They say history is written by the victor. Ulysses S Grant may beg to differ. For nearly 100 years, Grant was derided as an inept and corrupt drunk who won the Civil War by recklessly sacrificing the lives of his men and who floundered in a presidency rife with corruption.
In the past 30 years, that verdict has changed.
Follow along as Grant goes from Mexican-American war veteran to failed businessman, victorious union general, and eventually president of the United States. Along the way, he'll go nearly undefeated as a general, lead the fight against the Ku Klux Klan during reconstruction, revamp the country's native American policy, bring permanent amity to its relations with Great Britain, and, yes, oversee an administration rife with corruption. But as I think we'll see, the corruption is more of a footnote than a full-length feature.
1. Grant – Jean Edward Smith
2. Andrew Johnson – Annette Gordon-Reed
3. Abraham Lincoln – David Herbert Donald
4. The Complete Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant – Ulysses S. Grant
5. Embattled Rebel – James M. McPherson
6. Rutherford B. Hayes – Hans. L. Trefousse
7. Destiny of the Republic – Candice Miller
8. The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur – Scott S. Greenberger
Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)
18.) Ulysses S. Grant 1869-1877
Welcome to Abridged Presidential Histories with Kenny Ryan. Episode 18, Ulysses S. Grant, the hero of Appomattox.
Have you ever heard the saying, “History is written by the victor?”
The American Civil War might be the most glaring exception to this rule.
We talked about this head-on in the bonus episode on Confederate president Jefferson Davis and the Myth of the Lost Cause, which was basically an old revisionist history that framed the confederate cause as an honorable fight for states rights and honor, and toooootally ignored all the speeches and statements made by actual confederates saying they were seceding and fighting to preserve slavery.
But the thing is, I’m not sure that southern revisionism stopped with the end of the Civil War. I think it had other victims.
Namely, Ulysses S. Grant.
Grant had a bit of a renaissance in the 1990’s when historians began giving him a second look, but before that, he was treated as a corrupt, forgettable Gilded Age president. Which, when you think about it, is kind of a form of sweet historical revenge to hoist upon the man who defeated the confederacy.
Today, we’ll be looking at him in that more modern light he deserves. Not only for his civil war exploits, but also for his administration. Grant is the only president reelected to consecutive terms between Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, a span of 35 years, and he was very nearly our first three-term president. So get ready, because there’s a lot to cover in this most fascinating life.
Ulysses S. Grant was born on April 27, 1822, to a nice little line of American war veterans. His grandfather had fought at Bunker Hill in the revolutionary war and his great grandfather had fought for the American colonists in the French and Indian War. So it should be no surprise, he’s going to become a warrior, too.
Grant will cut his teeth in the Mexican-American war, fall into terrible poverty after the war, then prove himself the nation’s greatest general in the Civil War and eventually earn the presidency.
The first fun fact about Grant is his birth name isn’t actually Ulysses. It’s Hiram. Ulysses is his middle name. But in 1839, when he enrolled at West Point, the Congressman who endorsed his application got confused and accidentally submitted his name as Ulysses S. Grant. Hiram tried to get it corrected, but the army said, naw, you’re Ulysses now, and so it stuck.
After graduating in 1843, Grant met a young woman named Julia Dent on his first deployment, and won her father’s permission for marriage. But before they could tie the knot, Grant’s first great adventure called – the Mexican-American war.
Grant participated in just about every major battle of the Mexican-American war. He fought from South Texas to Monterrey as a quartermaster for Zachary Taylor, Ol’ Rough n Ready! , the general who would go on to be our 12th president, and then he was among the veterans dispatched to join General Winfield Scott – Ol’ fuss n’ feathers! – for the landing at Veracruz and the conquest of Mexico city.
Now, I covered these campaigns in a bit of depth in episode 12 on Taylor and episode 11 on Polk, so I’m not going to replay all that stuff here, but I do want to focus on the impact this experience had on Grant.
Scott and Taylor were both fantastic generals, but their styles could not be further apart. Taylor was calm, confident, strategically aggressive, and gave simple orders – like telling a commander to go capture a hill and letting them decide how best to go do it. He was also an extremely casual dresser, to the point that new soldiers often mistook him for a private or junior officer.
And in all these areas, Grant took after Taylor.
Scott, on the other hand, was more aloof from his troops, more detail oriented, and, in the words of Grant, “Wore all the uniform the law allowed.”
Grant didn’t really take after Scott too much, but a future rival of his did. Captain Robert E Lee served in this war, too, but only under Scott. He would emulate all of Scott’s strengths and peculiarities when he led the Army of Northern Virginia two decades later.
