Ulysses S. Grant

It was what General Ulysses S. Grant did after the battle of The Wilderness that changed things. By May 1864, the Civil War had been going on for more than three years. The loss of life to this point had been more than anyone could have imagined. It was already apparent that the South was not going to be able to win the war, but the Confederates were trying to drag the war on longer, hoping to make the conflict so costly to the North that the voting public would tire of the war and throw Lincoln out of office, to be replaced by someone who would end the war. The stakes were enormous. More than just the preservation of the Union was at stake. Ending the war at this point would have re-enslaved the 3.5 million people who had been freed on January 1, 1863, by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Grant by Matthew Brady
President Grant, 1870
By Mathew Brady – Library of Congress, Public Domain

 

By this point Lincoln had already replaced his top generals numerous times. McClellan, Burnside, Hooker and Meade had all failed to prosecute the war with the urgency and vigor that Lincoln wanted. After Grant achieved key victories for the Union at Vicksburg and Chattanooga, Lincoln summoned him to the nation’s capital and named him Lieutenant General. Grant was the first since George Washington to hold the rank.

The Wilderness was Grant’s very first battle after being put in charge of all Union armies and his first faceoff with Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It did not turn out well for the Union. But unlike his predecessors who had all retreated north after suffering large casualties in battle, Grant decided to move his army farther south. There was to be no turning back this time. Grant was not one to make excuses, to blame others or to give up. Final victory was still a long way off, but Grant knew it was coming. It came the following spring, when Grant accepted Lee’s surrender at the home of Wilmer McClean, in the town of Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

After the war Grant stayed on as commander of the U.S. Army, serving under President Andrew Johnson. Grant served briefly as Secretary of War during Johnson’s dispute with Congress over the Tenure of Office Act. He was elected President in 1868 and then re-elected in 1872 by wide margins both times in both the popular and electoral votes. He never campaigned. In his first inaugural address, he called for the ratification of the 15th Amendment granting blacks the right to vote, and he spoke out for the rights of Native Americans. He stumbled early on with less-than-ideal cabinet appointments. Grant himself was not corrupt, but some of his cabinet secretaries became involved in various scandals, which got worse in his second term. One of Grant’s best picks was Hamilton Fish as Secretary of State, whom grant had plucked out of retirement. Fish had been governor of New York and a United States Senator and turned out to be an excellent Secretary of State. He served through both of Grant’s presidential terms.

During the late 1860s the Ku Klux Klan emerged. Grant recognized the KKK immediately for what it was — a domestic hate group intent on using terrorism to prevent blacks from exercising their rights as citizens to vote. Grant formed the Justice Department and directed it to fight the Klan. He went so far as to declare martial law and to use federal troops in parts of the South to enforce voting rights.

Here are some additional facts about Grant:

  • He married Julia Dent, and they had four children. Julia’s family owned slaves, but Grant’s family was anti-slavery and his parents boycotted the wedding.
  • He was born in Ohio. After marrying Julia he built a house near her family in Missouri, calling it “Hardscrabble.” They later moved to Galena, Illinois.
  • His given name was Hiram Ulysses Grant, but from birth he was called Ulysses. His mother got the name Ulysses from a French novel about the Greek general Ulysses. When Grant got to West Point with the initials H.U.G. on a trunk, he realized that was not going to work. There was too much teasing from the other cadets. The senator who had appointed Grant to West Point had used Ulysses Simpson Grant (Simpson was his mother’s maiden name) so he went with the initials U.S., which were interpreted as “United States” Grant, and, later, “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.
  • Like Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce and many others, Grant served in the Mexican American War. He was a quartermaster.
  • Several of the groomsmen in Grant’s wedding later fought against him as officers in the Confederate army.
  • Later in life, Grant became friends with Mark Twain.
  • As my cousin Lisa would be pleased to know, Grant loved horses! One of his favorites was named Cincinnati.

After Grant left office, he and Julia went on a grand overseas tour, traveling extensively throughout Europe, the Middle East and the Orient. Upon returning to the United States, he would have run for President again in 1880, but the Republicans nominated James A. Garfield instead. Grant eventually retired to New York City. He and one of his sons later invested with a Bernie Maddow-type swindler, and Grant lost all his money. He spent the final part of his life writing his memoirs, which, thanks to the help of Mark Twain, netted enough money for Julia to live on after his death. He died of throat cancer just days after finishing the manuscript. Today he and Julia rest in a massive mausoleum in New York City.

