Tag Archives: Ulysses Grant

Did Ulysses Grant Own and Rent Slaves?

(January 19, 2019) Even among the most Grant-partial historians there’s no denying that Ulysses Grant and his wife owned slaves prior to the Civil War. In fact, “Ulysses Grant” is the correct answer to a crafty American history trivia question that asks: “Can you name the last slaveholding President?”

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As growing political correctness causes our culture to increasingly condemn historical figures connected with slavery, Grant supporters are scrambling for explanations to exempt him from denunciation. Foremost among these are his role in defeating the Confederacy and his (suspect) advocacy for minority civil rights during his presidency. But Grant fans also try to explain away his pre-war participation in the slave economy. Here are the facts:

When Grant married Julia Dent in 1844 he wedded into a slave owning family whose patriarch was Frederick Dent. In 1850 Dent owned about thirty slaves including eighteen on his White Haven farm near St. Louis. After resigning from the pre-Civil War army, Grant moved to the St. Louis area to earn a living as a private citizen in 1854. His first attempt was at farming during which he used a number of the Dent slaves to fell trees, plant crops and build a house for his family.

Although not one of Grant’s the above photo is of a Missouri slave in 1858.

Following the death of his wife, Frederick Dent moved into the town of St. Louis in 1857 and rented 450 acres of White Haven to Grant. In 1858 Grant wrote his sister, “I have now three negro men, two hired by the year and one of Mr. Dent’s, which, with my own help, I think, will enable me to do my farming pretty well.”

At some point during Grant’s time at White Haven he also acquired personal ownership of a slave named William Jones. Later Grant gave up on farming and in the spring of 1859 moved the family into St. Louis where four slaves that had been given to Julia by her father served him. The next year Grant gave up on St. Louis altogether and moved his family to Galena, Illinois where he worked in one of his father’s tannery shops.

The year before the move to Galena in 1860, Grant emancipated William Jones, “for divers[e] good and valuable considerations.” Although “good and valuable considerations” is a legal expression that can include money among other factors, every Grant biography I’ve read assumes that Jones did not even partially purchase his freedom but was instead given it.

Beyond the above facts many Grant supporters excuse his connections to slavery with at least three mitigating points.

One. They emphasize that Grant emancipated William Jones whereas he could have sold him for perhaps $700. Grant, they argue, would never sell slaves.

But other evidence suggests that he might. One example is Hamlin Garland’s “Grant’s Life in Missouri” article from Volume 8 (November 1896 – April 1897) of McClure’s magazine. Garland summarized the recollections of St. Louis newspaper owner George Fishback:

All of Captain Grant’s associations and (apparent) sympathies at that time [1854-1860], says Mr. Fishback, were pro-slavery in character. . . .  He said: “I know something of the leather business, and I think I can do better up in Galena with my brothers.” He then asked me if I would buy or hire one of his house servants. She was an excellent woman, he said, and had been in the family some time, but as she was a slave he could not take her North . . .  He at last turned them over to John F. Long in security for a small indebtedness, and the slaves finally fell back into the possession of Colonel [Frederick] Dent.

Two. In a recent online forum discussion Grant supporters insisted that the two “hired” blacks mentioned in Grant’s letter to his younger sister were paid by Grant for their work. The forum participants mostly relied upon Ron Chernow’s recent hagiography as evidence. Without citing a source, Chernow wrote that “Grant hired two black men” to work for him at White Haven.

The forum members—and perhaps Chernow—were apparently unaware that surplus slave labor was commonly “hired out” by slaveholders. When so informed one replied that Grant was too high principled to ever “rent human beings.” Yet it is more likely than not that the two blacks were slaves, which means that Grant paid their owners, although he might have added supplemental payments to the workers directly.

First, slave rental agreements typically used language such as “hired out” as Grant did in his letter to his sister. Additionally, the letter states that the two men were hired out for a year, which was a time period consistent with field hands who were slaves.

