Chapter XXXII. The Head of the Nation

While Lee was passing the closing years of his life in tranquility, Grant was entering upon a stormy career in politics. But before he had any thought of the honors that lay before him he proved himself a good friend to the South and a really great American. Toward his late adversaries he maintained that the true policy was "to make friends of enemies," and by word and deed he earnestly strove to accomplish that result, never losing an opportunity to protect the people of the South from humiliation and injustice. Indeed, if he and some of the other Union commanders had been given complete authority directly after the war, the South would have been spared much suffering and the nation would have escaped some of the evils which inflict it to this day. But Grant's service to the country, as a whole, was far greater than that which he undertook on behalf of any particular section, for at a critical moment he held the destiny of the nation in the hollow of his hand and a word from him would have subjected the people to a military control from which they might never have recovered.

At the time of Lee's surrender the United States had probably the most powerful and the most perfectly equipped army in the world. It was absolutely at Grant's disposal and there were plenty of excuses for employing it in the field, had he been ambitious for military glory. An attack on the French in Mexico or the English in Canada would have been regarded by many people as perfectly justified by their treatment of the United States during the Civil War. But no idea of perpetuating his own power or of making his country a military nation entered Grant's mind. On the contrary, his first thought was to hasten by every possible means the disbanding of the mighty army which hailed him as its chief.

At the close of the war that army numbered over a million men. Six months later only 183,000 remained in the service, and in eight months more the whole force of volunteers had disappeared. No other great commander in the history of the world ever strove thus to deprive himself of power, or with a gigantic instrument of war under his control thought only of peace. Grant was not the greatest military genius of the ages, or even of his own time, but when, with a million bayonets responsive to his nod, he uttered the benediction, "Let us have peace," he took a place apart among those Americans whose fame will never die.

One great triumphant pageant marked the success of the Union cause when the returning armies were reviewed by the President in Washington, cavalry, infantry and artillery by the tens of thousands passing down Pennsylvania Avenue for two whole days, presenting a magnificent spectacle never surpassed in the military annals of any land. But the same spirit which had actuated Grant in refusing to visit Richmond caused him to shun any part of this historic parade, and those who expected to see him on a prancing horse at the head of his veteran troops had little knowledge of his character. He had never made an exhibition of himself at any time during the war, and though he was present on this occasion, he kept in the background and few people caught even a glimpse of him as the well-nigh endless ranks of blue swept by in proud array.

For a time the work of disbanding the army obliged him to remain at Washington, but at the first opportunity he started west to revisit Galena, Georgetown and the scenes of his boyhood days. But, if he hoped to renew his acquaintance with old friends without public recognition and acclaim he was speedily disillusioned, for the whole countryside turned out to welcome him with processions, banners and triumphal arches, hailing as a hero the man who had lived among them almost unnoticed and somewhat despised. Many people had already declared that he would be the next President of the United States, but when some prophecy of this kind had been repeated to him, he had laughingly replied that he did not want any political office, though he would like to be Mayor of Galena long enough to have a sidewalk laid near his home, and this rumor had reached the town. The first sight that greeted his eyes, therefore, as he entered Galena was an arch bearing the words "General, the sidewalk is laid!" and his fellow townsmen straightway carried him off to inspect this improvement, at the same time showing him a new house built and furnished by his neighbors for his use and in which they begged that he would make himself at home.

It was a proud moment for his father and mother when they saw the son who had once disappointed them so deeply received with such marks of affection and honored as the greatest man of his day, and their joy was the most satisfying reward he was ever destined to obtain. But gratifying as all these kindly attentions were the returning hero was somewhat relieved to find that Georgetown, which had largely sympathized with the Confederacy, offered him a less demonstrative welcome. Nevertheless, even there curiosity and admiration combined to rob him of all privacy, and he at last decided to avoid the public gaze by slipping away for one of those long solitary drives which had been his delight in boyhood days. But the residents of the village toward which he turned received word of his coming and started a delegation out to meet him half way. After journeying many miles, however, without seeing any signs of the cavalcade they were expecting, the procession encountered a dusty traveler driving a team in a light road wagon, and halting him asked if he had heard anything of General Grant. "Yes," he reported, "he's on the way," and clicking to his horses quickly disappeared from view. Then someone suggested that perhaps the General might not be traveling on horseback surrounded by his staff and that the dusty traveler who had reported Grant as on the way looked somewhat like the man himself. But the solitary stranger "who looked like Grant" was miles away before this was realized, and when the procession started on his track he was safely out of reach. Doubtless, the sight of this unpretentious man in citizen attire was disappointing to many who expected to see a dashing hero in a gorgeous uniform, but his dislike of all military parade soon came to be widely known. His hosts at one village, however, were not well informed of this, for they urged him to prolong his stay with them in order that he might see and review the local troops which were to assemble in his honor, but he quickly begged to be excused, remarking that he wished he might never see a uniform again.

