Ulysses S. Grant: Letter to Daniel H. Chamberlain Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As both president and army general, Ulysses S. Grant played a significant role in keeping the Union together, completely eradicating slavery, and making sure that blacks in America obtained and exercised equal rights despite the salience of white supremacists and vigilantes using violence for obstruction. Grant had predicted that slavery would collapse prior to the Civil War, and the Union victory and passage of the Thirteenth Amendment confirmed his prediction. Throughout the Reconstruction period immediately following the war, Grant served as president Andrew Johnson’s general-in-chief where he constantly had to deal with the problem of white terrorism against former slaves. As president, the racial hostilities as well as violence heightened, but Grant was hesitant to provide federal intervention in the South because of party politics. A letter written to South Carolina Governor Daniel Chamberlain in response to the governor’s report on an incident of racial violence highlights Grant’s hesitance. He uses colorful and blunt rhetoric to call for all Americans to accept the end of slavery in order for the nation to progress forward.

Furthermore, Grant’s letter conveys a feeling of resignation that racial tensions would continue to plague the South and prevent it from moving forward. The letter indicates a sense of frustration that its author had failed to obtain and protect equal rights for blacks throughout the nation despite the passage of several laws that granted blacks social and political rights. While blacks made some progress during Reconstruction, the rise of white terrorism scaled back those gains and rendered African Americans second-class citizens for decades to follow.

Summary Overview

As both president and army general, Ulysses S. Grant played a significant role in keeping the Union together, completely eradicating slavery, and making sure that blacks in America obtained and exercised equal rights despite the salience of white supremacists and vigilantes using violence for obstruction. Grant had predicted that slavery would collapse prior to the Civil War, and the Union victory and passage of the Thirteenth Amendment confirmed his prediction. Throughout the Reconstruction period immediately following the war, Grant served as president Andrew Johnson’s general-in-chief where he constantly had to deal with the problem of white terrorism against former slaves. As president, the racial hostilities as well as violence heightened, but Grant was hesitant to provide federal intervention in the South because of party politics. A letter written to South Carolina Governor Daniel Chamberlain in response to the governor’s report on an incident of racial violence highlights Grant’s hesitance. He uses colorful and blunt rhetoric to call for all Americans to accept the end of slavery in order for the nation to progress forward.

Furthermore, Grant’s letter conveys a feeling of resignation that racial tensions would continue to plague the South and prevent it from moving forward. The letter indicates a sense of frustration that its author had failed to obtain and protect equal rights for blacks throughout the nation despite the passage of several laws that granted blacks social and political rights. While blacks made some progress during Reconstruction, the rise of white terrorism scaled back those gains and rendered African Americans second-class citizens for decades to follow.

Defining Moment

At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, Union Army General Ulysses S. Grant predicted the destruction of slavery because the toll of military action would render the institution unviable. Although he hesitated to attack the institution of slavery because doing so would exacerbate the resistance of white Southerners, Grant concluded in 1862 that the collapse of slavery was a crucial component of the Union’s war effort. Furthermore, the enlistment of black soldiers after their emancipation in 1863 became vital to the Union’s eventual victory. Even though Grant embraced black liberation, the preservation of the Union remained the sole indication of victory.

Shortly after the Civil War ended in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Vice president Andrew Johnson took charge in quickly putting in place a Reconstruction plan known as Presidential Reconstruction. Johnson desperately tried to repair the nation by convincing the Southern states to rejoin the Union. He pardoned the Confederate war generals, but stipulated that white Southerners living in Confederate states take loyalty oaths to the Union. Unlike the majority of Congress members, Johnson showed little regard for the status of former slaves because he believed that white Southerners should control them. In December 1865, however, the Thirteenth Amendment was passed and made slavery illegal throughout the United States.

