President Donald Trump went out of his way yesterday to honor the 250th birthday of Andrew Jackson in Tennessee, which in turn has amplified continued online conversation about who in American history is deserving of honor through public ceremony and monumentation. Writer Shaun King was quick to declare that “no President who ever owned human beings should be honored” and that “slavery was a monstrous system. Everybody who participated in it was evil for having done so. Period. No exceptions.”
Some of the most difficult work in public history right now, in my opinion, centers around the nature of public commemoration and understanding how societies choose to remember their past. These are difficult conversations to have and the boundary lines between “good” and “bad” are arbitrary and poorly defined. King’s argument is provocative and worth considering. Generally speaking, I agree that owning slaves was a choice and that participating in the institution of slavery is inexcusable. But once you read the story of Ulysses S. Grant, our last President to be a slaveholder, you might conclude that King’s argument is simplistic and not a very satisfying resolution to the question of who and who isn’t worthy of public honor.
Now, I make my living educating people about General Grant’s life and times, so it could be easy for a reader to claim that I am “biased” or that I am a Grant apologist. I would reject that claim. All I can say is that I have my views about Grant but that those views have been developed through years of vigorous study of the man based on the best historical scholarship around. I don’t approach my job with the intention of portraying Grant as a hero or a sinner to visitors, but rather seek to humanize his experiences and increase understanding of his beliefs, motivations, and actions within the context of 19th century history.
Ulysses S. Grant lived in St. Louis from 1854 to 1859. For most of that time he worked as a farmer and lived with his family at White Haven, his In-Laws slave plantation in South St. Louis county. During this time Grant somehow obtained one slave, William Jones (see here for a more detailed essay I wrote about Grant’s relationship to slavery). We don’t know how or why he obtained Jones, nor do we know for how long he owned him. We do know, however, that he freed Jones in March 1859 before leaving St. Louis, something many other slaveholding Presidents never did with their enslaved people. That was the extent of Grant’s personal experiences in slaveholding. Unfortunately for historians, Grant didn’t leave any letters before the war stating one way or the other how he felt about the institution as a whole. It appears that Grant never challenged slavery’s presence in America or considered the politics and philosophy of slavery in writing before the war.
Something changed in Grant’s mind during the Civil War, however. He embraced emancipation as a war aim and welcomed black troops into his ranks. By the end of the war, one out of seven troops in his ranks were black. During the initial phases of Reconstruction, Grant came to believe that President Andrew Johnson’s policies towards the South were too lenient and that the freedpeople deserved more protection against violence, black codes, and overt discrimination by whites. After the Memphis Massacre in 1866 Grant called upon the federal government to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators who killed 46 African Americans, which never happened. When Grant was elected President in 1868, he immediately called upon Congress and the states to ratify the 15th Amendment preventing states from banning men from voting based on their race. On March 30, 1870, he delivered a message to Congress in which he declared that the 15th Amendment was the most significant act in U.S. history and a repudiation of the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision:
It is unusual to notify the two Houses of Congress by message of the promulgation, by proclamation of the Secretary of State, of the ratification of a constitutional amendment. In view, however, of the vast importance of the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution, this day declared a part of that revered instrument, I deem a departure from the usual custom justifiable. A measure which makes at once 4,000,000 people voters who were heretofore declared by the highest tribunal in the land not citizens of the United States, nor eligible to become so (with the assertion that “at the time of the Declaration of Independence the opinion was fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race, regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics, that black men had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”), is indeed a measure of grander importance than any other one act of the kind from the foundation of our free Government to the present day.
In 1871 Grant responded to the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan by using the KKK Act to shut down the group. That year he also used his Third Annual State of the Union Address to call upon Brazil, Cuba, and Puerto Rico to abolish slavery. He repeated the theme in his Fourth Address, stating that the Spanish Empire’s continuation of slavery in Cuba was “A terrible wrong [that] is the natural cause of a terrible evil. The abolition of slavery and the introduction of other reforms in the administration of government in Cuba could not fail to advance the restoration of peace and order. It is greatly to be hoped that the present liberal Government of Spain will voluntarily adopt this view.” In future addresses he spoke out against other White supremacist groups in the South like the White League and Red Shirts who continued to commit acts of violence and sometimes outright massacres against African Americans in the South. And during his Post-Presidency world tour, Grant stated to Otto von Bismarck about the Civil War that “As soon as slavery fired upon the flag it was felt, we all felt, even those who did not object to slaves, that slavery must be destroyed. We felt that it was a stain to the Union that men should be bought and sold like cattle.”
