Geoffrey Perret
Geoffrey Perret
Ulysses S. Grant:  Soldier & President
ISBN: 0679447660
Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President
Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President by Geoffrey Perret, author of Old Soldiers Never Die, is a cradle to grave biography that covers every important aspect of Grant's life, both as soldier and president. Using new materials not seen by any contemporary writer—most notably 12 more volumes of Grant's papers and recently released material by the Grant family to the Library of Congress, Perret has presented the most comprehensive study of Grant the man, soldier, president and writer written thus far.

Perret's central theme is that Grant was the greatest soldier the United States ever produced. His achievements in the military are so impressive that they dwarf his comparative failures as a president. But even in the White House, Grant had successes as well as disappointments. While Grant was plagued with financial scandals during his presidency, Perret writes that Grant was. in reality, a highly competent and conscientious chief executive. His administration brought honesty and competence to Indian affairs, made important advances in the development of international law, smashed the original Klu Klux Klan and transformed government finances. Ultimately Grant was not just a simple soldier, but a complex man with a remarkable literary gift, as displayed in the memoirs he wrote just before his death.

In Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President, Perret provides the first biography of Grant that offers a full and convincing portrait of Grant the man. Perret gives an in depth look at Grant's youth on the frontier and his years at West Point. He writes of the thrilling battles Grant orchestrated and became so publicly famous for, of his years as President and his ultimate demise as a man penniless, trying desperately to finish his Personal Memoirs at the urging of Mark Twain. With Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President, Geoffrey Perret has written the first up to date biography of Grant, one of America's greatest military heros and the man behind the that public facade.
—from the publisher's website

TRANSCRIPT
Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President
Program Air Date: October 12, 1997

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Geoffrey Perret, in your book about Ulysses S. Grant, you write this on Page 274: `Many who met him were left feeling slightly puzzled; some felt more or less cheated. He did not look like a great general, did not talk like a great general, did not dress like a great general, and did not even appear to consider himself a great general.' And then you say, `Maybe he wasn't so great after all.'
GEOFFREY PERRET: But, of course, I believe that he was. I simply am suggesting there --that maybe there is something to the criticism, but I think it's --fundamentally misplaced. There are good reasons why people didn't consider Grant a great general at the time. I think in retrospect, it's pretty obvious --that he was a very great general, indeed. I was simply being a little provocative there by saying maybe he wasn't. I certainly believe that he was.
LAMB: Why did you do this book on U.S. Grant?
Mr. PERRET: When I was at--a freshman at Hollywood High School many years ago, Ricky Nelson was my classmate, and a history teacher mentioned that Mark Twain considered --Grant's memoirs to be the greatest memoirs by a general since Caesar. Now I knew nothing about Caesar's memoirs, and I really didn't know anything about Grant. But a week or so earlier, I had read "Huckleberry Finn," and I had stayed up most of the night to finish it. And I felt that anyone who could write a book like that who thought somebody else was a great writer was on to something. So I read the two volumes--and they're intimidating-looking volumes--of Grant's memoirs. And at first, I thought, `This is gonna be too difficult.' And instead, I was simply bowled over. So I became fascinated by Grant. And then when I went in the Army and became an Army journalist, I suppose it may have been inevitable at that point that one day I would like to write a book about Grant. But I didn't realize that then. The proximate cause, as lawyers say, is--when I was writing my biography of Douglas MacArthur, "Old Soldiers Never Die," I had to confront the question that William Manchester had confronted. He concluded that MacArthur was the greatest soldier that the United States had ever produced. And I couldn't rate MacArthur as the best. I--at most, I would say, he was number two, because he created too many problems for his superiors during World War II. And as far as I knew, Grant hadn't done that. He had not made difficulties for Lincoln. But I still didn't--having read the memoirs, I still did not understand the nature of Grant's genius. And in order to find it out, I had to write this book.
LAMB: How important is he in our history?
Mr. PERRET: He's fundamental. No Grant, and there is no victory in the Civil War for the Union. The Civil War would have probably ended in a stalemate with a negotiated peace rather than a surrender. Now what kind of peace that would be, I don't know. But I believe that Grant was the only general who could coordinate the Union's strengths and bring them to bear on the Confederacy in time to ensure Lincoln's re-election in 1864.
LAMB: When did he live?
Mr. PERRET: Oh, he was born in 1822 in a hamlet in Ohio. He didn't live long enough; he died at the age of 63, a victim of those cigars that he smoked. He was a very heavy cigar smoker during the Civil War for fairly obvious reasons, I suppose. And he got cancer of the esophagus and died in 1885.
LAMB: And of all the times in his life that you write about, when would you have liked to have been around him?
Mr. PERRET: Almost any time. I would love to have been with Grant at certain moments in his life. I would love to have been with Grant in Mexico. Grant's time in Mexico was absolutely essential to his education as a soldier.
LAMB: What year?
Mr. PERRET: It was 1846-1847. And he was immensely proud--Grant was a fundamentally modest man, but he was immensely proud that he had participated in 10 battles in Mexico. And he used to tell people you couldn't be in more than 10 battles in Mexico. He'd been in northern Mexico when Zachary Taylor led an American army into--to Mexico. And then when the war shifted to the south and Winfield Scott advanced on Mexico City, Grant's regiment was with Winfield Scott. So he participated, -- as he used to say, in as many battles as-- anyone in Mexico. And it was then that Grant discovered that although he deplored the human cost of war, he was susceptible to the drama. And once he found a way to participate in a battle, feeling that he was doing his duty, that this death and destruction could be justified on moral grounds, I think he really discovered that he had a soldier's vocation, and that came as a surprise to him.
