Ulysses S. Grant (April 27, 1822 — July 23, 1885), born as Hiram Ulysses Grant,note is much better known as the General who won The American Civil War than as a President. Most people who remember the latter probably do so because he's on the fifty dollar bill. Which doesn't make much sense, since neither Alexander Hamilton nor Benjamin Franklin were presidents, and they are prominently on the currency as well. His nickname, earned during the Civil War was "Unconditional Surrender" Grant.note Prior to the Civil War, Grant tried his hand in several fields, but failed at nearly all of them. He also became the last President to own a slave, but in 1859 - a time when he desperately needed moneynote - he freed him instead of selling him for what could easily have been a low four figure sum.
He graduated from West Point and participated in the Mexican-American War under General (and future president) Zachary Taylor. Although he wished for the glory of combat, he was instead made Regimental Quartermaster, and learned firsthand that Easy Logistics is very much averted in real life, and also gained much knowledge both in organizing supplies for large numbers of troops in the field, but also in working with civilians to help fulfill the Army's needs, lessons that would be crucial in his later career. Despite what seemed like a Desk Jockey assignment, he still managed to get himself into combat multiple times, and was even commended for his courage.
He first came to wide public notice as a field commander in the Civil War, eventually resulting in president Abraham Lincoln deciding to take a punt on him as the new commanding general of the army, after his three predecessors, to put it lightly, didn't work out.note Grant's installation in the position helped turn the tide against the Confederate forces, to the point where some joked that if Grant had been in the position from the start, the war would probably have been over and done within a year.note
As the country's biggest military hero since George Washington himself, it was considered only natural that he run for President at the earliest available opportunity, and he won the 1868 election despite being pushed surprisingly close by Democrat candidate Horatio Seymour. Grant's initial term as President, from 1869 to 1873, just before Rutherford B. Hayes, was at the time regarded as pretty unimpressive, albeit slightly better than his much-loathed predecessor, Andrew Johnson. He still won another term (1873-77) however, partly because of his reputation as a war hero, but more so because the Democratic Party had temporarily collapsed. It briefly looked as if Grant would run unopposed, until a loose conglomeration of Democrats and dissident Republicans combined to put up newspaper magnate Horace Greeley as Grant's rival. Their campaign was spectacularly mismanaged, Greeley was suffering the onset of dementia, and to add insult to injury he died a few weeks after being soundly trounced in the election. No sooner had he been re-elected however than Grant was faced with the Panic of 1873, one of the biggest financial crises in the history of the country, and probably second only to The Great Depression in terms of severity.note For the remainder of his time in office, Grant's name was basically mud.
Grant was the first President to make a serious bid for a third term, running for the Republican party nomination in 1880. However, the party saw him as a weak leader and felt he was unelectable after the scandals of his first two terms had come to light, and chose to nominate James Garfield instead - on the thirty sixth ballot, after Grant and several other candidates had failed to get a majority of votes cast.
For most of the time since his term ended in 1877, Grant's administration had a reputation for corruption and economic troubles, although frankly this is more because he didn't do anything (a popular joke among historians is calling him "Useless Grant"), rather than any personal corruption. Grant's own conduct was fairly clean (apart from alcoholismnote ), but he preferred to delegate as much as he could, and many of the cabinet members he delegated to were notoriously crooked. If anything, Grant was too honest for his own good, and couldn't understand how anybody would betray the public trust, or betray him personally. However, he gets credit for keeping Reconstruction going and delaying the era of Jim Crow for as long as he could. His Civil Rights Acts were very similar to the one passed nearly 100 years later in the 1960s, but were overturned by the Supreme Court. Recent scholars have rated him significantly higher than in the past, largely due to increased appreciation for his efforts against racial discrimination (he effectively destroyed the (first) Ku Klux Klan in 1871). He's also notable for creating Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the first national park in American history and, arguably, world history (though Lincoln had already set aside Yosemite Valley for "public use, resort, and recreation," essentially making it a national park in all but name). Whether the negative assessment of Grant was due to Southern sympathies of many 20th century historians or Values Dissonance is an interesting question to ponder.
Upon his death, Grant's body was taken via West Point to New York City, where 1.5 million people turned out in solemn silence to view the seven-mile procession that included tens of thousands of Union veterans, which carried Grant's body to its final resting place in Riverside Park, first in a temporary tomb and then—twelve years later—in the largest mausoleum in North America, commonly known as "Grant's Tomb".
