Ulysses S. Grant: a great general, but terrible civilian

The Civil War hero was a complicated man.

Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it” (age-of-the-sage.org).

Many of you may not know the story of Ulysses S. Grant, victorious Union Civil War general and two-term president. Author Ron Chernow tells a gripping tale of this man’s life in his biography “Grant.”

According to Chernow, “He [Grant] is usually caricatured as a chronic loser and an inept businessman, or as the triumphant but brutal Union general. Both these stereotypes miss the mark.” By using letters from the period, Grant’s own words, and eyewitness accounts, a much more complex person emerges. Chernow’s portrayal of Grant is sympathetic to a great but flawed man.

My focus is generally on Grant’s struggle dealing with himself, his contemporaries in the Army, Abraham Lincoln, and the media of his time.

Grant was an alcoholic who struggled with liquor his whole adult life. He inherited the weakness from his grandfather. Liquor helped Grant deal with the tremendous stresses he endured, both in the Army and out. When he was with his wife and their four children, he didn’t drink, but when he was isolated from his family while assigned to distant west coast military bases or fighting Civil War battles, he sometimes succumbed. Before the Civil War began, Grant had to resign his commission due to his drinking.

Grant took up smoking cigars as a substitute for liquor to help him cope with the pressure. After the battle of Shiloh, the public sent him 10,000 boxes of cigars. Smoking eventually gave him throat and tongue cancer, causing his early death at age 63 in 1885.

Whenever he successfully won battles, the press praised him and ignored his drinking, but when he lost battles, they were harsh and brought up his past drinking as a way to stereotype and discount him.

Grant was a small man, only 5 feet, 8 inches tall. He was careless about his dress. People often discounted him because of his appearance, but when conversing with others, he revealed his great storytelling ability and his humility. Most of his contemporary military officers were arrogant. Grant rose in military rank during the war to lieutenant general, a position only held by George Washington.

Grant was perceptive about the generals on both sides of the war since they had attended West Point and fought in the Mexican-American War together. Grant used his knowledge on the battlefield. Meanwhile the generals above him stabbed him in the back.

Although Grant was very different physically from the 6-foot-4 President Lincoln, they had a great deal in common. When Lincoln became president in 1861, he got previous battle accounts out of the Library of Congress and studied them. Both Grant and Lincoln were learners. Lincoln grew in his job as commander-in-chief. Grant learned from his mistakes and adapted his tactics on the battlefield. Unfortunately, Lincoln’s early choices for his generals turned out to be terrible. General McClellan, for example, was a great organizer, but he was too timid to take on Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Lincoln liked Grant because he was humble and unassuming. He was the kind of man who excelled under pressure, able to make snap decisions. He was flexible and bold and, once he started fighting, he was like a bulldog, never letting go, wearing his opponents out with creative solutions that confounded them. Grant also had the ability to see the war as a whole, rather than just focusing on one battle at a time.

Even the great Gen. Lee was really only excellent at defensive war. He failed in his offensive attacks at Sharpsville and Gettysburg. As long as Lee was fighting on familiar ground in Virginia, he was a genius, but he was unable to think on his feet like Grant could in new territory.

Grant forced Lee to surrender in 1865. The North had far more soldiers and war material. Lee lost soldiers in battles but had no way to replace them as Grant could. Grant was relentless in his attacks on Lee, but at a great cost. In the first three months of Grant’s invasion of Virginia, the Union suffered 65,000 dead and wounded. He was deeply criticized as a butcher who didn’t care about his men, but he got sick after the battles when he visited the hospitals and saw the damage his decisions had caused.

Eventually Grant backed Lee into a corner having to defend Richmond and Petersburg. Lee was unable to break out. Grant slowly starved him into surrendering as he closed off supply and rail lines.

After the victory, the media and the people praised Grant as a hero, eventually electing him president for two terms. But the press and the people were fickle. It is no different today.

Grant was a man of contradictions: successful as a general but a failure as a civilian.

Both Grant and Lincoln studied history. In their cases, however, they didn’t “stand by helplessly” while others repeated it.


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Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.
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