ca. 1874-86, [cabinet card of a cigar left by General U. S. Grant], Thomas Houseworth
ca. 1874-86, [cabinet card of a cigar left by General U. S. Grant], Thomas Houseworth
ca. 1860’s, [carte de visite portrait of three young Federal soldier amputees all using hospital issue crutches. The boy at left wears a round metal identification disk pinned to his blouse], W. Snell
via Cowan’s Auctions
ca. 1860’s, [portrait of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant], Matthew Brady
Today, April 27th, marks Ulysses S. Grant’s 191st birthday.
ca. 1860’s, [carte de visite portrait of a dashing General Ulysses S. Grant], Matthew Brady
via Ebay Auctions
ca. 1864, [carte de visite portrait of Nellie Grant, daughter of Ulysses S. Grant, as “The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe”, at St. Louis Sanitary Fair], Nichols and Bros.
Today I’ll be celebrating the 190th birthday of the occasionally revered, presidentially infamous, and often misunderstood Ulysses S. Grant. Although there’s seemingly no particular, exceptional, or scholarly reason to be enamored by the man, I find myself fascinated regardless. Our historical tradition celebrates the natural leader; it perpetuates the “innate greatness” story as the traditional mold of our heroes, and it applauds the outspoken men who choose to actively defy convention. However, it is the case that Ulysses S. Grant is the antithesis to these expectations, but became a hero regardless.
Possibly, what makes Ulysses S. Grant so special is his uniquely unspecial characteristics. There’s an honesty, an apprehension, a modesty, and humility to Grant that is so relatable among all the overblown, monumental figures in history that it’s hard not recognize bits of yourself in him. The seeming paradox surrounding his “exceptional” leadership during the Civil War and lack thereof during his presidential term represents our misreading of him.
As an unexceptional student at West Point with crippling shyness and an apprehension towards command, Grant hardly seemed destined for greatness. A phobic aversion to blood, coupled with his uneasiness in donning military attire, and even in meeting people upon mounted horse, seemed to rule the man out of military command. In addition, a somewhat recent study by Duke University’s Jonathan R. Davidson makes a claim of a “social phobia” diagnosis on Grant, definitely adding to the list of unsuitable, innately uncharacteristic qualities for an army commander or President. Yet here he is, celebrated in history texts and lectures, gracing page upon page of military strategy and Civil War books. —and maybe his appointments, elections, and all this attention would surprise him, as well.
In his memoirs, Grant writes that “there are many men who would have done better than I did under the circumstances in which I found myself. If I had never held command; if I had fallen, there were 10,000 behind who would have followed the contest to the end and never surrendered the Union.” Some would argue that his coy modesty was simply an expected and feigned veneer typical of 19th century memoirs. However, I would contend that he was truly humbled by his appointment as Commander of the Union Army. After many unsuccessful appointments before him as commander of the Potomac and of the Union army, Grant simply saw success the same way Lincoln envisioned it. He especially didn’t believe his follow through made him particularly special. The “innate hero defying convention” narrative doesn’t hold up if you read his version of events. It seems he felt he was merely deputized as a last resort; where leaders had failed before him, he was simply performing expected duties. “Unconditional Surrender” Grant acted on behalf of the Union’s indisputably insoluble nature, which therefore called for the practical “unconditional” engagement. Somehow, as a sensitive pragmatist, he changed the course of history. But when recognized for his fantastic leadership, he was humbled by the praise he felt he did not fully deserve. However, whatever his subjective reality, Grant’s swift attacks, indefatigable pursuits, and adroit maneuvering shortened, if not ended, the war— potentially saving thousands of lives and futures of blacks in America.
