Ulysses Grant: The Savior of the Union

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On July 23, 1885, Ulysses S. Grant died of throat cancer in Wilton, N.Y. In a recent biography, historian H.W. Brands presents a compelling case that Grant as both soldier and statesman was “the man who saved the Union.”

Historians have not always been so kind to Grant. He has been called a “butcher” for his strategy of attrition warfare during the Civil War, especially during the Overland Campaign against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in 1864. His two-term presidency is remembered most for scandals and corruption, none of which touched him personally. As a general, he has been overshadowed by Lee; as a political leader he has shrunk to insignificance in Lincoln’s shadow. But, just as the soldier-statesman George Washington was the indispensable man of America’s struggle for independence, the soldier-statesman Ulysses Grant was the indispensable man in saving the Union.

Grant’s major victories in the Western theater of the war — Forts Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, Chattanooga, and especially Vicksburg — split the Confederacy in two, leading to Sherman’s capture of Atlanta and subsequent march to the sea, and probably ensuring Lincoln’s victory at the polls in November 1864. Meanwhile, Grant came east and slugged it out with Lee’s army in the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, the North Anna River, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg, while he unleashed General Phillip Sheridan’s army to lay waste to the Shenandoah Valley. Grant’s strategy wore down Lee’s army, and he pursued it relentlessly across southern Virginia until forcing its surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.

As President of the United States from 1869 to 1877, Grant’s major task was to ensure that Reconstruction fulfilled Lincoln’s vision of guiding the rebellious southern states back into the Union. The end of the war did not change men’s hearts and minds, however, and Grant had to walk a fine line between exercising total federal control of state governments and passively accepting the political traditions of the Old South.

He was not always successful, and Reconstruction did not end the lynching and shooting of African-Americans nor the efforts to disenfranchise them and overtly discriminate against them. Nevertheless, Grant insisted on using federal authority when necessary to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments, and in 1875 signed into law a Civil Rights Act that Brands judges to be “the most ambitious affirmation of racial equality in American history until ... the 1960s.”

In the end, Grant the commanding general won the war, and Grant the President maintained the Union. “By the end of his public life,” writes Brands, “the Union was more secure than at any previous time in the history of the nation. And no one had done more to produce that result than he.”

Shortly before his death, Grant finished writing his memoirs, which many historians judge to be the finest, best-written memoirs written by any American president. He only agreed to write his memoirs because he lost all of his money in bad investments, was deeply in debt, and wanted to ensure his family’s financial security. In this he succeeded; "The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant" was a runaway bestseller, earning more than $450,000, a huge sum in those days.

One hundred and thirty years after he died, Ulysses S. Grant, even more so than Lincoln, deserves to be remembered as the savior of the Union.

Francis P. Sempa is the author of "Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century, America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War," and "Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier’s Journey through the Second World War." He has written on historical topics, including the Civil War, for The Washington Times, The Diplomat, Orbis (the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute), the University Bookman, Presidential Studies Quarterly, and other publications.

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