An afternoon with a General at Lincoln Heritage Museum

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[June 10, 2017]   LINCOLN -  He was known as the U.S. Grant standing for the “United States,” and for “Unconditional Surrender.” As a General for the Union Army, he was willing to make the tough decisions, sending soldiers to the front lines when for many of them death would be imminent and victory unsure. In the end, he was noted as one of the greatest generals of all time, and the greatest of the Civil War.

But there was more to the man than many knew, his life as a child, his entry in to West Point, and his role as a leader during the Civil War was part of a discussion held on Saturday afternoon at the Lincoln Heritage Museum. There, the General himself, now retired from the military, paid a visit and graciously answered questions about his military career.

Museum volunteer and history buff, Jean Gossett, sat down with the general and discussed his life as a child and forward to the end of the Civil War and the great surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox.

Gossett began the day by speaking to a “small, intimate group” of attendees. She set the scene saying: the year is 1866, the war is over, and many in the nation are still mourning the loss of President Abraham Lincoln. She noted that Lincoln’s Vice-President is now the leader of the country, and he has a mean jealous streak against anyone who had served as a notable person in the history of the country.

Gossett went on to say that for the afternoon, the special guest would be one of those notable people, Ulysses S. Grant.

When Grant entered the room, Gossett noted that she was stunned to see he was not wearing a military uniform. Grant explained that with the war over, he was now trying to get back to his normal life with family. He said that in attending government functions he did ware his uniform, but on a day like this, when with friends, he chose to wear his regular clothing.

Gossett opened the questions to Grant, by saying she had heard that the United States Congress had awarded Grant the rank of General, and this was something that had never been done before. Grant said indeed it was true, and he had received that rank just in this year (1866) and it was quite an honor.

Gossett said that she knew that Lincoln and Grant had some similarities in their lives, she wondered if he would elaborate on those. Grant said that like Lincoln, he was born into a family of ‘limited means.” His parents were hard-working, and of the Christian faith, but life was hard for them.

Grant’s father was a tanner, and made a good living, but in horrible conditions. Grant explained that the tanning of hides involved blood and carcasses, as well as chemicals with terrible odors. Grant said that as a youngster he did help his father in the tanning business. However, he also made it clear early on that he would not choose tannery as a profession. He intended to find another path for himself.

Grant said growing up he had a knack for working with horses and did see that in his future in some way. With six children, Grant said he did appreciate his father’s hard work to make a living.

Gossett asked if the desire to get away from the tanning business had influenced or pushed Grant into enrolling at West Point, an exclusive military academy. Grant said that the funniest part about that was that he personally did not apply to West Point.

Grant said that his father was supportive of Grant finding another career. In addition, he knew that for his son to find a good career, he needed to attend college and get a degree. At the time, his father learned that Grant could get a free education at West Point in exchange for enlisting in the military for a certain period of time.

Grant’s father, and a local congressman, then made the application for Grant, and he was accepted.

Grant said that when his father told him about this, he did not want to go. Grant went on to explain that he was shy, and had been the subject of teasing from other children. It made him self-conscious, and he really didn’t want to go to a military school.

Grant went on to tell another story. When he arrived at West Point, there was no Hiram Ulysses Grant on the roll call. That was Grant’s given name, Hiram. For whatever reason, the name given during the application process and now on the roll call at the school was Ulysses Simpson Grant. Simpson had been Grant’s mother’s maiden name. Again, the shy young man didn’t want to cause a stir or make a problem for anyone, so from that day on he was known as Ulysses S. Grant or U.S. Grant.

Gossett observed that it seemed fitting though that Grant was U.S. as he was a supporter of the United States or the Union as it was called during the Civil War.


Gossett talked about the education at West Point and how it involved learning military strategy and how to actually fight a war. She said at that time the Mexican-American War was starting and Grant had been “belligerent” about going. Grant confirmed. He said that when his country called, he went, but it was a war he did not support because it was a battle for land boundaries. “This was a terrible example of a war being fought with stronger nations versus a weaker nation.” Grant went on to say it was an example “of an old European Monarchy in fighting war, not for the sake of justice, but for the sake of acquiring additional territory. I was not entirely for the war, but I fought the war with everything I had.”

