U. S. Grant’s Failed Presidency: Chapter 1 (Introduction)

(March 13, 2019) Provided below is Chapter 1 of new book U. S. Grant’s Failed Presidency. This online version excludes all footnotes and contains only one illustration. Readers may buy the entire book at Amazon in either the paperback or Kindle format. The paperback price is $19.95 and the Kindle price is $4.95. You may buy signed copies by emailing me: phil_leigh@me.com. See all of my books at My Amazon Author Page.

U. S. Grant’s Failed Presidency

Chapter 1: Introduction

PERHAPS NO NINETEENTH CENTURY American won a greater triumph than did Ulysses Grant when he received the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865, bringing an end to the Civil War. Few Americans today appreciate the scope of that war. About seven hundred thousand soldiers died at a time when the country had but thirty-one million people. If America were to sustain such losses in a war today the dead would exceed seven million. Moreover, Grant’s success was all the more significant given his low personal status only four years earlier.

In April 1861 the thirty-nine-year-old Grant was working under his two younger brothers at a leather goods store in Galena, Illinois a short distance from the Mississippi River west of Chicago. The job was basically a gift from his father, Jesse, who owned the store but lived near Cincinnati, Ohio where he had related businesses. During the preceding seven years Ulysses had resigned from the army in disgrace and thereafter failed at various commercial and farming ventures despite significant aid from his prosperous father-in-law, Frederick Dent. Mr. Dent believed that his daughter had married beneath her station, while Jesse bluntly concluded, “West Point spoiled one of my boys [Ulysses] for business.”

After graduating from West Point in 1843 Grant soon compiled a good record during the 1846-48 Mexican War. Upon returning from Mexico, he married Julia Dent in 1848. Although starting as a Pittsburgh merchant, Julia’s dad had moved to St. Louis where he became a slaveholder, accumulated a large farm and accepted the honorary title of “Colonel” within the family. It was at that farm, White Haven, where Grant met Julia who was a sister of his senior year West Point roommate.

Over the next four years husband and wife had two sons and mostly shared a roving army life although Julia found excuses to return to White Haven for extended visits. In 1852 the army ordered Grant to a beautiful, but isolated, outpost near Portland, Oregon. Julia declined to follow. In autumn of 1853 he won promotion from lieutenant to captain and transferred to Eureka, California. Despite the promotion Julia still chose to remain in St. Louis. Consequently, Grant became lonely and yielded to alcoholism.

By 1854 he could no longer abide the loneliness and resigned from the army although he had no other means for supporting his family. He arrived in New York City in July but hesitated to return to White Haven without knowing whether he would be welcome. Thus, he borrowed money from a friend, who would become a future Confederate enemy, to pay his hotel bill before heading to Ohio where Grant would visit his father prior to heading to St. Louis. He received a chilly greeting in Ohio but continued on to White Haven in August after a letter from Julia assured him of her love. Colonel Dent, however, remained cool.

St. Louis, Missouri in 1855

After Grant’s return, Julia’s father gave her a sixty-acre farm that eventually grew to three hundred acres including rented land. Notwithstanding diligent efforts and the assistance of three male slaves, Grant could never make it profitable. Near his nadir in 1857 he pawned a pocket watch for $22 two days before Christmas. In 1859 he sold the farm to join one of Julia’s cousins in a St. Louis real estate partnership but was forced out when he proved unable to collect rents.

Ultimately, he experienced nothing but failure in St. Louis. According to biographer William Hesseltine when Grant drank with army comrades whom he occasionally met in the town “it was evident [to them] that he was not fitted to succeed in the world of business. To his family it was equally evident.” Consequently, he swallowed his pride and accepted the fifty-dollar a month job at his dad’s leather store in Galena, Illinois. Jesse’s oldest child had basically returned home as a financial dependent. Memory of the humiliation would haunt the son, and influence his decisions, ever after.

The outbreak of the Civil War rescued Grant from a frustrating life. After Fort Sumter surrendered in April 1861, Galena enthusiastically welcomed President Lincoln’s national call for 75,000 volunteers to coerce the seceded states back into the Union. When town leaders realized that Captain Grant was the only resident that understood military drills, they offered to let him lead Galena’s new volunteer company. He declined because he hoped to get a bigger command by applying to the Illinois governor.

His appeals had no success until Governor Richard Yates became eager to find a new commander for the Twenty-First Illinois Infantry Regiment that was in virtual revolt against the militarily incompetent politician that was originally assigned to lead it. Grant became the replacement with a colonel’s commission. At about the same time President Lincoln asked for brigadier general nominations from Illinois congressmen. Since Ulysses was then the only high-ranking officer in the Galena congressman’s district, Colonel Grant got that nod as well. After seven lean years the newly promoted Brigadier General Grant found himself on a path that would lead through seven fat years culminating in 1868 with his election as President of the United States.

By 1868, Grant had become the latest incarnation of the proverbial American folk hero—at least in the North. He drew upon that vast reservoir of popular devotion to easily win the Republican nomination in May. The closing sentence of his acceptance letter became a campaign slogan: “Let us have peace.”

His Party, however, was too shrewd to pin their election hopes on a mere slogan. By overriding the vetoes of President Andrew Johnson in 1867, Republicans imposed universal black male suffrage in the former Confederate states for the election of delegates to conventions empowered to form new state governments that could qualify for readmission to the Union. Of the eleven applicable states, all but Virginia, Mississippi, and Texas had been readmitted under such terms by the 1868 general election. Only two of the readmitted eight voted for Grant’s opponent, New York Democratic governor Horatio Seymour.

Grant would serve two terms as President ending in March 1877. On 10 May of the preceding year in Philadelphia, he addressed a group of 4,000 dignitaries at America’s Centennial Exposition that showcased such inventions as the typewriter and the telephone, while another 180,000 common visitors toured the exhibits on opening day. According to historian Nathaniel Philbrick, the silence that greeted the President’s ten-minute speech “. . . was astonishing [evidence of] how far Grant had plummeted. After winning the war for Lincoln, he seemed on the brink of even greater accomplishments as president.” Despite only fair auditorium acoustics, “it must have been sad and infuriating [for Grant] to see America’s celebration of its centennial come down to this: the rude derisive silence of several thousand people withholding their applause.”

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