- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 13, 2004

Like mythical alligators in the sewer, some fables live longer than truth. So it is with Ulysses S. Grant. The winningest general in the Civil War has long been retreating before historians. As a soldier, they called him a butcher and a drunkard. His presidency, they contended, was a scandal.

Now there is a persuasive counterattack. The biographer, Josiah Bunting III, was brilliantly matched with his subject by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., editor of the American Presidents series. Mr. Bunting, a former Army officer and educator, is also a writer of unusual sensitivity, a man equipped to write the story of this “stumpy, awkward, bashful man” who saved the Union and went on to become President and the one great Presidential memoirist.

He was born in 1822 in Ohio, then a Western frontier state, and christened Hiram Ulysses Grant. While a boy, his name was nicked mockingly, by his classmates, to “Useless.” Later his name was garbled — permanently — by the Congressman who appointed him to West Point as Ulysses Simpson Grant.

Though his Ohio neighbors expected him to fail at the Academy, the 17-year-old Grant made good. “All his life,” writes the author, “and in the 120 years since his death, friends, rivals, and enemies, biographers and historians have condescended to Ulysses Grant.” Modestly, he succeeded in the courses of mathematics (he even aspired to become a teacher of math), French (in order to read military texts), fortifications, engineering, geography, and drawing - necessary in an era before photography, to sketch terrain and maps. At 17, Grant was “already a writer of confident, limber English prose.” He was recognized as the best horseman among the cadets.

Grant’s class graduated in time for the Mexican War, one that Grant felt was “the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” He did not consider resigning from the army because “the man who obstructs a war in which his nation is engaged, no matter whether right or wrong, occupies no enviable place in life or history.’ True, at least, in his day.

In “Ulysses S. Grant,” Mr. Bunting notes that Grant “defined himself in action, not talk… . but because they have him on some kind of accelerated education track brave in the way Tacitus called Agricola brave: unconsciously so.” He finished the war as a captain and tried for a time to make a career of the peacetime army. But he was lonely for his wife, and, indeed, his marriage to Julia Dent was a famously happy one.

Julia’s father was a prosperous slave-owner with strong Southern sympathies, and Grant tried working for him. (Grant once even bought a slave - and quietly set him free.) But store clerking, like farming, and work in his own father’s tannery business, all proved lackluster. Mr. Bunting calls one chapter “Peace Is Hell.” When the Civil War began, Grant rejoined the army in Illinois.

“Within eight months…Grant became a national hero [with] his brilliant victory at Fort Donelson.” Mr. Bunting finds “an elemental ordinariness to him that his soldiers liked and that made their relationship easy and productive.” That quality saw this “tongue-tied hero” through the Wilderness and Cold Harbor, to the stark, awful end, and to Grant’s “finest hour, as it was Lee’s” at Appomattox, seeking and finding not merely victory but peace.

In the quarrelsome years afterward, the country rallied around Grant once more. He served in Johnson’s cabinet as Secretary of War, then broke with Johnson when radicals tried to violate Grant’s terms of Lee’s surrender to indict the former Confederate for treason.

During the volatile political climate of 1868, it was evident that Grant was the most popular man in the country. The Republican Party nominated him for president. He accepted, with the simple phrase, “Let us have peace.” He did not campaign. He traveled around the country, but he made no speeches, and he won, 214 electoral votes to 80. At 46, he was the youngest man ever to hold the office. He wrote all of his own speeches, and most of his letters. In his inaugural address, Grant called for the quick ratification of the 15th Amendment: giving the vote to African Americans. he declared that the nation must also honor its obligation to “the original occupants of this land,” the American Indian.

But even while Grant was winning the presidency, the Democrats were increasing their representation in the House. And Grant neither “vetted” his appointees nor discussed them with leaders in Congress. He made some mistakes. Charles Sumner, the radical from Massachusetts, took a personal dislike to Grant. Sumner, notes the author, “represented a type with whom Grant’s relations would always be uneasy: the cultivated, verbal, widely lettered, wellborn New Englander.”

Grant’s cabinet, appraised as a whole, “proved to be an able one, somewhat above average…from most cabinets…between Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.” When Jay Gould’s associates tried to corner the gold market, Grant’s Secretary of the Treasury urged the President to sell gold. Grant did so — and even raised the ante. Gould’s plot fell through.

In similar fashion Grant dealt with England and old quarrels left over from the war years. With Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, he secured the Washington Treaty, “a landmark in the history of Western diplomacy.”

In his chapter titled “Scandals,” Mr. Bunting tackles the historical fallacy implying that simultaneity implies common causation. Because scandals existed at the time of Grant’s administration, they must have been caused by Grant himself. Not so. “The best-known scandal of the Grant era had nothing to do with Ulysses Grant.” That was the Credit Mobilier corporation, a dummy Pennsylvania business bought by the directors of the Union Pacific Railroad, who profited shamelessly from the construction of the railroad - and bribed many members of Congress. News of the chicanery came out toward the end of the 1872 Presidential campaign, so many people felt that Grant was somehow to blame. Mr. Bunting looks, one by one, at the Back Pay Grab, the Indian Trading Scandal, and — wonderful name — the Whiskey Ring. In “such scandals, if that is the proper characterization,” Grant and his family in no way profited nor participated.

In fact, after his tenure as President, Grant ended up dead broke and in debt. This, in a time when there was no pension for ex-presidents nor their families. And then he was confirmed as suffering from throat cancer. “It would kill him, taking its time about it, occasionally allowing weeks and even months of reprieve.” And it was under this true meaning of the word deadline, that Grant wrote his memoirs — to provide for his wife after his death. They are simple, clear, honest, and his own, every word of them. His suffering was “prolonged, but he bore it with the same composure he had borne all other travails of his life.” He died at age 63.

Bart McDowell is a former editor of National Geographic.

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