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Thursday, April 28, 2022

April 28, 2022: Ulysses Grant Studying: His Friends

[April 27th will mark the 200th birthday of Ulysses S. Grant, one of the more influential but also more misunderstood 19th century Americans. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for our 18th president who was also so much more!]

Three representative relationships across Grant’s iconic life (besides his friendship with Mark Twain, about which I wrote on Tuesday).

1)      James Longstreet: As that hyperlinked article indicates, certain famous details of the friendship between Grant and Longstreet are a bit difficult to pin down for a certainty; but there’s no doubt that the two became close during their time at West Point, that they remained connected through Grant’s wife Julia (a distant relation of Longstreet’s), and that they served together in the Mexican American War, all early experiences that were no doubt formative for their friendship. That’s one of many such examples of how U.S. and Confederate soldiers and generals were as intimately interconnected as were the regions themselves. But it also adds an interesting layer to Longstreet’s post-Civil War evolutions, about which I wrote at length in this Saturday Evening Post Considering History column and many of which took place during Grant’s presidency.

2)      Ely Parker: I’ve written about Ely Parker, one of my favorite 19th century Americans, many times before in this space. He and Grant first became friends during Parker’s time supervising government engineering projects in Galena, Illinois, where Ulysses and Julia lived with family for a time just before the Civil War. During the war Parker became both adjutant and secretary to Grant, writing much of Grant’s correspondence and (most famously) drafting the Appomattox surrender documents. When Grant became president, he appointed Parker his Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to serve in the role; as the first hyperlinked article above notes, he and Grant worked hard to extend rights and protections to Native Americans during his brief time in the position. Every part of that story is more complicated than these few lines permit, but the bottom line is that Grant’s multiracial alliances and solidarities extended not just to African Americans but very much to Native Americans, as inspired by his longtime friendship with Ely Parker.

3)      John McDonald: Parker was an example of how Grant brought his friends into his administration in significant and inspiring ways; but as I discussed in Monday’s post, the scandals that became so much of the story of the Grant presidency were also deeply tied to his friends in far more problematic ways. That was particularly the case with John McDonald, a friend and fellow Civil War general whom President Grant appointed as Revenue Collector of the Missouri District in 1869. McDonald would become the corrupt center of the scandal known as the Whiskey Ring, a scandal exposed and investigated by Grant’s own Secretary of the Treasury Benjamin Bristow. That latter fact is to Grant’s credit, and seems to reflect his genuine lack of awareness of (and frustration with) what supposed friends such as McDonald were up to. But at the same time, those frustrating friends fundamentally shaped narratives of Grant’s presidency, in its own era and throughout the 150 years since, in the process far overshadowing more inspiring friendships like those with Longstreet and Parker.

Last GrantStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Grant histories or contexts you’d highlight?

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