Anyway, Grant, Lee, and dozens of other future civil war generals learned a ton from the Mexican-American war, and then when the war ended and the army was drastically downsized, they all had to figure out what they were going to do next. In the case of Grant, the answer was stay in the downsized army, marry Julia, start having babies, and then endure a long goodbye as he was deployed out to remote California during the gold rush with the promise to one day reunite with his family back east. And when I say remote, you have no idea. Back in 1852, the quickest way from the eastern United States to California was to hop on a boat in New York, Sail to the isthmus of Panema, cross overland through disease-ridden jungle, hop on another ship on the other side, and then sail to California. To give you a sense of how dangerous this was, well, when Grant set sail, he was one of 700 soldiers, and 250 of them died of Cholera along the way – one of the deadliest crossings of panama on record.
Once in California, Grant tried to invest his income, and his spare time, in a few business ventures, and he was pretty much the unluckiest businessman you’ve ever heard of. California was booming from the gold rush then, people were striking it rich all over the place – and you didn’t just have to dig for gold to make it big. If you remember episode 12, one of the first gold rush millionaires was a Mormon bishop who cornered the shovel market. Fortune seemed there for the taking for anyone with ambition, and Grant had ambition.
He just didn’t have luck in friends or fortune.
Here’s a quick list of some of the failed business ventures of Ulysses S. Grant:
- He heard ice was selling for a killing in San Francisco, so he carved some ice up in the Oregon Territory and had it shipped south, only for the ship to be blown off course and the ice melt before it made it to California. Shoot.
- He heard chickens were selling for a killing in san Francisco, so he bought a bunch of chicken and shipped them south, only for the ship to again get blown off course and the chickens all die before making it to California. Double shoot.
- He planted crops and bought lumber, and then torrential rains ruined both
- Not one but two business partners ran off with his money.
- And he dearly, dearly missed his family back east.
It’s no surprise, after all of this, Grant started to get into the bottle. And this is where Grant earned a reputation he’d struggle to shake the rest of his life. Nothing is officially recorded, but there are numerous letters and unofficial correspondence indicating Grant was caught drunk at his post by his commander one day, and the commander gave him the option to quit or face court martial – which was a bit harsh for what appears to have been a first offense. Grant quit and returned home to his family back east, where they lovingly supported him, but his luck wouldn’t change.
By the late 1850’s, Grant was an impoverished veteran reduced to selling firewood at the street corner wearing an old, faded army uniform. In 1857, he sold his gold watch – his last possession of value – so his family could celebrate Christmas. But his morals never left him. At some point around this time, his father-in-law gave him a slave that could have been sold for $1,000 – a year’s wages in the army. But instead of selling the man, Grant set him free in 1859. And that might be one of the most impressive moments of Grant’s life.
By 1860, Grant turned to his father for a job in the family store in Galena, Illinois, and that’s where fate found him when states started seceding and civil war broke into the open with the firing on Fort Sumter in April, 1861.
Grant’s whole life was about to change.
If you’re like me, you might have always wondered how Grant went from down-and-out jobless vet to famous civil war general. The answer is, luck finally broke his way. In those first heady days of the civil war, when everyone was confident in a quick victory, but nobody was organized or prepared to win one, Grant helped muster and train his hometown’s volunteers and took them to the Illinois state capital, then began looking for other ways to help. Just as he was about to leave, someone chased him down and told him the unit he had organized had kinda sorta run off its assigned colonel, burned down a guard house, started stealing chickens, and refused to take orders from anyone but Grant. So Grant became a colonel of the Galena company!
And then, more luck came Grant’s way! Grant’s hometown congressman was a man named Elihu Washburne – go ahead and put a pin in that name. Washburne just so happened to be the most senior republican in Congress. Washburne was in a meeting organizing the army when he saw Grant’s name on an officer list and realized it might be good to have a constituent he could be the benefactor of in the army. Just like that, Grant was named a Brigadier general, responsible for a force of 4,000 men, and was technically 35th-in-line in the army’s chain of command.
Grant started the war in the western theater, which was basically all the states around the Mississippi river. This was an incredibly important theater. If the union could take control of the Mississippi river, the confederacy would be split in two and lose access to all of the supplies and soldiers in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas. This would be the goal for Grant’s first two years of the war.
Grant’s first battle was a place called Belmont, and it was a near shocking victory turned into a near disastrous defeat turned into a draw. His goal was to use misdirection to convince the confederates he was attacking somewhere else so he could surprise and destroy a confederate force at a place called Belmont before reinforcements could respond. The plan got off to a great start. Grant surprised rebels with such force that he soon had them in flight, but then he lost all control of his jubilant men. Instead of pursuing the routed confederates and taking them prisoner, Grant’s men were looting the confederate camp, getting drunk on confederate booze, and totally ignoring Grant’s orders. And they were doing this all behind enemy lines! By the time Grant restored order, the routed confederates had regrouped and joined with reinforcements to cut Grant’s army off from the river, where transports waited to carry them home. Grant charged right into these reinforcements and concentrated all his fire on the center of the confederate line, blowing a hole in it that his army was able to rush through and escape.
