Ulysses S. Grant was an unremarkable man, except at the times when it mattered most.
By Richard F. Welch
The image of Ulysses Simpson Grant that has most endured with the American public is that of a brisk, no-nonsense general who won great Civil War battles but constantly lost equally great battles with the bottle. Combined with that unflattering portrait is one of an inept, scandal-ridden president too stupid or disengaged to realize that his rapacious underlings were engaged in massive fraud and corruption. The two-fisted drinker and the bumbling politician have combined to overshadow the indomitable warrior, the man who, after all, won the Civil War and accepted General Robert E. Lee’s surrender, if not his sword, at Appomattox.
Geoffrey Perret, in his new biography Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President (Random House, New York, $35), gives much-needed reinforcement to Grant’s military image while downplaying somewhat the corruption and inattention that plagued the general’s eight years in the post-Civil War White House. And while he is not completely successful at integrating the two widely divergent views, Perret manages to err on the side of Grant’s greater achievement–his astonishing performance as a Union general.
Grant showed unusual promise even as a youth, and his perennially hopeful father managed to get him into West Point despite his son’s less than enthusiastic embrace of the soldier’s life. At the nation’s military academy, Grant’s great love was horses, and he once wowed visiting dignitaries by leaping his steed over a bar raised to a height of 6 feet 3 inches. But he later lost his temper and whacked one of the horses with the flat of his sword–a grave offense in those horse-loving days, and one that, to his horror, barred him permanently from the cavalry.
Grant showed his innate valor–and his luck at dodging bullets–as a young lieutenant in the Mexican War, during which he fought alongside many of the future generals he would encounter wearing blue or gray in the Civil War. He even met Robert E. Lee, the shining star among young officers, although Lee told him at Appomattox, a little cruelly, that he did not remember their meeting.
Once the Mexican War was over, Grant married Julia T. Dent, then served at a variety of posts across the nation. He left the Army after a prolonged bout of drinking, brought on by homesickness, in the Pacific Northwest. He failed in several business ventures and was working in the family dry goods store in Galena, Ill., when the Civil War broke out.
Trading on his old Army connections, Grant managed to obtain a colonelcy in an Illinois regiment, where one of his first tasks was to make an opening speech to the troops. The men soon learned that Grant’s leadership would be by example, not by oration. After an embarrassed silence lasting several seconds, the new colonel said simply but firmly, “Men, go to your quarters.” They obeyed, and Grant learned a valuable lesson–that one could avoid much trouble and confusion by saying less rather than more.
Along with his deficiencies as a public speaker, Grant never looked the part of a great military man. He did not seek out fancy quarters and often dressed sloppily. Perret observes: “Many who met him were left feeling slightly puzzled. Some felt more or less cheated. He did not look like a great general, did not talk like a great general, did not dress like great general and did not even appear to consider himself a great general.”
And yet, as Perret makes clear, Grant was a great general–one who knew the im-portance of going on the offensive, unlike many other generals whom long-suffering President Abraham Lincoln tried before he settled on Grant. “Grant is the first general I have had!” exulted Lincoln. “He’s a general!” According to Perret, Grant’s overriding genius as a commander lay in his willingness to take risks, as evidenced by his audacious decision to cut himself loose from his supply lines and move directly on Vicksburg. He also possessed an amazing clarity of mind that enabled him to visualize an entire battle unfolding in his head. Most important of all, he never panicked, having learned in his very first battle, at Belmont, Mo., that the enemy “was at least as afraid of me as I was of him.”
That fine clarity of mind somehow abandoned Grant when he reached the White House. The Union war hero seemed a natural for the presidency, although he did not actively seek it. When he arrived in Washington, however, he soon found many of his official duties tedious, although his beloved Julia loved the social whirl. To her it was “a bright and beautiful dream.” She said, “I wished it might continue forever.”
Perret depicts Grant as having no active involvement in the numerous scandals of his administration. Apparently he did not, but the author’s obvious affection for his subject occasionally blinds him to the moral and political failings, if not sins, of Grant the president. When he was out of the White House, Grant (and much of the nation) breathed more easily. Grant, for his part, greatly enjoyed his subsequent world travels, and he was invariably treated as royalty.
In his final days, at the urging of his friend Samuel Clemens, Grant embarked on writing his autobiography. Despite his struggle with throat cancer, Grant’s indomitable will rose again, and he completed his military narrative–a model of clear thought and equally clear expression–just days before he died in 1885. It was the final remarkable achievement in the life of a man who in many ways was unremarkable–except at the moments when it counted most.