Ulysses S. Grant: A Great General, But Still a Mediocre President

Some historical figures maintain their reputation, whatever our contemporary concerns. George Washington has remained one of our most admired Presidents for the entire history of the Republic. James Buchanan settled in the doghouse as soon as he left office and has stayed there ever since. But the assessments of most Presidents and public figures lying between these poles of excellence and of failure wax and wane depending on our current preoccupations.  Biography can be the most presentist of historical disciplines.

No subject exemplifies these vicissitudes more than Ulysses S. Grant. When the nation wanted to emphasize the reconciliation of the South and North and forgot about civil rights for African Americans, Grant was derided both as a general and as President.  He was said to have defeated Robert E. Lee only because of his greater willingness to sacrifice the lives of ordinary soldiers and the greater industrial might of the North. His Presidency was treated as a travesty almost as bad as Buchanan’s—that of a man in office over his head with a high tolerance of scandalous behavior of subordinates.

But today we see more of American history as a struggle for civil rights and thus Ron Chernow’s magisterial biography attempts to raise Grant to the pantheon of American generals and to a more than respectable position among American Presidents.  Chernow is more successful in promoting a reassessment of his career as a warrior than as a statesman.

Chernow shows that Grant was a great general both tactically and strategically, His idea of running past Vicksburg with gunships was the turning point in the battle that was itself the turning point of the Civil War. He largely came up with the strategy of making Generals Sherman and Sheridan pincers that strangled the South, while he forced Lee to defend Richmond in a war of attrition that Lee could not win. And Chernow shows that Grant was in fact more sensitive to the losses of troops than Lee.  Chernow’s evaluation has received recent support from data driven evaluations of generals where Grant rates far higher than Lee, if not yet close to the greatest general of all time, Napoleon.

Chernow is right to highlight the best of Grant’s Presidency—his effort to enforce civil rights, including the voting rights, of the newly freed slaves, even to the point of sending in federal troops.  As Mike Rappaport and I have argued, the greatest constitutional tragedy of America was a failure to follow original meaning, that of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments during Reconstruction.  Many politicians and judges were complicit in this failure, but Grant was generally a conspicuous and noble exception.

But sadly the other weaknesses of his Presidency—corruption, policy mistakes, and a lack of political deftness weakened the Republican party in general and his faction of it in particular, leading to the contested election of 1876 and the pulling out of federal troops in the deal that gave the Presidency to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. Chernow is correct that Grant was not personally corrupt, but his appointments of corrupt individuals, including even his own chief of staff, created a stench emanating from his administration that wafted out to voters.

Moreover, he needlessly alienated important Republicans, like Senator Charles Sumner by pursuing polices that seemed odd then and positively foolish now, like his relentless effort to annex Santo Domingo. Grant came into the Presidency with relatively little knowledge of the world beyond military affairs and it showed not only in foreign policy judgments of his own but appointments in matters outside his ken. The description of his attempts to appoint a Chief Justice are almost comical. He came up with a variety of candidates, including the greatest spoilsman of the age, Roscoe Conkling, and an ancient jurist who was to resign before the end of his Presidency, before appointing the undistinguished Morrison Waite.

To be sure, Grant faced an enormous political challenge because the Republican party was dividing between the Stalwarts (his own faction), who supported civil rights, but favored patronage and crony capitalism, and the liberal Republicans who had tired of pursuing civil rights, but were for “good government”  reform, including creation of the civil service. An adept politician might have found someway to reconcile these factions, for instance by taking some measures on reform that were not so strong as to turn off the Stalwarts. But Chernow provides no evidence that Grant could turn his military skills at tactics and strategy to politics.

Thus, in my view Grant remains a mediocre President whose contributions on civil rights could not survive the weaknesses that infected much of the rest of his administration.

Reader Discussion

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on December 22, 2017 at 15:30:32 pm

" Chernow shows that Grant was in fact more sensitive to the losses of troops than Lee."

Not only more sensitive but (as Mackubin Thomas Owens, if I recall the author correctly) soldiers under the command of U. S. Grant had a far lower casualty rate than did those serving under Gen. Lee.

OK, so Grant was not *adept* -
Would any prefer an *adept* Obama or an inept Grant? - Just asking!

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on March 01, 2021 at 04:28:22 am

Grant was the best of mediocre Northern Generals. Our history is of Southern Generals from the time of the Revolution who have helped win our wars through Korea. An example is the Union Victory at Nashville in 1864. Geroge Henry Thomas, a unionist Virginian, led with James Harrison Wilson of the Calvary to the destruction of a 32,000 Confederate Force. James Harrison Wilson was a Harrison from Virginia’s Benjamin Harrison Family, which produced two Presidents; He was born in the North/ Another Northern descendent of Revolutionary War officer John Marshall, the jurist, was George Marshall, a five star Nobel Prize winner from Pennsylvania who attended VMI. As chief of staff he developed the policies of getting around the trench model with the armor of Virginia’s George Patton and the Paratroops of Mathew Ridgway of Virginia. James Harrison Wilson was a frequent visitor to Lincoln, who he called Uncle Abe, as well as Aunt Mary. He later fought in Puerto Rico and in the Boxer Rebellion, where he discovered Herbert Hoover. Along with a Civil War associate, John Hay in 1903, he produced the outline of the 80 divisions that would fight in World War I in 1903. Wilson’s last public function was attending the Coronation of Edward VII. During the Civil War, Wilson reported to Lincoln on the successful generals. He chose Grant while surveying the Vicksburg Scene. He then went East to Chattanooga with Grant and Sherman to relieve the Confederate Seige. There they were joined by General Joseph Hooker, who had lost the Battle of Chancellorsville. Sherman attacked the left at Tunnel Hill and did poorly. Hooker won at Lookout Mountain in the Battle above the Clouds. In the center were Geroge Henry Thomas and his reserve under General Granger. Grant wanted them to move on Missionary Ridge. Then the attack came and three trenches on Missionary Ridge were bypassed to a Union victory led by future General Arthus MacArthur crying On Wisconsin. Thomas and Granger, according to Grant did not order the movement. So a spontaneous act added laurels to Grant, but Wilson was to promote Thomas in the future. Thomas had saved Grant at Shiloh earlier and later was the Center for Sherman’s March to Atlanta. Then Sherman took the Army of Thomas to march to the sea. Thomas was called the Rock of Chickamauga, after the able General Longstreet mauled two Union Corps, but Thomas with a Third Corps and General Granger’s Reserve Corp held their ground. Oh, Douglas MacArthur was born in Little Rock Arkansas and Dwight David Eisenhower in Texas. The Virginian who save us in Korea was Mathew Ridgway.

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