And that disorder there, a victorious army getting distracted by looting instead of pursuing a defeated enemy, will be a bit of a trend for Grant, and other generals, throughout the civil war. Just because you give an order doesn’t mean it’s going to be carried out. When soldiers follow their generals’ orders, good things tend to happen. When they ignore generals’ orders, which is especially likely to happen with newer recruits, you’re going to have a bad day.
With his draw at Belmont behind him, Grant licked his wounds, learned his lessons, and began plotting his next attack – Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in Northern Tennessee.
The two forts, Henry and Donelson, were about 15 miles apart and overlooked rivers that flowed deep into Tennessee. Hold these forts, and Tennessee is secure. Lose these forts, and you’re in trouble.
The first fort, Fort Henry, was captured when Grant surrounded it on land and then began shelling it with a small fleet of ironclads the union had built to contest the rivers. The victory came shockingly easy as the fort had been built in a poor location, but it wasn’t a total victory. The confederate garrison was able to escape to reinforce the troops at Fort Donelson.
Grant pursued them and days later Fort Donelson was similarly surrounded. Grant was so confident of victory, that he left the siege lines to meet with the guy in charge of his ironclads when word arrived that the confederates had attacked his siege lines and were attempting to break out! Grant rushed back to Donelson where he found the southern flank of his army had been routed and only the northern wing was still in fighting condition. The confederates had opened the road out of the fort and were free to escape any time they liked, but then Grant got lucky again. The confederates had three different generals in charge of the fort. One wanted to evacuate quickly, one wanted to evacuate slowly, and one didn’t want to evacuate at all. As the three confederate leaders bickered, Grant rallied his men and launched a counter attack that caught the confederates by surprise and actually really scared them. These were old school guys, they believed in cautious warfare, and the old rules dictated that Grant would only launch an attack like this if he had twice the men he really had. So Grant’s attack makes the rebels think he has a huge army, when he doesn’t. As the rebels fell back to Fort Donelson, they decided they had to surrender, but two of the generals were political leaders who didn’t want to be captured, so they agreed the third guy was now really in charge and both slipped out on the river, abandoning the army to capture.
The capture of the confederate army at Fort Donelson was the first major union victory of the war and the first capture of a confederate army. Celebrations were so wild in the north that one paper wrote that anyone caught sober after 9 o’clock should be arrested as a secessionist. 12,000 rebels were taken prisoner and Tennessee appeared ripe for conquest.
And that set the stage for one of Grant’s finest hours, and nearest calamities, the Battle of Shiloh.
Following the victory at Donelson, Grant pressed south with an army of 44,000 men, and a reinforcing army of 25,000 men on its way, and set his sights squarely on Corinth, a city that served as the spoke in the wheel of Tennessee’s rail lines. Capture Corinth and western Tennessee would have to be abandoned by the Confederacy.
Because of how important Corinth was, it was defended by a large army of 55,000 rebels and extensive fortifications. The kind of fortifications that would be a major challenge for anyone to attack.
Which is why Grant was caught totally be surprise when the confederates came out of those fortifications to strike Grant’s camp near Shiloh church before that second army could reinforce him.
Have you ever seen those movies where the good guys are about to lose and reinforcements arrive just in time to save the day? This is one of those battles. The confederate attack caught Grant by surprise and was initially making good gains, but the union had one advantage - the confederates were hungry. The union army was spread out over five massive camps, and every time the confederates captured a camp, they’d dissolve into looting as soldiers ate all the food and grabbed all the valuables they could and it would take an hour to get any semblance of order before the attacks could continue. Meanwhile, Grant had alerted his reinforcements that they needed to get there PRONTO.
One after another, the union camps fell. One, two, three, four. But daylight was slipping away and reinforcements were getting closer, too. As the fifth and final camp came under attack – the camp that, if it fell, the union army would be routed – the first reinforcements finally arrived. A roar of cannons repelled the confederate attack on the final union camp, and a setting sun prevented them from launching another. The confederates went to bed that night thinking they had won a great victory, sleeping in the four union camps they had captured and expecting to finish the job in the morning. Meanwhile, thousands of union troops poured across the Tennessee River to reinforce Grant’s bedraggled army. When someone asked Grant that night if he had any thought of retreating, he replied no, “I haven’t despaired of whipping them yet.”
The first day of the battle, Grant had been outnumbered 45,000 to 40,000. The second day of the battle – after losses and reinforcements – Grant would outnumber the confederates roughly 45,000 to 28,000.
That second day, Grant launched his army at the shocked confederates, who thought an easy day of mop-up duty was in store. By afternoon, he’d driven the confederate army from the field. The battle of Shiloh, the biggest ever fought in North America to that point, had been won, but at tremendous cost. There were more Americans casualties at Shiloh than in the Revolution, the war of 1812, and the Mexican-American war put together.
After the victory at Shiloh, Corinth fell easily. Western Tennessee had been knocked out of the war. But there was still one more rebel bastion on the Mississippi that needed to be taken to cut the confederacy in half – the Vicksburg campaign is up next.
