The Fight for our Heroes - Part IV
Among the pantheon of immortal American heroes, Ulysses S. Grant ranks at the very top, standing beside only George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in regard to his contributions to the United States. As his faithful friend and most trusted subordinate during the Civil War, William Tecumseh Sherman put it, “If the name of Washington is allied with the birth of our country, that of Grant is forever identified with its preservation.” Not only did Grant save the nation that Washington founded, but he also did it in a way that the father of America would have admired. U.S. Grant epitomized Washington’s timeless belief that, “Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages." Grant faced tremendous hardship and adversity throughout his life, but no matter how difficult the obstacles facing him were, he always confronted the challenges head-on and refused to be broken by them. His rise to greatness as the top Union commander who won the Civil War and his achievements as the 18th president of the United States forever marks him as a hero for the ages and someone who deserves the eternal respect and gratitude of every American.
The outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861 found Ulysses S. Grant down on his luck and working as a clerk at his father’s leather goods store in Galena, Illinois. A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and a veteran of the Mexican-American War, he had resigned from the Army in 1854 and struggled mightily in life over the years before the nation split. When the call for volunteers to defend the Union came, Grant eagerly set out to do his duty. Despite his experience as a soldier, however, he initially struggled to obtain a commission. Undeterred by this adversity, he remained ready and earned his opportunity to lead after proving himself by drilling and mustering in new recruits. His appointment as colonel of the Twenty-First Illinois Infantry in June 1861 marked the beginning of an incredible rise that would eventually end with him in command of all Union forces.
In early 1862, U.S. Grant emerged as the supreme soldier that President Abraham Lincoln and the Northern people desperately needed. With the Union war effort seemingly stalled and the leading Federal commanders frozen in inaction, Grant conquered Forts Henry and Donelson in western Tennessee, twin triumphs which helped erase a defeatist mentality that had begun to take hold over the Northern public. As William Sherman put it, in America’s hour of peril, Grant had “marched triumphantly into Fort Donelson. After that none of us felt the least doubt as to the future of our country.” Later that April, the Union’s newfound hero averted what might have been a catastrophic blow to the Northern war effort by not buckling under pressure and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat at the bloody Battle of Shiloh.
Grant went on to conduct what many consider to be not only the most masterfully executed campaign of the Civil War, but also “one of the greatest campaigns in history,” as described by Sherman. On July 4, 1863, after months of navigating treacherous waterways, fighting and winning several battles, and orchestrating a 47-day siege, Grant captured the mighty Mississippi River fortress of Vicksburg. His victory secured unimpeded access to the Mississippi River for the Union, which inflicted a fatal blow to the rebellion by effectively splitting the Confederacy in two.
After his brilliance at Vicksburg and his subsequent victory at Chattanooga, Tennessee, President Lincoln elevated Grant to the sacred rank of lieutenant general in March 1864, making him the first officer to be promoted to that grade since America’s most revered soldier, George Washington. As general-in-chief of the Armies of the United States, Grant was placed in total command of all Union forces, making him responsible for over one million men operating across the war-torn nation. By fully comprehending the big picture of the war and harmonizing the many armies under his command so that they functioned as one grand war machine, Grant guided the Union to ultimate victory in the spring of 1865.
After the four bloodiest years in American history, the job of rebuilding the war-scarred nation and reestablishing peace across the land fell to Ulysses S. Grant as the 18th President of the United States. The legendary poet Walt Whitman considered this task “more difficult than the war itself,” but Grant faced the challenges head-on, just as he had done on the battlefield and all throughout his life.
Grant campaigned for the presidency in 1868 under the slogan, “Let us have peace.” He worked tirelessly to make that slogan a reality for every American as the Southern states that had previously seceded were brought back into the Union. Despite intense opposition and violence directed towards Federal troops stationed in the South to enforce law and order, the larger prospect of keeping the peace between the North and the South was achieved. Because of his balance of magnanimous and firm leadership, there was no outbreak of a second Civil War under his watch.
Like Abraham Lincoln, Grant also forged a special relationship “with the four million slaves, whom he helped to liberate, feed, house, employ, and arm during the war,” as noted by historian Ron Chernow. When those former slaves became American citizens after the war, Grant did everything in his power to safeguard their civil rights as president. With his support, the freedmen were equipped with the right to vote after the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870. When groups like the Klu Klux Klan emerged to terrorize the former slaves and suppress their newly earned rights, U.S. Grant oversaw the creation of the Justice Department and hunted down the Klan until it was vanquished in 1872. For all of his efforts to protect African Americans, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass hailed Grant as “the vigilant, firm, impartial, and wise protector of my race.”