Grant by Ronald C. White“American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant,” by Ronald C. White (pictured, the book I read) is one of two major biographies of Grant published recently. The other is by Ron Chernow. Both are what are often called rehabilitative, meaning the authors go back and re-examine a person’s reputation that has fallen over the years. Some historians have looked down upon Grant for a number of offenses, both real and imagined. Among them are that he was not as smart as Lee (Grant graduated 21st out of 39 in his class at West Point, while Lee graduated 2nd). Others have postulated that Grant was too indifferent to the large number of troops who were killed, and that he was a drunk. White argues forcibly against these accusations.

Having thoroughly enjoyed White’s previous biography of Lincoln, I decided to read his telling of Grant’s life story as well, and I was richly rewarded. “American Ulysses” was a page-turner, with many helpful maps, photographs and illustrations. He also presents Grant as a complete human being, describing his family life and even the books he read and the things he said to his friends and colleagues. And yes, I cried in the end!

In reading this book I got to know the general quite well. I can therefore say confidently that had a President Grant been in office when a group of white supremacists held a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, the response from the White House would have been quite different.

Andrew Johnson as avenger

If I’m going to cry while reading a presidential biography, that usually happens when I get to the end. This book, by Howard Means, brought tears to my eyes at the beginning. It opens with a vivid, minute-by-minute description of the events of April 14 and 15, 1865. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln by the vile racist John Wilkes Booth was part of a conspiracy, with Booth as the ringleader, in which Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and General Ulysses S. Grant were all to be killed on the same night.

Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox just days earlier, on April 9, effectively ending the Civil War, but the conspirators had somehow hoped that decapitating the leadership of the U.S government would throw everything into chaos, thus enabling the South to reignite the war. It was a far-fetched idea, which did not work out as planned and had disastrous consequences for everyone.

The Lincolns had invited Grant and his wife to accompany them to Ford’s Theater that fateful night, and their attendance together had even been published in newspapers. But the Grants declined the invitation at the last minute and departed by train on a family trip to New Jersey. Booth was a well-known actor who was able to gain access to the theater. He also knew the exact moments during “Our American Cousin” when the audience would laugh, thus helping him sneak into the presidential box to fire the fatal bullet. Meanwhile George Atzerodt, the guy who was supposed to kill Johnson at his room at Kirkwood House, did not show up. He spent time that night on a barstool and either got drunk and forgot, or simply chickened out. The author speculates that had Atzerodt found the courage to attack the belligerent Johnson that night, the confrontation would not have ended well for the attempted assassin.

Lewis Powell, however, did in fact show up to kill Seward, who had recently been in a carriage accident and was recuperating at home in bed. Powell showed up at the house and told family members that he was delivering medicine. When Seward’s son Frederick refused to let him upstairs, Powell pistol whipped him and stormed into the Secretary of State’s room. His gun had jammed, so he pulled a knife and stabbed Seward, in a grisly attack with blood everywhere, before fleeing on horseback. By some miracle, Seward survived the assassination attempt.

All this takes place in the first (and best) chapter of “The Avenger Takes His Place: Andrew Johnson and the 45 Days That Changed the Nation.” The title is taken from a line in a poem by Herman Melville, written in that era, which evokes the feelings many had at the time. Despite the “malice toward none” and “charity for all” that Lincoln had promised in his second inaugural, many wanted to see the South punished after the war. These sentiments were very real, as the author of “The Avenger” describes, by citing personal letters written at the time, quotes from newspaper editorials — and even descriptions of what preachers were saying to congregants in their sermons in churches.

Fred Michmershuizen

While this book was definitely insightful, especially in describing the mood of the country at the time of Lincoln’s assassination and its aftermath, I still feel I could learn more about the 17th president — especially his dealings with Congress and his impeachment trial in the Senate. This book by Means is the second one I have read about Andrew Johnson. The other was by Annette Gordon-Reed. Both Means and Gordon-Reed make frequent references to an earlier biography, by Hans L. Trefousse, a copy of which I recently found at The Strand bookstore here in NYC. But I subsequently moved on to Ronald C. White’s excellent biography of Grant (with yet another book review coming very soon), and I am now taking a detour by reading the biography of yet another famous general. So I will return to Andrew Johnson at another time.

Carousel on Broadway

Fred Michmershuizen

This was just fantastic. Renee Fleming of opera fame is in it. Joshua Henry was spectacular as Billy. So was Lindsay Mendez as Carrie. My favorite was Amar Ramasar as Jigger. (He was oh-my-god hot!) This was really well done. Great singing, great dancing. My favorite number was Blow High Blow Low a Whaling We Will Go.

The reason I live in NYC is to experience evenings like this.