Second, when contemplating a move to one of his dad’s Kentucky businesses late in 1859, Ulysses was undeniably disposed to rent one of Julia’s slaves if his dad did not want him to take the boy to Kentucky. Specifically in a letter to his dad he wrote: “I can leave him [the slave] here  [St. Louis] and get about three dollars per month for the boy, and more as he gets older.”

Third, in “Slavery at White Haven” the National Park Service U. S. Grant National Historic Site concludes, “Grant and his family benefitted from the labors of more than William Jones, however, including numerous enslaved people owned by Colonel Dent and others hired from local slaveholders.”

Fourth, according to Eric Swanger’s “Grant and His Single Slave”:  “In 1857, Grant took over management of the Dent plantation, and now had all of the slaves under [his] authority. Because most of the slaves were not field hands, two additional slaves had to be rented from their nearby owners.”

Three. Contrary to popular plantation imagery, Grant worked alongside the field hands he supervised. While that was true, it was not exceptional. Most any slaveholder throughout the South that worked only three field hands labored alongside them.

Should statues of Grant be among those destroyed because of their connection to slavery?

Sources: Slavery at White Haven, National Park Service; Ronald C. White, American Ulysses, 128;  Ulysses Grant, Letters of Ulysses Grant to His Father and Younger Sister7, 11-12;  Eric Swanger, General Grant and His Single Slave; Hamlin Garland, “Grant’s Life in Missouri,” McClure’s Magazine, Volume 8, 520; Ron Chernow, Grant, 101


The Washington Post March of Infamy

(November 25, 2018) Yesterday The Washington Post published an Op-Ed by former General Stanley McChrystal in which he boasted of removing a long-displayed Robert E. Lee painting from his home to “send it on its way to a local landfill for burial.” It is but one of perhaps a dozen Post articles during the last three years disparaging Lee, Confederate monuments and Southern heritage. All condemn Lee and the Confederate soldier because in fighting to defend their homes from invaders they were also supporting a country seeking to preserve slavery.

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To such critics it is immaterial that seventy percent of Southern families did not own slaves and that Lee opposed secession.  Four months before his native Virginia joined the Confederacy he wrote son Custis: “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than dissolution of the Union. . . I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor [to preserve it.]”

The Washington Post’s March of Infamy against Southerners plays the Trump cards of slavery and racism as if they were the only two evils in the World’s history. In truth, however, the great majority of 1860 American voters did not oppose slavery in the states where it was legal. Moreover, racism was common in both the North and South.  Even President Lincoln admitted in his first inaugural, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Eighteen months later when speaking about the problems of integration to a group of free blacks he urged them to leave America and concluded, “It is best for both [races], therefore, to be separated.”

A better way to evaluate Robert E. Lee is to compare his conduct to standards applicable to both his time and ours. In that context, consider how favorably he compares to Ulysses Grant who committed transgressions that are repugnant not only by modern standards but also by those of his time. Lee, for example, usually slept in a tent as opposed to commandeering the home of a nearby resident as was General Grant’s custom.

When his army suffered a surprise attack at Shiloh, Grant had his headquarters ten miles distant in an appropriated Southern mansion. Although saved from defeat by reinforcements from a second Union army, Grant refused to give them any credit for the ultimate victory. Afterward he declined to pursue the defeated Confederates by claiming that their 40,000-man army actually totaled 100,000. He also lied by falsely reporting that the Rebel attack had not surprised him. He blamed subordinate Generals Lew Wallace and Benjamin Prentiss for his army’s poor performance on the first day of the two-day battle.

In contrast, less than three months after taking command of the applicable Confederate army in June 1862, Lee’s outnumbered force carried the war in the east from the doorstep of the Confederate capital at Richmond to the front porch of the Union capital at Washington. Additionally, unlike Grant who blamed others for his failures, Lee took responsibility for his most notorious defeat at Gettysburg and offered his resignation to President Jefferson Davis.