LAMB: Where did he live in his life?
Mr. PERRET: He never really had a home. He was essentially a man who had no geographical roots. Although he was born in Ohio, he left there when he was comparatively young. And because of his life, he lived in various--in army barracks. He had lived on his father-in-law's property in--near St. Louis. He lived in the field; he lived in borrowed houses during the Civil War. At the end of the war, --he was given a house in Washington, but he lived there only--he lived here only a short time. And then he--after he left the White House--or while he was in the White House, he had a cottage at Long Branch, New Jersey, to--it was kind of a summer White House or the forerunner of the summer White House. And he would go there just to get away from Washington. But then had a home in New York after he'd spent two and a half years traveling around the world. He also had a home in Galena, but he didn't like Galena--the likes...
LAMB: Illinois.
Mr. PERRET: Galena, Illinois. He didn't like Galena very much. He thought he would never be able to afford to live in New York, and then he was given a house in New York. But then he went bankrupt and lost the house in New York; he lost the house in Long Branch. And he died in somebody else's house. He died in a--in a holiday cottage, a vacation cottage up on Mt. McGregor in upstate New York. And that, too, t--says something about Grant. He really did see himself as just passing through this life.
LAMB: Where's he buried?
Mr. PERRET: He's buried in New York, but that was not his choice; that was his wife's choice. Grant wanted to be buried at West Point, and he wanted his wife to be buried alongside him. At that time, you could not be buried at West Point unless you were a West Point graduate. Your wife certainly couldn't be buried with you. Now had Grant ever expressed any desire to have his wife buried with him at West Point, I have no doubt that Congress would have passed whatever bill was necessary. But on the other hand, Grant was the last man in the world ever to ask for a favor. So he kept his mouth shut, and he told his wife, `I would like to be buried at West Point. You cannot be buried with me. So once I am gone, you decide where I'm--I will be buried.' The important thing was that she would be buried alongside him.
LAMB: How long was he married?
Mr. PERRET: Well, I--when he came back from Mexico in 1847, he was finally able to marry his fiancee. They'd been engaged for four years at that time. The war had kept them apart, along with the opposition of her parents to this marriage. When he came back, the first thing he did was marry Julia Dent. And they were married for the next 36 years.
LAMB: Let me ask you about this picture right here.
Mr. PERRET: Well, this picture shows Julia with the Grants' daughter Nellie...
LAMB: They can't--you're gonna have to sit back a little bit because the camera can't...
Mr. PERRET: OK. Sorry. Who--Nellie. And the elderly gentleman with the cane is Julia's father, who was a--remained a Democrat all his life, a secessionist all his life, and continually told Grant, `You are not a true Republican. You're really a Democrat. And the Confederacy was right and the Union was wrong.' He was very argumentative and cantankerous old man with very strong opinions. But ironically, he ended up spending his final years living in the White House, and he died in the White House. And the young fellow at the end there is Grant's youngest son Jesse.
LAMB: How many children did U.S. Grant have?
Mr. PERRET: He had four, three girls--sorry, three boys and a girl.
LAMB: Where did he get his name, U.S. Grant?
Mr. PERRET: Well, he was baptized Hiram, Hiram Ulysses Grant. And when he went to West Point, he foresaw the future. His luggage was gonna have the initials H-U-G, and he was gonna be known as `Hug' because everybody at West Point has a nickname, and he didn't want to be called `Hug.' So when he got to West Point, he said, `My name is'--he reported to the adjutant and said, `My names is Ulysses S. Grant--Ulysses Hiram Grant.' And the adjutant said, `No, it's not. Your name is Ulysses S. Grant.' The congressman who had appointed him had made this appointment the very last day of his term in Washington. And so the congressman was probably surrounded by packing cases and just preparing to get out of town; he has a lot of things to sign. And he thinks, `What is that Grant boy's name? Something Ulysses? Ulysses something?.' And he writes down Ulysses S. Grant because Grant's mother's maiden name was Simpson. So the congressman thought--well, he knew that his father called him Ulysses. He had to have a middle initial of some kind, guessed that it was S for Simpson, and the adjutant then explained to Ulysses Grant that because the appointment said--it was made out in the name of Ulysses S. Grant, that was who he was and as long as in the arm--he was in the army, that was who he would be. And he accepted it. There was no Hiram there, no chance of being called `Hug.' And in later years when people asked him, `What does the S in your name stand for?' he said, `Nothing,' just like Harry Truman.
LAMB: Page 430, you write, `It helps to explain why he was a mystery to contemporaries such as Sherman and to others who have studied him since, whether as admiring as Bruce Catton or as disdainful as William McFeely.' Who's Bruce Catton? Who's William McFeely? And why were they--why was Bruce Catton admiring and William McFeely disdainful?
Mr. PERRET: Bruce Catton was probably the most successful writer on the Civil War. He was an editor of American Heritage and a wonderfully fluent stylist, and his passion for the Civil War comes through very strongly in his writing. Bruce Catton, in effect, popularized the Civil War, if anyone did, with his books that were published in the '50s and the '60s. And he took on the task of completing a multivolume biography of Grant. The first volume was done by Lloyd Lewis, who died shortly after it was published. Catton then assumed the responsibility for continuing this work, and Catton produced two volumes on Grant during the Civil War. And once the Civil War was over, I don't think Catton was interested in writing about Grant in the presidency. So that vol--that multivolume biography of Grant was never finished.
