Historian Allen Guelzo has called Grant “America’s first civil rights president”
Born of abolitionist parents in Ohio, Ulysses S. Grant didn’t start out as an abolitionist himself. But at the outbreak of the Civil War, “when slavery fired on the flag” as Grant later put it, like many loyal Union men who previously had little problem with the South’s Peculiar Institution, Grant decided that slavery had to die.
During the war, Grant supported withdrawing Black labor from the Confederacy and enlisting freedmen in the Union Army. After the war, first as general in charge of military Reconstruction and then as president, Grant became one of the nation’s leading protectors of the civil rights of freedpeople.
Like Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant was a westerner who married into a slaveowning family in a border slave state. While Lincoln married Mary Todd of Kentucky, Grant wed Julia Dent of Missouri. Her father Frederick Dent enslaved about 40 people at his White Haven plantation near St. Louis.
In the early days of their marriage, after resigning his army commission, Grant lived with the Dents at White Haven, where Frederick assigned four enslaved people to serve Julia, though she was never registered as their legal owner. For a few months or even a year, Grant himself owned an enslaved man, William Jones. Grant did benefit from slavery during his time living with the Dents in Missouri, according to Nick Sacco, Park Ranger at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis.
It’s possible that Grant may have been uncomfortable with slavery even before the Civil War. Though he was poor at the time and could have sold William for up to $1500 ($43,000 in today’s money), Grant instead set William free on March 29, 1859.
Grant’s attitude towards slavery seems to have evolved over the coming years. The Civil War convinced Grant that the nation could never remain united as half-slave and half-free. It must become all one or all the other, and Grant came down on the side of all-free.
In an August 1863 letter to his patron in Congress, Illinois Representative Elihu B. Washburne, Grant wrote about his conversion to emancipation. Admitting that he had never been an abolitionist or even anti-slavery before the war, Grant acknowledged that it had become “patent to my mind early in the rebellion that the North & South could never live at peace with each other except as one nation, and that without Slavery….I would not therefore be willing to see any settlemen[t] until this question is forever settled.”
While some Union generals, including Grant’s close ally William T. Sherman, resisted orders from President Lincoln to recruit freedmen as soldiers after the final Emancipation Proclamation went into effect at the beginning of 1863, Grant actively incorporated Black troops and urged his subordinates to do the same. “Of the major Union commanders, he was the most enthusiastic advocate of enlisting blacks in the Union army,” according to historian Brooks Simpson.
When Grant assumed command of all Union armies in March 1864, he continued the established practice of denying prisoner exchanges with the Confederates. This was in protest against Confederate policy of enslaving captured Black Union troops.
When General Benjamin Butler began negotiating a resumption of prisoner exchanges, Grant wrote Butler a letter on April 17 prioritizing “the status of colored prisoners.” He ordered Butler to demand that “no distinction whatever will be made in the exchange between white and colored prisoners,” and that “the same terms as to treatment while prisoners and conditions of release and exchange must be exacted… in the case of colored soldiers as in the case of white soldiers…Non-acquiescence by the Confederate authorities will be regarded as a refusal on their part to agree to the further exchange of prisoners.”
Grant also wanted to deter Confederate commanders from murdering Black troops after they had surrendered, as Nathan Bedford Forest did at Fort Pillow. “Grant stated that the murder of surrendering African American soldiers at Fort Pillow on April 12 motivated him to issue a formal demand that Black and White United States soldiers receive identical consideration in their treatment and exchange as prisoners by the Confederacy,” according to the National Park Service.
After the war, Grant hoped that treating old Confederates leniently would encourage them to act loyally to the United States and respect its laws, especially those abolishing slavery and granting citizenship to former slaves, with voting rights for Black men.
When white Southern leaders didn’t keep their part of the bargain, and unleashed a campaign of domestic terrorism against Black Southerners, Grant felt betrayed and knew that he had to act to guarantee civil rights or else the Union victory he had won on the battlefield would be lost.
The effects of the late civil strife have been to free the slave and make him a citizen. Yet he is not possessed of the civil rights which citizenship should carry with it. This is wrong, and should be corrected.Ulysses S. Grant
As General of the Army in the immediate aftermath of the war, and then as president during Reconstruction, Grant applied his strong hand to keep the peace by ensuring justice. That’s why he helped pass the Fifteenth Amendment giving Black men the vote along with Enforcement Acts still used today to protect civil rights, established the Department of Justice to prosecute white supremacist terrorists in the South and wound up crushing the original Ku Klux Klan.
Grant also supported civil rights legislation passed by Congress.
“The Civil Rights Act passed in 1866 was the first effort by the federal govt. to define citizenship and to offer protection to those people in cases where states failed to do so,” explains Brooks Simpson. “Had the southern states offered equal protection under law for African-Americans, the legislation would not have been necessary. The act provided the foundation for subsequent civil rights legislation and the definition for national citizenship, but proved less effective in forcing southern civil courts to dispense color-blind justice.”
As Grant’s reputation has risen in recent years, he’s often praised for his generous treatment of former Confederates and his attempts to reconcile with the white South under the slogan “Let us have peace.”
We should remember that Grant was not willing to accept peace and reconciliation on the terms of white supremacy, but that he insisted that any peace must include fairness for Black citizens.