Grant at least managed to avoid a disastrous misstep. He also was responsible for avoiding an international crisis. During the Civil War, the British government had countenanced actions by their private citizens that helped do material damage to American citizens—primarily through British companies building powerful ships that were used as commerce raiders by the Confederates. Grant’s diplomats secured a treaty in 1871 in which the British paid for the damages that these ships inflicted, and the British government voiced regret over letting their commercial entities be involved in aiding the Confederates.

6) In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

Grant is almost universally viewed by historians as a failure. By the end of his second term the corruption of his administration and the unhappiness of many over the continuing controversies over reconstructing the South made him appear to have been unsuccessful. Since then, nothing has happened to improve this image of his presidency.

7) What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

I personally think that his greatest accomplishment came in 1871. After the Civil War, Confederate veterans formed an organization that they named the Ku Klux Klan. Originally just a veterans’ organization, the Klan became engaged in violent efforts to keep African-Americans from exercising their right to vote after the ratification of the XV Amendment in 1870. Grant felt that African-Americans should not be intimidated, and pushed Congress to create legislation that would enable the US military forces occupying the former Confederate states to prevent the Klan from operating with impunity.

Congress did so in 1871, and in the next two years the military did indeed curtail the activities of the Klan. That allowed a percentage of potential African-American voters to cast ballots at a rate that would not be seen again until the election of 1972. Grant thus deserves high praise for taking a strong stand in favor of equal treatment under the law.

8) Could you provide a summary statement about our eighteenth President?

Theodore Lyman, a colonel who served under Grant during the Civil War, wrote the following to his wife about his commanding officer: “Grant is a man of a good deal of rough dignity; rather taciturn; quick and decided in speech. He habitually wears an expression as if he had determined to drive his head through a brick wall, and was about to do it. I have much confidence in him.” This attitude captures the essence of the man who was our greatest military commander, but was also one of our worst presidents.

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