The lessons of Ulysses Grant

Published Oct 28, 2012 at 05:00AM

Likely, no single personality has been so celebrated, vilified and then celebrated again — even by his mortal opponents — as Ulysses Grant, the leader of Union forces in the Civil War and later two-term president of the United States.

His example gives hope to the prospect that even political and battlefield enemies can at some point see the good in each other.

At the tail end of the current tight and tense political season, wouldn't it be reassuring to believe that the folks who shoot only words at one another can at least find ways to see the worth in each other.

Unlike his rival Robert E. Lee, the leader of Confederate forces, Grant is a character whose reputation is growing.

The historian H.W. Brands has published a new biography of Grant that makes you wish for a different day and time. It's titled, “ The Man Who Saved the Union; Ulysses Grant in War and Peace.”

If you read this book and get hooked on the man, as I have, I recommend Jean Edward Smith's “Grant,” another superb biography.

Everyone knows the short course on Grant.

Not many know he was a middling graduate of West Point, a hero of the war with Mexico, cashiered from the Army (interestingly just across the Columbia River in Vancouver), broke, a drinker and a business failure with a wife, Julia, and children to support.

It was not a pretty present or a hopeful future.

With the onset of the Civil War he rejoined the army, and scored great successes in the West and along the Mississippi.

Summoned to Washington, Lincoln gave him command of all Union forces.

When you go to Washington, stop in at the Willard Hotel and imagine a desk clerk seeing a disheveled, not physically imposing officer, likely mud-spattered, with his son asking for a room.

Told the hotel was full, he said he and his boy would settle for a closet in the attic.

But when the clerk recognized his signature, he was given a suite.

His fame was such that the destitute businessman of just a few years before was considered the hope of the Union, and certainly Lincoln's best bet to beat Lee and end the war.

He did just that.

Two terms in the White House bring him praise and rebuke, principally but not exclusively, from his determination to give meaning to emancipation and federal unity.

He died of throat cancer in upstate New York.

Racing against death, he wrote his memoirs, which are considered a classic, and which left his family financially secure.

The renowned literary critic Edmund Wilson described the memoirs as, “the most remarkable work of its kind since the commentaries of Julius Caesar.”

From destitution to war hero of the North to president of the United States and acclaimed author, it's an incredible story.

But what is just as astonishing comes after his death in 1885, as described by Brands.

His body was brought to New York and, by carriage, carried to its resting place near the Hudson River.

A million and a half bystanders, Brands writes, watched the procession.

Fitzhugh Lee, the nephew of the Robert E. Lee, led a Confederate contingent, according to Brands. The pallbearers included Simon Buckner, who surrendered his forces to Grant at Fort Donelson, and Gen. Joe Johnston, a top general of Confederate forces.

Upon Grant's death, Gen. James Longstreet, Lee's top deputy who opposed Grant to the end, said, according to Brands, “He was the truest as well as the bravest man that ever lived.”

Remarkable, isn't it, that these men who fought against him and lost in perhaps the defining struggle of our country, when differences were never more stark or deadly, could recognize and publicly acclaim the virtue of the man who beat them.

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