Friday, 21 October 2016 10:14
Behind the Face on the $50 Bill
On October 7, the local community commemorated the 150th anniversary of Ulysses S. Grant becoming our nation’s first 4-star general. The proceeds from the evening’s Grant’s Grand Ball, held at the military museum, went to benefit the Ulysses S. Grant Cottage State Historic Site. Given that anniversary, and the current election season, it seems only fitting to look a little deeper into the life of this 18th president whose face is memorialized on the American fifty-dollar bill. Grant was one of many who catapulted from obscurity to fame during America’s darkest period, the Civil War. His career before the war had been nothing more than ordinary. A West Point graduate from the class of 1843, he would see some action as a Captain in the Mexican-American War later in that decade. When the conflict ended, he continued to serve in the army, retiring in 1854. His heavy consumption of alcohol was apparently a factor in that decision. He then returned to his native Ohio and then Illinois where he found little success in the endeavors he undertook to make a decent living. When Southern forces bombarded Fort Sumter in the spring of 1861,the federal army would expand very rapidly. Men with Grant’s military background were now in demand. His hour had arrived. Grant rejoined the army and soon after took command of a regiment with a rank of full Colonel. He would now latch onto a comet that eight years later would culminate with the Presidency of the United States. Grant became a household name as he crushed Confederate forces wherever he met them. It was in the Western Theatre where he launched his unparalleled success as commanding General of the Army of Tennessee. At places like Fort Donelson and Shiloh, he proved his mettle. At Vicksburg, he strangled Southern forces into surrender and with that, control of the strategically important Mississippi River. He defeated the rebels again at Chattanooga and paved the way for General Sherman’s march through Georgia. Abraham Lincoln had found himself a General who knew how to fight. During the spring of 1864, Grant was promoted to Lieutenant General with command of all armies in the field. He made his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac. The stage was now set for what would become the bloodiest period of the war. His opponent was the South’s most revered soldier, the greatest military leader this country has ever produced, Robert E. Lee. A master of defensive warfare, Lee put Grant to the test at places like Petersburg, Spotsylvania, The Wilderness, and Cold Harbor. Eventually the sheer weight of Northern finances, industrial capacity, manpower, and Grant’s tactics wore down Lee’s army. He reluctantly surrendered his forces to Grant on April 9, 1865. The war was over. Ulysses S. Grant was now a hero of the highest magnitude. He had eclipsed all previous American Army Commanders and with that, was bestowed the title General of the Army and the four stars that accompanied it at that time. In the year 1868, he would reach the pinnacle of success, President of the United States of America. Unfortunately, his two terms in office never lived up to his massive success on the battlefield. His second administration was wrought with dishonesty and corruption that hindered his reputation. He personally was guilty of nothing more than trusting the wrong people. After leaving the White House, Grant embarked on a world tour where he was received as a great hero worthy of the highest honors from leaders of every country he visited. On his return to America, he made some bad investments that rendered him penniless. Then, to make matters worse, he was stricken with throat cancer, his lifelong cigar habit no doubt a factor. Six weeks before his death, he came to Mount McGregor and stayed in what is now Grant’s Cottage. He completed his memoirs there, finishing them only days before his death. The two-volume book is considered a masterpiece and the finest memoir ever penned by a military figure. Thanks to a lucrative deal brokered by Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), the royalties from it would guarantee his wife, Julia, and their children the financial security that had weighed so heavily on the General’s mind. On July 23, 1885 in Wilton, Ulysses S. Grant met his maker. At the time, he was this country’s most revered citizen. His funeral procession was one of the largest ever held in the U.S. Generals from both sides of the Civil War served as pallbearers. From the south came Simon Bolivar Buckner, his foe at Fort Donelson, as well as one of the Confederate Army’s greatest generals, Joseph Eggleston Johnston. Sherman, Grant’s close friend and comrade in arms would also serve, in addition to the superb Union cavalry commander, Phil Sheridan. Grant’s body was interred in New York City overlooking the Hudson River in the well-known monument known as Grant’s tomb. Grant, along with his trusted Lieutenant, William T. Sherman, had revolutionized the way battles would be fought in future conflicts. As Harry T. Williams states in his great work, Lincoln’s Generals, “Lee was the last of the great old-fashioned Generals. Grant was the first of the great modern ones.” His place is forever secured as one of the great captains of history, high on a list that includes Caesar, Napoleon, Wellington, Lee, Jackson, Sherman, Rommel, Patton, and a select few others who reside in the barracks of immortality.