What is it about Ulysses S. Grant that makes him so interesting to Americans? Almost one hundred books have been written about him, making his popularity third only to that of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Certainly he is famous for his military exploits during the Civil War, but there have been other generals more brilliant in stragegy than Grant. He was a popular, two-term president, during whose Administration the United States was kept out of any major foreign wars, but other presidents could claim the same noninvolvement and voter popularity.
Two potential answers can be given to the question of Grant’s popularity, and William S. McFeely tackles both of them in his basically satisfying and thorough Grant: A Biography. The first answer is, in fact, another question: “How can such a good general hve been such a bad president?” The search for the answer to that question accounts for many of the numerous books about Grant, both scholarly tomes and popular volumes. A second answer is that Grant’s life can be seen as an archetypal American success story, the story of a common man who saw an opportunity, took advantage of it, and eventually became the eighteenth president of the United States.
Neither answer provides a total solution because neither is complete enough. In addition, both answers have truth and legend mixed together in an almost inseparable blend. By combining both approaches, however, selecting and separating when possible the fact from the folklore, McFeely gives valuable insights into the life of a complex man. The author begins his work with no apparent ax to grind in regard to his subject: “All the present study has tried to do is to take him seriously as a man.”
McFeely does attempt to dispel a number of myths which have grown around Grant’s life, including various stories concerning his name. When Grant was born on April 27, 1822, in Point Pleasant, Ohio, he was named Hiram Ulysses, but he was called Ulysses by his family. When Congressman Thomas Hamer nominated the young Grant for an appointment to West Point in 1839, the official forms bore the name Ulysses S. Grant. The congressman, who knew the boy as Ulysses apparently assumed that was his first name; needing a second name for the nomination, Hamer added the initial S, because Simpson was Mrs. Grant’s maiden name. Ironically, when Grant arrived at West Point, he had already decided to reverse his two given names and registered at a local hotel as U. H. Grant. Later, he decided to retain Ulysses S., and such it was when he left West Point and began service in the army. McFeely points out in a footnote that Grant “never used more than ’S’; others converted the single letter to ’Simpson,’” although he does not say when the conversion occurred.
Thus, the “tall tale” that Grant’s name change came about during a period of heavy drinking is dispelled. Perhaps more than any other personal habit, however, his tendency to drink too much plagued Grant throughout his life, either as a behavioral factor or as a rumor which haunted him. According to McFeely, the stories of Grant’s alcoholism were exaggerated and spread by military and political rivals and enemies. He was never habitually intoxicated, but he did drink and drink heavily when lonely or discouraged, as he was during the early years in the peacetime army. One version of the legend says Grant was booted out of the army because of his problems with alcohol. In McFeely’s view, “Grant did not leave the army because he was a drunk. He drank and left the army because he was profoundly depressed.” In later years, the strong personal influence of his wife, Julia, and the political influence of his aides kept him sober except on rare occasions. Unfortunately, any such rare drinking episodes set off the old stories, along with new anecdotes.
The various stories about the name switch and the drinking problem are unflattering myths which McFeely debunks. A flattering myth which McFeely also disproves involves the image of U. S. Grant as a common man, a man of the people whose success story is that of a true American “poor-boy-who-makes-good.” As with all legends, some truth and some exaggeration are combined. There is no doubt that Grant’s lineage was not comparable to that of other presidents who came from the Eastern establishment of old-line politics and money, but Grant’s family was not poor; when he resigned his army commission, he went to Galena, Illinois, to manage one of several leather stores owned by his father in several different towns. In addition, Julia’s family was able to give a farm to Ulysses and Julia as a wedding present.
Perhaps a better description of Grant would be that he was an ordinary person who strove all his life to escape that ordinariness...
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