Piney Woods Journal Correspondent
There has been a resurgence of interest in America’s eighteenth President, Ulysses S. Grant. Better known for his victories during the Civil War, particularly the acceptance of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865, Grant’s Presidency has garnered increased attention.
In recent years, Grant has been the subject of several books, including Ron Chernow’s Grant and Ronald C. White’s American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant. Another book recounts Grant’s friendship with author Mark Twain. In November, Mississippi State University in Starkville opened the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library to much fanfare. The library includes marvelous exhibits and the largest single collection of Grant papers and artifacts. The library also hosts the Frank and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana, an incredible assemblage of thousands of Abraham Lincoln-related items.
Grant’s second term was marred by rampant corruption by key figures in his administration. Although the war hero himself was largely unaware of the crimes, they have served to malign Grant for over a century. The recent scholarship has served to improve Grant’s image and elevate his place in history.
Born Hiram Ulysses Grant on April 27, 1822, the future general’s name was switched to match his inaccurate West Point appointment papers in 1839. After serving at Fort Jesup in central Louisiana, followed by action in the Mexican War and dreary postings on the West Coast, Grant resigned from the army and became a farmer.
Grant rejoined the army at the outset of the Civil War and quickly rose in rank with his military successes. Grant’s connection to Louisiana did not end with his brief assignment at Fort Jesup watching for Mexican military incursions. He returned to the state in 1863 to capture the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg.
After coming down the Mississippi River, Grant and his troops took a circuitous route through northeast Louisiana, crossing the big river near the current town of St. Joseph into the state of Mississippi. Grant then drove north to cut communication and supply lines between Jackson and Vicksburg before laying siege to his objective. With the fall of Vicksburg, the war in the West was all but over and Grant moved to Virginia to take on Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
Grant was elected president in 1868 but even before he took office, his role as general of all the armies meant supervising the military occupation of the South. His thoughts would return to Louisiana often as the opponents of Reconstruction obstructed government efforts and harassed freedmen and Unionists.
Grant supported both amnesty for Confederate leaders and civil rights for former slaves. He sought a delicate balance in directing the army’s role in the South. In September 1867, he wrote General Edward Ord, commanding the Fourth Military District in Arkansas, “I am exceedingly anxious to see reconstruction effected and Military rule put to an end.”
Because of his strong defense of one of his favorite generals, Philip Sheridan, Grant has often been misunderstood as a champion of aggressive military rule in the South. Sheridan, head of the military district containing Louisiana, removed Republican Governor James Madison Wells from office, as well as numerous New Orleans city officials. The Military Reconstruction Act of 1867 and gave the Army power over civil authority. Sheridan installed his own selection as governor, Benjamin Franklin Flanders.
In reality, Grant wanted to use the army to maintain peace and order, which meant protecting rights of Unionists and freedmen, while restraining the army from getting too aggressive. He expressed these dual goals to Ord. Grant hoped “politicians should be perfectly satisfied with the temperate manner with which the Military have used authority thus far, but if there is a necessity for continuing it too long there is great danger of a reaction against the Army.”
While in control of Louisiana government, Republicans created new parishes and installed officeholders who were loyal to the party. Grant Parish was created in 1868 from the southern part of Winn Parish and the northern part of Rapides Parish, not only to add Republicans to the state legislature, but to serve as a slap in the face to the local Democrat (former Confederate)populace. Defiantly, Democrats declared the parish was named after R. H. Grant, a cabin boy on one of the steamboats which ran the Red River.
In his inaugural address upon entering office in 1869, Grant urged “Let us have peace.” This four-word declaration captured the imagination of a nation. Tired of four years of war and three years of divisive Reconstruction, most Americans wanted an end to the schism between North and South. Grant embraced the reconciliation of Lincoln’s second inaugural address. But many were reluctant to let bygones be bygones.
Grant worked for ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment and supported passage of the Klu Klux Klan Act of 1871, although he was largely ineffective in enforcing the civil rights laws and other tenets of Reconstruction. Louisiana at the time was as much a war zone as during the recent conflict between the states, and even the recently victorious Union army was stymied in efforts to suppress political violence.