Grant’s timeless—as opposed to era-specific—immorality even sank to inhumanity during at least two battles. First, after the futile May 22nd Union attack on Vicksburg entrenchments he left his wounded between battle lines for several days. Not until the Confederate commander suggested a truce did Grant send litter bearers to retrieve his dead and wounded. About a year later he repeated the outrage at Cold Harbor. After a failed assault his wounded troops lay between-the-lines for two days. He took no action at all until subordinate General Meade urged it. Grant delayed relief even longer by refusing to request a conventional truce although General Meade reminded him that Lee would require it.

After the war Grant led America’s most scandal-plagued presidential administration. Next, he went on a self-aggrandizing World tour before attempting to capture a then-unprecedented third presidential term. In contrast, Lee became president of a small failing college, which he rescued financially by virtue of the donations his reputation attracted. He famously promoted the Washington & Lee Honor Code with maxims such as “we have but one rule-that every student must be a gentleman” and “as a general principle you should not force young men to do their duty but let them do it voluntarily and thereby develop their characters.”

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Why Can’t Trump be More Like President Grant?

(August 29, 2018) Most recent biographers praise President Grant for supporting civil rights. In a recent interview, for example, biographer Ron Chernow said, “[Grant] was the single most important President in terms of civil rights between Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson . . .” In contrast, Trump’s critics often label today’s President a racist. Not only is Trump racist, they suggest, but they worry he will manipulate the justice department in order to avoid criminal convictions against himself and Administration allies. Vanity Fair compared Trump’s recent “flipping” remarks about plea bargaining to the language of mafia gangsters.

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But most modern biographers overestimate Grant’s morality. He limited his racial advocacy to the solitary minority group (blacks) that was reliably Republican-loyal. He did nothing for other racial minorities such as Chinese Americans. In addition to lacking potential as a GOP voting bloc, Asian Americans lived mainly in Republican-controlled states like California where whites refused to give them the vote or even citizenship. They were, in fact, hated. The biggest lynching in American history happened in Los Angeles during Grant’s presidency and all nineteen victims were Chinese Americans.  During his second year in office President Grant signed the 1870 Naturalization Act that permitted black immigrants to become naturalized citizens, but denied it to Chinese Americans and other “non-whites.” He also used the Act, and others, to “police” voting in the big cities of the North where white immigrants, such as the Irish, typically voted Democratic.

Grant also abused presidential powers to frustrate criminal prosecutions when they came too close for comfort. One example was the Whisky Ring Scandal. It involved tax evasion and bribery in the distilled spirits industry, which was then the top source of domestic federal tax revenue.

Ultimately, the treasury’s investigation led to the threshold of the presidency when Grant’s personal secretary, Orville Babcock, was indicted as a leading Ring conspirator. Grant responded by first trying to move the trial to a friendly military court since Babcock was also an army officer. But a justice department prosecutor blocked the move by noting the procedural violations that would result from taking evidence away from the court of jurisdiction. Second, he hired a spy to infiltrate the prosecutor’s office, but the mole eventually sided with the prosecution. Third, he fired an assistant prosecutor whose comments during a jury summation in an earlier related trial criticized the President. Fourth, he forbade prosecutors to plea bargain with low-level conspirators as a means to convict high-level participants. Along with other evidence, Grant’s obstruction were so suspicious that the treasury department’s chief clerk wrote a future Supreme Court justice two days before Babcock’s trial: “What has hurt [Treasury Secretary] Bristow worst of all & most disheartened him is the final conviction that Grant himself is in the Ring and knows all about [it.]”

Grant fans who wish that Trump could be more like their hero might want to reconsider their wish.

A Critical Assessment of Ulysses Grant

(August 24, 2018) Joseph Rose presents the Grant Under Fire video below wherein he reaches three conclusions.

First, Grant’s later remarks about the war, particularly in his end-of-life memoirs, surprisingly often contradict his statements at the time of the applicable events. One example involves his reasons for joining the army when the Civil War started. In 1878 he told the New York Times: “When the rebellion came I returned to service because of a duty. I had no thought of rank.” In contrast, during his trip to enlist he wrote his wife seventeen years earlier, “I will not go [to war] for a position . . .  inferior to that of a colonel.”