Vicksburg, Mississippi, was the final confederate stronghold on the Mississippi river, but it was a heck of a stronghold. Steep bluffs and hard terrain made it virtually unassailable from the north - and the union knew because it had tried, and seasonal flooding meant there weren’t any beaches to deploy troops on below the city. Grant tried all sorts of crazy ideas to get his army around these obstacles - he flooded swamps and tried to sail ironclads through them, he tried to dig a canal to bypass the city’s cannons, but nothing worked, so he tried a plan so crazy that the confederates couldn’t conceive it - he had his river boats run the cannons of Vicksburg at night to get south of the city – as in, steam past the city as fast as they can to get on the other side of it – then he ferried his army across the river and struck out on a two-week campaign behind enemy lines with no supply lines, living off the land.
Remember how I said the confederates at Donelson surrendered because Grant did something you weren’t supposed to do according to military theory? Well, he’s breaking the orthodoxy again. Separating an army from its supplies is entirely against everything West Point taught cadets about how to fight wars – think about it, if you’re not being resupplied, you can very easily run out of food and ammunition. It’s incredibly risky. So Grant’s subordinates thought he was crazy. But the confederate generals? They were incapable of even conceiving it, and because they couldn’t conceive it, they couldn’t prepare to defend against it. Grant’s army, which had basically gone off the radar, popped out of NOWHERE in the middle of Mississippi to capture the state capitol and cut Vicksburg off from reinforcements. The Vicksburg garrison tried to come out to reopen its line to reinforcements, but Grant defeated it twice and chased it back to Vicksburg, where he settled into a siege. On July 4, 1862, Grant captured his second confederate army when the 29,000-man garrison of Vicksburg was forced to surrender. Coming a day after Gettysburg, the loss of Vicksburg and the Mississippi river marked a turning point in the war.
But nobody in the confederacy was ready to surrender yet. They may have lost the west, but in the center, they’d managed to trap a union army in Chattanooga. Grant’s congratulations from D.C. came with new orders in hand – get to Chattanooga, take command, and save a union center from certain defeat.
Ok, so what’s going on at Chattanooga.
Around the time Grant was laying siege to Vicksburg, the union army of Ohio had overextended itself and been pounced by a superior confederate force. I think 20,000 union soldiers were now trapped in Chattanooga, surrounded by confederates who held high ground on three sides and only reinforceable by a mule trail through the mountains – and if you’ve seen Revenge of the Sith, you know that if your adversary holds the high ground, you’ve lost.
Anyway, Grant rushed to the scene and snuck into Chattanooga through the mule trail, then quickly fought to open up a new supply line, which meant his army would no longer have to choose between starvation or surrender, but they were still surrounded and outnumbered. And then the confederates got overconfident. The southern leadership was so sure the union army would have to surrender that confederate president Jefferson Davis ordered a quarter of the Confederate army to strike north in pursuit of another isolated union army. When grant realized the enemy’s forces had depleted, he began making plans to attack. As reinforcements trickled in, Grant was soon at a numerical advantage, but the confederates were still dug-in on steep hills that would be incredibly difficult to attack, so Grant had to account for that. His army first attacked the confederates on the two flanks of their position, forcing them to thin their center to prevent being rolled up from the sides, then he launched his attack on the reduced center, overwhelming the thinned confederate lines with a tidal wave of men that washed clean through the confederate camps and captured 4,000 men. The union army in Chattanooga had been saved and the confederates routed. After winning the war in the west, Grant had now opened the road to Atlanta and the confederate center. He assigned William T Sherman the duty of finishing up there, for Grant had bigger fish to fry. The war wouldn’t end until he beat Robert E. Lee and won the East, and the time for the final confrontation was at hand.
But first, a bit more on Lee.
The South’s most feared general was originally considered one of its weakest. Before taking command of the army of Northern Virginia, Lee had lost the first battle he fought and was reassigned to manage coastal defenses, where he was mocked as the “king of spades” because he’d ordered white soldiers to dig trenches. Didn’t he know the civil war was being fought so slaves could be made to do all the digging?
Lee didn’t get his big break until a union invasion reached the outskirts of Richmond in 1862, wounded the confederate general, and forced the confederacy to turn to Lee, because he was pretty much the only option left in the city. And people north and south pretty much agreed that rise of Lee would mean the fall of the confederacy.
Seriously. The union general who was about to deliver the coup de grace wrote Lincoln, “lol, they just put Lee in charge. This will be over quick,” but then Lee launched a series of attacks that, while they didn’t always result in victory, did succeed in bullying the union out of Virginia then, and every other time they tried to enter the state.
By the time Grant was having his turn in the East, he was the 7th union general to invade Virginia. The reason he’d succeed is he was the most aggressive.
