Sold – Ulysses S. Grant Believed the Success of the Union Depended on Him

He had "the lives of 40,000 men, and a nation, entrusted to my keeping".

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Grant was the outstanding American military figure of the 19th century and the savior of the Union in the Civil War. His personal qualities made his success possible. He had a reasoning nature; he always had a reason for what he did, analyzing circumstances and acting accordingly. He did not believe in...

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Sold – Ulysses S. Grant Believed the Success of the Union Depended on Him

He had "the lives of 40,000 men, and a nation, entrusted to my keeping".

Grant was the outstanding American military figure of the 19th century and the savior of the Union in the Civil War. His personal qualities made his success possible. He had a reasoning nature; he always had a reason for what he did, analyzing circumstances and acting accordingly. He did not believe in chance, luck or omens. Once he had a firm knowledge of a situation, he stuck to his guns.

This was best illustrated in the Vicksburg campaign, the one that made his career. His plan to take the city, the key to Confederate defenses on the Mississippi River, initially met with little support. Grant, having thought it through, knew that it was a good plan and refused to change it. He was also admired for shouldering the full responsibility for his actions, even when they were unsuccessful.

Grant’s Confederate counterpart, Robert E. Lee, and his legendary subordinate Stonewall Jackson, were known for feeling a sense of mission. Their own statements bear out that they saw their victories as God’s will. What then of Grant? Surely he was possessed of a strong sense of duty and of service to the nation. But how central did Grant actually view his role during the war, and what overall impact did he think his actions would have? Did this modest man consider himself just another top general, a man with a divine mission, or the key military figure in the Union war effort? The answers are a matter of great historical importance, as they of necessity figured in his considerations, and thus helped determine the course of events. And they can be glimpsed in the following letter.

The letter also deals with one of the more significant events in Pres. Grant’s administration. The beliefs and practices of the Mormons, polygamy in particular, had long generated strong opposition, and one of these opponents was U.S. Grant. He was resolved on the suppression of polygamy, even if at the cost of unrest in Utah. In 1869 an anti-polygamy bill was introduced in Congress amidst talk of military action against the Mormons.

Early the next year mass-meetings were held at the Mormon Tabernacle to protest the bill, and a statement was sent to Congress setting forth the Mormon revelation on polygamy and declaring that the church would stand by its faith and institutions in spite of law.

Grant was not the kind of man to take such a challenge lying down, and in 1871 he appointed George L. Woods, a former Governor of Oregon and founder of the Republican Party in that state, as Governor of Utah Territory. Woods was unsympathetic to the Mormons, so his appointment increased the likelihood of a clash. As his first act in Salt Lake City, he snubbed Brigham Young. The pivot of the large issues between the United States and the Mormons turned out to be the seemingly minor point of whether local or Federal officials should be used to enforce the laws in territorial courts. But this was no mere technicality.

The local officials were part of the Utah community and were either Mormons or their neighbors. They were unlikely to ever act against the church. On the other hand, the President could appoint Federal marshals from outside Utah and make sure they agreed with his policies. These men would do their jobs and then leave, so they were not concerned with Mormon sensibilities. The issue went to court. Federal judges heard the case and decided that the U.S. marshal, and not the territorial marshal, was the proper person to impanel the juries in Federal courts, and that the attorney general appointed by the President under the Territorial Act, and not the one elected by Utahans under their laws, should prosecute indictments found in the Federal courts. This was a victory for Grant’s administration.

In September 1871 the U.S. marshal summoned a grand jury of 23 men, of whom only 7 were Mormons. Most of the potential jurors, examined on their voir dire, declared that they believed that polygamy was a revelation to the church, and that they would obey the revelation rather than the law, so they were successfully challenged. The resulting grand jury then found indictments against Brigham Young, Daniel Wells, G. Q. Cannon and others under an 1862 Federal law that prohibited polygamy (called “improper cohabitation”) in U.S. territories.

