Ulysses S. Grant (1822 – 1885) is famous for leading the Union Army to victory over the Confederacy during the American Civil War and for serving as the 18th President of the United States from 1869 to 1877. Grant led the Union forces to victory in many critical battles and in 1864, President Lincoln elevated him to the rank of General-in-chief of all the Union Armies. After the Civil War, Grant served as Commanding General till 1869, when he became the youngest American President till then. As president, among other things, he destroyed the white supremacist organization Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and signed a number of acts to protect the rights of African Americans. He also established the United States Department of Justice and the nation’s first National Park. In foreign policy, the Grant administration negotiated the influential Treaty of Washington with the United Kingdom and peacefully resolved the Virginius Affair with Spain. Here are the 10 major accomplishments of Ulysses S. Grant including his contribution to Union victory in the Civil War and his achievements as President of the United States.

 

#1 He served with distinction as a lieutenant in the Mexican–American War

Ulysses S. Grant began his military career as a cadet at the West Point military academy in 1839. After a mediocre stint as a cadet, he graduated 21st out of 39 cadets in 1843. The Mexican American War broke out in 1846 and Grant experienced combat for the first time at the Battle of Palo Alto, the first major battle of the war. For his bravery in the Battle of Molino del Rey, Grant was made first lieutenant. The war ended with American victory on February 3, 1848. Ulysses S. Grant distinguished himself as a daring and competent soldier during the Mexican American War. He won two citations for gallantry and one for meritorious conduct. After being assigned monotonous duties at remote posts, Grant retired from service in 1854.

Ulysses S. Grant in 1843
Engraving of Second Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant in 1843

 

#2 He led the Union forces to crucial victories in the American Civil War

When the American Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861, Grant volunteered for military service in the Union army. His initial duty was to recruit and train volunteer units. On July 14, he was promoted to Colonel and charged with disciplining the 21st Illinois Infantry Regiment. Grant was quickly promoted to brigadier general and, in September, he was given command of the District of Southeast Missouri. The Western theater, an area defined by geography, was by several measures the most important theater of the Civil War. In February 1862, Union forces under the command of Grant captured Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. These were the first important Union victories in the Western Theater. They elevated Grant to the rank of major general and earned him the nickname of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. After the triumphs, Grant’s army came under a surprise attack by Confederate forces at the Battle of Shiloh but it was able to turn the tide and force a Confederate retreat.

The Battle of Fort Donelson
1887 painting of the Battle of Fort Donelson

 

#3 Grant led the Union forces successfully in the pivotal Siege of Vicksburg

Control of the Mississippi River was the key to victory in the Western theater. After a series of coordinated battles, Grant settled for a siege at Vicksburg, a pivotal fortress city which dominated the last Confederate controlled section of the river. On July 4, 1863, after 46 days, Confederate general John Pemberton’s 30,000-man army surrendered thus ending the successful Siege of Vicksburg. The successful capture of Vicksburg yielded complete control of the Mississippi River to the Union forces. It split the Confederacy in half, a major blow to their cause. Coupled with Union victory at Gettysburg a day earlier, the capture of Vicksburg is considered the turning point in the American Civil War. In September 1863, the Confederate army besieged the Union Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga. In response, President Lincoln put Grant in charge to break the siege and made him commander of all Western Armies. Grant personally went to Chattanooga to take control of the situation. On November 25, 1863, the Union army won the Battle of Missionary Ridge, thus ending the siege. The victory gave the Union control of Tennessee and opened Georgia, the Confederate heartland, to Union invasion.

Battle of Vicksburg Painting
Painting of Battle of Vicksburg by Kurz and Allison

 

#4 He served as Commanding General of US army from 1864 to 1869

On March 9, 1864, President Lincoln elevated Ulysses S. Grant to the rank of General-in-chief (Lieutenant General), giving him charge of all the Union Armies. This rank had previously been awarded only twice in U.S. history. In May and June 1864, Grant fought a series of battles in Virginia known as the Overland Campaign. Though the Union army suffered heavy casualties, the Overland Campaign was a strategic victory. It maneuvered Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army into a siege at Richmond and Petersburg; and ultimately, led to its surrender in April 1865, effectively ending the American Civil War. Ulysses S. Grant is the most acclaimed Union general of the Civil War. After the war, he remained Commanding General of the United States Army. Grant served in this capacity till March 4, 1869. In this period, he dealt with Maximilian and French troops in Mexico, enforcement of Reconstruction in the former Confederate states and supervision of Indian wars on the western Plains.

Robert E. Lee surrenders to Grant
General Robert E. Lee surrenders to General Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia in April 1865

 

#5 Ulysses S. Grant served as the 18th President of the United States from 1869 to 1877

At the 1868 Republican National Convention, the delegates unanimously nominated Grant as presidential candidate. In the U.S. presidential election of 1868, Grant defeated the Democratic candidate Horatio Seymour with 214 electoral votes to 80 and 52.7% of the popular vote. At the age of 46, Ulysses S. Grant was the youngest president elected till then. In the presidential election of 1872, he was reelected with 56 percent of the popular vote and an Electoral College landslide of 286 to 66. Grant thus served as the 18th President from March 4, 1869 to March 4, 1877. During his presidency, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) was formed in 1870, which remains responsible for the enforcement of the law and administration of justice in U.S.; and the Office of Solicitor General was established. The Solicitor General is appointed to represent the federal government before the Supreme Court of the United States. Also, Grant signed into law an Act of Congress that established Yellowstone National Park, the nation’s first National Park.

