Ulysses S. Grant was not born to privilege. He grew up in a modest house in a small town in Ohio and followed his father in tanning animal hides for leather. Showing no particular aptitude or ambition, he attended West Point which he hated. After that he tried his hand at a number of businesses all of which failed. He got in the habit of some heavy drinking. Not the stuff of statues.
Then in 1860 came the outbreak of the Civil war. He joined up and found his calling, becoming a skilled fighter as well as commander. Imperturbable, fearless under fire, he won the admiration of his troops and caught the eye of President Lincoln in search of a general who could face down a determined Confederacy. As commanding general of Union forces, he fought stubbornly, making some costly errors along the way, until his adroit maneuvers culminated in a crucial victory at Vicksburg that assured the defeat of the South and Lincoln’s reelection. He was the man of the hour.
He was less successful in his second career as U.S. President. Embroiled in a politics he couldn’t quite understand, he was unable to cope with the get-rich- quick schemes that followed the war and almost any war. Retirement came as a relief and off he went to see the world. Along the way he ran into German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who had united Germany and thus had something in common with the general who kept America united. In a remarkable conversation in 1878 between two major figures of the 19th century, Bismarck remarked that it was sad to fight your own people in a war.
“But it had to be done,” said Grant. “Yes,” said Bismarck. “You had to save the Union just as we had to save Germany.” “In the beginning,” replied Grant. “but as soon as slavery fired upon the flag, it was felt, we all felt, even those who did not object to slaves, that slavery must be destroyed. We felt that it was a stain to the Union that men should be bought and sold like cattle.” He even restrained his impetuous General Sheridan so that the war would not end too quickly without the abolition of slavery
Bismarck went on to say that there had been an attempt on the life of Germany’s King Wilhelm, a sincere republican in principle, “ and one of the kindest old gentlemen in the world, and yet they must try and shoot him.” Replied Grant: “The influence which aimed at the Emperor’s life was an influence that would destroy all government, all order, all society, republics and empires.”
Anticipating the eruptions of the next century, he spoke prophetically but of course did not live to fight that battle.