Events

Ulysses S. Grant

March 23, 2005 // 11:00pm

Ulysses S. Grant, general in chief of the Union Army during the Civil War and the 18th President of the United States (1869-1876), was "extraordinarily good at one thing," asserted Josiah Bunting at the Division of U.S. Studies' launch of his Ulysses S. Grant: "the art of making war." One of the questions addressed by both panelists and audience at the session was to what extent successful leadership in the military can be translated into successful leadership in the White House. On that score, Grant's record was at best mixed.

Born in 1822 in southwest Ohio, an area that was geographically "north" but culturally "south," Grant was more of a southerner than a "Yankee." When he entered West Point in 1839, he was an unimpressive figure, small of stature and rather solitary. His performance at the academy was mediocre at best; he seemed disdainful of his studies. He demonstrated an aptitude only for writing and drawing.

Grant turned in a relatively successful performance during the Mexican war, although he considered it an imperialistic effort that was a blot on American idealism. He then spent several years serving in military commissions that did not utilize his talents and, as a result, he did not exert himself. He resigned from the U.S. Army in 1854, and most historians regard the next six years as a failure for him. He moved to Illinois, worked at odd jobs, spent time with his family and indulged in the destructive pasttime of drinking. Grant began to find his way back into military service only after Fort Sumter surrendered to southern forces in April 1861, when he took on the role of civilian military advisor and assisted in the training of an Illinois volunteer company. It was only in June 1861, however, that he fully committed himself to service, when Governor Richard Yates asked him to become commander of the Twenty-first Illinois regiment of volunteers. Grant was promoted to brigadier general two months later and to lieutenant general and commanding general of all the Union armies in 1864. He proved to be brilliant at planning and executing military strategy. He exhibited further strengths of calm leadership, adeptness at choosing trustworthy subordinates, total indifference to danger, and a keen understanding of his enemy.

Unfortunately, his military talents did not prepare him well for the challenges he faced when he became president in 1868. The nation had to be brought together after the devastation of the war and the flawed presidency – and attempted impeachment – of Andrew Johnson. The debt incurred during the war remained to be paid. The South was still disgruntled; the 15th Amendment had not yet been ratified, and no one could predict how the newly freed slaves would fare. Grant's positive legacy as president, Bunting believes, lies in his unswerving commitment to the fair treatment of the ex-slaves and his attempts to safeguard the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. He "zealously" promoted the 15th Amendment and lobbied for passage of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. But his loyalty to what proved to be corrupt subordinates resulted in a presidency that was rife with scandals, and he was unable to sustain the public's interest in the Reconstruction effort.

Brian Linn noted that despite the effort of many biographers to place Grant within one of the dominant narratives of military history, Grant's complex character makes him an uneasy fit. Linn commended Bunting for depicting Grant as a citizen-soldier along the lines of George Washington or Andrew Jackson. He agreed with Bunting that the military was under-appreciative of Grant and that it was the general public and his fellow citizen-soldiers, as well as the civilian Lincoln, who recognized Grant's talent for military leadership.

Speaking from the perspective of a 20th century military historian, Alexander Cochran analyzed Bunting's work for its value to today's students and readers, and for the lessons it might hold for military personnel who aspire to political office. Grant was a "strategic visionary" who understood logistics, he had the ability to communicate in simple terms, he knew how to delegate. His reliance on and unswerving trust in a wartime brotherhood, however, did not serve him well in the political arena. Ultimately, he failed at management. It was no accident, Bunting noted, that Grant was still referred to as "General" after he left the presidency. The man whom Bunting called "the most popular American between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt" succeeded at saving his country in wartime but, tragically, failed in his subsequent attempt to lead it.






Drafted by Acacia Reed and Philippa Strum

Philippa Strum, Director of U.S. Studies (202) 691-4129

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