The two-month-long Overland campaign opened on May 4 when Grant crossed the Rapidan river and tried to catch Lee by surprise by rushing his army through a dense forest known as the wilderness to open country on the other side where he felt his numerical advantage could end the war. Grant had a 2-1 advantage in men - the best he enjoyed the whole war - but he had a whole new staff of Eastern generals under him and most were terribly inept. Numerous opportunities to win the war would be wasted during this campaign when orders were carried out slowly, or not at all, starting in the Wilderness.
Because, here’s the thing, Grant thought he could get through the wilderness in a day, and he thought he’d get through without Lee noticing, and he was wrong on both counts. His new commanders bumbled slowly through the wilderness, and Lee, who had been anticipating such a move, threw himself on Grant’s the flank. Two days of brutal fighting nearly destroyed both armies several times until, on the third day, Grant disengaged and snuck out of the woods to the open country to the south, his army intact.
Grant spent the next 48 days trying to get around the side of Lee’s army so he could catch him in the open before the king of spades could dig his trenches which, well, it turns out those were a really good idea and southern gentlemen just had to get over themselves, because we’re approaching world war 1 levels of slaughter. But Grant’s slow generals kept bumbling away opportunities.
At one point, grant managed an impressive river crossing without Lee noticing, which was basically Lee’s last chance to defeat grant. If Lee had attacked Grant’s army when it was half across the river, he surely could have easily defeated both halves of the army in turn. But Grant was able to pull off the maneuver without Lee noticing by sending his cavalry on a raid deep into confederate territory, forcing Lee to send his cavalry – his eyes and ears – in pursuit.
Once across the river, Grant ordered his generals to rush to the town of Petersburg, which was the main rail junction connecting the confederate capital of Richmond to the rest of the south. Capture Petersburg and Lee would be unable to be reinforced, or to escape.
For the final time, bumbling prevented Grant from capturing the city outright, but he settled in for a siege, and at this point he knew it was just a matter of time until the war was over. For the next 10 months, Grant slowly extended his siege lines around Petersburg until all roads and rail lines into the city were cut and Lee, who had half the men, was stretched too thin to hold his lines.
By April, 1865, Lee was reduced to desperate gambits. He attacked Grant’s lines, hoping to distract the union army so the confederate army could escape the other direction, but his diversionary attack was easily rebuffed, because trenches worked just as well for the union as they did for the rebels, and he had to evacuate Petersburg and abandon Richmond with the union army nipping at his heels. Lee’s only hope was to rush west until he could get around Grant’s army and link up with the only other confederate army left in the field, somewhere further south. But Grant’s cavalry kept a step ahead of Lee the whole way, capturing supplies and destroying rail lines that Lee was counting on using. On April 9, 1865, Grant finally caught up with Lee himself at Appomattox courthouse where Lee and an exhausted confederate army surrendered.
The civil war was over.
Five days after Lee’s surrender, Grant was back in Washington D.C. celebrating the end of the war when president Abraham Lincoln invited him to catch a play at Ford’s theater. Grant initially said yes, but later backed out when his wife convinced him they should see their children instead. Had Grant attended, he would have been present when John Wilkes Booth entered the president’s box and shot President Lincoln in the head. For years afterward, Grant regretted not going, convinced he could have saved the president’s life if he’d been there.
The assassination at Ford’s theater changed everything. Vice President Andrew Johnson came to power, and Grant’s next four years were a careful dance of keeping your friends close, and your enemies closer.
As general-in-chief, Grant played a key role in Johnson’s administration. When Johnson showed he had no interest in defending freedmen or stopping the black codes, congress overrode his vetoes to impose military rule in the south until those states ratified the 14th amendment, which outlawed slavery and extended the vote to the freedman. And then, to make sure this policy was carried out, Congress put Grant and the military in charge of implementing it and passed a rule saying Grant could only be removed with Congressional approval. The 11 former states of the confederacy were grouped into five military districts, each answering to Grant.
But Johnson was too savvy to be defeated so easily. He couldn’t remove grant, but he could remove the military district commanders. When those commanders began cracking down on white supremacists, including governors, police chiefs, and city councilmen, who were coordinating massacres of freedmen, Johnson responded by firing four of the five district commanders and the secretary of war – all over Grant’s protest. This mass firing led to Congress impeaching Johnson, an ordeal he survived by only a single vote. But Grant’s actions, honorably defending the freedmen despite tremendous pressure from Johnson, won him the accolades of the entire GOP. Four days after Johnson survived his impeachment trial, Grant was nominated unanimously at the GOP convention in Chicago, where he was the only candidate put forth.
The 1868 presidential campaign would be such a cakewalk, Grant didn’t even have to run. The Democrats put forth a nominee who wanted restore white supremacy in the south and turn back reconstruction, and he was hammered 214-80 in electoral college. The GOP also retained a 2/3 majority in senate and 4/5 majority in house. The only campaign stop grant ever made was his first, a speech and parade in DC when he accepted his party’s nomination and said, “Let us have peace.”
