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Useful Notes / Ulysses S. Grant

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"Though I have been trained as a soldier, and participated in many battles, there never was a time when, in my opinion, some way could not be found to prevent the drawing of the sword."

"I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun. A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; to suffer. I signify all three."
Ulysses S. Grant, from a note written a few days before his death

Ulysses S. Grant (April 27, 1822 – July 23, 1885), born as Hiram Ulysses Grant,note  was the 18th President of the United States, serving between 1869 and 1877, preceded by Andrew Johnson and succeeded by Rutherford B. Hayes; he was the first president to serve two full terms since Andrew Jackson forty years before him.note 

However, he 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 ten- and hundred-dollar bills respectively. His nickname, earned during the Civil War, was "Unconditional Surrender" Grant.note 


By his own admission, he was a modest man without great ambition. While at West Point, he avoided rising up to leadership (choosing to remain a private within the student body) and tried to leverage his education to pursue an academic career rather than a military one.

However, circumstances led to him serving in the Mexican-American War under General (and future president) Zachary Taylor. Serving as a regimental quartermaster, he 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, including for an incident where he rode out into heavy fire to deliver much-needed ammunition while hanging off his horse's side to shield himself from bullets.


After the Mexican-American War, Grant served on the western frontier for a time, even growing to like California enough that he seriously considered moving his family out there to settle once he left the military. However, this was not to be and he went back home, where he tried his hand in several fields, but failed at nearly all of them. He also became the last president to own a slave, as he acquired one slave from his father-in-law in 1858, but not being able to bring himself to force a slave to do work, the following year — at a time when he desperately needed moneynote  — he freed him instead of selling him for what could easily have been worth at least $1,000 at the time.note 

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. For instance, his qualifications for the position were made clear in 1863; while the Battle of Gettysburg got much of the attention on July 4 of that year, Grant was taking the City of Vicksburg at the same time. In doing so, Grant enabled the Union to split the Confederacy in two by enabling total Union control of the vital Mississippi River, a much more important blow against the enemy to the point that Gettysburg could be considered more of a sideshow in strategic importance. In fact, it got 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 

During his tenure as general, Grant bought into the antisemitic scapegoating of "carpetbagging Jews" as the main culprits of smuggling and illicit trade that unscrupulous merchants engaged in around Union-controlled territoriesnote  and issued General Order 11, which expelled all Jews from the area of the Vicksburg campaign. Grant's adjutant urged him not to, but Grant replied "they can countermand it from Washington if they like, but we will issue it anyhow." This is exactly what happened when the displaced and outraged Jewish community protested to Lincoln personally and Lincoln forced Grant to revoke the order.

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 Democratic candidate Horatio Seymour. He was the youngest president to be inaugurated up to that point (age 46), and is still the fourth-youngest ever.note  Grant's first term as president, from 1869 to 1873, 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. Rutherford B. Hayes replaced him at the top of the Republican ticket in 1876.

During the 1868 race, General Order 11 came back to bite him and he tried to distance himself from it by claiming, dubiously, that it was written by an unnamed subordinate and he merely signed it. He made numerous efforts to reconcile with the Jewish community during his administration; he made more Jewish appointments than any previous president, condemned pogroms abroad, and was the first president who attended a synagogue service by bringing his Cabinet to the dedication of the Adas Israel Congregation. His efforts lead Rabbi Isaac Mayer, who had campaigned against him, to say "Grant has rescinded Grant's General Order 11." Nonetheless, the antisemitic command and the bigoted justifications he made when issuing it have been a stain on his character.

Grant was the first president to make a serious bid for a third term, running for the Republican nomination when Hayes retired 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 alleged alcoholismnote ), but he preferred to delegate as much as he could, and many of the cabinet members to whom he delegated 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; he was also, in several instances, a poor judge of character (a trait which his memoirs show was with him all the way back to the Mexican war). 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). As part of the effort to enforce civil rights laws, the role of Attorney General transitioned from the President's legal advisor to the head of the newly-created Department of Justice, responsible for overseeing federal law enforcement. 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; he attended a bullfight in Mexico as a guest of honor, only to leave in disgust before it was finished; he 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 also displayed a noted tendency for subtly pointed digs at people he disliked or situations he found absurd. 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. When Abraham Lincoln's body was laid in state in Washington, Grant also sat off to one side of the room crying.

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 a investment swindle in his last years but wrote (with iron will while dying from cancer) a memoir that is widely regarded as the best ever written by a president, and perhaps one of the best written by any American. His writing is filled with sharp observations, strong opinions, and dry humor while giving first-hand accounts of some of the most extraordinary episodes in American history.

The work was published posthumously by Mark Twain, a personal friend who promised a fair deal. Twain was true to his word and book's success left Grant's 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.

In 2020 The History Channel released the docudrama Grant (2020), based on Ron Chernow'snote  2017 biography, which covered his entire life. Other media tend to portray him in discrete periods.

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.

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.

Examples of media depicting Grant in the 1850s when he was a washed-up Mexican War veteran posted at the ass-end of the country (California at the time) includes The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams.

Interestingly, Grant was the first president to get a speeding ticket. He was a bit of a speed freak, 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 the man complete the citation, and later presented him an award for doing so. 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 Virginia.note  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 tremendous Artistic License 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). His alcoholism is portrayed as 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.
  • In the TV series, North and South, Senior Cadet Grant's sympathy is a major reason Orrey Maine survives the vicious abuse by Elkanah Bent at West Point. During The American Civil War, George Hazard agrees with President Abraham Lincoln's confidence to appointing Grant as his main general and George is assigned to approach Grant about the offer, and they get along well.
  • Grant is a supporting character in Gore Vidal's novels Lincoln and 1876. Vidal admired Grant (outside of the novels, he called Grant's memoirs one of the greatest books in the English language) and portrays him as a man of Hidden Depths who's constantly underestimated by those around him. That said, Vidal's not shy about showing the corruption of his presidency, which forms the backdrop to 1876.
  • In the 1911 play that inspired the Shirley Temple film The Littlest Rebel, Grant is the officer in charge of the court martial of Morrison, the Union soldier, and Cary, a Confederate and the heroine's father. Since the play was written by a Southerner who lived during the nadir of American race relations, Grant's portrayal is that of a psychopathic maniac, with him yelling that he doesn't care that Virgie's father is innocent, as the whole point of war is to be as brutal as possible. Despite this, he does eventually let him go, though that doesn't make up for the hatchet-job of his portrayal.
  • He's played by Jason Robards in Legend of the Lone Ranger.
  • Grant is played by Jared Harris in Lincoln. He receives a Confederate peace delegation and hands them back their opening proposal for revisions because "it says 'securing peace for our two countries,' and it just goes on like that." Later, he is seen accepting Lee's surrender at Appomatox.