We can never be certain of all the factors that led to Ulysses S. Grant’s Presidential campaign, but assuredly the President Johnson fiasco had something to do with it. Grant’s campaign of “peace” may have been fueled not by his desire to make radical changed, but by his seeming ability to be a bipartisan appeasement to Johnson and Congress as Secretary of War replacing Stanton. With this appointment, he wouldn’t dare make a political enemy of Johnson, but continued to provide a safe future for the new Reconstruction plan anyway. In addition, similarly to how he filled the Army of Potomac command after a string of obvious mistakes, Grant felt it was a simple duty to restore order and peace to the country and the command. His self-effacing desire to placate, to calm, and to make whole and right in both war and now politics was neither radical nor heroic in his eyes, rather they were simple reactions by an average man.
However, this perspective as president meant that he he floundered in fear and vacillation, shunning radical decision making to avoid confrontation with opponents during a time when, looking back, the country truly needed “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. It’s possible that he was overly empathetic towards our country’s own precarious, troubled, post-war sentiment, rather than overtly meek or uncaring. His acute empathy for the average American and their struggle in the post-bellum United States, combined with his own self-consciencness defined the remainder of his political life. Although he did destroy the political footing of the KKK in the south for at least some time, he is notorious for the corrupt friends he kept in his cabinet. Despite being a well-intentioned, albeit shy, populist, he was afraid to make enemies in high places. Incredibly insecure in his position of authority, he was taken advantage of and did not stand up to those who perpetrated the resulting egregious felonies. Grant didn’t profit from the laundering or embezzling, but he also didn’t stop it. It seems, even later in his life, he never learned to turn a dime with, let alone navigate, the ruthless wild west of capitalism (unless aided by someone like Mark Twain, for his book deal). Grant represents complacency and fear that plagues even the best of us.
With some prodding towards the end of his life, Grant began writing his memoirs. His family was in debt and cancer gave him a small window of time to finish. Impressed (characteristically) that he even was offered a publishing deal, and eager to settle his debts, he was prepared to sign on the first dotted line he saw. Luckily, Mark Twain steered him in sound business and literary direction, and Grant worked on his memoirs right up until his death.
Overall, celebrating Grant’s birthday is celebrating the complicated every man. Celebrating his birthday is celebrating the good intentions we all have, even if they are thwarted by insecurity. Today reminds us of the fear of being something more than yourself, but still holding the potential to overcome it. It’s remembering the human heroes who maybe aren’t natural born leaders, the ones who might be afraid of blood, or are a little antisocial. Celebrating Grant is celebrating unease, but also triumph. Whether or not he trusted himself, Grant helped save the Union. He performed where people before him failed.
This is why I hope everyone wishes Mr. Grant a happy birthday this year.
ca. 1870-1910, [carte de visite photograph of a gentleman surrounded by variety of spirits; among them George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Queen Victoria, Benjamin Franklin, etc.], John Hollowell
ca. 1860-70, [tintype cased portrait of General Ulysses S. Grant]
ca. 1864, [Portrait of Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant], Matthew Brady
ca. 1864, [half stereocard of a despondent looking General Ulysses S. Grant]
ca. 1886, “The Nation Mourns”, [Brass Memorial Plaque for Ulysses S. Grant]
ca. 1870-80, [Portrait of Ulysses S. Grant], Matthew Brady
ca. 1885, [Ulysses S. Grant and his family & physician, three days before his death from throat cancer], U.S. Instantaneous Photographic Company
via Respiratory Diseases: a Photographic History 1871-1895, The Antiseptic Era, Stanley B. M.D. Burns
On his deathbed, U.S. Grant wrote a note to his doctor:
“I do not sleep, though I sometimes doze a little. If up, I am talked to, and my efforts to answer cause pain. The fact is, I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun. A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three.”
ca. 1861-65, [Portrait of Ulysses S. Grant]
ca. 1860’s, “General Ulysses S. Grant”
"Until the handkerchief of history covers us with its Times New Roman black and white post script..."
This blog is a collection of vernacular photography and ephemera focused mainly within the curious and often misunderstood realm of 19th century America. I have a soft spot for all things silly, antiquated, macabre, and grotesque. The content is from a variety of collections; public, academic, and private. In addition, there's an occasional emphasis on Ulysses S Grant and the Civil War, as well.
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