Frederick Douglass spoke often about Grant and was a dedicated supporter of his Presidency. At one point he stated that “Ulysses S. Grant, the most illustrious warrior and statesman of modern times, the captain whose invincible sword saved the republic from dismemberment, made liberty the law of the land. A man too broad for prejudice, too humane to despise the humblest, too great to be small at any point. In him, the negro found a protector . . .” and recalled in his 1881 book Life and Times of Frederick Douglass that:
My confidence in General Grant was not entirely due to the brilliant military successes achieved by him, but there was a moral as well as military basis for my faith in him. He had shown his single-mindedness and superiority to popular prejudice by his prompt cooperation with President Lincoln in his policy of employing colored troops, and his order commanding his soldiers to treat such troops with due respect. In this way he proved himself to be not only a wise general, but a great man, one who could adjust himself to new conditions, and adopt the lessons taught by the events of the hour. This quality in General Grant was and is made all the more conspicuous and striking in contrast with his West Point education and his former political associations; for neither West Point nor the Democratic party have been good schools in which to learn justice and fair play to the Negro (433-435).
Is Grant someone who should never be honored, as Shaun King suggests?
My biggest issue with King’s argument is that it assumes that people in the past never changed their thinking over time and that a former slaveholder like Ulysses S. Grant could never come to realize that holding humans in bondage was wrong. Grant was far from a saint: his ownership of William Jones was inexcusable, his General Orders No. 11 during the war expelling Jews from his lines was inexcusable, and his Indian policy during his Presidency was well-intentioned but flawed. But are there not actions he took in his life that were commendable and worth honoring?
One of the bigger problems I see with this whole discussion is that we as a society should really focus on understanding before honoring. I would rather see President Trump read a book about Andrew Jackson than stage a big ceremony honoring the man (who, to be sure, has a horrid record as a slaveholder, racist, and Indian fighter, and is someone I wouldn’t be comfortable honoring). I would like for Americans to go to historic sites with the intention of understanding the life and times of historic figures. I would like for people to appreciate complexity, nuance, and the basic idea that people–then and now–often hold evolving and contradictory views towards politics.
I suppose my historical training has soured me on the idea of “heroes” as a general approach to appreciating history. I admire the words of the Declaration of Independence, but I haven’t forgotten that the author of those words raped Sally Hemmings. I admire Washington’s words about entangling alliances and the importance of Union, but I haven’t forgotten that he too was a slaveholder. I think Jackson was right on the South Carolina Nullification Crisis, but I won’t forgive him for the Trail of Tears or his violent slaveholding. I think Grant was wrong for being a slaveholder, but I appreciate the efforts he undertook as President to protect the rights of all, and I appreciate that he came around to believe that slavery was an evil wrong. I appreciate moments in history when right triumphed over wrong and people in the past took principled stands for positions that protected the rights of all Americans, but I never forget that people in the past were humans, not Gods, and that even the best humans have their flaws. And I never forget that American freedom was first established in this country on a co-existence with and acceptance of slavery.
In his popular 2001 biography of Ulysses S. Grant, Jean Edward Smith included a portrait of his parents with a caption that says “Grant’s parents, Jesse and Hannah. Jesse was a successful businessman, Hannah a lifelong Democrat who refused to visit her son in the White House.”
It turns out that Smith got the latter part of this statement wrong. It was actually one of Grant’s aunts who was a lifelong Democrat and refused to visit the White House, and regardless, Hannah was a quiet, stoic, and pious woman whose political views historians know little about. In the course of doing research on President Grant’s First Inaugural Address in 1869, however, I recently found visual and written evidence proving that Grant’s parents did, in fact, visit Washington, D.C. and most likely the White House.
Here is a picture from Grant’s 1869 Inaugural Address.
If you look slightly right from the center of the picture, you can see a man looking down at a paper in his hands – that’s President Grant. I’ve seen this picture several times over the past few years and I hadn’t bothered to look any closer than that. If you zoom in this picture, however, you can see two people sitting just to the right of the President who look to be his parents.
Further research confirms that Grant’s parents planned to be at the Inauguration. Jesse wrote two letters to Grant’s Brother-in-Law Frederick Tracy Dent in February 1869, a month before the event, that have been preserved in Volume 19 of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant. In the first letter, dated February 4th, Jesse asked Fred if he could find a suitable hotel for two family friends from Grant’s native Ohio who wanted to attend the Inauguration. Jesse further explained his plans for attending the event in the second letter, dated February 17th, and shared some of Hannah’s misgivings about being seen by so many people in public. “She has got the idea, that she would have to set up in the place where the Pres stands to be inaugurated–She says, Do you think I want to set [sic] up there for 50,000 people to gaze & point at? I would rather go when there are no strangers there.”
So much for that thought!
I don’t know if any Grant historians have ever noticed that his parents were at the Inauguration – I’ve never seen anything about it in any of the books I’ve read on him. In any case, it’s a cute story and we can safely conclude that Smith was mistaken. President Grant’s parents did in fact visit Washington, D.C. during his presidency.