Certainly there was nothing of the conquering hero or even of the soldier about him when a little later in the course of his duty, he made a tour of the South in order to report on its general condition, and in many places he came and went entirely unnoticed. But though the mass of the people did not know of his presence, he formed an unusually accurate estimate of their views on public questions. "The citizens of the Southern States,..." he reported, "are in earnest in wishing to do what is required by the Government, not humiliating them as citizens, and if such a course was pointed out they would pursue it in good faith." Happy would it have been for the South and for the whole country if this advice had been followed, but the President and Congress were soon engaged in a violent struggle over the reconstruction of the seceded states, and anger, rather than wisdom, ruled the day. In the course of this quarrel Stanton, the Secretary of War, was removed and Grant, temporarily appointed in his place (Aug. 12, 1867), held the office for about five months, thus taking the first step in the long political career which lay before him.

Ten months later he was elected President of the United States and at the end of his term (1872) he was reelected by an overwhelming vote. Those eight years were years of stress and strain, and his judgment in surrounding himself with men unworthy of his confidence made bitter enemies of many of those who had once supported him. He was, however, intensely loyal by nature and having once made a friend he stuck to him through thick and thin, making his cause his own and defending him, even in the face of the facts, against any and all attack. He, accordingly, assumed a heavy burden of blame that did not rightly rest upon his shoulders, but in spite of this many people desired to see him again elected to the presidency and they were sorely disappointed when he refused to become a candidate. On the whole, he had deserved well of the country and the people recognized that he had done much to uphold their honor and dignity, even though he had been too often imposed upon by unreliable and even dangerous friends.

A long tour around the world followed his retirement from the Presidency and his reception in the various countries was a magnificent tribute to his record as a general and a ruler. Meanwhile, an effort was being made by his friends to secure his nomination for a third Presidential term, and shortly after he returned home (1880) he was persuaded to enter the field again. At first he regarded the result with indifference, but as time wore on he warmed with the enthusiasm of his friends and keenly desired to secure the honor. But no man had ever been elected three times to the Presidency and there was a deep-centered prejudice against breaking this tradition. Grant's candidacy therefore encountered bitter opposition, and though a large number of his friends held out for him to the last and almost forced his nomination, General Garfield was finally selected in his place.

This virtually retired him from politics, and to occupy himself and make a living he went into business with one of his sons who had associated himself with certain bankers in Wall Street. Here, however, his notoriously bad judgment of men and his utter ignorance of the business world soon brought him to grief, for he and his son left the management of their firm to the other partners who outrageously imposed upon them for a time and then left them face to face with ruin and disgrace.

The shock of this disaster fairly staggered Grant, but he bravely met the situation and stripping himself of every vestige of his property, including the swords that had been presented him and the gifts bestowed by foreign nations, strove to pay his debts. But, though reduced to penury, he was able to prove his entire innocence of the rascality of his partners and the general verdict of the country acquitted him of any dishonorable act.

To earn sufficient money for his family in their dire necessity he then began to write the story of his military life and campaigns, but in the midst of this employment he was stricken with a most painful disease which incapacitated him for work and left him well-nigh helpless. At this crisis Congress came to his rescue by restoring him to his former rank in the army, with sufficient pay to meet his immediate needs. Then, to the amazement of his physicians, he rallied, and, though still suffering intensely and greatly enfeebled, he at once recommenced work upon his book.

From that time forward his one thought was to live long enough to complete this task, and to it he devoted himself with almost superhuman courage and persistence, in the hope of being able to provide for his wife and family after he had gone. Indeed, in this daily struggle against disease and death he showed, not only all the qualities that had made him invincible in the field, but also the higher qualities of patience and unselfishness with which he had not been fully credited. Uncomplaining and considerate of everyone but himself, he looked death steadily in the face and wrote on day after day while the whole nation, lost in admiration of his dauntless courage, watched at his bedside with tender solicitude.

At last, on July 23, 1885, the pencil slipped from his fingers. But his heroic task was done and no monument which has been or ever will be erected to his memory will serve as will those pages to insure him immortality, for "Grant's Memoirs," modest as the man himself, have become a part of the literature of the world.


The following is a partial list of the authorities relied upon in the text:

Grant's Personal Memoirs; Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee (Captain R. E. Lee); Life of Robert E. Lee (Fitzhugh Lee); Robert E. Lee - Memoirs of His Military and Personal History (Long); Military History of U. S. Grant (Badeau); Grant in Peace (Badeau); R. E. Lee - The Southerner (Page); Robert E. Lee (Trent); Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy (White); McClelland's Own Story; Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War (Henderson); The Story of the Civil War (Ropes); The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Davis); History of the United States (1850-1877 Rhodes); The Campaign of Chancellorsville (Bigelow); Personal Memoirs (Sheridan); Memoirs of General Sherman; Reminiscences of Carl Shurz; From Manassas to Appomattox (Longstreet); Abraham Lincoln - A History (Nicolay and Hay); The Army Under Pope (Ropes); The Antietam and Fredericksburg (Palfrey); The Virginia Campaign of 1864 and 1865 (Humphreys); Chncellorsville (Doubleday); Life and Letters of Robert E. Lee (Jones); Ulysses S. Grant (Wister); Ulysses S. Grant (Garland); Campaigning with Grant (Porter); Autobiography of O. O. Howard.