Today is Ulysses S. Grant’s birthday. As H. W. Brands would have it, he was the man who saved the Union. Perhaps he was. Perhaps, in fact, he was indispensable to the suppression of the southern rebellion, which in turn was secured in part through the destruction of slavery. In other words, he’s kinda a big deal.
In the last several decades (some would say starting in earnest in 1991), historians have taken a new look at the life and times of the hero of Appomattox and the eighteenth president of the United Sates. Grant continues to get high marks as a general, but I’d add that since the 1980s we have a better and fuller understanding of what made him a successful American commander. Other historians have reassessed his presidency, with some arguing that he was not only a capable president but indeed a very good one (an estimate that I think goes too far). In fact during the past ten years we have seen book after book come out repeating basically the same message established by 2001, to the point that this swelling chorus of phase has become a little too familiar as several biographers assert that their task is to rehabilitate Grant. I don’t happen to think that’s a biographer’s task, and in such claims there’s a little too much of the first person singular, but to each his or her own.
I don’t happen to think that Grant was indispensable as president, although I am hard pressed to identify someone who could have done a better job (and was electable) in 1868. Nor has anyone else identified a better choice or in fact outlined how the outcome of the Grant presidency could have been, in the larger sense of things, much different. In short, the counterfactual of “what if another Republican had run and won in 1868?” leads to very little discussion, although it is true that if the Democrats had claimed victory in 1868 or 1872, much would have been different. I recall one poll of historians as to who they would have voted for in various presidential elections, and was amused to find that a majority would have voted for Horatio Seymour in 1868 or Horace Greeley in 1872, a sign that not all American historians are particularly well-read, especially when it comes to Reconstruction, or that perhaps the profession isn’t quite as “politically correct” as some would have it. I wonder what would happen if somebody embarked on that poll today (Crossroads did it some time ago, and Grant won both elections, which suggests that readers of this blog on the whole may know something the historians polled in that example did not).
Having said that I don’t believe that Grant was indispensable as president does not mean that I don’t think he was important or that he played a key role in shaping the politics of post-Johnson Reconstruction. He did. But one can say the same thing of many other notable individuals when it comes to assessing their impact on history. When it comes to Grant the general, however, the challenge is a little different. Simply put, could the United States have prevailed in the American Civil War without Ulysses S. Grant?
Exploring this question means understanding Grant’s place in history. It also implies a counterfactual speculation about what would have happened had Grant not existed or been removed (one way or another) from the number of generals who eventually rose to high command. It soon gives rise to other questions as well. Who else could have led the United States to victory? Without Grant, would William T. Sherman have made his way up the command ladder as he did, given his own testimony as to Grant’s importance in his career?
Some of these counterfactuals depend on a great deal of speculation. For example, would Nathaniel Lyon or Philip Kearny have eventually risen to high command? That counterfactual musing requires a good deal of speculation (next I’ll hear that if Elmer Ellsworth had lived, all would have been well). What about the oft-forgotten Samuel R. Curtis? What about George H. Thomas or William S. Rosecrans, both of whom enjoy followings characterized in some instances by a deeply-felt resentment of Grant? My opinion (and you should take it as that … my opinion) is that it is unlikely that any of these names had the right stuff for the top spot. Each of them possessed some ability (and one could argue that in the cases of Kearny and especially Thomas, a great deal of ability), but it’s my sense that they would have fallen short in other ways, including the ability to direct others and work within the existing framework of civil-military relations. Indeed, I’d say the only Union general who had a chance to win the war prior to Grant was George B. McClellan, and I think one can engage in a reasonable discussion about whether McClellan could have won the war. I doubt that other commanders of important field armies (McDowell, Pope, Burnside, Hooker, Meade, Halleck, and Buell come to mind) could have won the war. There might well be a “General X” who would have proven equal to the task, but that would be true in any counterfactual: I prefer to stick with the people I know existed.
In short, Grant assumes the place he does not only because of the result he achieved but also because one is hard pressed to identify someone else who could have done as well. One would have to shuffle other variables (such as Lincoln) to achieve a different scenario … which may take one down the road of historical inevitability (and if something’s inevitable, then one does not see the need for a great man to achieve what would have happened in any case). And, if we take the case of McClellan, we have a far different situation after the United States prevails.
Was Ulysses S. Grant an indispensable man? Maybe. What do you think?