LAMB: By the way, is Bruce Catton alive?
Mr. PERRET: No, Bruce Catton died some years ago.
LAMB: Did you know him?
Mr. PERRET: Alas, no.
LAMB: Where was he from? Where did he live?
Mr. PERRET: Well, he was born in a small town in Michigan. Well, it's not even--it's a very tiny place. And that's where he's buried. I think he died about 15 years ago, something like that.
LAMB: How many of his books have you read?
Mr. PERRET: Well, it seems like a lot, but I wouldn't claim to have read all of them. I must have read--I read his wonderful volumes on the "Army of the Potomac." I read the centennial history. And I've read the Grant books. And he did a volume on the generalship of--military legacy of Grant.
LAMB: How much did he admire U.S. Grant?
Mr. PERRET: Tremendously. It--much as I like Catton and I respect his work tremendously, I don't think that Catton really understood Grant very well. And you will find in that book that much of it really is a refighting of the war. There is one place where, for 20 pages, Grant isn't even mentioned. And many people write about the Civil War; Catton ended up refighting the whole war. And the focus is not --truly on Grant. I don't think it is-- really is a biography of Grant. It's about Grant and the Civil War.
LAMB: William McFeely.
Mr. PERRET: Well...
LAMB: You say he disdained him.
Mr. PERRET: Well, yes, I think it's fair to say that. And McFeely is a-- professor, and his biography of Grant that was published in 1981 won the Pulitzer Prize, Parkman Prize, the Bancroft prize. And I believe the reason why it was so immensely favored was that the timing was right for a book that was essentially dismissive of Grant. It was published when the Vietnam wound was still throbbing, still separating. And people still wanted to know who was to blame for this mess. And to hold America's greatest soldier up to ridicule, I think, was therapy. But I don't think it's a great biography.
LAMB: Do you know Professor McFeely?
Mr. PERRET: No, I don't.
LAMB: Is he alive?
Mr. PERRET: Yes, I believe so.
LAMB: I noticed, and I really extracted, that on several pages, you bring him up. And just so we can get the flavor of it, I'll read some of it. `Grant's most hostile biographer, William McFeely, states forthrightly that Grant was lying, but there is no independent evidence of this.' Earlier, you say, `Grant's prize-winning biographer William McFeely believes that in turning a demonstration into attack, Grant was insubordinate. This ignores the fact that in the 19th century, field commanders had considerable leeway to interpret their orders, much more so than in these days of instant and secure communications.' You can go--I can go on and maybe read some more later. `Grant's biographer William McFeely was--says unequivocably that Grant perjured himself to save Babcock. He offers no evidence to substantiate this remarkable contention.' Did you think a lot about whether to take on William McFeely in your book like this?
Mr. PERRET: I could have buried this kind of thing in the footnotes, which is what academics tend to do, but I am not a professor. And my view is that if McFeely can condemn Grant as forthrightly as he does, hold him up to scorn and ridicule, then it is only fair for me to point out to the reader that this is a very different book from McFeely's. And I don't want anyone to come away from reading my book feeling that I have avoided--I've ducked this issue because when I was working on this book, I was asked time and again, `How is your book going to differ from McFeely's?' And I said, `Totally,' for for various reasons. But I believe--for instance, I take 50 pages to describe what Grant did in the Civil War. Professor McFeely deals with Grant in the Civil War in what amounts to one page and treats it as if Grant achieved nothing in the Civil War except to acquire a taste for battle.
LAMB: Have you ever done that before in any of your books?
Mr. PERRET: Oh, yes. I criticized Manchester in my book on MacArthur.
LAMB: How many books have you written?
Mr. PERRET: Nine.
LAMB: And what kind? Fiction? Non-fiction?
Mr. PERRET: M--well, I have written--I published one novel. The other eight books are non-fiction. They are--I've written social history--social and political history. But mostly I have written military history and military biography.
LAMB: "Old Soldiers Never Die" was the MacArthur biography. What were some of the others?
Mr. PERRET: Well, that was my first biography. Before that, I wrote a book about the Air Force in World War II called "Winged Victory." Before that, I wrote a book about the Army in World War II called "There's a War to Be Won." Before that, I wrote a military history of the United States from the Revolution to Vietnam called "A Country Made by War." Before that, I wrote a book on the home front in--my first book was a book on the home front in World War II called "Days of Sadness, Years of Triumph," which I--and the sequel to that was a book about America after World War II, up to the death of John Kennedy, called "A Dream of Greatness." And then I wrote a book about the 1920s--it was a period that simply fascinated me--called simply "America in the Twenties." So I've written political history, social history, cultural history, as well as military history. And now I'm writing a biography of Dwight Eisenhower where I get to write both military history and biography and political history and biography in a single volume.
LAMB: Have you always been a writer?
Mr. PERRET: I've always wanted to be a writer. I have been a writer since I got out--well, since I stopped being a student. Being a student was wonderful, but I couldn't carry it on forever.
LAMB: Where were you a student?
Mr. PERRET: I was at law school at Boalt Hall, the University of California at Berkeley. I was at graduate school at Harvard. And before that, I did my undergraduate work at the University of Southern California.
LAMB: Where'd you grow up?
Mr. PERRET: Well, my parents were in show business. I grew up in a lot of places. I graduated from 23 schools before I finished high school--I'm sorry; I attended 23 schools before I graduated from high school.
