Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

A Life in Brief

Ulysses S. Grant is best known as the Union general who led the United States to victory over the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. As a two-term President, he is typically dismissed as weak and ineffective; historians have often ranked Grant's presidency near the bottom in American history. Recently, however, scholars have begun to reexamine and reassess his presidential tenure; recent rankings have reflected a significant rise.

Every President presents historians with some contradictions, but Grant might do so more than most. He was quiet and soft-spoken but able to inspire great bravery from his soldiers on the battlefield. He was an honorable man who was unable or unwilling to see dishonor in others. He disdained politics but rose to the country's highest political office. He was no great orator, but he possessed a coherent political philosophy mirrored in Lincoln's Republican Party that won the war, freed the enslaved people, and saved the Republic. Grant presided over a powerful if unstable economy unleashing productive capacities only dreamed of before the Civil War. A great supporter of the transcontinental railroads, Grant oversaw the completion of the one running from Sacramento, California, to Omaha, Nebraska, in 1869 in his first year in office. Overall, Grant's intentions were honorable, and he made efforts that few had attempted before him, especially in the areas of African American rights, Native American policy, and civil service reform. He also executed a successful foreign policy and was responsible for improving Anglo-American relations.

Early Life

Ulysses Grant was born in Ohio, the first of six children. He was small, sensitive, quiet, and well-known for his talent with horses. He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point in New York and excelled in mathematics, writing, drawing, and horsemanship. After graduating, he was assigned to an infantry company in Missouri. His company soon moved south to prepare for the conflict brewing with Mexico over disputed Texas territory. From 1846 to 1848, Grant fought in the Mexican War and was twice cited for bravery.

After the war, Grant moved to various Army postings in Detroit, New York, and the Pacific Northwest. He resigned suddenly from the Army in 1854 and returned to the Midwest to be with his family. Grant then attempted a variety of jobs, including farming and insurance sales, before finding work in his family's leather goods store in Galena, Illinois. Through these difficult times, he relied on his wife, Julia Dent Grant. The two were a devoted couple and adoring parents to their four children.

Civil War Hero

When the American Civil War began in 1861, experienced officers like Grant were in short supply. The Illinois governor assigned him to make a disciplined fighting unit out of the rebellious Twenty-First Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Lieutenant Colonel Grant drilled the men, instituted badly needed discipline, and soon earned the respect of the volunteers. The Army noted his efforts and promoted him to brigadier general.

Grant garnered attention as he led his troops to fight and win battles in the Western Theater. He captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in Tennessee, forced the surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi, and defeated a larger Southern force at Chattanooga, Tennessee. In the last year of the war, he was both praised and criticized for his willingness to fight and sustain a high number of casualties. Grant helped end the bloody Civil War when he directed the Union forces to lay siege to General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in Petersburg, a small city south of Richmond, Virginia, forcing its surrender in April 1865. At that point, General Grant was the most revered man in the Union.

Lincoln's tragic assassination at the end of the Civil War was followed by the ineffective leadership of President Andrew Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee. Johnson urged a moderate approach to Reconstruction that would not punish the South or protect the rights of the newly freed slaves beyond emancipation. Radical Republicans wanted to ensure the civil and political rights of African Americans. In the election of 1868, postwar social and economic policies were the major campaign issues. The Republicans backed Grant, who concluded his acceptance speech with "Let us have peace." The popular general won the election to become the nation's eighteenth President.

Presidency

Coming into office, President Grant alienated party stalwarts by rejecting party politics. When he appointed his cabinet, he did not turn to Republican leaders for their advice. Instead, he chose people he thought he could trust and to whom he could delegate responsibility. This strategy led to some good cabinet appointments but also to a number of dubious ones. Grant was also loyal out of all proportion to anyone who had helped him or worked with him. As a result, he was sometimes unwilling to remove ineffective people, and some areas of his administration suffered from incompetence and corruption.

In his first inaugural address, Grant spoke of his desire for the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which sought to grant citizens the right to vote regardless of race or previous servitude. He lobbied hard to get the amendment passed, angering many Southern whites in the process. He also, on occasion, sent in the military to protect African Americans from newly formed terrorist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, which tried to prevent blacks from participating in society. Grant incurred the wrath of citizens who blamed him for the economic woes that plagued the nation in the aftermath of the war. In 1872, however, Grant won reelection by a landslide.

During his second term, a depression in Europe spread to the United States, resulting in high unemployment. Like so many Presidents before and after Grant, scandals tended to divert attention from the administration's policy agenda. Although Grant was never personally implicated in any of the scandals, he did not disassociate himself from the members of his administration who were guilty. His inability to clean up his administration tarnished his reputation in the eyes of the American public. In 1875, he announced that he would not seek a third term. The Republicans nominated Rutherford B. Hayes to be their standard-bearer in the 1876 election.

After his presidency, Grant found himself in economic difficulties and dying of throat cancer. He lost his money in a financial scandal, yet he was determined to provide for his family after his death. After Century Magazine approached him to write articles about his Civil War experiences, Grant discovered that he enjoyed the process and decided to compile his memoirs. He approached this last battle as he had all others—with grim and dogged determination. His final days were spent on his porch with pencil and paper in hand, wrapped in blankets and in fearsome pain, slowly scrawling out his life's epic tale. He completed the book just days before his death. It was hugely successful and provided for his family's financial security.