Tensions grew between U.S. Congress and Johnson because he vetoed legislation that enumerated certain rights to former slaves. As a result, Congress took control of Reconstruction in 1867. A Republican Congress redrew the South into five military districts and subjected them to martial law, which upset many white Southerners. They passed the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted citizenship the African Americans and ensured that they would be counted in the population for the representative purposes in the House of Representatives. New state constitutions were drawn up in the Southern states. In 1867, the Freedmen’s Bureau, a bureau intended to help African Americans adjust to free life by helping them find jobs and a suitable place to live, strengthened in the South. The bureau not only helped African Americans find jobs and homes, it also established the first public schools funded by the government in the South. The literacy of African Americans became necessary in order for them assimilate and successfully transition from the status of slave to U.S. citizen. In 1868, Grant was elected president. The Fifteenth Amendment was needed to give vote to blacks in all states, which the Fourteenth Amendment had not sought to do. Ratified in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment granted blacks in the Union the right to vote. As a result, massive rioting by whites throughout the country occurred.

Grant pleaded to the American public to accept the freedom of blacks and called for them to treat blacks as equals. However, the presence of white terror groups such as the Ku Klux Klan made Grant’s pleas futile. The Klan and other vigilante groups targeted both whites and African American men and their families who belonged to the Republican Party as well as white and African American school teachers. They also attacked black landowners and other blacks who did not act in deference to whites. Mob violence and lynching served as effective tools to control black behavior as well as prevent them from exercising their rights as citizens. White supremacists systematically waged violence against Republicans and African Americans in order to persuade the North to return control of the South to the Democrats. Through such interactions with white Southerners, African Americans realized that their freedom despite emancipation would come after a long, arduous struggle.

Author Biography

Ulysses S. Grant was born on April 27, 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio, to Jesse Root Grant and Hannah Simpson Grant. As a child his parents expected him to fulfill all duties young men were expected to do such as collecting firewood, which developed his skills in dealing with horses. At the age of seventeen, a congressman nominated Grant for a position at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he eventually attended. At West Point, although he did not excel in his academics, Grant developed a reputation as a dexterous and fearless horseman. He graduated in 1843 and remarked that leaving West Point was one of the best moments of his life; he intended to resign after serving out his minimum obligated term in the military. The army failed to notice how skilled he was with horses and instead commissioned him as a second lieutenant in an infantry division. Grant resigned from the army in 1854 but struggled for the subsequent seven years in various civilian jobs.

In 1861, Grant served as a military commander who eventually rose in the ranks to become a general in chief of the armies of the Union during the Civil War and helped collapse slavery and preserve the Union. As a general he was widely respected for his ability to remain calm and collected under fire as well as for his talent for improvising under difficult circumstances. He also knew how to properly interact with superior officers and understood both tactics in waging war and strategies used in order to win. He waged several successful military campaigns, including the capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi and its thirty thousand Confederate soldiers on the fourth of July in 1863 and his victory at Chattanooga in November that same year. Because of his success Grant was chosen to lead the military campaigns in 1864 in which he saw great success. Union military victories ultimately secured the reelection of President Abraham Lincoln.

Grant served as general in chief during Reconstruction where he sought to preserve justice for the nearly four million freed slaves in the South. He witnessed the severity of white terrorism against African Americans and their allies and sought to stop the racial violence. He supported extending suffrage to African Americans as a means of protecting themselves and becoming equal citizens in the nation. In 1868, Grant ran for president as a Republican in order to make sure that the Union would be preserved and to protect African Americans from becoming re-enslaved. As president, Grant ratified the Fifteenth Amendment which enfranchised African Americans. He initially favored using federal force to protect African Americans from white terrorism and halt white Southerners from staging coups against Republican state governments. While his policies were successful to an extent, a combination of factors such as apathy in the North and the dominance of Democrats in Southern states constrained what Grant could do to thwart white supremacy. Ultimately, by the end of his presidency in 1876 Grant was powerless to stop the recoiling from Reconstruction.

Document Analysis

In 1868, Republican presidential candidate Ulysses S. Grant, the renowned general who led the Union army to victory, was sworn into office. Although he lacked political experience, Grant took office in order to advocate for and preserve the rights of African Americans as equal citizens to their white counterparts. He pushed through the Fifteenth Amendment in order to extend suffrage for African Americans. However, segregation and discrimination against African Americans prevailed, and an age of violence and lynching commenced during Reconstruction and for decades to follow. These lynchings were motivated by racism and racial stereotypes that developed during the antebellum period. Such violence occurred outside the due process of law and, indeed, law enforcement officials themselves often participated in the atrocities. President Grant wrote this letter in response to a report of violence against Republicans written by Republican South Carolina Governor Daniel H. Chamberlain in his state. His language indicates a level of frustration that the government has failed because it cannot protect its own citizens as well as a sense of resignation that he cannot stop the white supremacists from taking control over the South through the use of violence. This personal and collective discipline waged by white Southerners through the use of unlawful and heinous violence functioned to control the political and economic position of African Americans and to protect whites from the danger African Americans posed according to the prevailing stereotypes of the period.