Similarly, his memoirs claim that he could have captured the Rebel base at Corinth “in a two days campaign” if he hand not been replaced by Major General Henry Halleck as commander of the Army of Tennessee after the Battle of Shiloh. But his contemporary remarks, such as “we do well to approach [Corinth] a few miles every day,” suggest he was satisfied with Halleck’s inchworm advance.

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Second, the general often tried to shift blame for failure to subordinates and credit himself with the successes of others. At Shiloh, for example, he blamed Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss for surrendering 2,200 soldiers. He claimed that Prentiss should have retreated with the rest of the federal defense line that the Rebels had steadily been pushing back in other sectors on the first day of the two day battle. In reality Grant had ordered Prentiss to hold his position, which left the 2,200 men surrounded by Rebels as the Union defense lines to the left and right of Prentiss withdrew.

On the second day at Shiloh Grant’s mostly battle-weakened six divisions were reinforced by three fresh divisions from Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio. Although all divisions performed well that day, Buell’s men did most of the fighting (under Buell’s leadership) that drove the Rebels into retreat. Grant, however, claimed credit for the victory and minimized Buell’s contribution.

Third, Grant was not as good a commander as modern biographers and historians typically assert. Most of his big victories in the Western Theater, such as Vicksburg and Fort Donelson, benefitted from assistance by Union Naval flotillas. When he lacked the Naval advantage in the overland campaign against Robert E. Lee in the spring of 1864 he was unable to win a single victory despite a two-to-one numerical majority.

Perhaps the biggest blot on his reputation came in the aftermath of Lee’s victory at Cold Harbor. Grant left his wounded soldiers stranded between the battle lines for four days before he agreed to a truce. By the time litter bearers got into the field few of the injured remained alive.

Ulysses Grant’s Attempts to Rewrite History

(April 30, 2018) In contrast to the wave of recent Ulysses Grant hagiographies, a couple of nearly ostracized voices have been disclosing how the general’s false statements and mistaken recollections (if not outright lies) have shaped the currently popular but erroneous perspectives of Grant. Dr. Frank Varney of Dickinson State University has written two books that correct Grant’s military record. The first, General Grant and the Rewriting of Historywas released five years ago. The second, tentatively titled The Men Grant Didn’t Like, will be published later this year.

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In anticipation of his second title, I invited Dr. Varney to provide the post below listing prominent examples of Grant’s false statements and erroneous recollections.

*  *  *

Philip recently asked me to list a few of Ulysses S. Grant’s most glaring misstatements. It’s actually hard to keep the list short, but I’ll do my best.

One. Grant said that at the Battle of Belmont he launched an attack—which was supposed to be a reconnaissance in force—because Union General W.H. L. Wallace and his men were in danger. Supposedly a surprise Confederate troop movement had left Wallace’s command in a tough spot. Grant’s attacking force, which was initially successful, ultimately itself became in danger of being cut off and only narrowly escaped. But the need for Grant’s attack was moot because Wallace denied that his men were ever in any danger. Moreover, Confederate reports in the Official Records bear Wallace out: there was no Rebel threat to Wallace as Grant described.

Two. Also pertaining to Belmont, Grant told a great story about how, when he realized that one of his units failed to retreat with the rest of his command, he single-handedly went in search of them, led them to the rescuing transports, and was the last man aboard. According to his account he rode his horse up a single, narrow plank to the cheers of his men. Sadly, no other account of the episode exists but his, in spite of the fact that there were, or should have been, thousands of witnesses.

Three. As commanding general at the Battle of Shiloh Grant stoutly denied that he was surprised the Rebel attack that opened the battle, when everyone else in his army except General William T. Sherman agreed that he was taken by surprise. Since Sherman had only the day before the attack told Grant that no action was in the offing, his defense of Grant has an obvious motive. Consider also that when the attack began Grant was at breakfast, eight miles away. Logically, if he had known an attack was coming, he would have been with his army.