LAMB: And in what kind of places?
Mr. PERRET: All kinds of places, but mostly in England and the United States. My mother is English; my father's American. And they come from show people in five generations on both sides. And we--my father would also work in France, but I never went to school in France.
LAMB: What were your parents' names?
Mr. PERRET: Well, my father's name was Vic Perry. And he had a TV show in Chicago in the early '50s. And having succeeded, as he saw it, on the small screen, we moved to Hollywood for a couple of years. And he was in some movies, but he couldn't remember lines. He couldn't remember more than three lines. So you cannot make a career out of--in the movies if that's all you can remember. So we moved back to Chicago. But we were constantly moving around, particularly in the days of the nightclubs, which really extended into the mid-'50s. And he'd be working clubs, say, in Miami or New York or Boston or Chicago. And my parents would put me in schools, say, for a week.
LAMB: How about your mom? Was she in show business, too?
Mr. PERRET: Yes. She was--she had been a dancer until she had two children.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
Mr. PERRET: Well, unlike most writers, I like to think I live mostly in my head. But I'm more or less--I'm carrying on the--the trans-Atlantic commute that my parents got me involved in. It used to be on the ocean liners and now it's on airplanes. And my wife is an assistant principal at a high school in England, so I spend much of the year there, and I spend the rest of it here.
LAMB: Do you do anything else but write today?
Mr. PERRET: No. No.
LAMB: And how long did you work on the Grant biography?
Mr. PERRET: Mm, depends on how you count it. See, I had written a military history of the US from the Revolution to Vietnam, so it was--I had to write about the Civil War. And so this was really my second attempt to write about the Civil War. So I had some background from having written about it before, but not in anything like the depth that this required. S--and I would say, had I started from scratch, it might have taken me four years to do this book. And it took me two and a half.
LAMB: Someone buys this book; what do they get?
Mr. PERRET: They get what I hope is a very fine book on Ulysses S. Grant.
LAMB: From start to finish?
Mr. PERRET: Yes, I include the presidency. This isn't simply about Grant the soldier. This is Grant the president as well as Grant the soldier. And Grant the president turned out to be a surprise, because when I was in college, I did the one-year survey course of American history. I had an excellent teacher, and I remember the--the--the afternoon he stood--he said, `Now we will consider the rating of the presidents.' And this was--we were dealing with the--the Gilded Age. He said, `At the top, we see the faces of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson. We move down to the middle and we have people like Grover Cleveland and so on. And we keep on moving down. And as we look down towards the Earth, what do we see staring up at us? The bearded visage of Ulysses S. Grant. And the only thing below Grant is the eyebrows of Warren Gamaliel Harding.' So I thought he must be pretty bad as a president. And this is--so I--and mcf--and Professor McFeely's book was mostly about Grant the failed president. Well, it came as a surprise to me to discover that Grant was not a failed president. He was not a great president, but he was a competent, middle-of-the-road president. He--there-- were a lot of scandals associated with his administration, but that was comparatively new. Financial scandals were not a part of the presidency until the Civil War because, until then, America was a country where people didn't have a lot of money; the government didn't have a lot of money. The Civil War creates an a huge national debt and the--more than $400 billion in greenbacks were put in circulation. So now there's a lot of money around, and money changes people, and it changed America. So Grant becomes the president. Reconstruction, which should have been the big moral crusade following the Civil War, has been killed stone dead by Andrew Johnson. And Grant couldn't revive it; Lincoln could not have revived it in that condition. And the biggest problem the government faced was the national debt; the $2 1/2 billion national debt had to be paid off. Meantime, you have the rise of industrial America, and there's a lot of money around. Railroad companies are happy to bribe any congressman they can shove money onto. And with all these scandals swirling around him, Grant was in a unique position. He was the first president who had to cope with a lot of financial scandals, and people were horrified. `What has happened to our government? We have all these financial scandals.' But it's the era that has changed; it's not--it's not one man. No man could have stopped that. And I think ever since then, since the Gilded Age, most American administrations have had their financial scandals. But Grant gets blamed, in effect, because he was the first.
LAMB: What years was he president?
Mr. PERRET: 1869 to 1876.
LAMB: How did he get elected?
Mr. PERRET: Seven--narrowly. He got elected, really, because the white vote was split more or less fifty-fifty between the Democrats and the Republicans. It was the blacks who were allowed to vote for the first time who really put Grant into the White House.
LAMB: And they voted--What?--1868?
Mr. PERRET: This is the election of 1868.
LAMB: Population back then, 1868?
Mr. PERRET: Sixty million.
LAMB: Number of blacks in the country then?
Mr. PERRET: Pro--well, somewhere around eight million, nine million.
LAMB: Percentage that he won by?
Mr. PERRET: He only won by a couple of --percent--he won by something like 51 percent to 49 percent.
LAMB: His opponent was...
Mr. PERRET: Horatio Seymour, the governor of New York. He was a very competent politician, and a good many people felt that Seymour would have made a better president.
LAMB: Did he campaign, Grant?
Mr. PERRET: No. Seymour did, which was unusual. Seymour nearly won the election, be--and one of the reasons was that Seymour actually went out on the hustings. Until then, presidential candidates let other people do their campaigning, but they did not go out and actively campaign themselves.
LAMB: Where was Grant living when he ran?
Mr. PERRET: He had more or less retreated or gone into exile in Galena, in his gift house in Galena because he wanted to get as far away from Andrew Johnson as he could.
