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Montana Viewpoint: Keeping it together

| September 8, 2021 12:00 AM

If Americans really want something to worry about, let's worry about keeping our country together.

A politically divided nation is easy prey to its enemies and a weak partner to its allies. Many of us think we know what path the nation and its citizens should follow.

But if the philosophy is to prevent the other side from enacting their vision of America by making it impossible to get things done politically, then each side loses, and we are in deep trouble. It is far better to make a deal that gives us all something important.

The tenor of these times of anger, denial and faint hope are eerily similar in some ways to the events preceding and following the American Civil War when our nation was torn in two by the issue of slavery and seven states, joined by another four after the fall of Fort Sumter, seceded from the Union and joined together in forming their own confederacy of states.

Their seizure of federal property lying within their supposed jurisdictions began with the bombardment and capture of Fort Sumter in South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor.

Thus began the hostilities. The defeat of the Confederacy and eventual reunification of the nation were both led by a remarkable man of modesty and quiet determination, Ulysses S. Grant.

Known more for his Generalship than his Presidency, he followed his goal of keeping the United States together through both eras. After an otherwise unremarkable career as a soldier and a

businessman, events transpired to transform him into a great general, but a currently under-appreciated American leader.

His treatment of the defeated South was identical to his treatment of its troops defeated in battle.

While he earned his reputation of toughness for demanding “unconditional and immediate surrender” in his victory over his former West Point classmate and friend General Simon Bolivar Buckner at Fort Donelson, Tennessee in 1862, he then fed the 13,000 captured troops, allowed those who had side-arms to keep them and forbid his troops to gloat over their victory or taunt the prisoners.

“Why should we…mortify and injure the spirit of brave men, who, after all are our countrymen?”

Grant, who had married the daughter of a Missouri slaveholder, was initially indifferent to concerns over slavery. As the war continued and escaped slaves crowded and encumbered the Union camps, Grant began a program of feeding them and giving them medical care.

He later helped to establish Black Regiments which fought with distinction. Eventually 179,000 Blacks became Union troops. As President, he supported both the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution and helped create and oversee the implementation of the 15th Amendment guaranteeing all male citizens of all races the right to vote.

He opposed the Ku Klux Klan which withered during his Presidency. He appointed the first Native American Commissioner of Indian Affairs, General Ely S. Parker who had been his Adjutant during the war.

Curiously, Grant was incredibly naïve and trusted his friends completely believing they would never lie to him. This quality brought financial scandal to the Administration and later financial ruin to Grant who fell victim to an enormous Ponzi scheme run by a trusted friend.

Grant was never implicated in any wrongdoing, nonetheless it tainted his reputation.

His main goal was always to bring states of the former Confederacy back into the Union, as evidenced by the generous terms he attached to Lee’s surrender and the lack of reprisal against the former Southern leaders.

Grant died destitute — there was no Presidential pension until 1958 — and relied on the gifts of wealthy friends. He wrote his memoirs in the year before his death at 63 from cancer, hoping to support his family with the proceeds from its sale.

The “Memoirs” were published by Mark Twain and sold some 600,000 volumes almost immediately.

As an indication of Grant’s importance to America, his funeral procession, which lasted for five hours, was witnessed by 1.5 million people.

His honorary pallbearers included two former Confederate generals, Joseph Johnston and Simon Buckner, the latter who had accepted Grant’s terms of unconditional surrender in 1862. Besides the many dignitaries that one would expect at such an event there were 78,000 soldiers and veterans including contingents of Black regiments.

The former Confederacy was represented by several contingents in gray, including the “Stonewall Brigade” once led by Stonewall Jackson himself.

The love fest didn’t last of course, but at least it happened because of a calm, modest, and patient man who believed in the United States as “one nation, indivisible” and conducted his life accordingly.

There’s no reason we, as individuals, cannot do the same for America.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.