Four. Grant said that the Battle of Shiloh was very nearly lost because General Benjamin Prentiss caused a break in the Union defense line and allowed his command to be cut off and captured; and that General Lew Wallace took the wrong road and arrived too late to be of use on the first day of the two-day battle. Neither of those statements is true, when looked at dispassionately rather than taking Grant at his word.

Five. Grant said that General William S. Rosecrans disobeyed orders at the Battle of Iuka and allowed the defending Confederates to escape. In fact, Rosecrans notified Grant of a necessary change in the Rosecrans-column attack plans, and Grant’s first report agreed that Rosecrans had taken the proper steps.

Six. Grant falsely claimed that Rosecrans had failed to pursue the retreating enemy at both the battles of Iuka and Corinth. In fact, Rosecrans did pursue in both cases—until recalled by Grant.

Seven. Grant stated that he had no choice but to relieve Rosecrans after the Battle of Chickamauga because of a telegram he received from military observer Charles Dana indicating that Rosecrans was on the verge of abandoning Chattanooga. There is ample evidence that this charge was untrue. Dana denied ever having sent the telegram, and Grant never produced it in spite of repeated demands that he do so.

Eight. Grant claimed that General Joseph Hooker continually attempted to detach troops from General Sherman’s army in Georgia in order to enable Hooker to conduct independent campaigns. There is absolutely no evidence to substantiate this. Even Grant-ally Sherman never claimed it happened. Sherman did, however, claim that Union General John Schofield had complained that Hooker tried to give him orders, but Schofield flatly denied Sherman’s claim.

Nine. Grant insisted that General George H. Thomas was slow. Sadly, too many historians have repeated and ever after accepted the charge as valid. However, a look at the reports of the officers who commanded Thomas—Generals Don Carlos Buell, Rosecrans, even Sherman—never complained that Thomas was slow. In fact, Thomas was an admirable general whose reputation was damaged by Grant’s tendency to damn him with faint praise.

Ten. Grant claimed that he regretted General Phil Sheridan’s removal of General G. K. Warren in the closing days of the war, after a victory. If the regret was genuine, Grant—as general in chief of the army—certainly had ample opportunity to correct the problem. But he failed to do so. Consequently, it took nearly two decades before a court of inquiry was held that exonerated Warren. During the inquiry, and in interviews and articles during the interim, Grant did his best to damage Warren, blaming him for things in retrospect that Grant had not blamed Warren for at the time, most notably the debacle of the Battle of the Crater during the siege of Petersburg. In fact, my research leads to the inescapable conclusion that Sheridan relieved Warren at Grant’s behest.

Although Grant was a fine general he had a strong tendency to ignore facts in order to embellish his own reputation. In doing so he did great harm to the careers and reputations of others. My first book, General Grant and the Rewriting of History, addresses issues three through seven in the above list. The final three are addressed in my second book, which is currently being prepared for publication. It is tentatively titled The Men Grant Didn’t Like, but that may change.

Book one sold out in hardcover and is being reprinted in paperback to be shipped next month. The film rights have been optioned, as well. Book two should be available later this year. The issues above are examined at much greater length, and in much greater detail, in those books.

Iuka: A Shadow of Truth

(April 9, 2018) While Lee was invading Maryland and Bragg was “liberating” Kentucky, the latter asked the Confederate commanders in north Mississippi to distract Union General Ulysses Grant in west Tennessee so that he would not join Union General Don Carlos Buell in the defense of Kentucky. The first Mississippi Rebel leader to act was General Sterling Price when his 15,000 soldiers captured a Union depot in northeast Mississippi at Iuka on September 15, 1862.  Two days later Ulysses Grant approved a plan suggested by subordinate General William Rosecrans to eliminate Price’s army by converging on it with two separate 8,000-man units from the North and South simultaneously. Grant would be in overall command while Rosecrans would lead one column and General Edward Ord the other.

