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President Ulysses Grant and the End of Reconstruction

[T]he “. . . nigger will never disturb this country again.” –Ulysses S. Grant, at the outset of the Civil War

Every Democrat must feel honor bound to control the vote of at least one Negro, by intimidation, purchase, keeping him away or as each individual may determine, how he may best accomplish it.—Wade Hampton

Union General Ulysses S. Grant met General Robert E. Lee April 9th, 1865 at Appomattox Court House to accept the Confederate surrender. Lee, weary and demoralized as his mighty army of Northern Virginia had been whittled down to roughly 8,000 men, waited desperately for Grant to appear. Facing food shortages that were even felt by his own troops, Lee saw no other option other than to throw himself on his enemy’s mercy. Dressed immaculately in his finest Confederate gray dress uniform replete with sword and gold-trimmed scabbard, Lee’s appearance contrasted with that of Grant’s who wore a wrinkled jacket and dirty pants. Shaking hands they moved in the parlor where they reminiscing so extensively and so pleasantly about their days at West Point and in the Mexican War that Lee was forced to remind Grant he was there to surrender. Grant’s terms of surrender were so lenient–Confederate soldiers would be allowed to carry their sidearms, personal horses, and personal property home–that Lee commented that these terms would “have a happy effect” upon his soldiers. Sensing weakness, Lee asked if the horses used by Confederate artillerymen and cavalrymen could also be included in the horses the defeated soldiers were allowed to carry home. Grant agreed reasoning that they would need the animals to work their farms in the spring. Shortly before they departed, Lee requested immediate food aid for his army and Grant ensured that rations for twenty-five thousand men would be made available to the defeated army.

Ulysses S. Grant’s finest moment signified by the surrender of Robert E. Lee, the slaveholding representative of the slaveholding class, inaugurated a new era for the nation. Despite this Grant’s brief interaction with Lee, contained ominous signs of things to come. Despite some hundreds of thousands killed, widespread destruction and unquantifiable misery caused by the slaveholder-led secession movement, Grant showed no emotion, anger, or bitterness but, rather, considerable understanding and empathy for Lee and his followers. No wonder, prior to the war Grant, like the vast majority of white northerners, had no serious quarrel with slavery and even voted for Buchanan in 1856. In response to a war initiated by a desperate faction of the slaveholding elite, only a small minority of northerners were determined to totally eliminate slavery at the war’s outset. A larger but still small portion of the population was determined to stop slavery’s expansion, nevertheless the majority of northerners supported the restoration of the status quo. This lack of collective anti-slavery sentiment coupled with deep anti-black emotions, values, attitudes and norms led to an absence of will, conviction and determination to combat the racist and anti-democratic forces that would hamper black progress in the coming years.

Born Hiram Ulysses Grant on April 17, 1822 to Jesse Root Grant and Hannah Simpson Grant in Pennsylvania, the senior Grant maintained that the family held abolitionist views well before the Civil War. Ulysses Grant’s career was slow developing, despite his graduation from West Point and his wealth of experience in the war against Mexico. Grant worked hard, largely without success, as a farmer until his early thirties, when he took a job in his father’s business. Dogged by poverty as late as 1856-57, only a few years before the war that would transform his life, Grant hauled and sold firewood. During the economically depressed years of 1857, the future president worked both rented land and land owned by his father-in-law. Grant utilized the slave labor of African Americans, as many as twelve individuals, though he and his wife may have actually held title to only five blacks.

There is scant evidence that Grant had any antipathy toward slavery or empathy for African Americans during this period of his life. In 1859, he reportedly resisted the temptation to sell his slave, William Jones, during a period when he was in desperate financial straits. If it is true that he emancipated the 35-year old Jones, this would set him apart from not the typical slaveholder but also from the great majority of American presidents. However, Grant was attempting to foster a positive view of himself among a set of businessmen and politicians who embraced free-soil doctrines making slave ownership a distinct liability. There is no evidence that Grant ever demonstrated any empathy for enslaved African Americans. Significantly, in his memoirs he avoids discussing his personal relationship to slavery, his ownership and freeing of one man, his use of slaves owned by others, and wife’s extensive involvement with slavery.

Julia Dent Grant, his wife, was more intimately involved in slavery. Like many other slaveholders who fiercely defended the institution, as a child she played with enslaved children at her family’s home. As a defender of slavery she exerted an influence in favor of the institution on her husband. After Grant became president, her father, Colonel Dent, a unrepentant supporter of the Confederacy moved into the White House with his daughter.

Following the beginning of the Civil War, Grant wrote his father expressing confidence in an eventual Northern victory and the view that slavery would end following the war. Blaming blacks for the war, Grant predicted that the “. . . nigger will never disturb this country again.” Indeed, Grant saw blacks as corrupting whites, and as a negative influence upon whites inducing them to commit immoral acts. In this optimism, Grant like many other northerners viewed the coming war as a neat, tidy, and brief affair. Even then, however, Grant feared black revolts as southern whites fled the advance of the Union Army.

Immediately after the war General Grant visited the South Carolina and Georgia sea islands but failed to tour the dozens of independent black farms that had enabled the former slaves to become financially self-sufficient. Grant never saw the need for blacks have to the essential land ownership for their forward progress economically, socially, and politically, and, like Johnson was quite willing to entrust the South’s traditional leadership with the task of reshaping the new social order.

