American Hero: Why They Gave Him a Giant Tomb

You might not want to read a 1,000 page biography of one of your heroes. After months of reading Ron Chernow’s Grant, I’m more aware of Ulysses S. Grant’s mistakes. But I’m more appreciative of his accomplishments.

A low-ranked graduate of West Point, he served in the Mexican War while later condemning it as “one of the more unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation”. He left the military under a cloud, failed at farming and ended up working as a clerk in his father’s store. When the Civil War began, he took command of some Illinois volunteers and was made a colonel. After a series of victories, Abraham Lincoln made him General of the Army, the army’s senior officer, responsible for directing the Union’s entire war effort. In his final campaign, he outmaneuvered Robert E. Lee and respectfully accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

In 1868, the Republican Party, back when they were the liberals, chose him as their presidential candidate. He served two terms, rare for presidents in the 19th century. His administration was plagued by scandals, but none involved him personally. As president, he oversaw the South’s re-entry into the union while protecting the rights of former slaves. He overcame political resistance in order to suppress horribly violent groups like the Ku Klux Klan. He sought peace with the Indians, admitting that white settlers were often the source of conflict in the West. He was the president who most attempted to reform the South in the process known as Reconstruction (which ended when he left office). As the victor in the Civil War and a popular former president, he took a triumphal tour around the world, was the naïve victim of a serious financial scandal, and wrote one of history’s best memoirs while suffering for months from throat cancer.

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These are some of the final pages of that very long biography. They show what the people who knew him best thought of him:

Characteristically, the dying Grant was stoically concerned with his family’s well-being after he was gone, saying, “I hope no one will be distressed on my account.” . .  At 8:08 a.m. on July 23, 1885, Grant died so gently that nobody was quite certain at first that his spirit had stolen away. . . .

With flags lowered to half-mast across America and mourning symbols swathing the White House, the Grant family conducted a private funeral . . . on August 4. Two days later Grant’s casket began a journey southward from Albany to New York City, where three hundred thousand people filed past the open coffin as it lay in state at City Hall. People descended on Manhattan in record numbers for the public funeral on August 8. They poured on foot across the Brooklyn Bridge, descended from elevated railroad stations, and slipped into the city through Grand Central Depot. The 1.5 million people flooding the city would make it the grandest funeral in New York history. At 8:30 a.m. on August 8, Civil War veterans hoisted Grant’s coffin to a waiting catafalque that had black plumes sprouting at each corner. Twenty-four black stallions, arranged in twelve pairs and attended by black grooms, stood ready to pull the hearse. Twenty generals preceded the horses . . .  Every protocol for a military funeral was followed, including the riderless horse with boots facing backward in the stirrups. The funeral was a vast, elaborate affair, befitting a monarch or head of state, in marked contrast to the essential simplicity of the man honored.

The grandeur emphasized the central place that Grant had occupied in the Civil War and its aftermath. “Out of all the hubbub of the war,” wrote Walt Whitman, “Lincoln and Grant emerge, the towering majestic figures.” Whitman thought they had lived exemplary lives that vindicated the American spirit, showing how people lifted from the lower ranks of society could attain greatness. “I think this the greatest lesson of our national existence so far.”

The procession streamed up Broadway until it reached the Fifth Avenue Hotel on Madison Square, where it took on a veritable army of dignitaries, including all the members of the Grant family except for [his wife] Julia, who remained secluded . . . President Cleveland headed an eminent escort that included Vice President Thomas Hendricks, the entire cabinet, and Supreme Court justices. Both surviving ex-presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur, attended. Congress and statehouses across the country emptied out to pay homage, sending fifteen U.S. senators, twelve congressmen, eighteen governors, and ten mayors to pay their respects. From city halls across America, eight thousand civil and municipal officers converged to participate in the march.

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Nobody doubted that William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip H. Sheridan would serve as honorary pallbearers, but Julia Grant knew her husband would have wanted two Confederate generals to balance their northern counterparts, so Joseph Johnston and Simon Buckner represented the South. Predictably, northern military units predominated, but the presence of Confederate soldiers touched onlookers. . . . Contingents of black veterans were liberally represented among the sixty thousand soldiers, supplemented by eighteen thousand veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic. Rabbi E. B. M. Browne acted as an honorary pallbearer . . . At Grant’s death, Philadelphia’s Jewish Record observed, “None will mourn his loss more sincerely than the Hebrew, and . . . in every Jewish synagogue and temple in the land the sad event will be solemnly commemorated with fitting eulogy and prayer.”

