New Ulysses S. Grant Biography Delivers Valuable Lessons in Reconciliation
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For many people, Ulysses S. Grant has become a forgotten footnote in the history of the United States. A victorious Civil War general who eventually became president of the U.S., Grant will be remembered as one who slowly restored order and reconciliation in America following the tumultuous presidency of Andrew Johnson.
In his latest book, Victor!: The Final Battle of Ulysses S. Grant, author Craig von Buseck shows us a portrait of a flawed man who emerged to shine a light of hope to guide people into the future. Far from perfect, in the book’s 464 pages, Grant is remembered for his courage and tenacity to persevere in the darkest of days.
I recently sat down with von Buseck to discuss Ulysses S. Grant’s place in history, the lessons he still teaches us today, and why legendary abolitionist Fredrick Douglass called him “a man too broad for prejudice”.
First off, this is number book number 10 for you. Okay. I'm starting to see a trend in your writing and your publishing in that the last three or four books are historic in nature. Why are you so interested in that genre of writing?
History is fascinating in that you can't explain away what happened in any other way than to say that could very well have been the hand of God. If it's fiction or even Bible teaching, people could say, “Oh, well, that's your interpretation.” Or they could say, “Well, you just made that up.” But when you're dealing with history, what happened is what happened. And yes, there are people who can spin it one way or the other. But when someone is truly honest and truly seeking the truth, then it's hard to spin certain things. And so, I saw that in my book, I Am Cyrus: The Rebirth of Israel, Harry S. Truman, I saw in the rebirth of Israel, how God put people in places just for a certain amount of time to get His plan pushed through. And then those people were scattered and there were other people who didn't want to do it God’s way.
I saw the same thing happen in the life of Ulysses S. Grant. Throughout his life, he was underestimated. People thought he was dumb. People thought he was a drunkard. People thought that he was slothful. In reality, he was just raised as a good Methodist by his mother Hannah Grant, where you didn't put yourself out there, you didn't brag. You didn't write about yourself to push yourself ahead. You did your job the best that you could do with excellence, and then let your work speak for you. And so, what happened with Grant is that people in leadership, they were the ones, if they weren't jealous of him, because he did such an excellent job, but they truly were looking for the best person for the job. I think that God's hand was upon him to bring him to a place of prominence at the right place at the right time for His purposes.
What I love about your writing is that you take people who aren't necessarily devoted and dedicated to their faith in some manner, not working a job that involves faith. But in all your writing, you find threads of faith in every person you profile. With Ulysses S. Grant, you mentioned his mother was a Methodist and he was raised in the church. What were the threads of faith that you saw in him that inspired you to write this book?
They called Ulysses Grant “The Sphinx” because he was not a talker. He was a doer. There's not a lot that he wrote or said about his faith, but when he did talk about it, they were zingers. As I was doing my research, I went to 50 different locations, whether they be battlefields, museums, or his homes. I went to his birthplace at Point Pleasant, Ohio, right on the Ohio River, outside of Cincinnati. And I found something that I had not seen in any of the literature, which is why it's good to go to these places. There was a plaque at his birthplace of Grant's Huguenot ancestry. The Huguenots were Bible-believing Christians in France who were part of the Reformation and fought for religious freedom. But sadly, they were put down many times violently by the French Roman Catholics.
Some of the Huguenot’s were Grant’s ancestors. So not only did he have the Methodist input coming down from one side of the family, but the Huguenot influence as well. Then he married into the Dent family in St. Louis where Julia Dent’s grandfather was a Methodist pastor. And so, they were surrounded by faith in their families and that carried through his life. For example, when he was president (of the United States), a Sunday school group came to him and said, “Will you make some sort of a declaration in favor of what we're doing by teaching Sunday school?” And he said, yes. He said something to the effect that it was basically trust in the Bible and one should make it an important, leading factor in your life, because it is upon the Bible that civilization has been built. That's quite a statement.
For most people, when you think of Ulysses S. Grant you arrive at two conclusions. He was a Civil War general who became president of the United States after the war. When you consider Grant’s back story and what led him to the White House, what is one thing that jumped out at you where you said, wow, I never knew that about him?