At the time, Young had more than 20 wives and 47 children. The indictment caused intense excitement in the Mormon capitol and threats of violence were made against U.S. officials. Gov. Woods called upon the U.S. Army for support, and troops at Camp Douglas were made available to enforce the warrant for Young’s arrest if necessary. As a Mormon historian wrote, “It was well known that he [Young] had often declared that he never would give himself up to be murdered as his predecessor, the Prophet Joseph, and his brother Hyrum had been, while in the hands of the law, and under the sacred pledge of the state for their safety; and, ere this could have been repeated, ten thousand Mormon Elders would have gone into the jaws of death with Brigham Young. In a few hours the suspended Nauvoo Legion would have been in arms.”

On October 2, the warrant was served on Young at his house by the U.S. marshal. That day Gov. Woods wrote to Grant, telling of Young’s arrest, his having U.S. troops nearby, and his intention to carry out the anti-polygamy laws. A week later Young appeared in court with leading men of the church, and a motion to quash the indictment was made before the judge and denied. Young was not then taken into custody, however. The same grand jury on October 28 found indictments for murder against certain Mormon leaders for alleged responsibility for a killing in 1857. Indictments were also brought against Young and others for complicity in another murder 20 years earlier.

On November 6, Grant’s private secretary, Orville Babcock, wrote Woods on Grant’s behalf, saying “The President is glad to see the laws vindicated so ably in Utah and sincerely hopes your labors will be crowned with success…” This was a strong endorsement of Woods, approving his firmness and the anti-polygamy campaign. Dr. John P. Newman was a noted clergyman who from 1869-1874 was chaplain of the United States Senate, and thus the kind of man who would have objected to Mormon practices. He was one of the most eloquent pulpit orators of his day, and a friend of the President (in 1885, after ministering to Grant in his last illness, he delivered the eulogy at his funeral).

Newman wrote to Grant forwarding a letter he had received with information about the situation in Utah, and likely also expressed his own concerns. He additionally asked about a story he had heard that during the Civil War, Grant had taken some action in response to a dream he had had.

The Chief Executive responded in this Ulysses S. Grant Autograph Letter Signed as president, three pages 8vo, Washington, November 6, 1871 (the same day Babcock wrote to Gov. Woods in Utah). “Enclosed I return you the letter which you sent for my perusal and which I have read carefully. The civil authorities in Utah need not fear but they will have ample support from here in executing all the laws. I shall write Gen. Wood to-day encouragingly. In the matter of the Ôdream’ it is a pure fiction made out of whole cloth. I never had such a dream; never told so ridiculous a story! I should shrink from the responsibility of following a dream with the lives of 40,000 men, and a nation, entrusted to my keeping. I do not propose answering the letter making inquiries as to the truth of these stories but if you choose to do so I do not object. I believe Mrs. Grant and I neglected to thank you for the furs which you were kind enough to send us as mementos of your late interesting trip. Permit us to do so now.”

This letter indicates Grant’s stance that his administration would take a hard line against the Mormons and insist that U.S. laws be enforced in Utah, in the same manner as he was then dealing with the South at the same time over its Reconstruction. Even more important is the light the letter sheds on Grant’s feelings about his part in the Civil War. It proves that Grant had a broad vision of his role, believing that the very life of the nation was dependent upon him. Thus he saw himself as more than just a high-ranking general; he was indeed the central military figure. Yet there is no hint that he felt he had a divine mission.

Although his words here may sound grandiose, and certainly show that this modest man had a great ego, they proved quite literally true. They also evidence his concern about having the welfare of his men in his hands, contradicting claims that he was a butcher with no care for the lives of his troops. Since Grant specifically references being in command of 40,000 men, the incident referred to in this letter must have occurred during the Vicksburg campaign, when that was the size of his force (rather than later, as the Army of the Potomac was much larger). Of added interest is the President’s statement of gratitude for a gift of furs that Newman had sent to Mrs. Grant.

For a Chief Executive to accept an expensive gift that way has at least the appearance of impropriety, and the Grants should have refused it. This is graphic (and very seldom seen) evidence that Grant did not set the best anti-corruption example in the Gilded Age over which he presided. The most historically important post-war Grant letter we have ever seen.

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