He is the face on the fifty-dollar bill. It is his statue that millions of Americans see each night on the nightly news in front of the U.S. Capitol. He is a well-known name to those with even a nodding familiarity with American history, but he is relegated by most of us to the background, not the foreground of American history. This was not always the case. In the 19th century, Ulysses S. Grant was universally recognized as one of the country's greatest men.
Ulysses Grant was, first and foremost, the greatest Union hero of the Civil War. His hard-nosed fighting style won him the nickname "Unconditional Surrender" Grant and the admiration of the Northern public. He was the author of the great Union victory at Vicksburg, which etched his name in military history and irrevocably altered the course of the war. He was Lincoln's favorite general, and was elevated to an exalted military rank held previously only by George Washington. He was a leader for whom thousands of Northern soldiers were willing to fight and die, and for whom thousands did. Perhaps most memorably, he was the general who took Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, and the author of its generous terms.
Grant was also President of the United States during one of the most tumultuous moments in its history for two terms. He struggled to define the meaning of the war he had fought so hard to win, and the union he had fought to preserve. As President, he confronted scandal and economic depression. He sought ways to re-establish national unity and sectional harmony after a bloody and divisive conflict. Most important to us today, he confronted fundamental questions about the role of freed African Americans within the American nation. He was, in sum, a pivotal figure at a pivotal time.
Few public figures have ever held a such a firm grip on the American popular imagination. Grant was a man whose rise from obscurity made him a hero to millions who could see themselves in him. An ordinary man who faced and met extraordinary challenges, his successes and failures seemed to encapsulate the national character. He was so popular with the American public that, despite his two scandal-ridden terms as president, he was nearly nominated to run for a third term.
As a general, he had fought to preserve the Union. As President, he helped to oversee the transformation from union to nation. As a former president, he was the embodiment of the very idea of national union, and of America's entry onto the world stage. As a dying general, he was the symbol of the nation's greatest and most traumatic war. The story of Ulysses S. Grant's life, from his first days on the Ohio frontier to his last days out-writing death in the Adirondacks, is an endlessly fascinating one. It is also, as one historian puts it, "a story central to understanding the American experience."
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