AND SO, On March 4, 1869, Ulysses S. Grant, the one-time penniless veteran-turned-hero of the Civil War and champion of reconstruction, was sworn in as the 18th president of the United States. At 46 years old, he was the youngest president elected to date, and he’s still the fourth youngest as of 2021. Let’s take a quick look at the world and country he inherited as president.
Internationally, a French puppet government in Mexico that had supported the confederacy had been overthrown with rifles supplied by General-in-Chief Grant in 1867 – meaning Grant now had a friend on his southern border. Which was good, because relations with Britain and English-controlled Canada were at a low point and a Cuban revolt against Spanish rule was threatening to pull the United States into war with Spain due to popular pressure to support the rebels. There was quite a bit to sort out here.
Domestically, the biggest issue was reconstruction and the fate of the freedmen in the south, where the old plantation class was doing everything it could to reassert the old order of black subservience to white rule. On the western frontier, aggressive expansion was putting the United States into conflict with the plains Indian tribes, and all-out war threatened to break out at any moment.
So Grant had a lot to deal with. And the thing is, he’s going to deal with all of it! In 8 years, Grant will resolve our diplomatic crisis with great Britain, avoid a war with Spain, develop a new native American policy, defend the freedmen, and redefine the federal government’s responsibilities during a financial panic. Oh. And he will have to deal with some corrupt administration officials.
Let’s start with the greatest of the dramas, Grant’s defense of the freedmen during reconstruction.
By 1870, the domestic terrorist group known as the Ku Klux Klan was rising across the south. The Klan was basically the militant wing of the Dixiecrats – southern white supremacist democrats - and its goal was to destroy the republican party in the south and keep the freedman subservient to white men.
Congress responded by creating the Department of Justice. That’s right, this is the origin of the DOJ. And then Congress began giving it weapons. First, Congress made it a federal crime to deprive anyone of their civil or political rights . Then, in 1871, Grant asked the 42nd Congress to pass the Ku Klux Klan bill – a bill designed to break the Klan’s back. The bill made it a federal crime to “overthrow or destroy by force the government of the united states,” or to conspire to prevent persons from holding office, voting, or enjoying equal protection of the laws. Grant had to get personally involved to ensure the bill’s passage when it appeared headed for defeat, and it passed April 20, 1871.
That bill + the DOJ led to more than 3,000 Klan indictments in 1871 alone. The approach will sound familiar to anyone who has ever watched a mob movie – the little guys were let go if they squealed on the ringleaders. 600 convictions were secured. But the DOJ was not winning this war. Sure, it was making thousands of arrests, but the Klan was committing thousands of murders – there were 2,000 lynching’s during reconstruction alone according to a 2020 report from the Equal Justice Initiative - and they committed countless other whippings, burnings, and atrocities on top of that.
Southern resistance to reconstruction never waned. It just changed shape. And in the north, support began to run out…
And then the Louisiana disaster happened, and the Supreme Court pulled the rug out from under everything.
In 1873, Louisiana white supremacists formed armed paramilitaries called “White Leagues” to overthrow the fairly-elected and black-friendly Republican government of the state and replace it with a shadow government of dixiecrats. The White Leagues were just the Klan reborn under a different name. And on Easter Sunday, 1873, they attacked a militia of freedmen who were protecting a courthouse in central Louisiana and murdered more than 100 blacks, many after they’d surrendered. The DOJ came in and did what it could – 72 indictments, 3 convictions – just three! And then the Supreme Court threw those convictions out. The trial is known as the Cruikshank case, and in it, the Supreme court ruled Congress did not have the power to legislate ordinary crimes in the states. This gutted huge parts of the legislation the DOJ had been using to combat the Klan. This trial’s outcome was especially vexing to Grant because three of the four men he’d put on the court ruled against him in the case.
In 1874, it got worse. The emboldened Louisiana white leagues launched an attack on the statehouse in New Orleans. 3,500 whites overran the building, killed 11 defenders, and succeeded in installing the Dixiecrat shadow government. Grant responded without hesitation. 5,000 soldiers backed by gunboats were sent to New Orleans to drive the white leagues out of the city and reinstall the lawfully elected government.
Unfortunately for Grant, national support had finally run out. In response to this crackdown in Louisiana, the midterms turned against Grant and the Republican Party. The Democrats won the house of representatives for the first time since before the war. Congressional support for reconstruction was over. The final deathknell would come two years later, in the contested election of 1876. More on that in a minute.
Reconstruction was the craziest and most tragic drama of Grant’s presidency, but it was hardly the only seismic event shaking the country during his eight years in office.
Let’s start with Black Friday, 1869.
Early in Grant’s administration, two Wall Street speculators concocted a plan to corner the U.S. gold market. In early September, they started buying all the gold they could get their hands on. And every bit of gold they bought, they took out of circulation, reducing the gold supply and, therefore, increasing the value of gold. Their plan was to buy low, drive up the value, then sell high. But this had disastrous effects for the rest of the economy. For example, all international purchases had to be made in gold back then. So, when these guys cornered the gold market, importers couldn’t acquire the gold they needed to make international purchases with, and that caused the whole economy to start freezing up.