The Ulysses S. Grant Association recently announced the death of Michael B. Ballard, a well-renowned Civil War historian and archivist, at the age of 70 from a massive heart attack. Dr. Ballard wrote more than a dozen books on the Civil War, including his 2005 work U.S. Grant: The Making of a General, 1861-1863, which I found to be a critical yet fair assessment of Grant’s generalship leading up to his command of U.S. forces at Vicksburg in 1862-63. Dr. Ballard wrote the following essay about Grant’s drinking habits shortly before passing away, and it’s included in the most recent Grant Association newsletter. I think it’s a succinct treatment of the topic and am sharing it here. Again, I did not write this essay. Enjoy!
U.S. Grant’s reputation for drinking too much liquor began with his time spent on the west coast before the Civil War. He missed his wife and children greatly and sought solace in whiskey. His problem was that he had a low tolerance for alcohol. Unfortunately, his reputation for drinking followed him for the rest of his career, both in the military, his presidency, and thereafter.
Almost all, if not all, the stories about various drunken states are apocryphal. For example, the few times he had accidental falls from his horse, stories immediately circulated that he had been drunk at the time. A well-publicized incident on a Grant boat trip up the Yazoo River during the Vicksburg siege was particularly damning, since it included a letter from his chief aide, John Rawlins, chastising Grant for drinking, seemingly on the trip. But the letter was written before the trip and apparently based on a wine bottle seen near Grant’s tent. Ironically, the story would not become widespread until long after the war.
Charles Dana, a representative of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who reported to Stanton from Vicksburg, was on board Grant’s boat, and he stated that Grant got ill and spent most of the trip in the boat’s cabin. Grant did have a problem with headaches, but when he had a severe one, many jumped to the conclusion that it was a cover for drunkenness. The boat never reached its intended destination, Sartartia, a village on the Yazoo where Union forces had been operating. Newspaperman Sylvanus Cadwallader wrote later that Grant had been in an advanced state of drunkenness during the trip, had acted wildly at Sartartia, and had been drinking copiously at a sutler’s wagon after the return to Chickasaw Bayou, the Union supply depot on the Yazoo. Then Grant had allegedly crawled astride his horse and ridden wildly through the camps of some of his men. It is worth noting that Union soldiers who would have witnessed such a ride wrote nothing about it in their numerous diaries and letters.
Cadwallader was not on the boat, but, if he had been, surely some Union soldiers on another boat that followed Grant’s vessel back to the supply depot, would have written about it, and the sailors on the boat would likewise have left accounts. If any did, their letters or reports have never surfaced. William T. Sherman, Grant’s close friend, said that on occasion Grant might drink too much, but that he encouraged Sherman to keep an eye on him and caution him. Sherman also said that, no matter how much Grant might drink, he would sleep for an hour and wake up totally sober. This would hardly classify Grant as an alcoholic, and Dana’s description of Grant’s conduct on the boat mirrors Sherman’s description.
Cadwallader wrote his account long after Grant’s death. He and James Harrison Wilson, who had been a Grant staffer during the Vicksburg campaign, were furious when Grant’s two-volume memoirs came out, after Grant’s death, because Grant had not praised Rawlins to their satisfaction. Rawlins acted as if he was Grant’s father, and he bullied Grant about the drinking stories, probably because Rawlins’ father was a drunk. Grant put up with much abuse from Rawlins, mainly because they were old friends, and Rawlins was a sound advisor. Cadwallader and Wilson put Rawlins on a pedestal, so they decided to bring up every story they could find about Grant’s alleged drunkenness. It was easy to seek revenge against a man who was dead.
But when Wilson saw what Cadwallader had written in a manuscript that would not be published until 1955 (Three Years with Grant), he wrote Cadwallader that he remembered no such incidents on the boat trip. Wilson contacted Dana, and Dana responded that Cadwallader had not been on the boat. Wilson so informed Cadwallader who responded that he had not seen Dana either. Therefore there must have been two trips. The record is clear; there was only one trip. Once the story was made public due to Cadwallader’s book, it became widely accepted and endorsed by many well-known historians who did not bother checking its veracity. Lost-cause Southerners loved it, and even though it has been proven false, it is nevertheless an ingrained part of Grant mythology. Grant would have been furious and Cadwallader disappointed that he did not live to see it in print. But, now that it is known that the tale was intentionally concocted, perhaps someday justice will prevail.
The bottom line is that there is no evidence that any of the things Cadwallader wrote about the trip up the Yazoo, and the wild ride after the return to the landing north of Vicksburg, ever happened.