LAMB: What do you mean by gift house?
Mr. PERRET: Well, the people of Galena gave him a house, just as the people in Philadelphia--the people of Philadelphia had given him a house. And he spent virtually no time in the house in Philadelphia. He spent some time in the house in Galena. But he wouldn't--he didn't want to be in Galena; he just didn't want to be in Washington while Andrew Johnson was here.
LAMB: Why not?
Mr. PERRET: Well, they hated each other. Johnson represented almost everything Grant despised. Johnson had tried to use Grant in order to shore up his own crumbling popularity. But Johnson had undermined, sabotaged Reconstruction, which, to someone like Grant, was a cause that Lincoln favored and that the nation needed. The racial problems after the Civil War had not--had not been resolved by the Civil War. The abolition of slavery did not solve the problem of the integration of black people into American society. And Reconstruction was the project that logically should have followed on from the Civil War. Andrew Johnson reverted to being a Southern Democrat as soon as the war ended and did everything he could to make Reconstruction virtually impossible. And only the military could have pushed Reconstruction through.
LAMB: What does it mean, Reconstruction? How big was it?
Mr. PERRET: Well, it--I don't think there could have been anything much bigger because the issue is: How do these--all of these millions of freed slaves become responsible members of American society? And Grant, at first, felt that they should not get to vote until they could at least learn to read and write. But he later came to see that there wasn't enough time for that, that it would have to be done the other way around. And he felt that even if they couldn't--people had trouble reading and writing and did not have much education, they were still citizens and should still be entitled to vote. So he saw the enfranchisement of black people as the solution to the problem that Reconstruction posed. And Johnson, on the other hand, was telling Congress, `I'm opposed to the Africanization of half of our country,' and obstructed the military at every turn. Grant was the commanding general of the armies and was trying to use the military to advance Reconstruction. Johnson did whatever he could to--to block that project. Congress--the radical Republicans in Congress were on Grant's side with this. He in--never became a radical Republican, but he was very close to them in some respects.
LAMB: A couple of messages you get in your book; that U.S. Grant hated Washington, that his wife loved it, that he was the youngest man ever to be elected to president, 46 years old when he got there, that people who went after him didn't know he was Republican or Democrat. There's some similarities in history. You know, you think--you're writing a book on Dwight Eisenhower--you know, did they go--who went after--take those two men, both generals--both successful generals, who went after each one of them to get them to run?
Mr. PERRET: The moderates. The--by the time of the 1868's election, most people had had as much radicalism as they could take. The war itself was an emotionally draining experience. The fight over Reconstruction was also a draining and bitter experience. And what people were looking for was somebody who wasn't a radical. He -- not radically in favor of Reconstruction and not radically opposed to Reconstruction. And the one person they knew--believed was essentially a moderate--a political moderate who they could turn to was Grant. And although I haven't reached this point in my own work on Eisenhower, my very strong impression and recollection is that Grant really did appeal to the -- very broad middle-of-the-road constituency that is really the--probably the biggest political grouping in American democracy.
LAMB: What was the situation in Galena? How old were his kids?
Mr. PERRET: Well, Johnson had tried to win Grant over by appointing his eldest son, Fred, to West Point. And people tend to forget that. They say--you see, Grant, in his memoirs, so--said, `I was not happy at West Point,' and so on. We think, `Oh, he always loathed West Point.' The truth is he loved it. He just didn't like the West Point system, but he actually loved the institution. It meant a great deal to him. So it was important to him to have his oldest son go to West Point not to pursue a military career but to be a West Point ma--man. He had two other sons. The youngest was Jesse, who was a child when Grant was in the White House.
LAMB: Where's this picture?
Mr. PERRET: Well, that picture was taken at City Point. This is the only one of the tens of thousands of cabins that the Army built during the Civil War that--that is still with us. And Julia is standing in profile in the doorway. Julia had strabismus in her right eye, so you very rarely see pictures of Julia looking at the camera. This--there is young Jesse. There's Grant sitting in the chair. This is towards the end of the war. This is in the winter of 1864 at City Point, Virginia.
LAMB: So four years later in Galena, the kids, Julia sitting there; who comes after him directly and says, `We want you to run'? Who--did they ask him?
Mr. PERRET: Oh, yeah--well, no. They--if they had asked him outright, `Do you want to be president?' I think they knew the answer was no. You know, you never --ask a question unless you're prepared to live with the answer. So a bandwagon was created by the various factions within the Republican Party who knew that their only way of holding on to the White House was to push Grant into it and essentially that's what they did. And his--and Julia asked him, `Ulysses, do you want to be president?' And he sighed and said, `No, but I think it's gonna happen anyway.'
LAMB: Describe him at that --what'd he look like? How tall was he?
Mr. PERRET: Well, he's sometimes described as being short, but he was 5'8", which for that time was slightly above average height. The thing is Grant was--Grant slumped. He was round-shouldered. He was al--he had absolutely no military bearing whatever. And he took about two inches off his height just from the way he sat and the way he walked. He was always hunched over. And he seemed to fold in on himself slightly, the way some people do. And he ma--so he made himself look smaller than he really was. He was always worried that he was thin and consumptive. So when he got into the White House and started putting on weight, he was immensely pleased because this--he read--he saw putting on weight as a sign of robust, good health. But most of his life, he was a slender fellow. He was 5'8" but looked like he was a slender fellow who was about 5'5", 5'6".
