Enter a War Hero: President Ulysses Simpson Grant
Ulysses Grant’s two terms as president are usually considered the most corrupt of any of the presidencies in U.S. history. Why did an honest man suffer such horrible terms in office? For one reason, Grant ran the presidency like a military unit and appointed his friends to high-level positions. Most of these friends turned out to be corrupt. However, Grant defended and helped them, undermining his credibility and reputation.
Grant’s early career
Grant failed at many ventures early in his career. He tried his hand at farming and the selling of real estate before settling on a job as a clerk in a leather store, where he worked with his brother.
The Civil War made Grant’s career. After the creation of the Confederacy and the attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln called for local militia troops. Grant volunteered and became an officer in an Illinois regiment. He whipped the regiment into shape. Grant’s commanding officer was impressed, so he made him a colonel and sent him into battle.
Grant’s unit fought well in Missouri, and he was promoted to brigadier general in August 1861. Grant captured Forts Donelson and Henry in Tennessee, giving Lincoln the first major victories of the Civil War. In the process, he captured 14,000 Confederate soldiers and received the nickname “Unconditional Surrender” for always demanding unconditional surrender.
Becoming a war hero
The battle of Shiloh almost cost Grant his military career. He didn’t fortify his positions, waiting for reinforcements instead. When Confederate forces attacked, he was unprepared. Grant took the blame for the thousands of lives lost, and congressmen and cabinet officers urged Lincoln to fire Grant.
Lincoln stood by his man, saying, “I can’t spare this man, he fights.” Instead of firing Grant, Lincoln appointed him commander of all the Union forces in western Tennessee and northern Mississippi. Over the next three years, Grant fought many battles and won the following major victories:
- Battle of Vicksburg: Grant planned to attack Vicksburg, a Confederate stronghold in Mississippi, in the fall of 1862. The city was so heavily fortified that he bypassed it and instead conquered the capital, Jackson. Then, he moved back and attacked Vicksburg. After failing to take the city, he decided to starve it. After six weeks, the Confederate forces surrendered. Grant captured 30,000 men, and the North took control of the Mississippi River.
- Battle of Chattanooga: In November 1863, Grant, now the commander of the western forces, attacked Confederate forces besieging Chattanooga, Tennessee. After three days, Grant won the battle and freed Tennessee of Confederate forces. Grant’s victory also allowed for the invasion of the Confederacy by Northern forces.
- The Wilderness campaign: Grant became lieutenant general in early 1864, becoming just the third U.S. citizen to hold this position after George Washington and General Winfield Scott. In addition, Lincoln appointed Grant the commander of all Union forces, giving him command of more than half a million men and the chance to implement his own strategies. He stopped capturing cities and went after the major Confederate forces. This strategy proved bloody but successful. In May 1864, Grant attacked the Confederated forces, headed by General Lee himself. During the next month, Grant lost 60,000 men in Virginia’s wilderness. The battle ended in a draw. Grant’s subordinates were more successful, as General Sherman took Atlanta in the fall of 1864.
- Appomattox: After the fairly successful Wilderness campaign, Grant went back to his old strategy. He decided to slowly starve Lee’s armies, who were cooped up outside of Richmond, the capital of Virginia. Grant remained there from June 1864 to April 1865. His other generals slowly conquered the Confederacy during the same period. On April 9, 1865, General Lee surrendered to Grant. The Civil War was over.
In 1866, Grant received the highest honor the country could bestow on him: He became a full general. Only George Washington held this position before Grant. Grant’s duties were to demobilize, or discharge, the Northern military forces and supervise the process of Reconstruction.
Grant didn’t want to become a politician, but because of his popularity, the Republican Party insisted that he do so. President Johnson appointed him secretary of war in 1867. Grant agreed with Johnson on treating the South leniently. He resigned his position when the Senate declared that Johnson didn’t have the authority to fire his former secretary of war. Johnson accused Grant of disloyalty, and Grant subsequently joined the Radical Republicans. He even supported impeaching Johnson. Grant’s path to the presidency was set.
The Grant Presidency (1869-1877)
In 1868, there was no question who the Republican Party wanted to nominate for president — Grant was the unanimous choice. Grant won the general election in a landslide when he received 214 Electoral College votes to the Democratic nominee’s (Horatio Seymour, the Governor of New York) 80.
Grant, still the number one war hero, remained popular with the U.S. public despite a horrible first term and was nominated for reelection in 1872. He won the election by a larger margin than he had won in his first term.
President Grant got off on the wrong foot right away. He handed out federal jobs on the basis of family ties and friendship. He appointed more than 40 of his relatives to federal positions. Soon, scandals broke out. Many of the people Grant appointed turned out to be corrupt.
Some of the major scandals of the Grant administration included the following:
- The secretary of war, William Worth Belnap, resigned after defrauding Native Americans out of $100,000.
- The ambassador to Brazil, James Watson Webb, received $100,000 from the Brazilian government — the Brazilian government expected him to give a favorable report of them in Washington, D.C.
- The vice president, Schuyler Colfax, resigned after he admitted to bribery during his term as Speaker of the House.
- The secretary of the navy, George Robeson, received $300,000 for giving out contracts to preferred businesses.
- The president’s private secretary, Orville E. Babcock, was implicated in the Whiskey Ring for swindling the government out of millions in liquor taxes.
One of the main tasks Grant faced was reintegrating the South into the Union. By 1870, the Ku Klux Klan — an organization of white supremacists — was active in the South, and blacks were widely denied their civil rights, including the right to vote. Grant responded with the Force Acts of 1870 and 1871, which made it a federal crime to deny a person his or her civil rights. The only time that Grant used the acts was when he destroyed the Klan in South Carolina. He left the South alone after that. Slowly, segregation and legalized racism reemerged in the former Confederacy.
Passing on a third term
Grant briefly considered running for a third term. His wife loved being first lady, and Grant wanted to please her. But the Republican Party wasn’t keen on the idea of renominating him after all the scandals had taken place during his administration. So, he withdrew his name.
After serving out his second term, Grant took his wife on a two-year trip around the world. He briefly considered becoming the candidate for the Republican ticket in 1880, but he didn’t receive enough support. Grant then retired from politics.
Retirement wasn’t golden for Grant. He suddenly discovered that he was broke. He had allowed his son to invest his money, and when the investments turned sour, Grant was left penniless. To make some money, he wrote his memoirs. He finished his autobiography a week before he died from throat cancer on July 23, 1885 (at times, he smoked more than 20 cigars a day). His book became one of the finest accounts of the Civil War.
Mark Twain helped the Grants by pledging 75 percent of the royalties from his book, Personal Memoirs, to the Grant family. Grant’s widow, Julia, received over $500,000 from Twain’s pledge.