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Secrets of a Master Builder | Article

Ulysses S. Grant, 1822-1885

National Archives

Most Americans remember Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War general and U.S. president, as a remarkable military genius, both versatile and innovative, a man of courage and decisiveness. He's remembered by some for his apparent disregard for the human cost of victory; by others, for his mixed record in the White House, and his struggles to re-establish national unity after a bloody and divisive conflict. But his friends remembered Grant differently. After the former president's death, Mark Twain described him as a great man, great not only because of his "indestructible equability of temper ... his gentleness, kindness, forbearance, lovingness, charity," but great also because of "his loyalty: to friends, convictions, to promises, to half-promises. …" It was this last quality, his tremendous gratitude to associates who had helped him in the past, that shaped his relationship with James Eads.

Though not close friends, it's possible that in the years before the outbreak of the war, Grant and Eads may have moved in the same social circles. Eads was a prominent businessman in St. Louis; Grant ran a farm and a real estate business just outside the city. It wasn't, however, until a pivotal encounter at the end of 1861, just months after the firing on Fort Sumter, that the two men were drawn into a mutually beneficial relationship that would impact both of their careers. By this time, Grant was a Brigadier General in the Union Army and about to launch an attack on two Confederate forts. Eads had just completed building eight ironclads -- iron-plated riverboats -- to help Grant wage those battles. The men met in Cairo, Illinois, where Eads gave Grant a tour of his gunboats. These were the first ironclads Eads had ever built, and he knew they weren't perfect. They were slow and cumbersome, and maneuvering the boats upstream was difficult. But despite the vessels' flaws, Grant was grateful. He knew Eads had built the gunboats in record time under tremendously difficult circumstances.

Ironclad gunboats were essential to Grant's plan to capture Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland. A lot was riding on the outcome of the battles for both men. Well into the first year of war, the Union was desperate for a major victory. Grant knew that taking Fort Henry and Fort Donelson would be the first steps in wresting control of the Western Rivers from the Confederacy. By seizing the rivers, the North could effectively divide the Confederacy in two and cut off the important east-west supply routes between the southern states. Eads knew the success of his ironclads would help him secure lucrative boat-building contracts in the future. As a St. Louis entrepreneur, he was also eager to see the Mississippi reopened to trade.

On February 6, with the support of Eads' ironclads, Grant led 15,000 men in an assault on Fort Henry. Winter floods had swamped the Confederate position, and the South's men were fighting knee deep in water. With the indispensable support of an ironclad fleet, Grant's forces took the fort in two hours. Just days later, the ironclads helped Grant rout the Confederates at Fort Donelson; the South's forces surrendered unconditionally. These two battles were the first major victories for the Union in the war. With them, Grant put Kentucky in the Union camp and won a foothold in Tennessee. The news flew across the country, turning Grant into a hero. A delighted President Lincoln promoted him to Major General. Fort Henry and Fort Donelson marked the beginning of Grant's illustrative military career, and he didn't forget the role Eads played in making the victories happen.

Grant was able to repay Eads more than a decade later. By this time, Grant was serving his second term as president of the United States. He had emerged from the Civil War with an enviable reputation, having masterminded the strategy that won the war for the Union. This battlefield success had undoubtedly helped propel him into the White House. Eads had spent much of the war constructing more gunboats for the Union, and designing gun turrets. Once the war was over he found himself a new, ambitious project -- a bridge across the Mississippi in St. Louis.

In the fall of 1873, as the bridge neared completion, steamboat interests eyed the arches looming over the channel with increasing alarm, insisting that they posed an obstacle to navigation by tall-stacked Mississippi riverboats. Steamboat owners wanted the bridge torn down. The Army Corps of Engineers issued a report recommending that if the bridge were allowed to remain, a canal should be built around it with a drawbridge over the canal. Eads was infuriated. He argued that it was far too late to object to his bridge. Drawings of it had been on display at the Merchant Exchange before construction had even begun.

Eads traveled to Washington to put the matter before the one person who could help him, President Grant. It was more than a decade since Eads' gunboats had proved decisive in Grant's assaults on Confederate strongholds, but Grant remembered the St. Louis businessman well. The president met Eads privately, and then he called in his secretary of war, William Belknap, whom he ordered to drop the case against Eads' bridge. Grant's quick and decisive intervention saved Eads' bridge from the catastrophic demands of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Shortly afterward, Grant visited St. Louis to see the bridge for himself. Eads took the president downtown and, according to the recollections of Eads' associates, the two men walked the plankway that had been laid out between the arches. They then returned to Eads' office to smoke cigars over a bottle of brandy.

There are few other records left of the relationship. Eads' bridge was completed less than a year after Grant's visit. The St. Louis engineer then busied himself on a jetty project at New Orleans that would clear the sandbars blocking the mouth of the Mississippi, and open the river up to navigation. As for Grant, his last years in the White House were marred by scandals, which in large part were caused by his unflinching loyalty to associates no matter how disreputable they turned out to be. Popular dissatisfaction with his record and a critical press insured that Grant was well aware of his failings. In his last speech to Congress, he blamed his blunders not only on political inexperience, but also on poor judgment: "It was my fortune, or misfortune, to be called to the office of Chief Executive without any previous political training. I have acted in every instance from a conscientious desire to do what was right, constitutional, within the law, and for the very best interests of the whole people. Failures have been errors of judgment, not of intent."

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