LAMB:: But when you saw him up close, what does his clothes look like, his shoes and his beard and...
Mr. PERRET: Well...
LAMB: Did he keep himself well?
Mr. PERRET: Yes. But--and although he's a modest man, he had his own way of making a statement. Grant used to wear a private's blouse but with a general's stars as if to say he was both the pr--a private soldier and an officer. And he identified with both.
LAMB: Where's this picture?
Mr. PERRET: This was towards the end of his life when he was a stockb--he had a Wall Street firm. He wasn't a stockbroker. He had a Wall Street financial firm that--or he was a partner in a firm that was re--that really turned out to be a huge pyramid scheme.
LAMB: Did he know it?
Mr. PERRET: No. He hadn't a clue. Most of the people on Wall Street didn't know it. The president of the Erie Railroad didn't know it and came down and said, `Here, take, you know, hundreds of thousands of dollars of my money,' which now would be millions, `and invest it.' They thought it was a big investment scheme. But we now are so familiar with these pyramid schemes and Ponzi schemes that we're--that we now--we can usually -smell them from a long way off. But they were fairly new then and this one was very clever...
LAMB: To...
Mr. PERRET: ...'cause he had--they had a bank fronting for the scheme.
LAMB: As you said earlier, he--elected president, 51 percent, 52 percent, goes to the White House, $2 1/2 billion deficit. What's that relate to today?
Mr. PERRET: Well, --it's impossible to really translate that except, I think, to say that if people are worried about a $5 trillion debt, this --was, for that time, on the same scale.
LAMB: Did the country care about it then?
Mr. PERRET: Yes. They probably--some senators and congressman claimed that --the debt was the biggest problem the country faced and not Reconstruction.
LAMB: You say he appointed six Cabinet officers.
Mr. PERRET: Yes
LAMB: I mean, now we've got--What?--14 or 15 Cabinet officers.
Mr. PERRET: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: People that we would know? Names we would know?
Mr. PERRET: Pr--well, probably only Hamilton Fish, his secretary of state, who was generally considered one of the three great secretaries of state in American history.
LAMB: What was the White House itself like?
Mr. PERRET: It was pretty informal. When Lincoln and Johnson were there, the president couldn't treat it like a home, and really presidents didn't treat it like a home. Julia was the one who changed it. She had three children living with her at the time, three children to raise, and she was determined to create a home for them in the White House. And so she had the gates locked so the children could play on the White House lawns; they couldn't have people staggering in there half drunk and passing out under the trees on the South Lawn. And she made the staff improve their appearance. She had the whole -- interior redone. I mean, there was chipped paint. There was broken furniture. Julia got rid of the chipped paint and the broken furniture and turned it into a comfortable, pleasant home for herself and her husband and the three children. And that was really the first time anybody had done that with the White House.
LAMB: How much drinking did he do in his life?
Mr. PERRET: Not a lot. He--I mean, it's ironic, the most famous drunk in American history was not a heavy drinker. The trouble with Grant was that he could get drunk on two drinks. And not only that, he would start walking into the furniture and need the wall for support. Well--so it was obvious that Grant had been drinking. Some people we know could--could drink a bottle and you would never guess, but he was the other way around. And --there was really only one reason why Grant drank and that was he was deeply and passionately in love with his wife. Grant's marriage was not a limited partnership. It was a romance from beginning to end. And when he was away from Julia for very long, he felt desperately lonely. He missed her tremendously. And he would start drinking. It's also true that during the Civil War, after some big battle, Grant would have a couple of drinks. And that was more or less a release of tension. But while he's preparing for battle, while battle is in progress, he never touches the stuff. But the essential thing is the absence of Julia. The absence of --the presence of a bottle in Grant's tent invariably indicated an absence of Julia. And when the war ended and he was able to spend all of his time with his wife, he hardly ever touched anything except maybe to sip a glass of champagne at a state banquet in the White House.
LAMB: What were the major scandals that he found during the eight years in the White House?
Mr. PERRET: Well, --the two biggest were the Credit Mobilier scandal, which involved a railroad company, and that wasn't really Grant's scandal. During the Johnson administration, Credit Mobilier had paid off at least 50 congressmen. And the scan...
LAMB: How?
Mr. PERRET: Well, it gave them stock in the company, but it didn't--and as the --and the stock rose in value. But they hadn't had to pay for the stock. And people considered themselves exemplary, moral--exemplary, moral politicians such as James Garfield took the stock. Democrats took the stock; Republicans took the stock. The rail--the finance company for the railroad needed a grant from the government, a huge amount of land. With the land as collateral, they could then--they--the finance company could then raise money. They'd get mortgage on the-- land. The important thing was to get Congress to approve giving huge amounts of federal land. Well, Credit Mobilier, they handed out the stock, was able to finance the railroad so the stock rises in value, the stock that's given away rises in value. And these congressmen haven't declared that they--in effect, they have a financial interest in this. The scandal breaks, but it breaks during the Grant administration. And somehow Grant is blamed --or tarnished by what was really an Andrew Johnson scandal simply because it comes to light during Grant's presidency. The other big scandal is the whiskey fraud scandal. For some time in border states, the way Democrats had financed their political campaigns was to siphon off some of the whiskey tax that was imposed during the Civil War as a way of helping to finance the war. So the district collectors, tax collectors, would send some of the --hand some of the money over to the federal government, but they would keep some of it back to finance political campaigns. Now Democrats did this in border states, they say. And after the Civil War, the Republican Party was very dependent, in 1872 particularly, on a big-time banker called Jay Cooke. And Cooke went bankrupt. So when the--so after the 1872 election, the Republican Party needs a new moneybags and it cannot find one. So its--so the Republicans in some states start engaging their own whiskey tax fraud in order to finance Republican campaigns. And this happened in--in several places. Grant had no idea that this was going on. It was-- the problem we're dealing with now: How do we--campaign finance. This problem is still here. But the solution for some people then was to take some of the whiskey tax money. Grant wasn't aware of that. His secretary--one of his secretaries, Orville Babcock, an Army officer, was certainly involved in that. Grant never believed that--that Babcock was involved, but Grant was simply wrong. Babcock was involved, but because he, Babcock, was not profiting personally from this, it was for the good of the Republican Party, he could probably square it with his conscience. And besides, the Democrats were doing the same thing.