A Letter to the Editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site
Ronald C. White, Jr., a popular biographer who’s written several books about American Christianity and Abraham Lincoln, recently published a new biography of Ulysses S. Grant that’s been getting national attention. While I haven’t had the chance to read the book yet and admit that I’m skeptical as to how many new findings White will uncover in it, the book is getting a lot of buzz and will hopefully expose more people to Grant’s story.
My local newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, recently published its own review of White’s book by Harry Levins, a retired writer for the paper. The review itself was okay, although he screwed up a bit about Grant being inspired to protect Native Americans because of his experience in the Mexican-American War. I’m not really sure where Grant developed his views towards Indians, but they were more likely influenced by his time doing frontier duty in Washington Territory and California in the early 1850s and his friendship with Ely Parker when the two first met in Galena, Illinois, around 1860.
In any case, what was most irksome to me and a number of my co-workers was Levins’s mentioning of Grant’s Farm as a relevant site to visit in the St. Louis area while completely omitting any mention of us at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. I was encouraged by my supervisors to write a letter to the editor of the Post-Dispatch and it was published in today’s Sunday edition of the paper. Here it is:
In the book review (“A man of modesty, calmness,” Nov. 6) of author Ronald C. White Jr.’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant, Harry Levins remarks that the book would be a useful read for local residents who might be taking guests to Grant’s Farm, the famous animal park operated by Anheuser-Busch InBev since 1954.
While Grant’s Farm is a wonderful family-oriented attraction worth visiting, Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, a 10-acre unit of the National Park Service that lies directly across the street from Grant’s Farm, is another family-oriented attraction that readers should take note of. The site is dedicated to preserving and interpreting the historic White Haven home where Grant’s wife, Julia, grew up and where Grant himself tried to make a living as a farmer in the 1850s.
The site also explores the lives of the enslaved people owned by Julia’s father, Frederick Dent, and the history of St. Louis in the years during the Civil War era. The site is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Perhaps readers of White’s biography will also be inspired to visit this national historic site and learn more about Grant’s connections to St. Louis.
Over the past year we at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site worked on an ambitious living history program that aimed to highlight the political issues of the 1872 Presidential campaign and re-create the atmosphere of a nineteenth century election. The program “Grant or Greeley – Which? The Election of 1872 Living History Program” happened this past weekend from Friday, September 9 through Sunday, September 11 and I think it was a great success. We had professional actors, staff, and volunteers portraying a range of figures including Frederick Douglass, Horace Greeley, and Victoria Woodhull. I portrayed Senator John A. Logan. We also designed a voting window where visitors had the chance to vote for their own preferred 1872 candidate (Grant won but Victoria Woodhull took second place ahead of Greeley), nineteenth century children’s games, an arts and crafts table, a band playing 1872 election tunes, and open-house tours of President Grant’s White Haven estate. It was a lot of fun for everyone involved.
I have previously voiced some skepticism about living history programs on this website, but I really think we put together a solid program. It was unique in that we moved away from the Civil War battlefield and focused on political issues and topics during the Reconstruction Era, something I don’t think you’d see too much of at other related sites. The program was probably the biggest one ULSG has ever had. Anyone who thinks a public history program centered around the Reconstruction Era won’t work with a lay audience should have listened to the questions and comments of interested visitors. We ended up having somewhere around 750 or 800 visitors who came to the park at some point during the weekend, which is pretty good. Some video footage of various speakers has been posted to the park’s Facebook page if you’d like to check it out. While we haven’t figured out what we’re doing from here, I hope this program is a sign of good things to come with our special event programming at ULSG.
I am breathing a sigh of relief for the moment, but it’s back in the saddle very soon as we start planning next year’s program.
Ulysses S. Grant has received much attention from historians and biographers over the past thirty years. So much attention, in fact, that an argument can be made that we might actually have an over-saturation of Grant studies on the market right now. During the first half of the twentieth century the most notable Grant biographers–William Hesseltine, William E. Woodward, Louis Coolidge, and Allan Nevins (whose study of Grant’s Secretary of State Hamilton Fish is in many ways a study of Grant and his presidency)–offered largely negative portrayals of Grant. The mid-1900s saw a dearth of Grant studies save for Lloyd Lewis and Bruce Catton’s biographical trilogy that went through General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. William McFeeley’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography brought renewed interest to Grant, but a combination of factors in the 1990s brought about a Grant renaissance that continues today, including a reevaluation of Grant’s generalship and presidency (and the Civil War era more broadly) within historical scholarship and at public history sites (Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary may have possibly influenced interest in Grant as well). Two years ago I wrote an essay on this website outlining my favorite and least-favorite Grant biographies that you can check out here.
