U. S. Grant'S Destiny
Traces U. S. Grant's life from West Point to the Civil War and beyond. Examines the idea of destiny at play in Grant's life.
Destiny has a way of working through the simplest of circumstances. Without a thought, a man will make a snap decision on a matter of little importance. He will decide, for example, whether or not to go to the theater with friends on a certain evening. And that decision, which seems only to affect the way he will spend a few hours, will affect the rest of his life, and the course of a nation's history, as well.
On April 14, 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant had such a decsion to make. The general and his wife had been planning to attend a play at Ford's Theater with President and Mrs. Lincoln. But on that Good Friday evening, Grant was anxious to visit his children at school. And besides, Mrs. Grant could not stand to be around Mrs. Lincoln for another moment. So the Grants made their excuses and went out of town.
As things turn out, Grant had made one of the most momentous decisions of his life. Because, you see, part of John Wilkes Booth's calculating plan had been to assassinate the general as well as the president. But, because Grant did not go to the theater, he lived for twenty more years, became President of the United States, left his great name on one of the most corrupt eras in American history and missed being swept up in a tide of heroic martyrdom.
All in all, the story of Ulysses Grant is that of the American Political Dream -- log cabin to the White House via military grandeur and in spite of personal shortcomings. His road to the White House began on a small farm in Ohio where Grant was instilled with a great love of money but no talent for making any.
Because he had nothing better to do, and because his father insisted, Grant attended the West Point Military Academy where he was always just an average student. But, he still had nothing better to do. After his West Point graduation, as an officer in the United States army, Grant fought in the Mexican-American War. It was a tragic war (as all wars are) but this one not only because the United States found it necessary to forcefully fulfill its Manifest Destiny, but also because, in this war, young soldiers receieved the training and preparation they needed to emerge as the great leaders in another, larger war -- the United States Civil War. Like many Americans, Grant could not justify America's aggressiveness in the Mexican War. In his memoirs, he would reflect that nations, like individuals, are punished for their sins. The punishment, if you call the Civil War that, was severe.
More than 600,000 American men died. Countless others had their property and lives destroyed. It was a war of clashing ideals at a time when economic, moral and political principles could not be agreed upon. In the center of the whole conflict was Ulysses S. Grant -- not because he believed the most strongly in a certain set of ideals, but because he was the Union's most capable military leader.
The Civil War was actually good for Grant. Immediately prior to the war, he had tried his luck at civilian life and had failed miserably in his business ventures. Grant was forced to take on odd jobs to feed his family and he started drinking. Rumor had it that Grant was nothing more than a drunken peddlar. But when the Civil War broke out, the West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran was none-the-less called on to lead. At first, he commanded one unruly troop, then several other troops, and then the entire Western Theater. Grant was decisive, skilled and (just maybe) had destiny on his side.
Lincoln was impressed by Grant in the West and after the critical victory in Vicksburg, Lincoln gave Grant command of the entire Union army in spite of the fact that Grant's type of warfare yielded tremendous casualties and in spite of rumors about his drinking. "Tell me what he drinks," Lincoln said, "And I'll send a case of it to my other generals."
Though some did not approve of Grant's methods, he did not let his president down. He led the Union to victory. When Lee surrendered, Grant set the stage for an easy reunion (as Lincoln had planned) because, after all, the North (and Grant with it) had been fighting to preserve the Union. But less than a week after the surrender, Lincoln was assassinated. After that, nothing went quite right for Grant.
Certainly, Grant was at the absolute pinnacle of fame. But where does one go who has reached the top, when he had already achieved the one thing he is most capable of doing? The American people were willing to give their hero anything and what their hero wanted was to serve. So in 1868, Grant was give the chance-of-a-lifetime and elected President of the United States. It was Grant's destiny to succeed the unpopular Andrew Johnson and to arrive in the White House at a time when Congress was having a heyday of power. Corruption abounded in Washington and the American people embraced Grant because he wasn't a politician. Grant was their victorious leader and surely he could mend the nation.
But all of Grant's military training worked against him in the presidency. As Bruce Catton writes, "It can be risky to put a professional soldier in the White House, not because the man will try to use too much authority, but because he will try to use too little." Thus, the military man was unable to take control of the nation or of Congress. Rather, during his presidency, others took control of him and took advantage of Grant's lack of political training.
The agenda Grant tried to fulfill was Lincoln's -- make the nation whole. But it is doubtful that even Lincoln could have worked through a Congress with such different goals. The Northern Congress wanted the South to pay and the Northern businessmen (and Congressmen) wanted power and wealth. Stock scandals, spoils system corruptions and economic panic marked Grant's term. Grant made enemies in Congress when he tried to purchase San Domingo without Congressional approval. He made enemies everywhere when he played into two New Yorkers' greedy hands and allowed the gold market to collapse.
When Grant left office, the nation was in worse condition than when he began. But chances are that no one (except the most skilled politician) could have succeeded. When he was no longer in public service, he entered the business world, as he had tried before, and, as had happened before, he lost everything.
In the end, Grant was left with nothing but memories and, as a last effort, as he was dying of cancer, Grant wrote his memoirs reflecting on a lifetime of unfortunate failures and grand victories, giving the world a glimpse of what destiny had offered him.
Back on April 14, 1865, an obsessed Southerner had taken Lincoln's destiny into his own hands, and in a way which he had not planned, he also seized Grant's. On that day, the destinies of two great men collided. The man who went to the theater left this world in a blaze of glory. The man who did not go left the world tarnished and dishonored. Destiny has a way of working through the simplest of circumstances.