Early on in his administration Grant’s cabinet met to decide on what civil rights black residents of the District of Columbia should enjoy. It was a fresh opportunity to establish the principles of freedom and equality in the post-Civil War period. Unfortunately, President Grant, like many other Republican leaders, was intimidated by the huge black population of the District. Empowering masses of African Americans strategically situated in the capital city seemed to him and other leaders unwise and possibly dangerous. Grant, like President Johnson, continued to oppose it even after Congress passed legislation enfranchising blacks in the District. Not surprisingly this was a wildly popular measure among African Americans, and who were disappointed at the sight of a man they widely admired, Ulysses S. Grant, agreeing with one they reviled, Johnson, in opposing full voting rights for blacks in the District.

President Grant’s cabinet had a diverse set of views and sentiments with respect to policy matters relating to African Americans. Former Ohio governor Jacob Dolson Cox, who advocated the creation of reservations for blacks coupled with an immediate and thorough-going segregation, had fought against black suffrage in Ohio, was appointed by Grant as his Secretary of the Interior. In contrast, Secretary of the Treasury, Congressman George S. Boutwell and Secretary of War, John A. Rawlins, acted almost as advocates of black interests within Grant’s cabinet.

President Andrew Johnson

Ulysses Grant, 18th President

1869 to 1877

Birth: April 27, 1822, Point Pleasant, Ohio

Death: July 23, 1885

Education: United States Military Academy

Religion: Methodist

Profession: Soldier

Political Party: Republican

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: General, commander, president

Important Online Works

Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant by Ulysses S. Grant

Life Portrait of Ulysses S. Grant Jul 12, 1999

In Mississippi, Grant took a position that allowed former Confederate leaders to compete for political office after being heavily lobbied by progressive forces in the state opposing the measure. Republican reconstruction policy should safeguard “the full enjoyment of the freedom and security,” Grant said in conferring the legitimacy of parties who, only a few years before, waged war on the federal government in the name of slavery. Emboldened by the measures of President Johnson, largely supported by Grant, they were confident of regaining political power in Mississippi and the rest of the South.

Running alongside of these events was an growing sentiment in the North against continued federal intervention in southern affairs. James Garfield saw this as resulting from “a general apathy among the people concerning the war and the negro.”

The range of political stances that were to Grant decent and acceptable policies with respect to slavery all have in common that they lack any urgency. Indeed, the most progressive of the mainstream politicians of the antebellum era saw slavery extending far into the future. Black suffering under slavery was either not recognized or underestimated (many believing that slavery was a school for civilization), ignored, or was regarded as a step in their progressive development over what they had experienced in Africa. The wasting of successive generations of blacks was not a concern for the mainstream American politician in the antebellum era. What was a concern were the activities of abolitionists. For a party or individual to stress abolition of slavery as an issue or focus of their activities to Grant was immoral. Having duly and perfunctorily pronounced slavery as wrong, Grant’s patience with the institution of slavery was unlimited and dependent upon what was comfortable for whites and slaveholders. In the aftermath of the war Grant explained that whites were not forced to be “socially intimate” with blacks and that emancipation need not mean “social equality” with blacks . Prior to the war, Grant wrote in his memoirs, “The most horrible visions seemed to present themselves to the minds of people who, one would suppose, ought to have known better. Many educated and, otherwise, sensible persons appeared to believe that emancipation meant social equality.” This decoupling of emancipation and “social equality” by “sensible people” left the door open to a variety unjust social policies aimed at African Americans.

The Bloody Repression of Black Political Life

President Grant’s reconstruction policies were partially designed to prevent African American troops from upsetting the traditional racial social hierarchy in the South. He and other national leaders believed that the presence of these troops would interfere with the labor discipline of local African Americans and, in this and other ways, undermine white rule politically. President Grant supported Freedmen's Bureau head General O.O. Howard’s urging that the ex-slaves place their faith in their former slavemasters. Grant himself especially feared that effect of armed black soldiers on civilian blacks for what he said were “obvious reasons.”

In Louisiana alone, led by the Knights of the White Camellia killed over two thousand people, the vast majority of them black following the cessation of hostilities between northern and southern armies in the late 1860s. The enactment of three laws in 1870 and 1871 by Congress legally empowered the Grant administration to enforce the 14th and 15th amendments. One of these, known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, allowed the president to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and in 1871 and 1872 Grant used it smash the Klan. This repression led to thousands of arrests and drove many of the home-grown terrorists into hiding. Altogether over three thousand indictments were produced although two-thirds of them were dropped. Although leniency prevailed in the disposition of these cases the campaign against the Klan was relatively effective. The result of this is what historian James M. McPherson described as an 1872 presidential election that was “the fairest and most democratic presidential election in the South until 1968.”

This was an era when the South Carolinian Wade Hampton declared, “Every Democrat must feel honor bound to control the vote of at least one Negro, by intimidation, purchase, keeping him away or as each individual may determine, how he may best accomplish it.” To realize the goal of disfranchising blacks, a variety of means were used. Economic ostracism and violence, including assassination, awaited those blacks who insisted upon leading efforts to resist the repression.

Between September 1874 and January 1875 Grant ordered General Sheridan to use federal troops to crush a move by reactionary Democrats to take over the state assembly of Louisiana. After the commander of the troops ousted five illegally installed office-holders, this was shown to be an unpopular move in the North as well as South, as it was perceived as northern interference in local southern affairs. These were pivotal moments as the fatigue with the issues of freedom and Reconstruction among northerners set in. Increasingly it began to seem that standing up in defense of black civil rights was once again a distinct political liability for those with aspirations to elected office.