Ulysses Grant

Ulysses Grant, Soldier, President, Methodist

on May 18, 2020

Here’s my interview with historian Ronald White on his recent Ulysses Grant biography American Ulysses. White’s book, like Ron Chernow’s recent Grant biography, among others, is part of an ongoing more favorable reappraisal of the soldier and statesman.

For more than a century Grant was often dismissed as a failed president who drank too much, was naïve with unsavory associates, and won on the battlefield mostly thanks to superior numbers.

Now White and others credit Grant’s civil rights record as president, his integrity, his military prowess, and his skills as a writer. White, who attended Princeton Seminary, brings theological expertise to his books. And unlike other biographies, he details Grant’s lifelong association with Methodism.

Grant’s parents were Methodist, as was his wife Julia. They together attended Methodist churches in Galena, Illinois and Washington, DC, among other places. He was friends for years with his Galena pastor, John Heyl Vincent, later co-founder of Chautauqua and a bishop, whose conflict with Phineas Bresee led to the Church of the Nazarene. On his death bed, Grant was baptized by his pastor and later bishop, John Henry Newman, which was mocked by Grant’s cynical friend and publisher Mark Twain.

White carefully avoids claims about Grant’s piety but shows that Grant’s character, humility and simplicity were rooted in his midwestern Methodism. Also a biographer of Lincoln, White contrasts their approaches to religion. White is working on two new books, one about Lincoln’s private musings, and another about Gettysburg hero Joshua Chamberlain, who attended seminary and nearly became a minister.


  1. Comment by David on May 18, 2020 at 7:38 pm

    While Grant often summered in Long Branch, NJ, his mother and sister had a cottage in the Methodist camp meeting town of Ocean Grove, NJ, for several years. A favorite story is that Grant arrived to speak in the Great Auditorium on a Sunday when the gates to the town were closed to vehicles of all sorts. He refused to have special admittance and insisted on walking. The scene in the Auditorium was very emotional with many veterans present.

  2. Comment by Justin Veritas on May 22, 2020 at 10:12 pm

    Grant often visited Ocean Grove during his presidency. He was reported to have said in the Ocean Grove Record…

    “President Grant, on the occasion of his visit last Saturday, overcame his usual taciturnity and made several speeches. They were short and spicy. He says Ocean Grove is one of the wonders of the age.”

    “Local and Personal” Ocean Grove Record, Ocean Grove,
    N. J. 7 Aug. 1875, p. 5.

  3. Comment by Catherine on May 22, 2020 at 8:41 pm

    As president, Grant commissioned Sherman & Sheridan to eliminate the buffalo in order to deplete the Native American population. Not so great!

  4. Comment by James Gaston on May 23, 2020 at 6:19 pm

    Grant and his wife owned slaves, and kept them as slaves until the War was over and he had to free them. He said he didn’t free them earlier because “good help was hard to find!!” So….Grant wasn’t killing Confederates so he could free the slaves!!

  5. Comment by John Smith on May 26, 2020 at 9:55 am

    Your entire comment is merely a rehash of oft repudiated internet trolling.

    The sole document we have confirming Grant’s ownership of a slave is a manumission paper freeing him on March 29, 1859, written in Grant’s own hand. Grant’s wife Julia grew up in a household that benefited from slave labor, a fact that Julia acknowledged and romanticized in her own Personal Memoirs. Julia claimed in her Memoirs that her father gave her legal title to four slaves to be used for her benefit, and no competent Grant historian would doubt that she and the entire Grant family benefited from their labor during their St. Louis years. There’s no evidence to suggest that Julia ever held legal title of a slave, however, suggesting that they were always her father’s slaves.

  6. Comment by Donald on June 14, 2020 at 6:02 am

    Boy Scouts in northern Illinois used to conduct a Grant Pilgrimage every spring in Galena. One of the requirements to earn the patch was to read a book on General Grant and write a brief essay. So I went to the Loves Park Public Library and, low and behold, there on the shelf was the two-volumes of Grant’s “Personal Memoirs” in their Quarto bindings.

    I took them home and read them. Then wrote the report. I believe I was no more than 15 years old, i.e. 1963. Fast forward to 1985, when I moved to Hanover County, Virginia and purchased my first home near the Cold Harbor Battlefield. Thus I began reading the biographies, papers and plans of the generals who participated in one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.

    I doubt those volumes are open for public circulation any longer. But they fueled a life-long love of reading the autobiographies of great Americans, especially our Presidents. I wish today’s generations had the integrity to read these documents and also to walk upon the battlefields of that War Between the States.

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