With this post I aim to briefly analyze Grant biographies published since 2012 and update readers on what I know about upcoming biographies to be published in the future. I haven’t read all of these books yet but will provide additional commentary for the ones I have read. Off we go:
H.W. Brands – The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses S. Grant in War and Peace (2013): In recent years Dr. Brands has devoted his scholarly endeavors to telling the story of American history through biography, which includes works on Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Ben Franklin, and Ronald Reagan. With this Grant biography Brands looked to portray the Civil War era and nineteenth century history more broadly through the eyes of Grant. The Man Who Saved the Union, however, lacks analytical depth and doesn’t really tell us anything new about Grant. The source material is heavily skewed towards secondary sources and repackaging what prior biographers have said about the man. Overall the book is very similar in style to Jean Edward Smith’s 2002 biography of Grant but not as well researched. Readers who are new to Ulysses S. Grant could benefit from starting with The Man Who Saved the Union, but others won’t find anything new here.
Geoffrey C. Ward – A Disposition to Be Rich: How a Small-Town Pastor’s Son Ruined an American President, Brought on a Wall Street Crash, and Made Himself the Best-Hated Man in the United States (2012): This book is actually a biography of Ferdinand Ward, the “Napoleon of Finance” of Gilded Age Wall Street and Grant’s business partner in the investment banking firm Grant & Ward. But the book is so well-written and engaging that I have to include it on this list. Geoffrey Ward–a partner with Ken Burns on their famous television documentaries and the Great-Grandson of Ferdinand Ward–includes a good analysis of the rise and fall of Grant & Ward and the Grant family’s response to the loss of their fortune. The book was a joy to read and I highly recommend it.
Chris Mackowski – Grant’s Last Battle: The Story Behind the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (2015): This little book is a real joy to read. Mackowski analyzes Grant’s fight against throat cancer and the race to finish his personal memoirs before his death in 1885. The overall argument is that Grant’s Memoirs aimed to cement his legacy and “secure the meaning of the Civil War.” Highly recommended.
William C. Davis – Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee – The War They Fought, The Peace They Forged (2015): Davis is a well-renowned Civil War historian who has written a legendary number of books and articles about the war. In this well-researched dual biography of Grant and Lee, Davis relies mostly on primary sources and does a nice job interpreting both men’s lives. The most ambitious aspect of the book is the “peace they forged” part, which focuses on the relationship between the two men during Reconstruction and their reaction to political events during that time. Davis argues that Grant and Lee were, for the most part, on the same page when it came to creating a political blueprint for bringing former Confederate states back into the Union. My friend and colleague Bob Pollock wrote a blog post last year suggesting that the two did not see eye-to-eye as much as Davis suggests, but he nevertheless recommends reading Crucible of Command. I also recommend it.
G.L. Corum – Ulysses Underground: The Unexplored Roots of U.S. Grant and the Underground Railroad (2015): This book is well-researched but with an interpretation that is badly flawed. In the book description we are told that Grant held “a fierce commitment to slavery’s demise” bordering on abolitionism before the war that was born of his upbringing in the strongly abolitionist enclave of Southern Ohio, a central point on the Underground Railroad. The evidence for this claim, however, is supported not by anything in Grant’s own writings (he never stated anything against slavery in writing before the war) but by the contention that Grant’s surroundings in Ohio profoundly shaped his views towards slavery. The lack of reliable evidence to verify this claim undermines its validity. In fact, Grant’s moving to St. Louis in the 1850s to live on his in-laws slave plantation, his ownership of William Jones while in St. Louis, and an 1863 letter to Congressman Elihu Washburne during the Civil War all suggest something quite different. In that letter Grant stated that he “was never an abolitionest, [n]ot even what you would call anti slavery” before the Civil War, but that the contingencies of the war had changed his perspective. These inconvenient facts are glossed over in Ulysses Underground. Furthermore, her contention that previous Grant biographers have neglected to analyze Grant’s early childhood is undercut by the numerous biographies–most notably Lloyd Lewis’s Captain Sam Grant–that do just that. To be sure, Corum does a wonderful job of illuminating the history of Southern Ohio, and on that front she does an excellent job. But her efforts to incorporate an abolitionist-minded Grant into this narrative are in vain.
Edwina Campbell – Citizen of a Wider Commonwealth: Ulysses S. Grant’s Postpresidential Diplomacy (2016): Campbell, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, provides readers one of the first scholarly analyses of Grant’s two-and-a-half year world tour. I haven’t had the chance to read it yet but I’m very much looking forward to this one.
John F. Marszalek – The Best Writings of Ulysses S. Grant (2015): Marszalek, the current Executive Director of the U.S. Grant Association’s Presidential Library and an editor of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, compiles a sort of “greatest hits” of Grant’s letters throughout his lifetime. I haven’t had the chance to read the book yet but I anticipate that it’s a good, handy primer for those wanting to read Grant’s letters.
