Political opponents of Ulysses S. Grant dismissed him as a great general but a “baby politician” who was unprepared to serve as president. And historians have often drawn a sharp line between Grant’s first career as an army commander and his second career as president, often reaching the same conclusion as critics of Grant’s day: A great general does not a great president make.
Simpson shows that it wasn’t true. There was much more continuity between Grant’s time as a general and his time as president, argues Simpson in Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861-1868.
Nearly thirty years before Ron Chernow’s Grant, Simpson was one of the first historians to revise Grant’s reputation up. Though Let Us Have Peace came out in 1991, it’s still a strong account of how Grant took politics into consideration from the beginning of the Civil War.
For example, when Grant (and nearly everyone else up North) thought the war would end quickly with Confederate defeat followed by reunion with the North, Grant was gentle on the South, trying to win back their goodwill through soft treatment. That’s shown by his proclamation to the citizens of Paducah, Kentucky, where many buildings displayed the Confederate flag when Grant’s troops rode into town near the beginning of the war on September 6, 1861. “I have come among you, not as an enemy, but as your friend and fellow-citizen, not to injure or annoy you, but to respect the rights, and to defend and enforce the rights of all loyal citizens.”
But when it later became clear that the Confederates would fight to the death for their independence, especially after the unprecedented casualties produced by the battle of Shiloh the following year, Grant embraced the strategy of “hard” or total war, where he sought to completely exhaust the enemy and destroy his will to fight.
Grant followed the effect of war news on national politics. Long lists of casualties published in the newspapers of New York, Philadelphia or Chicago without news of corresponding victories by Union forces led to grumbling about the war back home. By 1864, Grant knew that the outcome of summer campaigns would affect the presidential election in the fall.
So, he pushed for big Union victories to bolster the campaign of the only candidate dedicated to winning the war, Abraham Lincoln. His opponent, Democrat George McClellan, had been making noises about negotiating an early peace on terms acceptable to the South (meaning that the Emancipation Proclamation would be revoked and southern states could re-enter the Union with their slaves still in chains).
Grant thought that McClellan would be as much of a disaster to the Union war effort in the White House as McClellan had early proved to be commanding the Army of the Potomac.
So Grant worked with his commanders to give the Lincoln campaign a gift from the military campaigns. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta on September 1 and Sheridan’s victory at Cedar Creek in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in October may have done more than anything else to help Lincoln win at the polls in November.
Then, to destroy civilian morale and discourage continued southern resistance, a political route to a military outcome, Grant approved Sherman’s idea to “make Georgia howl” by marching 60,000 troops 285 miles from Atlanta to the coast right through the heart of the Confederacy.
In these and many other ways, Grant showed that he used politics as a tool for warfare.
Later, after the war when Lincoln was assassinated and Johnson took his place, Grant again used politics to try to preserve the fruits of U.S. victory against unreconstructed southern whites who would push freedmen back down as close to slavery again as they could get away with.
Believing that southerners were beaten and ready to rejoin the Union on Union terms, Grant was kind to Lee at Appomattox. But when southerners showed that they were unrepentant and exchanged their tattered Confederate uniforms for new bedsheets of the Ku Klux Klan, killing, beating, and burning Black civilians, Grant again unsheathed his sword.
As southern leaders showed that they couldn’t be trusted to respect the verdict of Appomattox, Grant pushed back harder and harder, using the army to protect the civil rights of Black and white Unionists in every southern state.
His sophistication with politics stood Grant well when, as military commander of the occupied South, he supported Radical Republicans in Congress against Andrew Johnson’s pro-white Reconstruction policy in the post-war years of 1865-1868. Finally, Grant’s shrewd diplomacy in balancing rival political factions inside the Republican Party helped him get nominated and his popularity across party lines (and especially among Black voters) helped Grant get elected to the White House in 1868, where Simpson’s book ends.
Grant’s presidency was devoted to reconstructing the South on terms of political equality across race. When Reconstruction failed in many of its aims — though it achieved many lasting gains that are often overlooked — it wasn’t because Grant was unprepared for hardball politics or applying strategy honed on the battlefield to the Halls of Congress.
With his war experience balanced by a forgiving temperament, Grant may have been as near as possible to the perfect leader to preside over the reunion of the sections after the Civil War. But because he insisted that reunion be accompanied by respect for the new civil rights of freedmen in the South. This goal proved impossible in Grant’s day and for decades afterwards. Even after the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter, converting a white man’s republic into a multiracial democracy has proven tragically challenging.