In his farewell message to Congress in 1876, President Grant said, “I have acted in every instance from a conscientious desire to do what was right, constitutional, within the law, and for the very best interests of the whole people.” From his efforts to heal the nation and promote peace after the Civil War, his actions to protect the freed slaves, and also his struggles to secure fair treatment for Native Americans, Ulysses S. Grant was truly a leader who tried to do his very best for every American.
With even a brief examination of Grant’s incredible life, it is hard to imagine how anyone could justify attempting to diminish or erase his legacy. Yet, that is exactly what happened on June 19, 2020 when radical activists defaced and toppled a statue of Grant in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. As in the cases of the other attacks that have been carried out against monuments and memorials across the country, those who engage in and endorse this type of behavior follow a shared strategy to rationalize their actions. This involves ignoring all of the great and honorable deeds of towering heroes like Grant and attempting to define their legacies based solely on their shortcomings. Overwhelmingly, the criticisms that are cited as motivations for tearing down statues or attacking the legacies of these figures lack historical balance and context. They are also irresponsibly promulgated without a full command of the facts. It takes serious study and dedication to understand the profound complexities of the world and the times in which these historic figures operated. With all that they sacrificed to make our nation a better place, it is our duty to learn from them and to see their stories with honest eyes.
To justify their attacks against Grant, some point to the fact that prior to the Civil War he acquired a slave named William Jones, who was bequeathed to him by his father-in-law. On March 29, 1859, he granted Jones his freedom, signing papers that declared, “I do hereby manumit, emancipate & set free said William from slavery forever.” This act came at a time when Grant was seriously struggling to support his family, and as Chernow adds, he “could have earned a considerable sum had he chosen to sell Jones rather than liberate him.” To use this example as justification to attack Grant’s legacy while ignoring everything he later did to secure African American advances throughout his life is patently absurd. As Frederick Douglass put it, “May we not justly say . . . that the liberty which Mr. Lincoln declared with his pen General Grant made effectual with his sword-by his skill in leading the Union armies to final victory?” To reiterate, Grant also became a champion of the freedmen as president and earned Douglass’ praise as “the vigilant, firm, impartial, and wise protector of my race.”
Following the toppling of the Grant statue in San Francisco, a writer for the Independent penned a piece entitled, “It wasn’t a mistake to pull down the statue of Ulysses S Grant.” In the article, the author cites what he regards as Grant’s inhumane policy towards Native American people as one of his main arguments for defending the act of vandalism. This narrow view is yet another example of why it is so very important to be in command of all the facts. A rigorous study of Grant reveals that while he was not always successful in his attempts to secure fair treatment for Native Americans, he did put forth honest efforts to improve their condition. As the great man said himself, “If any change takes place in the Indian policy of the government while I hold my present office, it will be on the humanitarian side of the question.” His efforts were recognized by contemporaries like the Sioux chief Spotted Tail, who visited with Grant at the White House and wished him luck in his bid for reelection, telling him, “I hope you may be successful. This would please me very much, for you have been very kind to my people.”
When the totality of Grant’s life is diligently studied, it is clear why he has earned an immortal place as one of America’s greatest heroes. Like all who set foot in the arena of life, he had his shortcomings, but those are not what define him. Grant is a representation of everything we hold dear as Americans. He epitomized our spirit of toughness by refusing to be broken by the adversity he faced all throughout his life, he exemplified the importance of faithfully serving the nation by giving his full measure of devotion to the United States in war and in peace, and he upheld the mighty ideals that our nation was built upon by fighting for liberty and justice for all. For all of these reasons and so many more, Ulysses S. Grant will always be worthy of our respect and gratitude.
Photo Header Credit: Architect of the Capitol.
Grant by Ron Chernow.
The Independent: It wasn't a mistake to pull down the statue of Ulysses S. Grant.
The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H.W. Brands.
The Washington Post: The anti-statue movement has taken a turn into absurdity.
This Is Why We Stand: The Greatness of Grant - Six lessons to learn from the man who saved the Union.
This Is Why We Stand: Titans of War - The five greatest generals in American history.