TBT: A second Illinoisan in the White House

Ulysses S. Grant standing alongside his famous war horse,
“Cincinnati” – 1864
When Illinois attained statehood in 1818, it had the smallest population of any state on the day it entered the union – a distinction we still hold today. Most of Illinois was unsettled, and Chicago was just a few cabins around an old fort.

But fifty years after statehood, Illinois’ population had raced beyond one million, we were the nation’s fourth-largest state and Chicago was already its ninth-largest city. In that 50th-birthday year, a second Illinoisan was elected to the White House. It was 150 years ago next week that Ulysses S. Grant of Galena, Illinois, took the oath of office as the 18th President of the United States.

Born in Ohio, the incoming President had until seven years before his election seemed to have strayed far off a course that would lead to the White House. Grant graduated from West Point and was a decorated Army officer during the war with Mexico. But a series of assignments to remote posts, far from his wife Julia, had been hard on Grant personally. Out of loneliness and boredom, he took to drinking, and wrecked a once-promising career, resigning in 1854. Failure after failure marked his business career in the 1850s, the low point coming when he sold firewood out of a wagon on the streets of St. Louis.

Out of prospects, and desperate to provide for his wife and four children, Grant came to Illinois in 1860 and went to work alongside his brothers in his father’s tannery in Galena. It was there that he heard the news of Fort Sumter and offered his services as a combat veteran to the local company of soldiers joining the Illinois regiments for the war. He escorted this group of men to Springfield, where he found work as a quartermaster working from a desk underneath a staircase in the Capitol building.

Officers with resumes like Grant’s were in demand in the spring of 1861. Thanks to some help from Galena’s congressman, Elihu Washburne, he was commissioned a Colonel by Governor Richard Yates and sent into the field at the head of the 21st Illinois infantry. Though few would have predicted it in 1861, after the war the regimental history would say of its commanding officer: “It will ever be a pleasing thought with the men who composed this gallant Regiment to remember that the man who first led them in defense of their country’s flag became the most illustrious soldier and distinguished citizen of the age and generation in which he lived.”

Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant,
photographed in Cairo, Illinois – 1861
Grant’s skill as a commander soon caught the attention of superiors, and he was made a brigadier general, then placed in command of the entire western army of the Union. He established his headquarters at Cairo, Illinois, and used that base to execute operations down the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers.

Victories at Fort Donelson, Shiloh and Vicksburg demonstrated to President Abraham Lincoln that Grant was the kind of hard-headed commander he needed in the east to crush the wily Robert E. Lee, who had outfoxed one Union commander after another. Grant did indeed secure victory in the eastern theater of the war, and on April 9, 1865, he met with Lee to accept the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox.

Grant returned home to Galena on August 18, 1865. Upon arrival, he found that the people of his adopted hometown had presented him with a new house. The town’s residents greeted the returning hero with a “grand triumphal arch” over Main Street and what Julia Grant described as, “a tremendous and enthusiastic outpouring of people to welcome him….After a glorious triumphal ride around the hills and valleys, so brilliant with smiles and flowers, we were conducted to a lovely villa exquisitely furnished with everything good taste could desire.”

But the General would not stay for long. Duty called him back to Washington as the nation grappled with the challenges of Reconstruction. In 1866, Congress created the rank of “General of the Armies of the United States;” the highest-ranking officer in the entire Army; and bestowed the command on Grant.

With the Civil War won, but Lincoln assassinated and replaced by a much lesser figure, voices began clamoring for the next greatest hero of the Union to step up and take his place. Outside the 1868 Republican convention; held in Crosby’s Opera House in Chicago; a loud and boisterous crowd of veterans, the so-called “Boys in Blue,” the political wing of the Grand Army of the Republic, called for Grant’s nomination. There was virtually no opposition, and the man from Galena was now a nominee for President of the United States.

Ulysses S. Grant delivering his first inaugural address in 1869
On a slogan of “Let us have peace,” Grant won a landslide victory over New York’s Horatio Seymour in November. In his inaugural address he called upon Congress and the states to ratify the 15th Amendment, prohibiting infringement of the right to vote based on skin color or “previous condition of servitude.” He also spoke in support of citizenship for Native Americans.

But reaching the highest office in the land might have been the pinnacle of Grant’s achievement. Over the next eight years, Grant’s administration sank under layer upon layer of scandal as Grant was betrayed again and again by subordinates in whom he had placed his trust. As President, Grant lost the clear-headed decisiveness which had served him so well as a battlefield commander during the war. Faced with important decisions, he often vacillated or relied on advice from people seeking to turn their associations with him into personal riches.

