Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant; drawing by David Levine

Biography is one thing, history another. Most of the earlier biographers of U.S. Grant, however, have responded to the formidable challenge the subject presents by writing chunks of history, military and political. Some of that history has been quite good. Far the best and largest part has been military history, and surely that is a story worth telling. But President Grant was the central figure in American political history for more than twice as long as General Grant was a dominant figure in Civil War history. And the two careers together account for less than a dozen of his sixty-three years. What then about the enigmatic and insignificant-looking man behind it all, the little man with the hurt look in his eyes?

For a time it seemed as if Lloyd Lewis, a talented writer, would bring it off with a multi-volume biography, but he died after completing one small volume covering Grant’s early years.1 Bruce Catton then took over that work, using Lewis’s notes to supplement his own, but he added only two readable volumes on the war years.2 In the meantime the professionally edited volumes of Grant’s papers began to appear, eight of them so far.3 These enhanced the opportunities of the biographers, but most of the essential sources had been available a long time. And yet after a century we were still waiting for the real biography.

The great difficulty that has baffled Grant biographers all along has been how to reconcile the appalling disparities in the man’s public record, the apparent contradictions in his behavior, the stark contrasts over the years in his status and self-esteem. Abject failure and world fame; superb mastery of the world’s most powerful army and hopeless incompetence in the most powerful political office; liberator of the slaves and betrayer of the freedmen; common man’s hero and rich man’s friend; a loner who was terrified of being alone; an offspring of the obscure who abhorred obscurity and was frightened by the obscure (“Meekness and grimness meet in him,” wrote Herman Melville); a figure of legendary shyness with an insatiable gluttony for public acclaim; a man who blanched at the sight of blood (even a medium-rare steak) and loosed the most copious bloodbaths in our history. And always back and forth from poverty to riches, from failure to triumph, from humiliation to glorification.

Yet this, so Professor William S. McFeely tells us, was all one man—Ulysses S. Grant by name (although he was not named that)—paradoxes, anomalies, incongruities, disparities, and irreconcilabilities to the contrary notwithstanding. This biographer does not demand an act of faith on the part of his reader. He does not rely on the persuasiveness and plausibility of narrative. He does not try to dazzle us with fancy models, or theories, or “conceptualizations.” And he does not pull any startling new evidence out of his hat. In fact his findings, though he has mined the archives scrupulously, do not appreciably change our reading of history. It is not history he is writing but biography, and biography is an art of portraiture. The picture that emerges in this admirable book is a moving and convincing portrait of the whole Grant. It is the biography for which we have been waiting.

The early years of obscurity and misery are essential to the picture. The Grants were a family on the decline, so much so that Ulysses’s father Jesse had to be apprenticed as a child and never knew the security of a family. He married a bit above his status, but between Hannah Grant and her son Ulysses there remained a strange “detachment.” (He could not find a room for her at his inauguration, and she never visited the White House.) At seventeen he escaped home and his father’s stinking tannery across a narrow street by entering West Point. He hated the academy and the peacetime army. Only war interested him. He got a taste of that, but little glory, in the war with Mexico. Soon afterward he did the only successful and enduring thing he was to do for many years: he married Julia Dent. This stumpy little person with a defective eye that moved up and down involuntarily and “more neck than chin” was to bear him four children and remain the center of his life.

Ulysses desperately needed a center, and Julia herself was snatched from him, or rather he from her, when he was ordered to duty on the West Coast in 1852 and she remained in the East. More than two years of separation, filled with failed speculations that were the consequence of his own bungling or being repeatedly gulled by con men, left him broke and came near breaking his spirit. Dangerously depressed and alienated, he took to the bottle and resigned his commission as an army captain. “Grant did not leave the army because he was a drunk,” writes McFeely. “He drank and left the army because he was profoundly depressed.” Later episodes with the bottle—and they were recurrent—are dealt with here in the same spirit of candor and understanding.


Back with Julia and his family, without money, job, or trade, he tried anything that came to hand and failed at them all. He took a turn at farming with slave labor, then with free labor, and then with his own two hands, and wound up peddling firewood on a St. Louis street corner in a fading blue army overcoat. He borrowed from friends and sponged on relatives. After six years of humiliation he took the most humiliating step of all by throwing himself on the mercy of his father and admitting that he was still a failure at the age of thirty-eight. “My head is nearly bursting with pain,” he wrote Julia on arrival at his father’s house. Jesse offered his son the job of clerk in his leather-goods store at Galena, Illinois, run by two younger sons. There Grant was installed in the summer of 1860, greeting customers with the old listless, hurt look in his eyes.