LAMB: His brother Orville?
Mr. PERRET: Oh, well, I --he--Orville was a complete scapegrace. Orville was the bad seed of the Grant family. And for a while before the Civil War when Grant worked in his father's leather store in Galena, probably the most humiliating part of the whole business was that he had to take orders from Orville, who'd been working in the store for years. He had as little to do with Orville as he could and Orville embarrassed him several times during his time in the White House by--at one point, Orville and somebody else managed to swindle some widow out of the $5,000 that her husband had left her. And Orville had no conscience, no scruples.
LAMB: How many places did you travel that were--that had the name Grant stamped on it? You know, the--like the Galena home and things like that? Did you ev--did you make those treks?
Mr. PERRET: No. I did travel, but in the case of Grant, most of his papers are here in the Library of Congress. And what--most of what isn't here can be found elsewhere, such as Carbondale, Illinois, where--which is--Southern Illinois University has the Grant Papers Project. And so wherever there were papers, I went. And I went to City Point to visit the cabin at City Point.
LAMB: Where is that?
Mr. PERRET: Well, City Point, Virginia--it's down on the James River.
LAMB: You open up with your acknowledgements by saying, `My greatest debt is to Dr. John Y. Simon who has acquired an unrivaled knowledge of Grant during the 35 years that he has edited Grant's papers. John's impeccable scholarship is surpassed only by a generosity of spirit such as I have rarely encountered and shall never forget.' Explain more.
Mr. PERRET: I think it was a privilege to be able to write this book on Grant because I came to like him so much. But the other great privilege was getting to know John Simon, who is one of the finest people I've ever met.
LAMB: What is it about John Simon that's different from others you have contact with in your eight books--other eight books you've written?
Mr. PERRET: Well, he isn't the only fine person I've met. But John represents someone who, I'm sure, Grant would have admired. The people who edit papers--president's papers tend to begin with a fair amount of enthusiasm and commitment, but after 20 years, something else comes along or they simply retire. But John took on this project more than--well, 35 years ago and he's stayed with it ever since. And his commitment to it is combined with a tremendous research effort. He has unearthed so much material, not just about Grant, but about people whose lives intersect with Grant's, that he's been able to demolish a lot of myths and untangle a lot of stories about Grant that--that may be half true, but they're half untrue. And he has produced what I think is one of the--best sets of presidential--of papers of--of any major figure. I mean, some people say the Madison papers are the best; others say the Jefferson papers are the best. But I certainly don't think that anyone has done a better job than John Simon with the Grant papers. And 100 years from now, anyone who's interested in Grant is going to be using those volumes and they're gonna be in debt to John Simon just as I am.
LAMB: You dedicate the book to Dr. John Sellers, who has helped countless writers on the Civil War. Who's he?
Mr. PERRET: John Sellers is the Library of Congress' own Civil War specialist. And John helps a lot of people, including me, but the reason I dedicated the book to him is that John was, in a way, the first person to encourage me to write this book. My--I--when I proposed it to my editor, he said, `Mm, sounds like a good idea.' And I said--so then I went and asked John, who I didn't know up until then, and I said, `Dr. Sellers, what do you think of--of this idea?' He says, `Excellent. You should do it.'
LAMB: If William McFealy was sitting here, would you--I mean, if you two were--have you ever--if you ever got together, would it be a constant argument about Grant?
Mr. PERRET: Well, that depends, I think, on Professor McFealy.
LAMB: I mean--but did you s--find yourself constantly disagreeing with him as you read his book?
Mr. PERRET: Yes, I did. But I think the biggest flaw in that book may be something that was identified by a reviewer in The New York Times when that book came out, who said, `Grant only appears in Professor McFealy's book four or five times.' There's a lot of material there on Grant, there's a lot of opinion on Grant, but the man seems to be missing.
LAMB: This picture here, we'll show in just a second, you--it's hard to see U.S. Grant in the middle there; he's there. Where is this?
Mr. PERRET: This is at the great Temple of Karnak or at Karnak in Egypt. Grant is wearing a--well, it's a pith helmet, but then he appears to have a towel on top of it to cover his neck--it's not a towel, clearly. It's a piece of cloth. Julia is sitting next to him and appears to be looking at the ground. The young man --to the right of center in this photograph, who's sitting down, has his hands -- on the head of a small boy, that young man is Fred Grant who had graduated from West Point and left the Army and is now traveling around--is do--doing some of this around the world voyage with his parents.
LAMB: Two and a half years around the world. Was he out there away from his country for all that time?