And they would have gotten away with it too, if not for President Grant. Grant ordered his secretary of the treasury to dump $4 million of federal gold into the economy, ending the gold shortage in an instant and collapsing the price of gold back to where it had originally been. Trade could flow again, but the episode was still a shock to the economy. As brokerages closed, commodity prices dropped, and aggregate stock prices on Wallstreet fell 20%.
But that was small potatoes next to the Panic of 1873. The years after the Civil War had been a boon for railroads, which had rapidly grown across the country thanks to government subsidies. Those subsidies made railroads look like sure-fire bets to investors, and they were not. When one of the larger railroads was unable to pay off its investors, that triggered a wave of defaults that rippled across the economy and threw the nation into one of the more severe depressions of the 19th century. And this time, Grant had no answers. This was certainly another factor in the Democrats coming to power in Congress during the midterm elections of 1874.
Ok, so that’s the economy. Let’s jump to international relations.
Relations between the U.S. and Great Britain and Canada were at another low for a lot of reasons, but the biggest was the case of the Alabama. Back during the civil war, Great Britain had built a warship for the confederate navy that wreaked havoc on American shipping. That ship was called The Alabama and the United States wanted Great Britain to pay it back for the damages The Alabama had caused.
On this front, Grant got lucky. Britain was concerned war could break out with Russia any minute and so it wanted to resolve these differences with the United States pronto. Both sides sent commissioners to Washington D.C. and a 46-article treaty that covered every possible wedge between the U.S. and Britain and Canada were hashed out. Fishing rights, control of the San Juan Islands near Seattle, the Alabama, you name it. The treaty of Washington was a landmark in international arbitration and, from that day forth, there was never again another diplomatic crisis between the U.S. and Great Britain.
So that’s international relations, let’s hit American-Indian affairs!
When Grant became president, the country was on the verge of war with the plains Indians, and the reasons will sound familiar. Americans were encroaching on native American land, prompting indigenous reprisals, which prompted American military reprisals. The United States was also violating treaties that promised aid to the tribes if they moved to reservations in Oklahoma and south Dakota – the promised aid never arrived because Congress kept holding it up.
Grant acted by forming a board of respected reformers to investigate native American affairs and issue annual reports. These reports helped open the nation’s eyes to how it had mistreated the indigenous people. Grant then sought to replace corrupt Indian agents, who had been pocketing supplies meant for the Indians, with Quakers and army officers, who proved less corrupt. By 1870, the approach had produced peace with the major plains tribes, but it was fleeting. Grant put a little too much trust in a couple of his old civil war generals who were much more interested in killing Indians than making peace with them. One of the generals allowed buffalo hunters to drive the southern tribes to revolt by exterminating the buffalo on their land, and then violently put them down. Another general allowed gold hunters into the south Dakota reservations, then brutally put down the tribes who tried to drive these encroaching miners off. This second struggle is actually one you’ve likely heard of – this is where we get Custer’s last stand. Custer was an overconfident Lieutenant colonel who led his men into a battle they weren’t ready for and got them entirely wiped out.
So Grant’s native American policy was definitely a mixed bag. He seemed to have better intentions than any other president, but some of his subordinates definitely let him down.
Which takes us to the incredible levels of corruption in Grant’s administration.
One of his attorney generals used department funds to pay for a lavish lifestyle.
One of his secretaries of War was impeached for bribery.
One of his secretaries of the interior ran some kind of feather bedding scheme with his son.
But all three were topped by an old war colleague whose scandal is known as the whiskey ring. This guy was a tax collector in St. Louis, and he was supposed to collect a 70-cent tax on whiskey. But, instead of collecting that tax for the government, he let two thirds of the region’s whiskey go untaxed if the distillers would give him and his men a 35-cent kickback instead. And if 35 cents doesn’t sound like a lot, you don’t appreciate how much whiskey they drank in St. Louis. Millions of dollars were siphoned into corrupt pockets this way. When the ring was finally broken up, 238 conspirators were indicted and 110 were convicted. Grant’s own white house assistant was implicated, but later cleared by a Jury when Grant deposited in his defense.
It wasn’t great!
And while this resulted in a drumbeat of negative headlines and certainly makes you question Grant’s judgment in who he appointed, I don’t know that it really deserved to be the top things Grant is known for. Grant is the man who won the civil war! He fought for the freedmen during reconstruction. He tried to reform the country’s native-American policy, re-thought how the government can be used to make the economy better, and permanently resolved diplomatic differences with Great Britain. There’s a lot more to him than a guy who picked some bad cabinet appointees, but I guess that goes back to where I started today’s episode – The civil war, and Ulysses S. Grant, is a rare example of history being written by the losers.