Then came the war and U.S. Grant came to life. War seemed to be the only thing that had that effect. The result was no single leap to fame, but rather the swift education of an extremely apt pupil in the new art of total war. He learned the art quicker than any of his rivals and overcame his reputation of being a drunk soon enough—but not too soon—to apply what he had learned effectively. His capture of Fort Donelson in Tennessee, in February, 1862, was the first important Union victory in the Civil War. Soon afterward Ulysses wrote Julia, “Is father afraid yet that I will not be able to sustain myself?” With his new-found confidence he marshalled sufficient political pressure and self-control to thwart his superior’s repeated efforts to disgrace and remove him. Only after these efforts of General Henry W. Halleck were overcome and his blundering delays and ludicrous mistakes of strategy and tactics were endured could Grant get on with the invasion of the Confederacy.

The terrible carnage at the Battle of Shiloh persuaded Grant that the South could not be brought to surrender by spectacular battles, occupation of cities and territory, or control of rivers and commerce. In his view a whole society had to be defeated and its armies destroyed. That was the hypothesis on which he relentlessly proceeded to command Union armies from Shiloh all the way to Appomattox. And if a leading American military historian is to be believed, Grant left his indelible imprint on the American way of war, which is said to be characterized ever since by a strategy of “annihilation.”4

That seems a strong word for the policy actually pursued by Grant and more typical of the rhetoric of Sherman or Sheridan. What Grant meant was that this was a war for survival—survival of the Union or survival of the Confederacy—and not for “victory” in the conventional sense. It was not enough to defeat the southern armies in battles. They had to be destroyed. As long as they fought, it was the Confederacy that survived, not the Union. Grant also meant that the will and morale of the society that sustained those armies had to be broken, utterly crushed. The means to that end was ruthless terror brought home to the civilian population of the South at first hand.

The last year of the war, with Grant in full command, and even before that, the fighting was waged with a brutality unthinkable in the earlier years. As the sickening casualty figures soared, so did Grant’s reputation as a butcher. His defense was that heavy losses to end the war were better than losses in an endless stalemate that encouraged the enemy and supported his cause. The decisive advantage lay with the side that had more bodies available for the butcher. On that assumption the outcome was inevitable. Lincoln gave his full support, and the butchery proceeded. A visitor watched the general during the bloodbath at Cold Harbor silently sitting with his staff members, constantly smoking and whittling a stick: “Among men he is nowise noticeable. There is no glitter or parade about him. To me he seems but an earnest business man.” Only occasionally was the calm broken by one of his devastating headaches and more rarely by a binge that threatened to get out of hand.

During the worst of it, however, Grant seemed most confident and resolute. The worst of it was the campaign of May and June through Virginia from the Rapidan River to the James, “a vast campaign,” as McFeely describes it, “that was a hideous disaster in every respect save one—it worked.” Things went wrong from the start and continued to go wrong through the nightmares, ineptitudes, and slaughter of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor (where Grant lost 6,000 men in an hour), and on to the siege of Petersburg. Lee was now pinned down, weakened, and bleeding. But Grant was no closer to Richmond than McClellan had been two years earlier, and he was immobilized before Petersburg for the last nine months of the war. Still in complete command, however, he saw to it that no stalemate ensued. The victories of General Thomas at Nashville, Sherman at Atlanta, and Sheridan west of Richmond eventually brought General Grant and General Lee together in the parlor of the farmhouse at Appomattox Court House for their classic and flawless tableau—and Grant’s hour of unchallengeable greatness.


There was really no way to go but down from there—down in some degree from that lofty peak. But once descent started, where would it end? It had been less than four years since he was down indeed, all the way down and had been there for long and bitter years. He remembered quite well the taste of poverty and failure and obscurity, and he abhorred and feared any return of it. Staying at the top was better. The triumphant hero’s welcome in Washington, the two-day victory parade of his armies, and round upon round of testimonial dinners had been glorious, but as his biographer says, he “needed still more accolades.” There was a lot to make up for, a vast amount of assurances needed. He must have known that after Lincoln’s death he was the symbol of national union and the military hero of the North. The question once more was what was he to do with himself.