Frank Varney – General Grant and the Rewriting of History: How the Destruction of General William S. Rosecrans Influenced Our Understanding of the Civil War (2013): I haven’t read this book yet, but the title offers some obvious clues about the interpretive focus of the book. Varney argues that Grant–both intentionally and unintentionally–includes a number of mistakes about the Civil War in his Personal Memoirs that unfairly inflate his own accomplishments and downplay General Rosecrans’s role in the war. This review by Jason Frawley in The Civil War Monitor offers a mixed assessment.
Ronald C. White – American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant
Brooks Simpson‘s much-anticipated second volume of his Grant biography exploring Grant’s life from 1865-1885 is, I believe, on the path towards eventual publication, but at this point I’m not sure when that will actually happen.
Ron Chernow, yes, that Ron Chernow that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the hit Broadway show Hamilton, has intentions of writing a Grant biography.
Charles Calhoun of East Carolina University is working on a book about Grant’s presidency.
James Ramage of Northern Kentucky University is also working on a Grant biography. Ramage’s biography of Confederate guerilla John Singleton Mosby and the subsequent friendship of Mosby and Grant inspired Ramage to write a book on Grant and, according to a friend of his that I recently met, he hopes to analyze how Grant has been remembered by Americans since his death in 1885.
If I’ve missed any books along the way, please let me know.
I wrote this essay a couple of days ago for work. You can read more about General Lee’s Parole and Citizenship status here.
On June 13, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee wrote an important letter to General Ulysses S. Grant. Six days earlier a U.S. District Judge in Virginia named John C. Underwood had handed down a treason indictment against Lee for his role as a Confederate military leader during the Civil War. President Andrew Johnson supported Underwood’s prosecution of Lee, who could have been tried for treason because he was not included in the president’s amnesty proclamation for the majority of former Confederates. “I came to Richmond to ascertain what was proper or required of me to do,” Lee wrote to Grant. “I am ready to meet any charges that may be preferred against me, & do not wish to avoid trial.”
General Grant opposed the idea of prosecuting Lee for treason. He argued that the terms agreed upon at Appomattox granted parole to the surrendering forces. They exempted Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia from further prosecution since they promised that the defeated Confederates would “not be disturbed by U.S. authority so long as they observe their parole and the laws in force where they may reside.” To turn back on these terms and indict Lee for treason would damage the reputations of both the U.S. government and General Grant personally, hindering future efforts to reunify the country. Johnson and Grant argued over the matter for four days until Grant threatened to resign his generalship. Johnson relented and on June 20 his Attorney General James Speed ordered that no paroled officers or soldiers be arrested. General Lee would be granted amnesty and not tried for treason. His citizenship, however, would not be restored until a posthumous ceremony featuring President Gerald Ford in 1975.
The news website Indian Country Today is in the process of analyzing every U.S. President’s “attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.” This series of essays, written by journalist and English professor Alysa Landry, provides readers with thoughtful overviews of the evolution of Indian policy in the United States and offers a light into the thinking of the country as a whole towards its indigenous population. The series as of this blog post has gone up through James Garfield’s short presidency. Needless to say, nobody comes out looking very good, including 18th President Ulysses S. Grant.
I enjoyed reading Landry’s analysis of Grant and other presidents. There are a few minor quibbles to be had with the essay on Grant. It mentions the oft-repeated but never verified claim that Grant left the army in 1854 because of his alleged alcoholism, and a briefly expanded context for explaining the perspectives of those around him would have shown the fierce opposition Grant faced from numerous quarters to his Indian Peace Policy, particularly western settlers and leaders of the U.S. Army (“A good Indian is a dead Indian,” according to General Phil Sheridan; “Treachery is inherent in the Indian character,” according to General William T. Sherman”). While I don’t agree with Jean Edward Smith’s assessment that Grant’s Indian Peace Policy was “remarkably progressive and humanitarian,” (541) it’s also a stretch to conclude that Grant’s policies were intended and destined to perpetuate a “mass genocide” of the Indian population, as Landry seems to suggest.
President Grant sincerely believed that past Indian policy was flawed and that western settlers were at fault for continued violent conflict with the native population. Grant’s appointed Board of Indian Commissioners reported in 1869, for example, that “paradoxical as it may seem, the white man has been the chief obstacle in the way of Indian civilization.” And yet the proposed solutions from the Grant administration to address the problems were inadequate and shrouded in assumptions that many today would acknowledge as flawed and paternalistic. Grant believed that white and Indian cultures were incompatible with each other (“the fact is they do not harmonize well”) and that Indian tribes in the path of western settlement faced extinction if they did not give up their ways, become assimilated into white culture, and be put on a path towards American citizenship. Grant and many Americans at the time believed that U.S. citizenship was the greatest gift one could receive, and that with regards to the Indian tribes it was foolish for them to privilege their current lifestyles when given such a golden opportunity to become a part of American culture and politics.