On July 4, 1876, a black militia went to Hamburg, South Carolina, to celebrate the nation’s centennial. South Carolina was the center of the South’s Reconstruction as well as the burgeoning black power movement, such as it was. A white farmer came to the celebration and demanded that the militia move to the side of the road so that his carriage could pass through. The militia conceded, but on the following day the farmer told a state justice that the head of that militia be arrested because he got in the way of his road. The next day the militia returned to Hamburg but encountered a large group of white men who captured the twenty-five militia members, murdering five of them immediately. African American shops and homes were also destroyed. This massacre widened the chasm between the Republican governor and Democrats in the state, paving the way for a Democratic challenger to oust the incumbent in the election in November. At the national level, Democrats considered the event a prime example of why Republicans should not control the South; such violent events occurred in states such as South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi because Republicans were in charge. The South wanted autonomy rather than the federal government interfering in their affairs. The prevalence of such violence led Northerners to feel more apathetic about maintaining Reconstruction efforts. As a result, Grant showed a reluctance to authorize federal intervention in the South because he knew that Northerners grew weary of reports of violence and desired peace if that meant giving Democrats back control of the South. He assured the governor that the North did not intend to humiliate the South and thus he would not send troops to intervene in state affairs.

Grant expresses that he took issue with the senseless murder of African Americans in the South and asserts that no citizens have the right to kill them with impunity. The age of lynchings began in the post-Civil War era and reveals underlying stereotypes and myths perpetuated about African Americans to ensure that they did not enjoy their newfound freedom or become part of the U.S. polity. The victims of lynchings endured horrific violence such as being hung, dragged by a wagon, or having parts of their body disfigured or dismembered. The perpetrators engaged in such acts with impunity, as local and state courts did relatively little to pursue or punish them because of the prevailing idea that African Americans were somehow less than fully human. Lynchings were often big public affairs with thousands of white men, women, and children observing, indicating that lynching functioned as a quasi-legal means to contain and discipline blacks as well as to consolidate a dominant concept of “whiteness” that crossed gender, class, and generational lines. Such violence signaled the growing chasm between the Democrats and Republicans as a result of Reconstruction and the fact that Southern Democrats would not accept African Americans as equal citizens.

Despite these salient stereotypes, Grant conveys a hope that he can appeal to the greater sense of the American people to accept the outcome of the Civil War and recognize African Americans as equal citizens. Furthermore, he views white supremacists as the violent, dangerous, and subhuman caste, thereby subverting the prevailing stereotypes of black men and white men. Grant’s language suggests that he does not want to intervene in Southern affairs but hopes that Southerners will move forward and adopt a progressive attitude rather then hold on to antebellum attitudes and ideas about African Americans. His frustrations are further evident when he appeals to “the Great Ruler of the universe” to produce the “final remedy” for fixing the inhumane treatment of African Americans in the South. Grant’s tone indicates that he was dubious over whether Americans were ready for African Americans to be treated as equal citizens under the law; while the Union proved victorious in the Civil War and reconsolidated the nation and outlawed slavery, the meaning of freedom for American citizens was still unclear. Grant laments the inability of the government to protect the rights and lives of its own citizens. His lamentations reveal his lack of experience in American politics especially with regards to African Americans and race relations.

