The War Hero Tainted by Scandal

June 22, 2017

“Let Us Have Peace.”

Ulysses S. Grant. Most Americans have heard of him. They know he was involved in the Civil War somehow. But they may not know much else.

Not only was Ulysses S. Grant involved in the Civil War, but he was also a key player in leading the Union Army to victory over the Confederacy. He was nothing short of an American hero and was a shoe-in for the presidency.

In fact, as my favorite presidential documentary stated, had the paparazzi existed back then, no photograph would have been coveted more than his. War heroes were the equivalent of today’s celebrities. And in the 1860s-70s, Grant was as big as they came.

Sure he was a star, and hands down the best person to lead the Union in the Civil War. But he had never served as an elected official before and would soon find out it wasn’t the same as serving in the military. In fact, though Grant was considered just as honest as “Honest Abe,” his presidency consisted of numerous scandals that ultimately tainted his reputation.

Ulysses S. Grant is our nation’s 18th president, and our president of the week.

Ulysses SBackground

Ulysses S. Grant  was born in Ohio and our nation’s first president to attend West Point. His father was a tanner and insisted that his son go to the military academy. Ulysses didn’t share the enthusiasm but went reluctantly.

It’s said Ulysses S. Grant was shy, hated the sight of blood–how he got through the Civil War is beyond me–and rather witty. His brother nicknamed him “Useless S. Grant” so maybe wit ran in the family.

After he graduated from West Point, Grant served in the Mexican-American War under Zachary Taylor. For awhile he seemed to fail at everything he tried: the Army (he resigned due to rumors of heavy drinking) business, farming, and then finally ended up right back where he started: his dad’s tanning business.

When the Civil War started, he was more than willing to serve again and rose in ranks rather quickly.

“The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.”

Ulysses S. Grant: Civil War Hero

The Civil War was Ulysses S. Grant’s time to shine. His strategies in gaining southern territory are what ultimately won the war. Everyone knew it and that’s what eventually won him the presidency. He had a less successful battle where a few higher up in commands suggested President Lincoln replace him. Lincoln’s answer?: “I can’t spare this man–he fights.”

Upon joining the Union army, Grant was a master at gaining recruits. This earned him an appointment of brigadier general with 20,000 men under his control. At Fort Donelson in February 1862, when Grant was asked what the terms of the Confederate’s surrender would be said “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.”

His brilliant military strategy was seen in the 47 days long siege of Vicksburg. Both sides suffered heavy casualties, yet thanks to Grant, the Union saw success just a day after the battle of Gettysburg on July 4, 1863. Afterward, Lincoln appointed him general-in-chief over the entire army.

In May 1864, Robert E. Lee attacked him in Virginia. Grant, however, prevailed with Lee surrendering at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Grant was a hero and the first American since George Washington to be awarded the rank of full general by Congress.

President Ulysses S. Grant

President Grant

Ulysses S. Grant’s Presidency

He served as president from 1869-1877, was the youngest president elected up to that point. Also for the first time in history, someone won the presidency by not winning a majority of the white vote. By the time of his election, blacks in the South could vote and their 700,000 votes pushed him over the top. They saw him in the same light they saw Abraham Lincoln in helping to emancipate them.

One problem with Grant’s presidency is that instead of just doing what he thought should be done, he relied on Congress to tell him what to do. He also was loyal to a fault. He appointed army buddies, former army staff, and friends to appointments in his Administration. Many of them took advantage of their relationships with Grant and abused their positions.

“Although a soldier by profession, I have never felt any sort of fondness for war, and I have never advocated it, except as a means of peace.”

Southern Violence Continues

Many Republican governments were elected in southern states which created some very unhappy people in the South. Some still wanted to punish blacks in the South for how things turned out. What historians call a “terrorist wing of the Democratic party” emerged: the Ku Klux Klan.

Whippings, beatings, hangings, and burning of buildings were common in the South, thanks to the KKK. Grant launched a war on them and sent federal troops to crush them. It was one of the successes of his presidency.

During his first term, Grant did all he could to stop violence in the South. His motto “let there be peace” had been part of his election and he meant it. He wanted to tie up all the loose ends of the Civil War. He was largely successful in that regard by just sending in troops to manage any violence.

However, during his second term, things in the South got violent again. The problem this time was that the overall attitude in the U.S. had changed. Americans (Northerners mostly) were getting sick of all the violence. They were tired of cleaning up the South’s mess–so tired of it they didn’t even want to hear about it anymore. So, instead of sending in troops like he did his first term, Grant did nothing. This basically allowed the “terrorist” groups to run the show down South.

Indian affairs was also a big part of Grant’s second term. Custer’s Last Stand took place during this time and violence with the Indians grew worse.

Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 billScandals

If only Ulysses S. Grant could have done things differently and used his strength of loyalty for the better. He could have avoided so much heartache and stress.

Late in President Grant’s first term, those “loyal” yet sketchy hires of his led to several scandals that would taint his name. Nepotism was huge in the Grant administration. He had hired over 40 family members and friends to various positions. Part of the problem was that he tried to run his staff not like civilians, but like the military. He sent these close friends to do jobs that Cabinet Secretaries should have done (and often weren’t even consulted on). It caused a lot of problems.

During Grant’s presidency, there is evidence of scandals in seven federal departments. Grant seemed totally blind to all of it, leading some to question him even more. Here are just a few of those scandals:

Black Friday aka the Gold Panic

This is more complicated than I can summarize. Essentially, two dishonest, scheming men tried to corner the gold market. It consisted of bribes to the Secretary of Treasury for insider information. Gold prices kept rising and the men convinced government officials to sway things in their favor so they could keep profiting. The men ultimately made millions. Grant eventually caught on to the ever rising cost of gold and what the men were doing. In his attempt to stop them, he tried to release gold back into the market, but it was too late. Also, the Tenth National Bank closed on the same day and the gold market crashed. The whole fiasco hurt the economy for years.

