“I have witnessed since my sickness just what I have wished to see since the war: harmony and good feeling between the sections…”
These were the words of Ulysses S. Grant to Simon Bolivar Buckner during a visit to Grant. President and General Ulysses S. Grant died on today’s date, July 23 in 1885. Grant had always wanted to finish what he saw as the unfinished purpose of the Civil War, which was to reunify the North and South into one country. He had been unable to achieve that either as a General, or as the President of the United States. But as his life came to an end, he was grateful to see some signs that his death may have been bringing this about.
General Ulysses S. Grant
It would be difficult to imagine a more unlikely candidate for the title “Savior of the Union” than Ulysses S. Grant. He was a man who prior to the Civil War had proven an almost total failure at anything he tried other than war and marriage. As a boy he had shown himself to have a natural way with horses. At West Point he was good at math but little else. In the Mexican War he distinguished himself as a brave and resourceful officer. And after that he married Julia Dent
with whom he would share true love all of his life. But he was miserable in the peace-time army postings to which he was assigned. He fell into drinking and failed at farming. He was reduced to the post of clerk at his father’s store in Galena, Illinois when the Civil War broke out. And in warfare he found his stride. When Lincoln looked at Union losses following the Battle of Fredricksburg, he said: “No general yet found can face the arithmetic, but the end of the war will be at hand when he shall be discovered.” But in U.S. Grant he at long last found his man: a General who could face the arithmetic that the North’ superior numbers in man power gave the Union a decisive edge, and who was willing to press that edge to victory. As a Commanding General in the field Grant was very efficient and unlike so many of his predecessors he was uncommonly cool-headed under fire.
But as a peace-time leader, he faced different difficulties than those he faced in combat. At a meeting shortly before the war’s end Lincoln met with Grant, General Sherman, and Admiral Porter (below) and made it clear that he wanted to let the South up easily…
no treason trials, no retribution. That Grant strongly favored this was made clear not only by the generous terms he made with General Lee when he surrendered at Appomattox, but also in his reaction to the news of Lincoln’s death a few days later:
“It would be impossible for me to describe the feeling that overcame me at the news…I knew of his goodness of heart, his generosity…. and above all his desire to see all the people of the United States enter again upon the full privileges of citizenship with equality among all.”
Clearly, Grant had his eye on the future of his country, and winning the war itself was only the first step. The South need to be brought back into the union, with former slaves enjoying equal rights. But with Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson having no interest in equal rights for African Americans, and the Radical Republicans bent on vengeance on the old Confederacy, it was North -vs- South again as if the war had never ended.
President Ulysses S. Grant
Grant hoped that as President he would be able to heal this division. Unfortunately Grant was totally unsuited to the vagaries of the world of politics. The efficiency and decisiveness that served him so well in the war wherein men had to honestly follow orders simply didn’t work in politics where nobody had to follow orders, let alone be honest about it.
While Grant was personally honest, his administration wound up being rife with corruption under the nose of Grant whose loyalty to friends was too often misplaced. Grant strove mightily to guarantee the equal rights of Blacks. He even sent in Federal Troops to enforce this idea. But financial crises brought on in part by the corruption in his cabinet weakened the political support necessary for the sending of troops. Eventually he was obliged to deny a request for such troops in Mississippi. And when he left office after two terms the South was as embittered towards the North as it had ever been over the use of Federal Troops, and African Americans were second class citizens throughout the old Confederacy.
Grant Approaches Death
So it was that as he approached his death he hoped to see some sign of reconciliation between the North and the South. A lifetime of smoking an average of twenty cigars a day had left Grant with throat cancer. His investment in the firm of Grant and Ward wherein Ferdinand Ward was bilking investors blind in Pyramid schemes like a 19th Century Bernie Maadoff, had left him
penniless. So he was furiously trying to finish his memoirs before Cancer killed him, in hope of restoring his family finances (above). His illness was closely followed in newspapers all over the country, including in the South. Grant began to hope that perhaps is death might heal some of the division between the former warring states. Noting the interest in his condition in the South he reached out to Simon Bolivar Buckner, the General whom he defeated in his first major victory at Fort Donelson in 1862. The two old soldier spoke about their days in the Mexican War. Then Buckner told Grant that the South was appreciative to Grant for his magnanimity at the close of the war. And this prompted the reply from Grant that began this posting.
Ulysses Grant died on this date in 1885, just a few days after completing his memoirs. His dying wish to restore his family fortunes did indeed come true, as his book became a huge best-seller bringing in over $500,000.00 over the years immediately following his death. And he went a step further in his death towards reconciliation, leaving instructions in his will that his pall bearers were to be Union Generals William T. Sherman and Phillip Sheridan on one side, and Confederate Generals Simon Bolivar Buckner, and Joseph E. Johnston on the other. Harmony between the sections was gradually restored, but unfortunately, African Americans would have to wait until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s before they began acquiring the equal rights which Grant had hoped to assure for them during his presidency.
“The American Experience: Ulysses S. Grant; Warrior – President” written by Adriana Bosch and Elizabeth Deane, PBS, 2002.
“At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings” Ed. by Michael Burlingame, Southern Illinois Univ., 2000.
“Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant” by Ulysses S. Grant, World Publ. Co., New York, 1952.