The language Grant uses to describe the massacre and its perpetrators invokes the salient stereotypes of African Americans in public discourse in order to depict the perpetrators and fellow white Southerners as embodying the worst of those they claim to fear. His depiction of Southern Democratic politicians as “savages” and uncivilized and unchristian implies that they should not be granted any political clout and do not deserve any legal authority because it is they who pose a threat to the well-being of postwar American society. By doing so, Grant subverts the image of the African American as a dangerous, subhuman savage and rather argues that the white supremacists themselves are subhuman and present a danger to American society and the ideals it represents. Although he uses vivid language that conveys his frustration and anger over the current condition of race relations in the South, his tone is subdued because he has very little control over what is happening at the local level in the southern United States. He addresses the governor in very deferential language, calling himself an “obedient servant” in order to appease him as well as encourage him to protect the rights of African American citizens in his state. While such language offers support to the Republican efforts in the Southern states, it becomes clear that Grant knows that the Democrats would prevail through their tactics of unapologetic violence and murder.

Grant concludes his letter with a resigned tone and expresses unrealistic hopes that white Southerners would accept African Americans as equal citizens. His hope to “secure a fair trial and punishment of all offenders without distinction of race” highlights his advocacy for African American rights and desire to minimize lawlessness in the South. The resignation evident in Grant’s letter was merited. After his presidency, Reconstruction came to an end and Democrats dominated politics--and no subsequent president during the nineteenth and early twentieth century would advocate for African Americans as much as Grant did.

Essential Themes

Although scholars believe Grant weakened the office of the presidency, it is undisputed that he advocated for African American rights more than any other U.S. president did in the nineteenth century. He intended his presidency to serve all American citizens and tried to avoid the party politics that had so plagued American society. He greatly wanted to extend and protect African Americans’ right to vote through the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. Unfortunately, the country turned its back on African Americans and opened itself instead to discrimination and segregation.

Grant’s letter to the governor clearly conveys a strong sense of resignation over the fact that he could not protect blacks from white terrorism and a sense of frustration about blacks not being treated as equal citizens. He felt that a government that could not protect the rights of its own citizens was a failure. This sentiment reflects the dark reality that throughout American history, the standard for fitness of U.S. citizenship was related to one’s race: one must be white to be considered fit for citizenship. The ideal citizen according to conventional republican ideology possessed rationality and self-possession; however, historically African Americans were not self-possessed because the institution of slavery rendered them unfit to rule themselves. Thus, racial assumptions are ingrained in the republican ideology on which the United States was founded and suggests that a link between race and citizenship has existed since the nation’s inception. Even after full citizenship was extended to blacks with the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, minority groups outside of the black-white paradigm sued courts for citizenship by attempting to prove their whiteness and disproving their blackness, given the historical disadvantages that the concept of blackness has for achieving full political status in the United States. These cases implicate the sad reality of the non-citizenship of blackness and the birth of the alien citizen. Thus, as Grant laments in his letter, even though blacks legally acquired full citizenship, they never received the protections and guarantees of full citizenship because of entrenched racism within U.S. politics and society.

In addition, institutionalized segregation in the form of the Jim Crow laws that were passed at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century further crippled the black population by forcing them to live in low-cost housing and by preventing them from access to social services provided by the state. The Supreme Court case decision known as Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896 established the principle of “separate but equal” and institutionalized Jim Crow laws in the South. Segregation became a reality in the South and would define race relations there well into the twentieth century. The political status of blacks as full, legal citizens did little to alter the perceived inferiority of blacks in the eyes of the white population; furthermore, they were still viewed as a racial Other that threatened to destroy the purity of the white race well into the twentieth century. Grant’s doubts that Americans were not prepared to make equality under the law for all citizens a reality thus became confirmed by the establishment of Jim Crow.

Bibliography
  • “Black Codes.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 04 Oct. 2013.
  • Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1999. Print.
  • Kelley, Robin D. G., and Earl Lewis. To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.
  • Smith, Page. Trial by Fire: A People’s History of the Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982. Print.
  • Ngai, Mae M. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 2004. Print.
  • Randall, J. G., and David Herbert Donald. The Civil War and Reconstruction. Boston: Heath, 1961. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Print.
  • McPherson, James M. Ordeal by Fire: the Civil War and Reconstruction. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2001. Print.
  • McFeely, William S. Grant: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1981. Print.
  • Perret, Geoffrey. Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President. New York: Random House, 1997. Print.
  • Simpson Brooks D. Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant the Politics of War & Reconstruction, 1861-1868. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991. Print.
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