Mr. PERRET: Oh, yes. And if he'd found an easy way to go to Australia, he would have been gone even longer.
LAMB: Who paid for that?
Mr. PERRET: He did.
LAMB: What years did he--what was the--18--What?
Mr. PERRET: Well, he leaves the White House in March of 1877. And two months later he sets off on this voyage and he's gone for two and a half years. An...
LAMB: Do you find a lot of material on that trip?
Mr. PERRET: Yes and no. There's--there--are some ... There is a lot of material, but it's mostly in the book--the two massive volumes written by the journalist who went around the world with him, John Russell Young. And Young and Grant had a lot of conversations during that voyage. And the conversations --are fascinating. Many of them are reflections on the Civil War. Grant is--there was nothing Grant liked better than to sit around and reminisce about Mexico and the Civil War.
LAMB: Where did he go during those two and a half years?
Mr. PERRET: Well, he went to nearly every country in Europe--in western Europe. He--and he went to Russia. And he went to--then--he went to Egypt, which he liked probably better than almost any other place that he'd visited up to that point; went to Jerusalem; sailed on to India; went to China; went to Hong Kong, Shanghai.
LAMB: How was he received in these places?
Mr. PERRET: Well, he was received almost as if he was a president. You see, --nobody had done this kind of thing before Grant. He was--wherever he was received, he was received as a great soldier and he astounded his hosts by refusing to go to military reviews. He hated parades. He wouldn't even look--he--at-- pictures of military art if he could avoid it. He traveled on to Japan which, strangely, was the one place where he wasn't able to avoid a military review. And from there he wanted to go to Australia, but there was no way of going to Australia without stopping at a lot of other places along the way and Julia did not like traveling. And, in effect, Julia said, `Ulysses, I've had enough of this. I want to go home.' And he wanted to go to Australia. Had there been this--had there been a way of sailing directly from Japan to Australia, he would have done it, but it--that was impossible so he resigned himself to sailing to Hawaii and then on to San Francisco.
LAMB: What year was this picture taken?
Mr. PERRET: 1883. It's taken only a few days before Grant died. He's working on his memoirs.
LAMB: Where is he?
Mr. PERRET: This is Mt. McGregor, the small cottage up--in upstate New York near Saratoga. It belonged to one of the Vanderbilts.
LAMB: What's he dying of?
Mr. PERRET: He's dying of throat cancer.
LAMB: What does it do to him?
Mr. PERRET: Well, it's an --it was an agonizing way to die. The doctor would give--would paint cocaine on --this cancerous growth during the day in an attempt to ease the pain. And then he had morphine at night to help him sleep. But even the morphine didn't make much difference, the pain was so agonizing.
LAMB: What was his financial position then?
Mr. PERRET: Well, he died virtually a pauper. But he had signed all the rights to his manuscripts, his memoirs, over to Julia so that his creditors from the failed business in New York wouldn't be able to seize the royalties from his book. So he gave the manuscript to Julia and then the literary rights in it became hers and they--the creditors couldn't claim them. So he had no--when he died, he had nothing. And somehow, that, too, is all of a piece with the--with Grant's life, he--the fact that he never really had a home of his own, that he was not interested in possessions, fame, power. He left the world about as poor as when he--as he'd arrived.
LAMB: And in the end, how many copies of the memoirs sold?
Mr. PERRET: Well, now his--the number would be in the millions, but at the time when that first--that subscription issue, close to 500,000.
LAMB: In the couple minutes we have remaining, did I read it right that when he went to Appomattox that three of his groomsmen, people that stood at his wedding on his side supporting him, were on the other side?
Mr. PERRET: That's right.
LAMB: Namely people like James Longstreet...
Mr. PERRET: And Marcellus Wilcox.
LAMB: Did you find a lot of evidence that that was of significance to him, that they had gone to the other side?
Mr. PERRET: Well, it--see, he married into a family that owned slaves. Colonel Dent--the self-styled Colonel Dent had 18 slaves. Julia, his wife, had four. When they went to Galena, however, just before the Civil War, they--she'd have to leave her four slaves behind because Illinois was a free state. So Grant was-- mar--Grant had many friends on the -- South--on the other side--friends and acquaintances on the other side of the great divide in the Civil War. And --he never allowed that kind of thing to spoil his relationship with people. He was opposed to slavery, saw it as being something evil, but --his friendship --with Longstreet was not affected by that any more than his relationship with his wife was affected by that.
LAMB: By the way, are there any voice recordings anywhere of Grant?
Mr. PERRET:No. I don't--I don't think there are any recordings before the 1890s of anyone.
LAMB: When is your Eisenhower book due out?
Mr. PERRET: When I finish it, which will probably take me a few years. It's going to be a pretty--that's a major project.
LAMB: Where is this picture from on the cover?
Mr. PERRET: Ironically, this picture was taken--it's a picture showing Grant looking confident and optimistic--was taken the day before one of the worst days in his life --this was taken at Cold Harbor in June of 1864 and the next day --the Union--the Army of the Potomac made a futile and very costly frontal assault on Confederate lines at Cold Harbor and, in the space of less than an hour, suffered seven thousan--it--about 7,000 casualties.
LAMB: Folks wonder, they're gonna have to read to find out more. We're out of time. Geoffrey Perret--Perret, excuse me.
Mr. PERRET: Thank you.
LAMB: I'm sorry we didn't get a --the difference in the names. Thank you very much for joining us. Author of US--"Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President."
Mr. PERRET: Thank you.


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