Grant’s term was not without success. Early in his term there was progress on the momentous issues of civil rights and reunifying the nation still hurting from the war. He signed legislation creating the Department of Justice and the Civil Service Commission. Grant signed legislation creating the nation’s first National Park; Yellowstone; and another bill making Christmas a federal holiday. But this momentum soon began to stall, and before Grant left office so-called “redeemers” had re-established control of state governments throughout the south. The Civil Rights Act which Grant signed in 1875 would be the last one for more than 80 years. It was eventually ruled unconstitutional.

The scandals seemed to come one after another. First there was the Gold Ring, an effort by a pair of New York financiers to buy up much of the nation’s gold supply, then drive up the price and make a fortune. When Grant found out what was happening he ordered his Treasury secretary to sell much of the government’s holdings of gold, driving the price down and thwarting the plot, but in the process devastating small farmers.

Next came the “Star Route” scandal, an effort by contractors to obtain lucrative postal routes in the sparsely-populated southwest from Grant’s postmaster general through bribery. Then there was a scandal in the Treasury Department’s New York Customs House. Later was the “salary grab,” a pay raise for the President and members of Congress; along with a retroactive bonus; which was slipped into an appropriations bill that Grant signed.

Grant remained a national hero, however, and was easily re-elected in 1872 (thus making an Illinoisan the victor in four consecutive Presidential elections). The speech nominating him was delivered by Shelby Moore Cullom, who would go on to serve as Illinois’ Governor and U.S. Senator. At a single sentence, it is believed to be the shortest nominating speech ever given at an American political convention. After his re-election, Grant visited Galena and expressed his hope to “retain my residence here.” The next year he returned to Illinois to dedicate the tomb of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield.

The second term proved to be just as difficult as the first. Violence escalated in the south, and the federal government seemed powerless to do anything about it. The discovery of gold in the west led to more clashes with Native Americans. A financial crisis which started in Europe spread to the United States in the fall of 1873 and triggered a depression that lasted for close to five years. Banks and railroads failed and unemployment soared.

Grant’s Treasury secretary was implicated in a contracting scandal; his attorney general was forced to resign after being accused of taking a bribe to drop a prosecution; his secretary of the Interior was part of another contracting scandal, this one involving the President’s own brother. In 1875, the Treasury Department (now under a new secretary) blew the whistle on a scandal which came to be known as the Whiskey Ring, a broad conspiracy of distillers, distributors and revenue officers to pay bribes to avoid taxes on whiskey. Grant’s personal secretary Orville Babcock was among those indicted. Secretary of War William Belknap was the target of an impeachment effort over a profiteering scandal involving trading posts in the west. He resigned. The Secretary of the Navy was accused of embezzlement, though a definitive paper trail was never found.

Missing from all these scandals was one person: Grant himself. Though seemingly surrounded by crooks and corruption, Grant was never implicated in any of these crimes. His own integrity caused him a great conflict: while he remained personally loyal to his friends, his administration would aggressively investigate and prosecute wrongdoers. It seems everyone got rich (or tried to) using Grant’s name except Grant himself.

Grant left office in 1877. In spite of the disasters of his Presidency, he remained personally popular and was very nearly re-nominated for a third term in 1880, the same year he made his final visit to his Galena house. He noticed that, “a new sidewalk laid in front of the premises, the outbuildings repaired, the trees handsomely trimmed, a new a commodious wash house built and other improvements made.”

Ulysses S. Grant working on his memoirs in 1885
The fact that Grant had not personally profited from the office of the Presidency was soon clear to any observer. Within five years he was penniless and dying of throat cancer. The same sense of desperation that drove him to the Galena tannery a quarter of a century before now compelled him once again to find a way to provide for his family. Grant began work on his autobiography, and The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant was completed two months before his death.

The two-volume story proved enormously popular. It sold 350,000 copies and earned Julia Grant enough to sustain the family after Grant’s death. More than 1.5 million people attended Grant’s funeral in New York, where a seven-mile long procession included President Grover Cleveland, the living ex-Presidents, Cabinet members and the Supreme Court. The nation had not forgotten its hero.

Twenty years later, the Grant family donated the Galena house to the city as a memorial to the General, with a Grant Home Association established to take care of the house. In 1931, it was acquired by the state of Illinois, which launched a restoration project in 1955 to return it to the way it had appeared when Grant lived there, including much of the original furniture.

Today Grant’s reputation, tarnished by the Presidency, is the subject of a revival. Recent biographies, including H.W. Brands’ 2012 work The Man Who Saved the Union and Ron Chernow’s 2017 Grant serve to reinstate Grant’s standing among the great Americans in history.

Grant, the man who wore a simple jacket and muddy boots to receive Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, remained the humble soldier to his death. His autobiography begins with a simple note from the General: “These volumes are dedicated to the American soldier and sailor. U.S. Grant, New York City, May 23rd, 1885.”