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The standard battle narrative reflects selective use of Grant-favorable versions of his multiple—sometimes contrary—post battle reports and remarks in his Memoirs twenty-three years later when he wrote that under his plan Price’s “annihilation was inevitable.” Rosecrans and Ord had 17,000 men between them. Ord would descend on Iuka from the north, while Rosecrans came up from the south. Once Price had his attention thoroughly fixed on Ord, Rosecrans would fall on his rear so that the Rebels would have to choose between death and capitulation.

Accordingly, on 17 September Ord moved twelve miles down the Memphis & Charleston Railroad to Burnsville, where Grant established headquarters, having instructed Rosecrans to concentrate at Jacinto, eight miles south. From these two points, the two columns were to push to within striking distance of Iuka the following day in order to deliver their attacks soon after dawn of the 19th. But Rosecrans reported that one of his units had been so badly delayed that he could not be in position before midafternoon of the appointed day. As pictured in the map above, Rosecrans was to arrange his attack so as to block Price’s two escape paths: One to the southeast and the other to the southwest.

Grant told Ord to go ahead with the opening phase on 19 September. But he also told him to await the sounds of Rosecrans’s attack in order to be sure that Price’s escape hatches were closed. Ord’s forward movement captured Price’s attention, but the Federal column north of town did nothing more for the entire day suffering casualties of only one man wounded. When Ord received a four o’clock message from the front at six o’clock—inexplicably two hours later—telling him of “dense smoke arising from the direction of Iuka” he merely assumed Price was evacuating.

The smoke had been beyond, not in the town, and it came from Price’s guns, not his stores. When the Confederates learned of Ord’s approach from the south about two o’clock they opened the battle in that sector.  Grant and Ord failed to hear the cannon fire because a strong wind  out of the northwest created an acoustic shadow. In fact, Grant did not even suspect that Rosecrans was in position until the morning of 20 September when he received a note the latter had written the night before. It urged Grant to push into the Rebels from the north. Ord finally made his attack at about nine o’clock in the morning on 20 September while Rosecrans assaulted from the south. But the two columns were converging on an empty town because Price had escaped on the road that led to the southeast. Rosecrans had lost 790 men and Price 535.

Grant’s initial battle reports praised Rosecrans. It was, after all, the latter’s men who did all of the fighting. But Grant’s later reports criticized Rosecrans for failing to block both of Price’s escape roads and also for failing to aggressively pursue Price after he had evacuated Iuka.

Grant criticisms are unfair.

First, Rosecrans was fighting a battle outnumbered two-to-one, while Ord and Grant were nearby doing nothing. Second, he could not block both of Price’s escape routes unless he could get closer to the south end of town where the two roads converged. If he tried to cover both roads at the latitude of his battle line his smaller force  would have to be split in two and separated by a distance that was too far for the segments to support one another. Third, he could not overpower the enemy and get close enough to Iuka to block both roads unless Ord drew off some of the enemy’s strength by attacking from the north. But that never happened. Fourth, Ord’s men were well-rested and should have been used for pursuit instead of the battle weary and footsore men in Rosecrans’s column. Fifth, while Grant criticized Rosecrans’s alleged un-energetic pursuit, the commanding general set a bad example by leaving the area to visit his family in west Tennessee.

According to Dr. Frank Varney, who authored General Grant and the Rewriting of History, objective historians should be asking several questions about the Battle of Iuka that they generally fail to consider. Did Grant provide effective leadership? What went wrong at his headquarters? Had Grant temporarily fallen victim to latent alcoholism? What was happening within the Federal column north of town? Varney adds that after the battle Grant submitted “a report that was quite at odds with his first messages about Iuka, and submitted it immediately after an acrimonious exchange of telegrams with Rosecrans. . . This should warn us that Grant was not above rewriting official documents in anger and . . . would revise his version of events if it suited him.” Varney also reminds readers that Grant may have been motivated to such actions because his reputation at the time of Iuka was still not secure due to his controversial performance at Shiloh less than six months earlier.