He was also one of the best horsemen in the entire army, and only lost his position in the elite cavalry after he struck a horse in an uncharacteristically angry outburst. Other than that, he was a true lover of animals: He never went hunting, attended a bullfight in Mexico only to leave in disgust before it was finished, thought horseracing was abusive to the horses, and, as a General, responded to a drover beating a pair of horses by having the man arrested and tied to a tree for six hours. Overall he was considered something of a Bunny-Ears Lawyer, and almost never bothered with his official uniform, to the point that he showed up to the Appomattox Courthouse surrender ceremony in dirty fatigues, with only the General's Stars on his shoulder differentiating him from any Private, and was only let in because the Confederates knew him by sight; at least one observer commented that if you hadn't known better you'd have thought Lee, who was in his best dress uniform, had won the war. He was extremely quiet, to the point of being nicknamed "Grant the Silent" by other officers, never swore, never danced, but did enjoy the theatre and was a voracious reader. His speeches and writings later in his life were well received, by both their quality and because nobody knew he could be that eloquent. He often exhibited signs of clinical depression, and may have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder; the sight of blood made him squeamish to the point that he couldn't eat undercooked meat (especially after he first saw combat during the Mexican War),note and he was so shy that he holed himself up in his room crying when he had a panic attack at his daughter's wedding, also qualifying him for The Woobie.
Grant was an intensely loyal man, rarely forgetting when somebody had treated him nicely during the rough years between his army service before and during the Civil War and he would often come to regret such loyalty as people he had trusted turned out to be corrupt or double crossed him in business dealings. He was bankrupted by an investment swindle in his last years but wrote (with iron will and dying from cancer) a biography that is widely regarded as the best ever written by a President, and perhaps one of the best written by any American. He had befriended Mark Twain, who published it after Grant's death and which left his family in relatively good financial standing. There is a conspiracy theory that Twain ghostwrote (part of) the biography, but besides all the material evidence to counter that idea, there is the fact that Twain famously wrote a lot of Purple Prose while Grant's wordings are as short, precise, concise and direct as his military orders.
Examples of media depicting Grant in the Civil War include a fair number of Westerns up to the 1950s. He also appears in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, played by Jared Harris. A biopic of Grant based on Ron Chernow'snote 2017 biography is currently in development.
Examples of media depicting Grant as President include The Wild Wild West (both the original series and the movie), the 1981 movie The Legend of the Lone Ranger, the HBO movie Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and the ABC movie Son of the Morning Star, and the table-top roleplaying game Deadlands.
Interestingly, Grant was the first President to get a speeding ticket. He was a bit of a speedfreak, and one day he drove his carriage through Washington D.C. going upwards of forty miles an hour before he was stopped and ticketed. The officer was going to let him off once he realized who was driving, but Grant insisted. He also won an impromptu drag race against Andrew Johnson's carriage. With Pres. Johnson still in it.
George Armstrong Custer's end at the Little Bighorn happened in the Grant years.
Any talk of his Civil War days will probably mention the fact that he was friends with General William Tecumseh Sherman, with the two of them leading the Union Army to dozens of little-known victories in the West while the press was focused on how Lee was running roughshod over a succession of incompetent Union commanders in Virginianote . Less known to the general public is that Sherman's working relationship as Grant's Number Two continued into Grant's presidency, with Sherman taking the post of Commanding General of the U.S. Army after Grant vacated it to become President and holding the post through all of Grant's tenure, or that he was also lifelong best friends with Confederate Lieutenant General James Peter Longstreet, going all the way back to Longstreet serving as a groomsman at his wedding.
Grant in fiction:
- Legends of Tomorrow depicts Ulysses S. Grant along with the main cast fighting off against zombified Confederate soldiers in 1863 Mississippi. Without Henry Scott stealing the Confederate's battle plans, the North could lose the Battle of Vicksburg, and subsequently the war, leading to the Confederacy successfully seceding.
- The Wild Wild West was set during Grant's presidency, and he occasionally appeared as a character.
- Likewise he appears in the film loosely based on the TV series, Wild Wild West. For a movie that took such liberties with basically everything, Grant's actor, Kevin Kline, actually consulted Grant scholars and took great efforts to portray the president accurately.
- Flashbacks in the President's Vampire series show that unlike Johnson — who treated Cade like an animal and locked him up in a cell whenever not using him — Grant treated him with respect and even seemed to befriend him (and also sent him on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge against the Order for assassinating Lincoln). He's also portrayed as The Woobie, whose alcoholism is a result of the stresses of office.
- How Few Remain, by Harry Turtledove, takes place in an Alternate Timeline 20 years after the Union lost the Civil War without Grant ever having the opportunity to gain prominence. Still strongly anti-slavery (and with the Confederacy continuing to practice same), Grant is seen briefly at a speech by abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Alcoholism has clearly gotten the better of the former general, and Douglass himself is the only one to recognize him.
- Laff-A-Lympics: In "The Meet at Mount Ono", Captain Caveman wins a figure skating contest by forming a perfect image of Grant.