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Ulysses S. Grant: Overlooked and Under-appreciated, His Efforts Helped To Save the Country

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard F. Keevey
December 9, 2022

The United States is a country with a storied history replete with many notable political leaders, military heroes and individuals of destiny. One often overlooked and under-appreciated is Ulysses S. Grant, a victorious Union army general, accomplished U.S. president and man of destiny, especially for his role in helping to achieve victory over the insurrectionist South, end slavery and preserve the country in the aftermath of the Civil War.

This year marks the 200th Anniversary of the birth of Ulysses Grant—General of the Army and President of the United States. The less informed among us might ask, “wasn’t Grant just another general and president? Why should we make note of and celebrate his birth?”

Grant reflects the true American spirit—someone who seized the opportunities presented to him and lifted himself from the lowest ranks of society to attain greatness. Upon his death, his contemporaries recognized his many accomplishments and contributions as witnessed by his burial procession.

President Cleveland led the procession, which included the cabinet and all Supreme Court Justices; all living former presidents; numerous senators, congressmen and governors; four generals serving as pall bearers, including two confederate generals; thousands of both union and confederate veterans; thousands of black veterans (a true rarity at the time); and hundreds of thousands of admirers of Grant’s many accomplishments.  

Generals Mosby and Longstreet—two of his confederate adversaries—offered these words when eulogizing Grant: “the truest and bravest man who ever lived; I lost my best friend.”

Black churches held meetings of sorrow that eulogized him as champion of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution and the fight to dismantle The Ku Klux Klan. Frederick Douglas wrote: “in him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, the vanquished a brother—and the savior for an imperiled nation.”

Like many of us, Grant had his shortcomings. He was a drunkard at first; he extended misplaced and unrequited loyalty to friends who would deceive and embarrass him and cost the federal government significant amounts of its treasury; and he lost his family wealth to Wall Street ‘loyalists’ which resulted in his bankruptcy in his final years.   

This and more can be found in Ron Chernow’s powerful biography, entitled “Grant.” Personally, I knew a bit about Grant’s battlefield accomplishments and his tenure as president, but little about his character and steadfastness in his approach to what was the appropriate, just and moral approach to the many challenges he faced as Union army general and president. Two observations help to highlight his many accomplishments.

First, after many abortive attempts, President Abraham Lincoln found the general who would end the horrendous carnage of the Civil War (where 750,000 American lives were lost—more than the combined U.S. losses in all other wars between the Revolutionary War and Vietnam).

After two years of success in the western campaign, Grant was placed in charge of the entire Union military, and he led the Union forces to defeat General Robert E. Lee and the confederate insurrectionists. However, a “conqueror” he was not. Instead, at the surrender of the Confederacy at Appomattox, Grant provided Lee with generous surrender terms; assured Lee that he would not be prosecuted as a traitor or war criminal; and allowed the rank-and-file confederate troops to retain their side arms and horses—“they will need them to plow the fields,” said Grant.

As Chernow observed: he was unquestionably the most aggressive fighter in the full list of world-famous soldiers and the only general who could combine tactics with overall strategy.

For Grant, the Civil War validated the basic soundness of American institutions, including preserving the Union and emancipating four million slaves, who would eventually receive both their freedom and the right to vote.

Second, as president for two terms, he brought dignity and steadfastness to the office following the disastrous administration of Lincoln’s immediate successor, President Andrew Johnson. Johnson did everything to undermine/stop Lincoln’s goal of southern ‘reconstruction’ and integration, including supporting the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and subverting the will of Congress to bring the South back into the Nation. The terrorism and horrors of the Klan grew to such intensity that Grant returned military units to the South to enforce laws to uphold both the will of Congress and basic freedoms/dignity for southern Black people.

Internationally, he settled long-standing disputes with Great Britain, including the resolution of the Alabama case. The Alabama and other southern ships were built for the Confederates by the British to engage Union ships. Settling the case showed the value of international arbitration, lessened ill will between the two countries and launched a fraternal relationship with Great Britain, which would serve as the premier banker for future U.S. economic expansion.

Grant also had a successful policy toward Native Americans that centered on treating them fairly and with dignity. Upon leaving office, a delegation of five Indian tribes said: “we express our appreciation … at all times you have been just and humane…and had a conscientious regard for our rights…”   

After a disgraceful bankruptcy which left him dependent on small monetary gifts from several benefactors to live, Mark Twain encouraged him to write his autobiography—which Twain funded, and which was sufficient to provide support for Grant’s wife and family after his death.

In his final year, although inflicted by painful cancers of the tongue and throat and barely able to sleep or eat, he finished within weeks of his death what most critics consider the best autobiography ever written by an American. This was further evidence of Grant’s grit and determination.

The historian Richard Current viewed Grant as the most underrated American President and observed that Grant deserves an honored place in American history, second only to Lincoln for what he did for freed slaves.

In his biography of Grant, Chernow concluded that “Grant got all the big issues right even if he bungled the small ones.” I would add that Grant’s military and political successes far outweighed his personal shortcomings. As such, as we recognize the 200th birthday of Grant, let us acknowledge one of the nations’ greatest generals, presidents, and leaders.

Author: Rich Keevey held two presidential appointments as CFO at HUD and the deputy undersecretary at DOD. He was the executive officer of a nuclear missile unit in Europe. He was appointed by two New Jersey governors as State Budget Director. He is currently a senior policy fellow at Rutgers University and a lecturer at Princeton University

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