Ulysses S. Grant presidential portrait
Official Presidential portrait of Ulysses S. Grant

 

#6 The Fifteenth Amendment was ratified during his presidency

Reconstruction is a term used to describe the period of United States history from 1865 to 1877 in which the southern states were brought back into the nation and in which the Congress attempted to transform them from states dependent on slavery to states where former slaves were citizens with civil rights. Grant’s presidency was dominated by Reconstruction. Unlike his predecessors, his vision included federal enforcement of civil rights and action against voter intimidation of Southern blacks. On February 3, 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which Grant had strongly endorsed, was ratified. It prohibited the federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s “race, color or previous condition of servitude”. Within a year, Mississippi, Virginia and Texas were admitted to Congress, having complied with Congressional Reconstruction Acts and having adopted the Fifteenth Amendment. Grant then put military pressure on Georgia, the last remaining former Confederate state. Georgia complied on February 24, 1871, thus technically ending Reconstruction.

15th Amendment of the US Constitution
15th Amendment of the United States Constitution in the National Archives

 

#7 Enforcement Acts were passed to counter suppression of African Americans

During Reconstruction the lives of all newly freed slaves, as well as their political and economic rights, were being threatened. To counter this, between 1870 and 1871, Ulysses S. Grant signed into law three acts known as the Enforcement Acts. These were criminal codes to protect African-Americans’ right to vote, to hold office, to serve on juries and to receive equal protection of laws. The Enforcement Act of 1870 established penalties for interfering with a person’s right to vote and gave federal courts the power to enforce the act. It also authorized the President to employ the use of the army to uphold the act and the use of federal marshals to bring charges against offenders. The First Enforcement Act of 1871 permitted federal oversight of local and state elections if any two citizens in a town with more than twenty thousand inhabitants desired it. The Second Enforcement Act of 1871, a legislation specifically requested by Grant, gave the president the power for the first time to both suppress state disorders on his own initiative and to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, a recourse in law challenging the reasons or conditions of a person’s confinement.

 

#8 Ulysses S. Grant ended the first era of the Ku Klux Klan

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a group believing in white supremacy, undermined Reconstruction efforts through violence and intimidation. It first flourished in the late 1860s and was the most prominent of the white supremacy organizations who attacked the suffrage and other rights of African Americans. One of the primary reasons of the Enforcement Acts was to counter the KKK and thus they are sometimes known as the Ku Klux Klan Acts, especially the Third Enforcement Act. Grant did not hesitate to use the authority provided to him by the third act on numerous occasions during his presidency. It was only after its passage that trials were conducted, and perpetrators were convicted for any crimes they had committed in violation of the Enforcement Acts. Grant’s new Attorney General, Amos T. Akerman, brought over 3,000 indictments of KKK members throughout the South and obtained 600 convictions for the worst offenders. As a result, the KKK was completely dismantled and it did not surface again in any meaningful way till the 1920s.

Ku Klux Klan emblem
Emblem of the Ku Klux Klan

 

#9 The influential Treaty of Washington was negotiated

The Alabama Claims were a series of demands for damages sought by the U.S. government from the United Kingdom for attacks on Union vessels by Confederate Navy ships built in British shipyards during the American Civil War. The claims get their name from the raider CSS Alabama, which successfully attacked Union merchant and naval ships for two years before being sunk. The Alabama Claims, as well as various other disputes between the U.S. and the U.K., such as illegal fishing in Canadian waters and British civilian losses in the American Civil War, were settled by the Treaty of Washington in 1871. Among other things, the matter was settled with Britain paying the United States $15.5 million. The Treaty of Washington is considered a huge success and it led to permanent peaceful relations between U.S. and Britain; and U.S. and Canada. It has been called the “the greatest treaty of actual and immediate arbitration the world has ever seen.” Dispute with U.K. was one of most pressing foreign policy concerns for the Grant administration and its resolution is one of its main achievements.

The American High Commissioners to the Treaty of Washington
The American High Commissioners to the Treaty of Washington

 

#10 Virginius Affair was settled peacefully and a free trade agreement was signed with Hawaii

In 1873, Virginius, an American ship hired by Cuban insurrectionists, was captured by the Spanish, who were then in control of Cuba. The Spanish executed 53 of the men on board, including eight American citizens. This led to many Americans calling for war with Spain. The Virginius Affair was resolved peacefully with the Spanish president expressing regret for the tragedy and his nation paying a cash indemnity of $80,000 to the families of the executed Americans. The incident was remarkable for the use of international diplomacy for a peaceful settlement instead of a costly war. Other major foreign policy achievements during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant include the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875, which gave free access to the U.S. market for sugar and other products grown in the Kingdom of Hawaii in exchange for special economic privileges for America. The treaty led to large investment by Americans in sugarcane plantations in Hawaii leading to incorporation of the islands’ sugar industry into the economic sphere of the United States.

Ulysses S. Grant 1995 postage stamp
1995 U.S. postage stamp honoring Ulysses S. Grant

 

The Civil Rights Act of 1875

Apart from the 15th Amendment and the Enforcement Acts, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was signed into law by Ulysses S. Grant. It banned discrimination in public accommodations and public transportation. However, despite these measures, by the end of the presidency of Grant, Southern Democrats had regained political control of state governments. Civil Rights Act of 1875 could not be effectively enforced and, eight years later, the Supreme Court ruled it as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court also narrowly interpreted the 15th Amendment in late 19th century and, from 1890 to 1910, most black voters in the South were effectively disenfranchised by obstacles introduced by new state constitutions and state laws. Thus Grant’s measures to protect African American rights were not successful in the long term. Grant also tried to work out a Peace Policy with Native Americans. He believed that, given an opportunity, they could serve alongside white men. However the Peace Policy was a failure and over 200 battles were fought with Native Americans during his tenure. Though Grant’s policy was a bold departure from his predecessors and considered humanitarian for the time, it has later been criticized for its disregard for native cultures.

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