The lure of politics proved irresistible. He had been feared as a possible candidate against Lincoln in 1864, and now he was thrust into alliance with President Johnson. Relations with Andrew Johnson proved a rough introduction to his new career. The president used him, and he eventually deserted and betrayed the president. His first important service to Johnson was his report on conditions in the South based on a superficial fiveday tour, and he was hailed as an oracle. He supported the conservative Johnson policy of reconstruction by urging that blacks be entrusted to the “thinking people of the South” and that black troops not be used there. He also approved of critics of the Freedmen’s Bureau and ignored mistreatment of freedmen. In spite of the report, radicals and other Republicans saw Grant as a valuable political asset and set out to convert and capture him. They captured him after a fashion without converting him. He deserted Johnson under circumstances humiliating to himself and became the next Republican president.

It was evident that politics, unlike war, did not make him whole, focus his energies, or clarify his mind. He was once more a troubled man. Paradox and confusion returned to plague him. He was a Johnson ally who became a Johnson enemy, a Democrat who was a Republican president, a conservative allied with radicals, a common man in the bosom of the privileged elite, a politician who had no political experience except in military service, who had never held a political office, and who could not make a public speech (he took no part in the campaign for his election). Military genius did not seem to carry over into politics. The general who chose his subordinates with consummate skill was a president who made a mess of his cabinet appointments, clung obstinately to crooks and betrayers, usually fired the better appointees, and made his nominations a revolving door for discredited incompetents, weaklings, and scamps during his eight years in the White House. In the opinion of Professor McFeely, “he was capricious and fitfully personal in his appointments,” and he was endowed with “no sense of statecraft.”

The statecraft in greatest demand during Grant’s administration was for the making and administering of reconstruction policy—what to do about the defeated whites of the southern states and the liberated slaves, and how to do it. Grant had shown little interest during the war in emancipation as a latedeveloping war aim and little but hostility toward the more radical war aim of the few for black franchise and racial equality. With her romantic illusion of a southern background (two generations removed) and her unromantic experience as a slave owner, Julia continued to speak up in the White House in defense of slavery. Her father, much in evidence at Washington, remained an unreconstructed rebel. Her oldest son Fred, a cadet at West Point, took a leading part in the harassment and persecution that eventually drove the first black cadet out of the academy. Confronted with his conduct in the presence of his father, Fred replied, “Well, no damned nigger will ever graduate from West Point.” The president took his son’s side and blamed the victim for the trouble.

In the struggle over enforcement of constitutional rights granted the freedmen, it was the defeated white South that advanced and the victorious North that retreated.5 When force and terror were required in the movement to deprive freedmen of their rights, they were used by the Klan and others. When force or the threat of it were required to enforce those rights and suppress the terrorists, they were generally not used. The reasons for the failure and abandonment of reconstruction are numerous and complex, and the fault cannot be pinned on any one man. Had President Grant been fired with zeal and convictions very different from those he actually held, the retreat from law and principle might have gone on anyway. The fact remains, however, that Grant did not help. In many ways he was a hindrance, and he bears a heavy share of the blame for the abandonment of reconstruction. He fired the only cabinet member (the second of five attorneys-general he appointed) who proved to be a genuine champion of human rights. Throughout the ordeal he exhibited lack of purpose, principle, and consistency. He wavered from pliancy to rigidity and back, and filled his record with blunders and incongruities.

As early as the fall of his first year as president, Grant received ample notice of the greed for money in people very close to him, including his wife, his sister, and his brother-in-law, greed so uncontrollable as to threaten his administration. This came out in the notorious scheme of Jay Gould and James Fisk, Jr., with whom Grant himself was known to consort, to corner the gold market through influence with the federal government. The corrupted official involved was forced to resign, but this episode had been a close call and should have been enough to warn the president to be on guard against corrupt influences. It does not appear to have had that effect. The effect was rather more caution on the part of the corrupt, but the corruption nevertheless continued and grew. The exposures were largely delayed until the second term, especially the last years of it.

The secretary of the treasury, involved in tax frauds, was the first cabinet member disgraced. Before it was all over, however, every one of Grant’s cabinet departments had been investigated, and one secretary after another, hauled before congressional committees or placed on trial, added to the disgrace of the crumbling administration. Down came the secretary of the interior, the secretary of the navy, the secretary of war, and with them subordinates and relatives. Among relatives implicated or smirched in one or more of the scandals were Grant’s son Fred, his brother Orvil, and Julia’s brother John.