The men involved were never tried and one of them even ran Wall Street for years.

Star Route Postal Ring

This scandal essentially meant that postal workers set up fictitious routes in rural areas of U.S. territories. They charged huge amounts of money to run these routes that were often hundreds of miles long through rural territories, earning them big bucks.

Whiskey Ring

This is regarded as the worst scandal in Grant’s presidency. Whiskey distillers had been evading taxes since Lincoln’s presidency. Apparently the distillers had bribed Treasury Department officials who helped them avoid paying over $2 million in taxes every year. Taxes on whiskey were 70-cents a gallon in those days. The federal agents would fail to collect the taxes and then split the gain with the distillers.

Ultimately, the Treasury Secretary and President Grant caught wind of what was going on, sent spies to gather evidence, and put a stop to it. Not only Treasury appointees were involved but IRS and even Grant’s personal secretary.

Grant was even in the hot seat on this one. Many thought he was involved and using the money to fund his re-election campaign. To clear his name, as well as his personal secretary’s, Grant was the first and only president to date to ever to testify for a defendant. His secretary’s testimony was sketchy, as evidence strongly suggested he was involved. But Grant, whose own testimony was sketchy (when his own photographic memory failed to recall important info), stood up for him anyway but distanced himself from him afterward.

350 federal indictments resulted. Only a fraction of the evaded taxes were recovered. And Grant’s reputation was forever tainted.

Post-Presidency Life

Ulysses S. Grant was a heavy cigar smoker–smoking up to 20 a day. It’s no surprise then how he died, but it’s still a sad ending to such a brave, heroic life.

After he served as president, he worked for a financial company. It went bankrupt and very soon thereafter he found out he had throat cancer. To make sure his wife would be financially secure after his death, he decided to write his memoirs. Somehow Mark Twain convinced him to publish his memoirs with him.

Many historians claim they are the most well-written presidential memoirs ever written. It’s said he was in so much pain that he could hardly speak or lift his pen toward the end. Within days of writing his final page, he passed away.

Julia Grant

First Lady Julia Grant

First Lady

Julia Dent Grant was the opposite of her husband in many ways. Where he was super shy, she won him over by her friendliness. The two met when Ulysses visited her home, visiting as a West Point classmate of her brother’s. Her father initially opposed the engagement, claiming Ulysses was too poor.

Unfortunately, the Mexican War delayed their wedding and they couldn’t be married for four more years. The two had four children and Julia joined her husband by his side, even near battlefields, whenever she could. Their marriage had a lot of struggles, as Grant failed in a lot of occupations before being successful in the military.

Julia calls their time in the White House her happiest time of life (she loved the “fame” that came with it). She entertained extravagantly and was a social butterfly among the Cabinet secretaries wives. The Grants fame wasn’t just in the U.S. It stretched all across the world. So, after his presidency ended, the Grants took a tour across the world where they were basically treated like royalty.

It’s said Julia Grant was cross-eyed and squinted a lot. She insisted on only being photographed in profile so her eye condition wouldn’t be noticed. She was the first First Lady to write a memoir, but they weren’t published until 75 years after she died. You can find her memoir here.

Political Party

At this point in history, the Republican Party was completely divided. Grant was aligned with a group of Republicans called the Radicals.

Vice President

Ulysses S. Grant had two vice presidents serve under him. Congressman Schuyler Colfax served from 1869-1873. Henry Wilson, a huge leader in the anti-slavery movement, served from 1873-75. Unfortunately, while in office, he had a stroke in the vice president’s room in the U.S. Capitol and died.

“I know only two tunes: one of them is ‘Yankee Doodle,’ and the other one isn’t.”

A Ulysses S. Grant painting

Painting done by Ulysses S. Grant

Why Ulysses S. Grant Is Cool

He was an adrenaline junkie. He loved horses and speed and at one time was even given a “speeding ticket” for riding too swiftly through Washington, D.C. It’s also said he won a drag race through Central Park with President Andrew Johnson. Also, apparently he was pretty witty (as evidenced from his quote above).

In addition to dealing with the reconstruction of our country, he also dealt with our country’s first “terrorists.” The KKK. He dealt with them the only way he knew how: with military force. It seemed to do the job and the country experienced its most peaceful time since pre-Civil War. For awhile anyway.

Apparently he was super shy. Shy people who rise to power and do great things always amaze me. He also was an amazing artist (see painting above) and a skilled writer. His presidential memoirs are said to be the most well-written presidential memoirs ever written. Maybe Mark Twain had a hand in that, but Grant was also just that good.

For Kids

Talk to your children about what Ulysses S. Grant accomplished in the Civil War and what he accomplished as president. Discuss some of the scandals that tainted Grant’s presidency. What could Grant have done differently? It is said that he was so trusting and loyal that it was his downfall. Can our strengths sometimes become weaknesses if we don’t use them the right way?


As mentioned above, the Grant memoirs are supposed to be the best written memoirs of all presidents to date. You can find them here.

In addition, the Washington Post has the BEST podcast titled Presidential. Grant’s episode is slightly different than a lot of the podcasts in that it doesn’t focus on his presidency. It’s titled “Lover, Fighter, Writer” and is super interesting. It talks a lot about his memoirs. I listened to it one day in the hammock of my backyard while my two-year-old was napping. 🙂

And, as always, here’s my favorite documentary on all the presidents. The History Channel put together a mini-documentary on each president and they’re fascinating. Here’s the longer (more expensive version) and here’s the shorter version.

Author: Brittany

Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.

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