Southern reaction to Grant’s death signified a posthumous triumph. His onetime image as a fierce warrior of the Civil War had been replaced by that of a more pacific figure. As the News and Courier of South Carolina editorialized, “Had his life ended but a few years since, the mourning for the great leader would have been more or less sectional in its manifestation. Dying as he now dies, the grief is as widespread as the Union.” Grant had won over unlikely southern converts. When John Singleton Mosby learned of his death, he was bereft: “I felt I had lost my best friend.” In Gainesville, Georgia, a white-bewhiskered James Longstreet emerged in a dressing gown to tell a reporter emotionally that Grant “was the truest as well as the bravest man that ever lived.” In southern towns and border states, veterans from North and South linked arms as they paid tribute to Grant’s passage.

Black churches held “meetings of sorrow” that eulogized Grant as a champion of the Fifteenth Amendment and the fight to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan. Summing up Grant’s career, Frederick Douglass wrote: “In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.”

Church bells tolled and muffled drums resounded as the funeral procession glided past buildings shrouded in black, The New York Times likening the uninterrupted flow of humanity to a giant “river into which many tributaries were poured.” The honor guard of mourners stretched for miles, taking five hours to reach the burial site. . . . 

By midafternoon, in bright sunshine, the funeral cortege reached the small temporary brick tomb at Riverside Drive and 122nd Street. Warships floating in the Hudson River let loose a cannonade in tribute to Grant. A lone bugler blew taps at the vault—the same tune that had floated over Grant’s army camps during the war. As the notes drifted over the crowd, Sherman stood ramrod straight, his body shaking with tears. It was a memorable sight: the bête noire of the South, seemingly impervious to softer feelings, overcome with profound emotion.

A dozen years later, on a cool spring day, with more than a million people in attendance, President William McKinley presided over the dedication of the General Grant National Memorial—“Grant’s Tomb” in popular parlance—financed by public contributions. Leading the fund-raising drive had been the lawyer Richard T. Greener, the first black graduate of Harvard College, which would have pleased Grant. An opulent domed affair of granite and marble, Grant’s Tomb was the largest mausoleum in North America. When Julia Grant died of heart failure in 1902 at age seventy-six . . . she and Ulysses were entombed together. They lay encased in red granite sarcophagi housed in an open structure much too monumental for these two simple midwestern souls. The mausoleum’s spectacular scale testified to Grant’s exalted place in the nineteenth-century American mind, perhaps rivaling that of Lincoln, and the site soon evolved into New York’s number one tourist destination, drawing half a million people annually.

Perhaps nobody had watched the funeral procession on August 8, 1885, with a wider range of emotions than Mark Twain, who stared down for five hours on the somber pageantry from the windows of his publishing office at Union Square. He would always be indescribably proud to have published Grant’s Personal Memoirs . . .  At the end of the funeral, when the crowds had dispersed, he and William Tecumseh Sherman retreated to the Lotos Club, where they sat down over liquor and cigars to wrestle anew with the mystery of Grant’s personality—a source of never-ending wonder to both men. Sherman always insisted that Grant was a mystery even to himself, a unique intermingling of strength and weakness such as he had never encountered before.

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“Vicksburg: Grant’s Campaign That Broke the Confederacy” by Donald L. Miller

Ulysses S. Grant was an American hero. After attending West Point and serving in the Mexican War, he had a lackluster civilian career. But during the Civil War he rose to become the Union’s top general. After Abraham Lincoln, he was the person most responsible for ending the war and emancipating the slaves. I’ve read his memoirs and a few books about him and came away full of admiration.

The author of this book, a retired history professor, also admires Grant and recognizes his accomplishments. Here’s how he describes Grant’s campaign to take the city of Vicksburg in the spring of 1863:

It was a Civil War blitzkrieg. In eighteen days, Grant’s army had marched nearly two hundred miles; won five battles — four in six days’; inflicted a loss of 5,787 killed, wounded and missing; compelled the abandonment of two Confederate strongholds;  captured the capital of Mississippi; chased [Gen. John] Pemberton’s army inside Vicksburg; and positioned his own army between the only two rebel forces in the state. Along the way, he suffered only 4,379 casualties, among them 695 killed. It was a tactical and strategic masterwork, and the decisions that decided the outcome had to be made in a flash, without consulting staff, other commanders, or his superiors in Washington. . . .

After landing in Mississippi on April 30, 1863, Grant had conquered space and time, hostile terrain and climate, without adequate cavalry and reliable maps. Most of his men had made the march on five day’s rations, and none had tents…. But under Grant’s resolute leadership, there was little grumbling or complaining, perhaps because the general . . . “shared the hardships of the common soldier, living on hardtack and sleeping on the ground” [413-14].

