A commenter over at Civil War Memory cited a quote that is often attributed to Ulysses Grant by those who claim the war was not about slavery:
“I have no doubt in the world that the sole object is the restoration of the Union. I will say further, though, that I am a Democrat – every man in my regiment is a Democrat – and when-ever I shall be convinced that this war has for its object anything else than what I have mentioned, or that the Government designs to use its soldiers to execute the purposes of the Abolishionists, I pledge you my honor as a man and a soldier that I wilt not only resign my commission, but will carry my sword to the other side, and cast my lot with that people.”
Andy Hall of Dead Confederates quickly pointed out that the quote cannot actually be attributed to Grant:
“[The quote is] given as a years-old reminiscence by a third party and printed in The Democratic Speaker’s Hand-Book, subtitled “containing every thing necessary for the defense of the national democracy in the coming presidential campaign, and for the assault of the radical enemies of the country and its Constitution.” It is a compilation of anecdotes and quotations to be used as what we would now call talking points for Democratic campaigners to use at rallies and in editorials against Grant and other Republican candidates. Given its provenance, I don’t see how any serious person can attribute that as an actual quote, in good faith.”
Andy, of course, is correct, but the fact that the quote cannot be directly attributed to Grant doesn’t necessarily mean Grant didn’t say it. When we consider what we know about Grant and what we know he actually did say however, is it at all likely that the quote is something Grant might have said?
According to the story told in the Hand-Book, it was the summer of 1861 when Grant was asked, “What do you think was the real object of this war on the part of the Federal Government?” First, if the question was posed in the summer of 1861, wouldn’t the question have been, “What do you think is the real object of this war…” rather than “was”?
Second, would Grant have answered this way in 1861? Let’s start with the first sentence: “I have no doubt in the world that the sole object is the restoration of the Union.” Might Grant have said this? Here is what he wrote to his father-in-law on April 19, 1861:
“The times are indee[d] startling but now is the time, particularly in the border slave states for men to prove their love of country. I know it is hard for men to apparently work for the Republican party but now all party distinctions should be lost sight of and evry true patriot be for maintaining the integrity of the glorious old Stars & Stripes, the Constitution and the Union….No impartial man can conceal from himself the fact that in all these troubles the South have been the aggressors and the Administration has stood purely on the defensive, more on the defensive than she would dared to have done but for her consiousness of strength and the certainty of right prevailing in the end. The news today is that Virginia has gone out of the Union. But for the influence she will have on the other border slave states this is not much to be regreted. Her position, or rather that of Eastern Virginia, has been more reprehensible from the begining than that of South Carolina. She shoul[d] be made to bear a heavy portion of the burthen of the War for her guilt. –In all this I can but see the doom of Slavery. The North do not want, nor will they want, to interfere with the institution. But they will refuse for all time to give it protection unless the South shall return soon to their allegiance, and then too this disturbance will give such an impetus to the production of their staple, cotton, in other parts of the world that they can never recover the controll of the market again for that comodity. This will reduce the value of negroes so much that they will never be worth fighting over again.”
So, might Grant have said the “sole object [of the federal government] is the restoration of the Union”? Maybe, but this would hardly have been the extent of his answer. The above letter shows just how keenly Grant understood the issues at hand. The letter also sheds some light on the question of whether or not Grant would have said so unequivocally, “I am a Democrat.” While Grant never claimed to be a Republican in the years before the war, pegging him as a dedicated Democrat would also be a mistake. On September 23, 1859, Grant wrote a letter to his own father in which he explained why he had not received an appointment as St. Louis County Engineer. He had given up on making a living as a farmer at White Haven and had applied for the position, which required an appointment by the board of County Commissioners.
I have waited for some time to write you the result of the action of the County Commissioners upon the appointment of County Engineer. The question has at length been settled, and I am sorry to say, adversely to me. The two Democratic Commissioners voted for me and the freesoilers against me….
You may judge from the result of the action of the County Commissioners that I am strongly identified with the Democratic Party! Such is not the case. I never voted an out and out Democratic ticket in my life. I voted for Buch. for President to defeat Freemont but not because he was my first choice. In all other elections I have universally selected the candidates that in my estimation, were the best fitted for the different offices and it never happens that such men are all arrayed on one side. The strongest friend I had in the Board of Comrs. Is a F. S. but opposition between parties is so strong that he would not vote for any one, no matter how friendly, unless at least one of his own party would go with him. The F.S. party felt themselves bound to provide for one of their own party who was defeated for the office of County engineer; a Dutchman who came West as an Assistant Surveyor upon the publick lands and who has held an office ever since.”
Grant’s views on the political parties of the antebellum years and his views on the two major parties of the post-war years changed during the war, just as many others changed political affiliations. This is understandable when one considers the complicated nature of political parties in the antebellum years, particularly in Missouri where Grant resided from 1854-1860. (Stay tuned for more on this.) For now it is interesting to note a conversation Grant had with John Russell Young during his post-presidential trip around the world:
“There is nothing I have longed for so much as a period of repose in our politics, that would make it a matter of indifference to patriotic men which party is in power. I long for that. I am accused, I see, as having a special aversion to democracy. People used to remind me that I voted for Buchanan, and call me a renegade. The reason I voted for Buchanan was that I knew Fremont. That was the only vote I ever cast. If I had any political sympathies they would have been with the Whigs. I was raised in that school. I have no objection to the Democratic party as it existed before the war. I hope again to see the time when I will have no objection to it. Before the war, whether a man was Whig or Democrat, he was always for the country. Since the war, the Democratic party has always been against the country. That is the fatal defect in the Democratic organization, and why I would see with alarm its advent to power. There are men in that organization, men like Bayard, McClellan, Hancock, and others whom I know. They are as loyal and patriotic as any men. Bayard, for instance, would make a splendid President. I would not be afraid of the others in that office; but, behind the President thus elected, what would you have? The first element would be the solid South, a South only solid through the disfranchisement of the negroes. The second would be the foreign element in the North, an element which has not been long enough with us to acquire the education or experience necessary to true citizenship. Neither of these elements has any love for the Union. The first made war to destroy it, the second has not learned what the Union is. These elements constitute the Democratic party, and once they gain power I should be concerned for the welfare of the country. They would sway their President, no matter how able or patriotic. My fear of this result has always made me wish that some issue would arise at home that would divide parties upon some other question than the war. I hoped that would be one of the results of the Greenback agitation. The triumph of a Democratic party as it was before the war, of an opposition party to the Republicans as patriotic as the Democratic party before the war, would be a matter to be viewed with indifference so far as the country is concerned. The triumph of the Democratic party as now organized I would regard as a calamity. I wish it were otherwise. I hope every year to see it otherwise. But as yet I am disappointed. I am a Republican because I am an American, and because I believe the first duty of an American – the paramount duty – is to save the results of the war, and save our credit.”
Finally, we have the assertion, “when-ever I shall be convinced that this war has for its object anything else than what I have mentioned, or that the Government designs to use its soldiers to execute the purposes of the Abolishionists, I pledge you my honor as a man and a soldier that I wilt not only resign my commission, but will carry my sword to the other side, and cast my lot with that people.” Obviously, when the war did shift from being strictly a war to preserve the Union to a war to preserve the Union and to abolish slavery, Grant did not resign his commission and go over to the other side. Therefore, he either had no “honor as a man and a soldier” or the quote is bogus. I think the quote is bogus.