An American Named Ulysses
Recent months have seen the publication of no less than three novels about Ulysses S. Grant. Even taking into consideration the public’s enduring fascination with the Civil War, I find that somewhat astonishing. Yet, on further reflection, Grant’s life does provide the raw stuff of fiction, an epic tale of an ordinary man who rose to extraordinary heights through his talent at waging war. The only way to improve the story, I guess, would be to have Grant win his command by pulling a sword–better yet, a saber–from a stone.
But it’s Grant’s essential ordinariness that keeps him interesting and appealing, especially to an American sensibility that likes its heroes shorn of pretension. He was a man of few words and, unlike General George McClellan, Grant had no illusions of grandeur. He won promotion the old-fashioned way–by winning battles–and he rejected the trappings of fame and carried himself like a plain soldier. At Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee met with Grant to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee was impeccably dressed, while Grant looked “like a fly on a shoulder of beef,” in the words of a staff member. In his 1997 Grant biography, Geoffrey Perret writes that Grant “did not look like a great general, did not talk like a great general, did not dress like a great general, and did not even appear to consider himself a great general.” No wonder Grant gained the approval of Abraham Lincoln, another man from a humble background who was devoid of pretentiousness.
Of course, fact and mythology don’t run in parallel courses. In Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad, Ulysses was the king of Ithaca who feigned madness in an effort to avoid fighting in the Trojan War. Grant, of humble background, was eager to take part in the Civil War, but his initial requests for a command were ignored. Homer’s Ulysses was a crafty warrior noted for his guile. The Trojan Horse scheme that ended the war’s stalemate was his idea. Grant was noted for more straightforward methods. His main strategy was to bring the battle to the enemy and wear him down. When he did attempt Homerian craftiness–trying to dig a canal to divert the Mississippi River around Vicksburg, for instance, or approving an attempt to tunnel beneath the Confederate defenses in Petersburg, Virginia, and blow them up with explosives–his schemes usually failed. Then again, Grant was not a born Ulysses. He was christened Hiram Ulysses Grant, but the congressman who appointed him to West Point renamed him by mistake, and the young cadet became Ulysses S. Grant. It just helps reinforce the mythic elements of the Civil War that U.S. could also stand for Unconditional Surrender–or United States.
One appealing part of the Grant story is that he was able to succeed because of his abilities. The American self-image insists that anyone can become president, and Grant’s career–like Abraham Lincoln’s–certainly supports that idea. Son of a tanner, born in a house just one step up from a log cabin, Grant had a phenomenal rise in fortune. When war broke out in 1861 he was clerking in his father’s store. Three years later he was general-in-chief of the Union Army; five years after that he was president of the United States. Again, it seems more the stuff of myth and legend than real life, although Grant’s less-than-stellar performance as president helps yank the tale back to earth. Still, it’s a story of which people obviously haven’t grown tired.
Tom Huntington, Editor, American History