Grant disregarded the advice of Sheridan and Sherman to exterminate the Indians and believed that establishing reservations and teaching Indian tribes the ways of white civilization (farming and Christianity in particular) would be the only way to preserve their lives in the face of rapid western settlement by white settlers. The reservation system would be a temporary stopgap until the Indians assimilated into American society. These policies were flawed in that the solutions to continued violence between white settlers and Indians were directed towards placating, isolating, and changing the behaviors of the Indians instead of the settlers who encroached upon native lands. Grant and several presidents before and after him claimed they could do little to stop further white settlement in the west, but conversely these same presidents did little to question or overturn past legislation like the 1862 Homestead Act, the Timber Culture Act, and the General Mining Act that encouraged further settlement by offering public land on the cheap for white settlers – land that historically and through agreements such as the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty had been rightfully entitled to Indian tribes before white settlers came. The development of railroads in the west–many through federal aid of some sort–also played a major role in encouraging further western settlement. So for all of the talk about preserving and protecting Native American culture, such intentions would not be privileged over the goals of further western settlement and the creation of new states in a larger political union and empire that encompassed lands from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.
During the initial phases of Reconstruction, social reformers and advocates for black rights in the United States began calling for the West Point Military Academy to become racially integrated. Looking back at these developments, historian William McFeely wondered aloud in the 1980s why so much effort was exerted to integrate West Point in the years after the Civil War since it was, according to him, “perhaps the last place to look for democracy.” But the desire of blacks to enlist at West Point at this time does make sense. Nearly 200,000 African Americans joined United States Colored Troops regiments during the Civil War, and these efforts to defend the country in a time of need had played an integral role in postwar debates over the status of black rights in a newly reconstructed country. Amid the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments giving all native-born Americans the right of citizenship and all men regardless of color the right to vote, black men looked to postwar military opportunities to demonstrate their heightened presence in American society and establish stable careers for themselves.
The first black cadet accepted to West Point arrived in 1870. James Webster Smith was the man chosen for this task. A former South Carolina slave born in 1850, Smith garnered attention at an early age for his intellectual abilities and strong character, and a Connecticut philanthropist named David Clark eagerly used his wealth and influence to help Smith graduate high school and start a university education at the newly-established Howard University in Washington, D.C. During his time at Howard, South Carolina Congressman Solomon L. Hoge nominated Smith to attend West Point. Unfortunately for Smith, the West Point establishment–from the lowest cook to Cadet Commandant Emory Upton–were hostile to his presence there. After years of racial harassment and physical violence towards him, Smith was formally discharged from West Point in 1874 after Philosophy professor Peter S. Michie defied previous school custom and gave Smith a private examination. Michie declared that Smith had failed the exam and had “displayed a marked deficiency in deductive reasoning” which, in conjunction with prior claims against Smith’s character, established suitable grounds for his dismissal. Smith returned to his native South Carolina and taught mathematics and military tactics at what is now South Carolina State University, but he tragically died in 1876 at the age of 26 after a bout with tuberculosis. He was buried in Columbia, South Carolina, in an unmarked grave, and no one today knows the location of that grave.
The aforementioned historian William McFeely offers the most comprehensive analysis of Smith’s time at West Point in his Pulitzer Prize-winning but largely negative biography of Ulysses S. Grant. McFeely and subsequent historians have laid the primary blame for Smith’s mistreatment at West Point on President Grant for his failure to publicly speak out against these wrongdoings and Cadet Fredrick Dent Grant–eldest son of Ulysses and Julia Grant and a member of West Point’s Class of 1871–for allegedly being a ringleader in Smith’s harassment. I recently went back through McFeely’s biography and the Papers of Ulysses S. Grant to learn more about Ulysses and Fred’s roles in the Smith affair. I discovered that McFeely actually bungled some of the documentary evidence connecting Fred to any particular harassment against Smith, but I do concur with him that President Grant could and should have done more in his capacity as Commander in Chief and former General of the Army to stop the discrimination against Smith.
President Grant found himself in a number of difficult political situations when it came to West Point. Fred’s class of 1871 was a particularly unremarkable graduation class that often found itself in trouble with the academy’s leadership, much to the concern of President Grant, who hesitated to take any action that might suggest executive overreach or favoritism towards his son. Moreover, McFeely argues somewhat convincingly that Grant’s public comments one way or the other towards Smith’s harassment may have had limited influence on West Point’s daily culture anyway. “The place was impregnable to thought of any kind,” according to McFeely, and “his word would have penetrated neither mind nor heart” (376). Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, apparently.