In August 1871, Grant received an urgent appeal from Oscar Dunn, a former slave and then Louisiana’s first black lieutenant governor, stating, “We cannot, in the absence of your interposition, exercise our political privileges, except at personal peril, or else by using violence in self-protection.” Grant referred Dunn’s appeal to the attorney general, ordering him “to secure the protection to free speech and free action” in Louisiana. But the federal government and the army could hardly match an armed and well-trained group like the White League, which received broad support from much of the population.
In 1872, William Kellogg was nominated for governor by the Republicans. By way of an injunction, the U.S. District Court restrained the returning board from announcing the returns of the election. Kellogg was declared governor to the consternation of the Democrats. Democrats went to Washington to complain to Grant. Apparently Grant refused them an audience, leading to accusations that his deaf ear was partly responsible for violence that followed, such as the Colfax Massacre at the Grant Parish courthouse. The suggestion Grant caused the killing of hundreds in defiance of the Republican government, corrupt or not, is ludicrous.
By 1875, Democrats had battled their way back into power and Republicans controlled only four southern states Florida, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana. African Americans constituted the majority of Republicans in all four states. In Louisiana, reports of White Leaguers drilling in the streets of New Orleans prompted Grant to dispatch Phil Sheridan to assume control of U.S. troops and halt violence and murder. Upon arriving on January 1, 1875, Sheridan asked permission from Secretary of War William Belknap to arrest White Leaguers mostly Confederate veterans who had harassed black voters in the recent election for governor.
On Monday, January 4, 1875, when the clerk called the roll to convene the divided Louisiana legislature, 52 Republicans and 50 Democrats responded. Democrats rushed to physically remove the Republican Speaker, replacing him with their own Speaker, appointing their own sergeant at arms, and replacing five Republicans with five Democrats to seize the majority. Their intention was clear. When Republicans tried to bolt, Democrats called on Philippe Régis de Trobriand, local commander of U.S. troops, to forbid their leaving the building. A couple of Republicans escaped and Governor Kellogg, who rushed to the chamber and directed de Trobriand to take away all persons not legal members of the legislature. The army, storming into the legislative hall with fixed bayonets, ejected the several Democrats, thereby allowing Republicans to organize the legislature.
Sheridan notified Grant that “defiance of laws and murder of individuals seems to be looked upon by the community here from a standpoint which gives impunity to all who choose to indulge in either.” Singling out the terrorist tactics of the White Leaguers, Sheridan appealed for a presidential proclamation declaring them to be “banditti” who should be “tried by a military commission.” But replacing the civil courts with military trials was going too far and the idea was ignored.
Grant was a popular President and many wanted him to run for a third term, which was still permitted at the time. Grant was tired and ready to go home. He wanted to travel and see the world. He gracefully declined to be nominated in 1876.
The controversial election of 1876 pitted Republican Rutherford B. Hayes against Democrat Samuel Jones Tilden. Both claimed victory. The electoral votes in several southern states were disputed. A bargain was struck that if Reconstruction was ended and troops removed from the South, the Democrats would not oppose giving the Republican Hayes the Presidency. Grant would later be commended for his delicate handling for the disputed contest.
Grant did travel in retirement, even making trips into the South where he was greeted cordially, particularly for his magnanimous terms of surrender at Appomattox, which permitted Confederate soldiers to keep their horses and head home at once to put in spring crops.
Frederick Douglass, foremost African American leader of the nineteenth century, offered this assessment of Grant, not as a warrior, but as a humanitarian: “To him more than any other man the Negro owes his enfranchisement and the Indian a humane policy He was accessible to all men The black soldier was welcome in his tent, and the freedman in his house.” Author Ron Chernow said of Grant, he “got the minor things wrong and the major things right, particularly on the issues arising from the Civil War first and foremost the protection of four million Americans who were formerly slaves. What happened after Grant left office accentuated his heroism, and now the public is slowly coming to recognize it. He showed the kind of heroism that we used to accept as traditional, performed with a sense of duty and honor.”
Wesley Harris is a native of Ruston who writes extensively on Reconstruction era crime. His books include Greetings From Ruston: A Post Card History of Ruston, Louisiana and Neither Fear nor Favor: Deputy United States Marshal John Tom Sisemore, available from amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out his Louisiana history blog at http://diggingthepast.blogspot.com