Wow. Grant was always underestimated throughout his life. And yet he showed his character by what he did in his accomplishments. When Lincoln was watching him, he saw all these things and people would say, “Grant's a drunk,” or “Grant’s a sluggard.” And they were trying to keep him down because of jealousy. That was because he's winning and everyone else was not in the North. There were six generals before Grant took over the army of the Potomac. And they all had been beaten by Robert E. Lee. The only victory was Antietam, which was at best a draw. So, Lincoln kept watching Grant. All these people kept saying, “Well, you know, this guy's a bum.” And Lincoln’s response was, “I can't spare him. He fights.”
And so, when he had the amazing victory in Vicksburg, which by the way, is still studied in army colleges, not just in the United States, but around the world because of the brilliance of his strategy. And then Grant won in Chattanooga after the Union army there was surrounded in a siege and it looked hopeless. Lincoln said, Grant just unplugged it because he had this understanding of military strategy. Lincoln said, “I'm his president. He's my general from now until the end of the war.” The other thing was that when Lincoln was assassinated, that flag he was carrying of reconciling the races fell.
It was Ulysses S. Grant who raised that flag and carried it forward and said, “We're going to win the peace just like we won the war.” And so, when Grant became president, he pushed through the anti-KKK laws. He established the Department of Justice and told his attorney general to destroy the KKK. He told the military to destroy the KKK. We're not going to have them win the peace. And then he pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that had provisions like eating together at lunch tables, sharing bathrooms, and sharing public transportation. What does that sound like? Everything that the civil rights movement fought for was already there, pushed through by Grant. Sadly, the Supreme Court overturned that. All of those things were lost. And we went into the dark era of Jim Crow racism. Had we listened to Grant, had we listened to Lincoln, we might've, been able to avoid a lot of those things.
As you have just mentioned, and you write about it in your book, Grant had a battle with the bottle. He drank a lot and was an alcoholic. In what ways do you think that hindered him, especially as a president?
By the time he was president, he had worked through it. But he worked through it because of his love for his wife. He made a pledge to her that he wouldn't drink. He had asked for people that he trusted to be accountable too. And then he just realized that if he didn't do it, he could lose everything. Alcoholism, we now know is a disease. But back then they would call people a drunkard and they would look at it as a character flaw rather than realize it’s an addiction.
A lot of people called Grant a drunkard. But what had happened is that he never drank when his wife was around. However, when he was in Mexico, he was without his wife. He was lonely. There was nothing going on. It was after the war. And so, he started to drink out of boredom and out of missing his wife.
The same thing happened when he was sent out to California. This was before there was an Intercontinental Railroad. So, you literally had to take a boat down to Panama, go across cholera laden Panama, then take a boat back up to San Francisco to get to California or Los Angeles, wherever it was. He wanted to bring his wife and his two small sons out because he couldn't afford this on his pay to take care of them.
So, they had stayed back east in St. Louis with her family. Everything he tried to do failed. He tried to plant potatoes and they got flooded out and failed. He tried to invest in a restaurant in San Francisco and the guy took the money and left. He tried to bring ice down from Alaska and the boat had mechanical problems, so the ice melted. And so, he, out of this feeling of hopelessness, started to drink. The problem with Grant was he was not very tall, and he was very thin, about 135 pounds. And so, he couldn't handle his liquor. Where other people could drink and drink and drink, he'd have two or three glasses and be drunk. Unfortunately, a couple of times he went to work in this state and his commander said, either you're going to be court-martialed or you will resign.
Eventually, he would take a little sip during his presidency when they were entertaining diplomats and would toast each other, but they never drank during their private meals. It was only for functions like that. This would be the case for the rest of his life.
After people have read Victor! The Final Battle of Ulysses S. Grant, what is the one thing you would like your readers to take away from the experience? What is your greatest hope for the book?
I began with this story of this love affair between Grant and his wife Julia, and him writing the memoirs in order to restore his family's fortune. That alone is enough to look at Grant as a role model for today, based on his character and virtue. But in the end, I came to realize that he also picked up the flag of Abraham Lincoln for equality among the races. And today, we need role models and heroes like General Grant and Abraham Lincoln more than ever. When Grant died, Frederick Douglass said that in Grant, the Indian had a protector, the African American had a friend, and the country had a person who would reconcile the nation. I’m paraphrasing here. But basically, Frederick Douglass said that Grant was one of the best friends that African Americans ever had. This man is a hero and a role model, not only in what he did for his family, but what he did for our nation and what he did for the cause of freedom throughout the world.
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