Happy Birthday, Ulysses S. Grant!

This post was written by Mark Meader. Mark is an Archives Specialist with the Motion Picture, Sound and Video branch. He participated in historical reenactments for over forty years, including over twenty years as a Union private in Civil War reenactments.

There is a scene in Frank Capra’s film “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” where Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), a small town poet who has inherited 20 million dollars, stands in awe of Grant’s Tomb in New York City, the largest mausoleum in North America. When Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur), a reporter who is reporting his antics of being a hick in a big city asks what Deeds sees in the huge structure, he says “I see a small Ohio farm boy becoming a great soldier. I see thousands of marching men. I see General Lee with a broken heart, surrendering, and I can see the beginning of a new nation, like Abraham Lincoln said. And I can see that Ohio boy being inaugurated President – things like that can only happen in America.”

Grant was a typical rural Midwesterner, wrote Pulitzer Prize winning author Bruce Catton: five feet eight, stooped, unmilitary in his gait, with creased horizontal wrinkles across his brow giving him a faintly harassed look. Somewhere in that man was a proud, shy little West Point graduate who put on the best uniform he had to go back to his Ohio hometown on furlough, and was laughed at by the livery stable hangabouts for a dude. After that Grant preferred to wear the plain uniform of a private soldier, with officers’ insignia sewn to the shoulders. The man who directed so much bloodshed was made queasy by the sight of red meat, and had his cooked black, almost to a crisp. When he prepared for his day’s rounds he took two dozen cigars, which were tucked away in various pockets. He had the look about his eyes of a man who had come way up from very far down, a stubborn, taciturn bulldog-tough man who did not know when to quit, yet forbid his beloved wife, who quaintly spoke of him as “Mr. Grant”, to have an operation that would cure her crossed eyes because they were so dear to him.

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Grant poses in front of a tent in Cold Harbor, Virginia.
Image cropped. See full image at catalog link. 111-B-36 (NAID 524455)

Hiram Ulysses Grant was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio in 1822, the son of a tanner. At the age of 17 he was given an appointment to West Point, the Military Academy of the United States, by his Congressman, Thomas Hamer, whose letter of appointment mistakenly listed him as Ulysses S. Grant of Ohio. Grant kept the name, and his friends at the academy nicknamed him “Sam” because his first initials were U.S. like Uncle Sam. He served in the Mexican War, although he opposed the idea of a large country such as the United States fighting a small country like Mexico. A brave soldier, he fought both under Generals Zachary Taylor at Monterey and Winfield Scott at Mexico City, where at Chapultepec Grant hoisted a disassembled small cannon to a bell tower to suppress enemy fire when it was reassembled. After the war, his marriage to Julia Dent in 1848, at which future Confederate General James Longstreet was his best man, was an island of stability in a military world of constant assignments to outposts all over the country. Because of one of these to Fort Humboldt in the California Territory was without his family, he started to drink and was forced to resign his U.S. Army commission of Captain.

He returned to his family and was unsuccessful at farming, bill collecting, and working in a tannery hide shop for his father-in-law in Galena, Illinois. Thought by most to be a ne’er-do-well, when the American Civil War began Grant surprised many when he helped raised a company of well-drilled recruits and went with them to fight for the Union. Because of his tough military training he was soon promoted to Colonel, then Brigadier General of Volunteers. Grant successfully campaigned against Paducah, Kentucky, then Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee. His demand for the unconditional surrender of Fort Donelson led to his being called “Unconditional Surrender” Grant by the press, and President Lincoln promoted him Major General. But then, Grant was accused of being a drunk when the Union Army of Tennessee’s encampments were initially captured at the Battle of Shiloh on April 6-7, 1862, even though the army under his personal command was able to defeat the Confederates the second day. The battle was the costliest in the history of the United States up to then, with over 23,000 casualties. Critics opposed Grant’s command, but President Lincoln overruled them, saying “I can’t spare this man, he fights.”

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Grant at Civil War encampment. 111-B-5041 (NAID 529151)

Grant’s further successful campaigns resulted in the capture of the Confederate bastion of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River in 1863 and its entire army, which effectually split the Confederacy in half. His capture of Chattanooga Tennessee in 1864 gave the Union final control of the state and opened Georgia and the heartland of the Confederacy to successful invasion by General William T. Sherman.  President Lincoln promoted Grant to command of all the armies of the North, and Grant and the Union Army of the Potomac, with bulldog tenacity, latched onto Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the Wilderness in May 1864. They did not let go until the Lee’s Army surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, in April, 1865.

Because of his successful reputation of wartime service, Grant was elected as the Republican President in 1868 with his campaign slogan “Let Us have Peace.” Due to his difficulty in spotting self-opportunists, Grant’s two terms (1868-77) were riddled with scandals and there were many congressional investigations into corruption in his administration. Despite this, as President, Grant guided the South back into the Union, tried to protect the freed African-Americans and make them full citizens of the Nation, changed the government’s policy from Indian removal to living peacefully with Native Americans, and settled wartime claims with Great Britain.

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President Ulysses S. Grant. 111-B-4065 (NAID 528217)

Upon leaving the White House, the Grants made a trip around the world that became a journey of triumphs, a highlight of the trip being an overnight stay and dinner hosted by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. A visit to Europe and the Holy Land followed, and they returned to Rome where they were received by Pope Leo XIII. Continuing the trip through the Far East, they were cordially received at the Imperial palace in Tokyo by the Emperor and Empress of Japan, and Grant helped mediate a dispute between Japan and China over the Japanese annexation of the Ryukyu Islands. The world tour was costly, and Grant, having diminished his savings, needed money and a new home. Family business ventures followed that were not successful, and he ended up penniless and destitute. Grant wrote several well-received articles for The Century Magazine for $500, and the editor of the magazine suggested that he write his memoirs, as many others Generals, such as Sherman, had done. He started them in 1884, but was diagnosed with throat cancer. Grant continued writing his memoirs in a cottage on Mount McGregor NY, finishing it 5 days before he died on July 23, 1885. It was a critical and commercial success, and provided well for his family. Grant was eulogized by many in the press, who likened him to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. In his honor, President Grover Cleveland ordered 30 days of mourning for the Nation for this tanners’ son from Ohio, who had served his country well.

Information for this post came from the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and A Stillness at Appomattox by Bruce Catton, 1953. Grant’s memoirs are available to read online

About Audrey Amidon

Audrey works in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, which is responsible for performing conservation and preservation work on motion picture records held across the National Archives.
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