Last year, more than 6,000,000 people visited the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. By contrast, barely 80,000 went to General Ulysses S. Grant’s tomb in New York City. Some would argue that the neglect is no better than Grant deserves. But others, notably Ron Chernow, believe it’s time for a rehabilitation.
Why do Americans pay so little attention to the man who beat the South in the Civil War and went on to become the 18th president of the United States? At least part of the answer can be found in the terrible alchemy of war. It spews out vast quantities of lead but, for some people, also spins gold.
Grant was a failure in his early life. He was born in Ohio in 1822 to a domineering father and emotionally distant mother. The family pulled their one string to get him into West Point, the US military academy. He did not distinguish himself there, but a paperwork error led to his first name being changed from the prosaic Hiram to the more dashing sounding Ulysses.
After West Point, Grant acquitted himself adequately during the 1846–48 Mexican War and miserably afterwards as a quartermaster in a lonely military outpost on the Canadian-Californian frontier. By the time he was pushed out of the army in 1854, he had become a full-blown binge drinker. He could control himself around his wife and children, but for the rest of his life he struggled with sobriety. Without the rigidity of military life to keep him focused, Grant struggled anyway. He stumbled from venture to venture until he ended up in Galena, Illinois, aged 38, working in his father’s leather goods store as a junior assistant. His annual salary of $800 barely covered the family’s expenses.
But then the war came in 1861, and the rumpled, sad-looking man behind the counter stepped out into the sunshine.