Smith’s harassment started immediately upon his arrival in 1870. That summer, cadets hurled racial epitaphs towards him and forced him to eat his meals at a separate table from the white cadets. Smith wrote a letter that June to his benefactor David Clark stating that the going was tough and that “these fellows appear to be trying their utmost to run me off.” Clark published this letter in a local paper to draw attention to Smith’s plight, and a court of inquiry found that the son of General Quincy Adams Gilmore and a nephew of Secretary of War William Belknap–among other cadets (but not Fred Grant)–were guilty of harassing Smith and subject to reprimands, but no punishment. Later in the fall Smith and another white cadet got into a physical altercation that led to another court of inquiry, this time led by General Oliver Otis Howard, a well-known supporter of black rights and the namesake of Howard University. Smith testified without counsel in the case and was successfully exonerated of any wrongdoing in January 1871. The harassment against Smith continued, however, and he was soon arrested after keeping his head down while marching. A third court martial came, this time overseen by Secretary Belknap (no friend to blacks and an unfortunate pick by President Grant to oversee the case). Belknap–with Grant’s support–was willing to pardon Smith, but only on the condition that he be held back a year to join the class of 1875. The former abolitionist Lewis Tappan, outraged at this ruling, offered to pay for Smith to leave West Point and attend a university in New England, but Smith refused. He endured for several more years at West Point until he failed Professor Michie’s “test.”
The nature of Frederick Dent Grant’s relationship to James Webster Smith and his role in the harassment towards Smith are hard to determine conclusively. McFeely claims that Fred led a “conspiracy” among white cadets to blackball Smith out of the academy and that “there was considerable evidence to suggest that he was an active participant in the ceaseless harassment of James Smith” (376). This is where McFeely screws up, however, because the evidence he employs to assert Fred’s racism actually comes from an entirely separate incident in 1870 involving a number of white cadets that Smith was never involved with. In that incident a group of senior cadets grabbed several white freshman cadets from their dorms and threw them out in the freezing cold to shiver in their underwear overnight. In a January 1871 investigation of the matter Fred testified to the Committee on Military Affairs that he was aware of the prank, that he supported it, and that he did nothing to stop it. McFeely conflates Fred’s testimony from this case with the separate court martial cases against Smith to make it look like he was aware of and supported Smith’s harassment. In actuality, Fred never testified in Smith’s cases nor admitted any role in his harassment.
Another claim against Fred that you will find on his Wikipedia page is that during a meeting between President Grant and David Clark in the summer of 1870 about Smith’s status in the academy, he exclaimed that “the time had not come to send colored boys to West Point” and that “no damned nigger will ever graduate from West Point.” But the source of this quote came from a letter Smith wrote four years after the meeting, and Smith himself was not present at that meeting. Added to this fact is a letter Clark wrote to Sayles J. Bowen in 1872 in which he reported that Fred “said [at the meeting that] he had never spoken to Cadet Smith, nor had he any knowledge of any indignities heaped upon him, though he had heard about them. He said he should take neither one side nor the other in the quarrel, if one existed. He thought that it was premature to admit colored cadets at this time.” That’s quite different from what Smith reports in his later letter, leaving me to question whether Smith’s letter is a reliable source for understanding Fred’s role in this situation. Added to the complexity is that Fred himself never commented on the Smith case at any time later in his life.
To conclude: James Webster Smith’s courageous effort to racially integrate West Point and become the first African American graduate of the academy was marred by racist acts of harassment and violence towards him by fellow white cadets and apathetic indifference to stop it among the academy’s leadership and even President Grant himself. Although Grant claimed in his 1870 meeting with Clark that he supported Smith’s enrollment in West Point and vowed to protect him, his failure to make any public statements in support of Smith or against the harassment, and his appointment of prejudicial figures like Belknap to oversee Smith’s case represent a failure of leadership and a negative mark on his presidency. While other military figures like Upton, Belknap, and Howard deserve criticism for not doing more to protect Smith, it seems that Grant bears ultimate responsibility because even one public statement from him could have influenced public opinion and potentially pushed West Point into action. That he failed to do so is unfortunate to say the least. Even though McFeely’s interpretation of Frederick Dent Grant’s alleged racism at West Point has been largely accepted as gospel within the historical community, the available evidence against him is actually very shaky and unreliable. We simply don’t know a lot about Fred’s role in Smith’s harassment. But we can safely conclude that he was largely indifferent to the situation, did little to nothing as a senior cadet to offer support to Smith, and that he probably did hold some sort of racial prejudice against African Americans and their attending West Point. Ultimately both father and son could have taken a more proactive approach to protecting Smith’s welfare while at the academy.
Addendum: See The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 21, pages 28-34 and 140-141 for the primary source documents I have cited in this blog post.