In 1876, Grant announced he would not seek or accept reelection, and then he stayed politically neutral through the primary and general election season. And then, when 1876 turned into one of the craziest elections of all time, he provided a steady hand that helped the country survive the crisis. And when I say crazy, I mean crazy. The 1876 presidential outcome will only be guaranteed when the winner promises to end reconstruction and withdraw the remaining federal troops from the south in exchange for a peaceful transition of power.
So yeah, get ready for that madness in episode 19 - Rutherford B Hayes.
On March 4, 1877, Grant departed public life and the presidency. For the first time since before the civil war he was a private citizen again.
So how had the United States, and the world changed during the eight years of the Grant administration?. The first transcontinental railroad was completed on May 10 1869. This was huge. Travelers no longer had to sail down to panama and cross the ithsmus like Grant had to do. They could now get from New York to San Francisco in seven days by train. Woah!
In other news, Colorado became the 38th state in 1876, Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to run for president in 1872 with Frederick Douglass as her running mate – running at a time before most women could even vote; and in 1876, a teacher of the deaf named Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone, changing his life and transforming the way we all communicate.
It was a pretty busy eight years in America.
Internationally, there was also a lot going on. The Suez Canal opened in 1869, reducing the time it took for ships to get from Europe to south Asia by 10 days; In 1870, Prussian Chancellor Otto Von Bismark launched the Franco-Prussian War, smashing the french empire in six months and officially creating a new country called Germany and its German empire; And as France fell in that war, the people of Paris rose up and created a new city-state government called the commune of Paris. This progressive and secular government would collapse in less than two months when the national French government basically invaded, and they were also scary as hell to the world’s capitalists, who portrayed the Commune of Paris as a Communist uprising. The decades ahead are going to put the labor-owner relationship in sharp contrast and owners will often point to the commune as Paris as the “omg, look what these people will do if we take our boots off their necks.” So. Yeah. Get ready for more labor strife.
After leaving the presidency, Grant embarked on a world tour. He palled around with Bismarck in Germany, met the emperor of Japan, and brought a prominent journalist with him to report on the whole trip. By the time he got home, he was rested, popular, and ready to run for president again.
That’s right, in 1880, Grant ran for a third term as president of the United States, and he’s going to come really close to winning, but he’ll ultimately come up short. Why? Because he once again picked the wrong man for an important job. The man he tabbed to be his floor manager at the Republican convention – the person responsible for getting the delegates to nominate him – was a pompous jerk who drove more delegates away from Grant than toward him. 379 delegates were needed to win the nomination, and for 30+ ballots over two days, Grant was consistently right above 300. Until ultimately, his opponents coalesced around a compromise candidate, and Grant was denied the presidency. We’ll hear a lot more about that in episode 20 on President Garfield.
After this, Grant got into business. Grant and his son partnered with a guy named Ward to open the investment firm Grant and Ward in New York, and for the next few years, it was one of the most fantastically profitable firms on Wall Street. A little too fantastically profitable. Grant and his son were really just names on the masthead – guys who helped raise capital. Their partner, that Ward guy, he did all the investing and minded the books. And boy was he cooking the books. It collapsed in an instant. One day, Grant showed up for work, asked his son how it was going, and his son replied, “Grant and Ward has failed and Ward has fled.” And Grant just sort of slow-motion turned around, walked to his office, and fell into despair as the extent of the disaster hit him. Grant and Ward had $16 million dollars in liabilities and just $57 thousand dollars to cover them. His Accounts were seized and when he went home that night, the $80 he found in his pocket were the only $80 to his name.
Grant’s friends raised some money to help his family get by as they sold their belongings and drastically downsized, but it was hardly enough. And then Grant, who was famous for his love of cigars, was diagnosed with throat cancer. Writing like a man who was running out of time, Grant began work on his Memoirs and came to a publishing agreement with his old friend Mark Twain. He finished his memoirs in mid-july, 1885. He died of throat cancer a week later, on July 23, 1885. He was 63 years old.
Though Grant died near penniless, the sale of his memoirs earned $450,000 for his widow and family. One final mission accomplished for the old general.
So what can we learn from Ulysses S Grant? I think the lesson here is something I first heard in boy scouts, a million years ago. Friends are like elevators, they can take you up or down. Early in the Civil War, Grant’s friends were key to his success. Whether it was the generals who served under him, who carried out his orders so brilliantly, or politicians like Washburne and eventually Lincoln, who advocated for him in D.C. Grant’s success came because he had friends, at work and outside work, that lifted him up. Later in life, he trusted the wrong friends, like that floor manager who cost him the presidency in 1880, or that Ward guy who took the money and ran. And, well, let’s just say you don’t want friends like them.
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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The intro music was a recording of Isaac Brands from Smithsonian Folkway Records.
The primary biography for today’s episode was Grant, by Jean Edward Smith.
In our next episode, we’ll talk to Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site park ranger Nick Sacco about the pivotal moments that made Grant who he was, and we’ll take a closer look at his complex and still emerging relationship with slavery.
That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.