The Two Lives of General Grant

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


The grim Apache leader Geronimo, during the long years of his captivity at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, occasionally taunted his captors by reminding them that they had “never caught him shooting”—that is, taken him in battle. General (later President) Ulysses S. Grant, during long years of being photographed—in the field, at home, in the presidential mansion—might have taunted photographers in much the same way: they never caught him smiling and they rarely caught him clean. His great, fallen Captain, Abraham Lincoln, inspired photographers; Grant merely wore them down, as he had, in time, worn down Lee. There is one photograph, taken on Inauguration Day in 1869, just as Grant is about to become president, when he appears to be clean and sober, though not happy. Perhaps Julia Dent Grant, his formidable wife, had concentrated her efforts that special day in seeing that her husband had his shirt correctly buttoned and his tie tied, neither of which would likely have been the case in day-to-day life.

Put Grant in a fresh uniform and within half an hour it would look as if he had fought the Battle of the Wilderness in it. In uniform or out, Grant rarely seemed at ease, neither in his clothes nor in his skin. His penchant for casual, if not ragged, garb is never better illustrated than in the famous passage in his Personal Memoirs when he goes, at last, to meet Lee at Appomattox Courthouse in hopes of receiving the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia—as poignant a moment, in my view, as one will find anywhere in the history of war:

When I had left the camp that morning I had not expected so soon the result that was then taking place, and consequently was in rough garb. I was without a sword, as I usually was when on horseback on the field, and wore a soldier’s blouse for a coat, with the shoulder straps of my rank to indicate to the army who I was. When I went into the house I found General Lee. We greeted each other, and after shaking hands took our seats….

What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly….

General Lee was dressed in a full uniform which was entirely new, and was wearing a sword of considerable value, very likely the sword which…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.