Moving on to the Civil War, Gossett noted that during the Civil War he became a legend. She skipped past the details of the various battles and moved to the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox. She noted that though the two leaders were on opposite sides, they did hold respect for one another as military leaders. She asked Grant to share some insights about the day of surrender.

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Grant opened by saying, “It was a unique day.” He had not expected to hear when he arrived at the courthouse that Lee would be surrendering. He noted that he had not worn his general’s coat, and therefore felt like he was not properly dressed for the events that were about to unfold. “When I arrived, I saw General Lee, we shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, then sat down at the desk.” Grant went on to say he couldn’t read the opposing general. He noted that Lee was a man of “such dignity” that one could not tell if Lee was relieved it was over, or if he was sad for what was about to happen.

Grant had earned the reputation of Unconditional Surrender at an earlier battle. With the U.S. in his name, the phrase was soon coined that he was Unconditional Surrender Grant. However, the day at Appomattox was a little different. Grant said, “While I wasn’t sure what General Lee’s feelings were, I was a little confused on mine. I thought that I should have at that time felt rejuvenated. Sitting across from General Lee, I felt a certain amount of sympathy for my opponent.”

Grant said Lee had fought long and hard for a cause he believed in completely. While Grant felt it was an unjust cause, he still respected Lee for his commitment to it.

Grant went on to say that the compassion he felt for the general, and the soldiers who were now admitting defeat caused him to give an order that would have been unacceptable at other battles. In the surrender, it was standard practice for the winning army to confiscate all weapons from the defeated troops. Grant said he reasoned on this, that with no government issue behind them, many, if not all of these soldiers carried rifles they had brought with them from home. These men were hunters who relied on their rifles to put food on the table for their families. He reasoned that without weapons, the families of these soldiers would suffer additional hardships after the war. Therefore, he instructed his men to return the rifles to the soldiers as they went on their way back to their homes and families.

Grant and Gossett went on to talk briefly about the aftermath of the war, and could unity be found again, and could the country thrive again. Grant said he had experienced kindness from places he did not expect, and it had given him hope. He said it would take time, but he was optimistic that the country could heal.

Grant was asked about the assignation of President Lincoln. Grant had been expected to attend Ford’s Theater with the President and First Lady on the night of the assignation. However, Grants wife had wanted to go home to New Jersey. Grant said he had seen little of his family, and he too wanted to go home, and respected his wife’s wishes. He also noted that he had become a public figure, it was embarrassing to him sometimes to go out and find that people would applauded him and cheered him. Again reverting to that shy young man, Grant didn’t like the attention.

As she began to wind down her interview, Gossett asked Grant if he had any political aspirations. Grant said that he did not. He said he had no interest in party politics and did not want to learn about it. He said that he had one belief, “We have one government; we have one set of laws; we have one flag. We must do everything we can to make sure they are sustained.”

Gossett ended the day by asking for questions from the audience. Two people raised their hands.

The first person began by thanking Grant for visiting the Lincoln Heritage Museum and spending time with guests. She then asked about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, she wondered if Grant thought he could have prevented the incident.

Grant said that in the time since the assignation, he had wondered that himself. Could he have noticed something, could he have acted quickly? But in the end he had resigned himself to saying no, the event happened so quickly, that he doesn’t believe he could have prevented it.

The second question was prefaced with a brief comment on how that the tragedy of war had impacted the President. Lincoln suffered emotionally and his mental health was impacted by the devastation of the war. How, as a leader of troops, did Grant separate himself from what he witnessed?

Grant said that one really doesn’t separate themselves from those things. He said that one had to compartmentalize. He ended saying. “There is a greater good. It is a very difficult thing sending regiments off to war knowing they are not all going to come back.” Grant went on to say, “We all have our battle scars. It was something you had to remind your troops, your officers, yourself, it is all for a greater good what you are fighting for, to try and reunite this country. There were several battles fought, not just on the battle field.”

That statement made by a man reflecting on the Civil War era, are words that most soldiers even today would say are the root of survival in the war zone. Freedom is not free, lives are always lost, and the measure is always going to be was freedom for all men worth the lives lost? For Grant it was, for Lincoln it was, and for soldiers today it still is.

(The role of U.S. Grant was portrayed by museum director Tom McLaughlin)

[Nila Smith]

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