After a siege lasting sixteen days, Vicksburg surrendered to Grant’s army. The author concludes:

Vicksburg was that rare thing in military history: a decisive battle, one with war-turning strategic consequences. The only Civil War battle remotely like it was Antietam. . . It did more than open the [Mississippi] river and split the Confederacy. It took the river counties of Mississippi and Louisiana out of the war and left the strongest Federal army in the Deep south, where it could move anywhere at will. . . .

Vicksburg was “the stab to the Confederacy from which it never recovered”, [historian] Edward Gregory wrote after the war. No reasonable chance of a Southern “triumph remained after the white flag flew on the ramparts of the terraced city . . . . There were desperate battles afterward, and occasional victories, but their light only rendered deeper the advancing and impending shadow of ultimate failure”. The military historian J. F. C. Fuller had it right: “Vicksburg, and not Gettysburg, was the crisis of the Confederacy”.

Strangely, the conqueror of Vicksburg failed to mention in his memoirs or battle reports the outstanding strategic accomplishment of his Mississippi campaign. At Vicksburg, Grant evolved a war-winning strategy for the North. His triumph led Lincoln to call him east to take on [Gen. Robert E. Lee] in Virginia, and there he fought as he had in the west. Turning the Army of the Potomac into an agile, improvising force, he used lighting maneuvers . . .  patient siege tactics . . . and scorched-earth raids — all of which led to Appomattox and the end. . . Even today, [Gen. William T. Sherman] is seen as the North’s avenging angel, but it was Grant who had “the real core of iron” [482-84].

Well, it sounds like Grant did pretty well.

What was strange about reading this book is that, despite its title and subtitle “Vicksburg: Grant’s campaign that broke the Confederacy”, it isn’t until page 327 of its 500 pages that we read that Grant “would be moving against Vicksburg soon, and with resolve”.  Before that the author explores Grant’s activities in Tennessee and northern Mississippi, including his victories at Forts Henry and Donelson and the titanic two-day battle at Shiloh. Then there are Grant’s failed attempts to take Vicksburg in 1862 and 1863 that involved trying to traverse various rivers, bayous and swamps, including efforts to construct canals under hellish conditions, with disease killing more men than enemy fire.

The author gives equal coverage, maybe more coverage, to the navy’s activities, including Admiral David Farragut’s capture of New Orleans and his attempt to take Vicksburg without significant support from the army. The navy played a major role all along the Mississippi and its tributaries, an aspect of the Civil War that usually doesn’t get much discussion. Even Grant admitted that finally taking Vicksburg might not have been possible without the blockade and extended bombardment provided by naval ironclads and gunboats. Those efforts were in addition to what the navy did to transport troops and supplies up, down, across and around the Mississippi.

The other surprising aspect of the book is that it presents a picture of Gen. Grant that is less flattering than other things I’ve read. The author accuses him of sometimes underestimating the forces against him, being careless with his supply lines, launching attacks that were doomed to failure, misrepresenting facts and occasionally drinking too much (although his drinking doesn’t seem to have affected his performance at all).

It’s impossible to read this book without being reminded that historical accounts, even ones as detailed as this, always leave things out and that war truly is hell.

Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant (1822 – 1885) rose to become the commanding general of the Union forces in the Civil War. In 1865, after defeating Robert E. Lee, he accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. In 1869, he became the 18th president of the United States. He served two terms. In 1884, he was diagnosed with cancer. To provide for his family, he immediately began writing this memoir. He died a few days after finishing it. From Wikipedia:

Grant’s memoirs treat his early life and time in the Mexican–American War briefly and are inclusive of his life up to the end of the Civil War. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, was a critical and commercial success. [His wife] Julia Grant received about $450,000 in royalties….The memoir has been highly regarded by the public, military historians, and literary critics…. He candidly depicted his battles against both the Confederates and internal army foes. Twain called the Memoirs a “literary masterpiece.” Given over a century of favorable literary analysis, reviewer Mark Perry states that the Memoirs are “the most significant work” of American non-fiction.

 

Grant was a wonderful writer. His language is elegant but easy to understand. The book should be of interest to anyone who wants to learn about the Civil War, but also to anyone who wants to appreciate the complexities involved in leading a massive army. Grant’s comments on the nature of the Southern rebellion are especially interesting. He appreciated the skill and bravery of his opponents, but makes it clear that they were fighting for a terrible cause.

The only problem I had with the book is that there are lengthy descriptions of large and small-scale troop movements. Grant describes how troops were deployed in individual battles as well as the movement of armies containing as many as 80,000 soldiers. The problem is that it’s hard to understand what’s happening without being familiar with the geography of both individual battles and the Southern states. The maps in this edition were useless. I would have loved to hear Grant’s words while watching an animated video showing what he was describing.