Closer to home than any of these scandals, however, were the revelations about the Whiskey Ring, which had long been swindling the government out of huge amounts of liquor taxes. It was bad enough to have clear proof that Orville Babcock, Grant’s most trusted aide and closest friend in the White House, was a central figure and a chief beneficiary of the ring. The distressing thing was Grant’s reaction, his refusal to admit Babcock’s guilt, and the fantastic extremes to which the president went to cover up for him. “Ulysses Grant knew that Orville Babcock was guilty,” concludes McFeely, “and yet went so far as to perjure himself before the chief justice of the United States to keep his aide out of jail.” He suggests several possible reasons for the president’s conduct, none of them flattering, most of them appalling.

There was no place but the White House where the Grants now felt they really “belonged”—no place for them to go, “nowhere that was home.” Only the flood of scandals put a stop to the president’s astonishing hopes for a third term. His successor finally elected and installed after the crisis of 1876-1877, Ulysses told Julia he felt like “a waif.” Once more he faced the old question—what to do with himself. The solution of the nowhere-to-go problem was found in going everywhere, everywhere the celebrities and tourists of 1877-1879 went, anywhere around the world. There was no question about Grant’s celebrity status as America’s greatest military hero, whatever the ambiguities of his official status. The world wanted a look at him and got it. A hundred thousand miners and citizens at Newcastle marched, cheered, and gawked. Doors of every court in Europe were flung open to the plain American couple on their grand republican progression. Disraeli, Bismarck, Gorchakov, and any number of princes and potentates received the humble hero. When Queen Victoria withdrew early after her private dinner for them at Windsor Castle because of “fatiguing duties,” Julia is said to have assured her that she understood: “I too have been the wife of a great ruler.”

Court gossip was no doubt eager for such stories, including the one about six British sailors having to subdue the drunken hero at the viceroy’s dinner in Delhi. Only Gilbert and Sullivan could have done justice to the royal receptions in Siam, China, and Japan. Newspapers at home had Grant enduring the stupefying routine of luncheons, receptions, and dinners out of a sense of duty. “This is nonsense,” writes his biographer. “He and Julia had come to need this noise. They could not get enough of it.” It continued for more than two years and would have lasted longer but for a failure in transportation out of Japan.

The tour was a stupendous success from the point of view of powerful friends who, with Grant’s cooperation, were seeking a third term for him in 1880. It might have worked had he not returned too early. The hoopla of welcome-home pageants and banquets could not be sustained until the convention. He lost the nomination. That failing, the weary and impoverished traveler returned to the treadmill of fortune-seeking and the world of con men. First there was the presidency of a Mexican railroad, which turned out to be headed for trouble. Next came the adventure on Wall Street in partnership with his son Buck, who seemed on the road to riches. It then developed that Buck’s other partner had been playing fast and loose with securities and plunged his and other brokerage houses, along with the Mexican railroad, into failure. The miscreant partner fled the country, leaving Grant disgraced and destitute, an object of national pity and embarrassment.

It is hard to understand the miracle of redemption that followed in the writing of his Memoirs and harder still to account for the splendor of the achievement. It may have been in part the sheer desperation of his plight. It may have been the return to the war in which he had once discovered himself. Whatever it was, the core of greatness that had been squandered in acclaim or lost in luxury and squalor for twenty years returned to the man. With full knowledge that he was dying of cancer, he turned to the task and wrote the huge two-volume work in less than a year, completing it a week before he died on July 23, 1885. Samuel Clemens was his adviser and publisher, but not his collaborator. Nor was anyone else. U.S. Grant wrote that book. It was a book about his war, not his presidency. It was pronounced an American classic when it appeared and has been so regarded since then by readers as diverse as Matthew Arnold, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, and Edmund Wilson.

Even in his dying, Grant was unable to shake off the shoddiness of his generation. A real-estate promoter persuaded him to spend the last summer of his life at an absurdly decorated cottage in his “development” in the foothills of the Adirondacks. There he was displayed on the front porch in a top hat, pen in hand, as the chief tourist attraction of the summer. Special trains carried the tourists up, and long lines filed by the cottage to watch the great general dying. One day near the end he wrote a note—he could no longer speak: “I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun. A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three.”

With a final acknowledgment to Edmund Wilson for teaching us to take Grant seriously as a writer, McFeely concludes by saying, “All the present study has tried to do is to take him seriously as a man.” That proved a fortunate undertaking. It has been done in the right spirit, in the right style, and with profound understanding of the man as well as his period and his country.

This Issue

March 19, 1981