Let Us Have Peace: Grant’s Fight for Racial Freedom
by Craig von Buseck
Carved into the front of the General Grant National Memorial in New York City, known by most as “Grant’s Tomb,” are the words that were the theme for his run for the presidency: Let Us Have Peace.
Grant rose to become General-in-Chief of the Union Army amidst a Civil War fought over the same issue that we still struggle with today: race.
Some will tell you the war was about state’s rights or tariffs, but if you take away race-based slavery from the equation, these issues would never have heated up into a war to divide the Union.
The Confederate leaders themselves made it very clear that the war was about racial slavery. This sentiment was clearly stated by Confederate Vice President, Alexander Stephens, in a March 1861 speech that has become known as “The Cornerstone Speech.”
“Our new government[‘s] foundations are laid,” Stephens declared, “its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
Those who would argue that the American Civil War was not about race-based slavery neglect to mention that a state had to have the so-called “right” of slavery in their constitution in order to be admitted into the Confederacy.
Grant, who had been ambivalent toward abolition, had an instant change of heart when the slave-holding Confederacy fired upon Fort Sumter. Years after the Civil War, and after he had served two terms as President, defending and protecting the former slaves, Grant explained his position in a meeting with German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck.
“…you had to save the Union just as we had to save Germany.”
“Not only save the Union, but destroy slavery,” Grant explained.
Bismarck was taken aback by the comment. “I suppose, however, the Union was the real sentiment, the dominant sentiment.”
“In the beginning, yes,” Grant agreed, “but as soon as slavery fired upon the flag . . . we all felt, even those who did not object to slaves, that slavery must be destroyed.”
Grant’s views on the slavery issue had evolved as the war progressed, and he grew to respect and adopt Lincoln’s policies. These views matured further during his time as president as he took a bold stand to protect black civil rights and to defeat the Ku Klux Klan.
“There had to be an end to slavery,” Grant explained. “Then we were fighting an enemy with whom we could not make a peace. We had to destroy him. No convention, no treaty was possible—only destruction.”
Grant grew to oppose slavery on practical, military and religious grounds. As early as the summer of 1861, he told an army chaplain that he “believed slavery would die with this rebellion, and that it might become necessary for the government to suppress it as a stroke of military policy.”
Grant’s brother-in-law Michael John Cramer confirmed that “as the war progressed [Grant] became gradually convinced that ‘slavery was doomed and must go.’ He had always recognized its moral evil, as also its being the cause of the war.”
Hence General Grant, like Lincoln, came to look upon the war as a divine punishment for the sin of slavery.
Grant had married into the slave-holding Dent family, and had been given a slave by his father-in-law. But as the issue of slavery began to tear the country apart in the years just prior to the outbreak of war, Grant decided to free his slave. This was at a time of extreme financial difficulty for Grant. The sale of a slave could bring in as much as $1,000—a sum that would have relieved a great amount of pressure on his family. Yet Grant emancipated his slave instead—a move that foreshadowed his growing anti-slavery sentiments.
In a letter to his friend, Congressman Elihu Washburne, soon after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Grant shared his belief that since slavery was the root cause of the war, its destruction had become the basis for settlement with the South. It was “patent to my mind early in the rebellion that the North & South could never live at peace with each other except as one nation, and that without slavery. As anxious as I am to see peace reestablished, I would not therefore be willing to see any settlement until this question is forever settled.”
Grant saw the drift toward the “Lost Cause” defense of the war in the final years of his life and he reminded the country of the true cause of the war in his famous Personal Memoirs.
“The cause of the great War of the Rebellion against the United States will have to be attributed to slavery. For some years before the war began it was a trite saying among some politicians that ‘A state half slave and half free cannot exist.’ All must become slave or all free, or the state will go down. I took no part myself in any such view of the case at the time, but since the war is over, reviewing the whole question, I have come to the conclusion that the saying is quite true.”
Ironically, a mob recently tore down a statue of Ulysses S. Grant in San Francisco because they were angry about racial relations in modern-day America. They undoubtedly did not know that next to Lincoln, Grant was one of the foremost defenders of African Americans in the history of this country.
The greatest African-American mind of the 19th Century, Frederick Douglass, eulogized Grant as “a man too broad for prejudice, too humane to despise the humblest, too great to be small at any point. In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.”
We owe a great debt to this Ulysses S. Grant. And today we can all echo his plea for harmony in the immortal words, “Let us have peace.”
Watch for the new biography Grant’s Triumph by Craig von Buseck, coming soon from Iron Stream Media. More from Craig at vonbuseck.com.
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