The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H. W. Brands

Ulysses S. Grant has been called “the most underrated American in history”. But he wasn’t underrated by his contemporaries. His achievements during the Civil War made him a national hero. He was elected President twice and probably would have been elected a third time if he’d chosen to run. He was celebrated around the world as the greatest living American. His death was mourned throughout the nation, even in the South. Eulogists compared him to Washington and Lincoln.

Yet he is mostly known today (if he is known at all) as a drunk, a relatively competent general, a terrible President and the occupant of Grant’s Tomb. It isn’t clear why his historical reputation suffered. One theory is that his enemies were better writers than his supporters.

In recent years, however, Grant’s reputation has improved, partly as the result of two biographies: Grant, by Jean Edward Smith, and this book, The Man Who Saved the Union, by H. W. Brands. It’s hard to know how accurate any biography is, but Brands’ book suggests that Grant was a true American hero. Aside from Lincoln, he was the person most responsible for winning the Civil War. As President, he was the person most responsible for unifying the North and South. 

The strongest impression I got from reading The Man Who Saved the Union, especially from reading Grant’s own words (which Brands frequently quotes), is that Grant was an extremely decent and sensible man. He seems to have always chosen the honorable course over the expedient one, for example, by using the power of the federal government to protect the rights of the freed slaves, over violent opposition in the South, and by seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict with the American Indians in the West. 

As you would expect, Brands’ book loses some momentum when it gets to Grant’s post-war career. Still, it’s a wonderful, highly-readable biography of someone who was beloved in his own time and deserves to be appreciated in ours.

Sherman and Sheridan on War

General William Tecumseh Sherman is now famous for two things: “marching through Georgia” and his statement that “war is hell”. Sherman led 95,000 men into Georgia in the spring of 1864. A year later, having fought their way to the Atlantic Ocean and then north through South Carolina, Sherman and his troops were in North Carolina when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. Later that month (after the assassination of President Lincoln), Confederate General Joseph Johnston surrendered to Sherman and the Civil War was finally over.

From Wikipedia: “Sherman’s bold move of operating deep within enemy territory and without supply lines is considered to be revolutionary in the annals of war….British military historian B. H. Liddell Hart famously declared that Sherman was ‘the first modern general'”.

Sherman’s goal was to end the war by destroying the South’s ability and desire to keep fighting, not by targeting the civilian population directly but by destroying as much crucial infrastructure as possible. From what I’ve read, he didn’t order the wholesale destruction of food supplies. Nevertheless, having his army “live off the land” had the same practical effect. Sherman understood the severity of his actions. This is from a letter he wrote to his wife In March 1864:

It is enough to make the whole world start at the awful amount of death and destruction…Daily for the last two months has the work progressed and I see no signs of a remission till one or both or all the armies are destroyed…I begin to regard the death and mangling of a couple thousand men as a small affair, a kind of morning dash – and it may be well that we become so hardened [320].

In September, after ordering the evacuation of Atlanta, he responded to complaints:

My orders are not designed to meet the humanities of the case, but to prepare for the future struggles in which millions, yea hundreds of millions, of good people outside of Atlanta have a deep interest. We must have peace not in in Atlanta but in all America. You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war on our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out….You might as well appeal against the thunderstorm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride [339].

One of Sherman’s comrades, General Philip Sheridan, who led his own “scorched earth” campaign through the Shenandoah Valley, explained his actions this way:

The stores of meat and grain that the valley provided, and the men it furnished for Lee’s depleted regiments, were the strongest auxiliaries he possessed in the whole insurgent action….I do not hold war to mean simply that lines of men shall engage each other in battle, and material interests be ignored. This is but a duel, in which one combatant seeks the other’s life; war means much more, and is far worse than this.

Those who rest at home in peace and plenty see but little of the horrors attending such a duel, and even grow indifferent to them as the struggle goes on, contenting themselves with encouraging all who are able-bodied to enlist in the cause, to fill up the shattered ranks as death thins them. It is another matter, however, when deprivation and suffering are brought to their own doors. Then the case appears much graver, for the loss of property weighs heavily with the most of mankind – heavier, often, than the sacrifices made on the field of battle. Death is popularly considered the maximum of punishment in war, but it is not; reduction to poverty brings prayers for peace more surely and more quickly than does the destruction of human life [327].

A century later, the Geneva Conventions were modified to include the following prohibition:

It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.

For any other motive, including ending a war.

A brief note: Grant and Sherman thought highly of General Johnston, one of their Southern adversaries. After the war, the three were close friends, and Johnston was a pallbearer at Sherman’s funeral. (The page references above are to The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H. W. Brands.)

There is a great collection of quotes from Sherman here, including these extremely prescient remarks he is said to have made in Louisiana before the war:

You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing!

You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it… Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth — right at your doors. You are bound to fail.