It is … essential that people learn the complete history of Grant’s life so that they may have a more informed and nuanced understanding of both his flaws and his accomplishments.
By Nils Skudra
One of the leading figures in the Civil War with whom I have been deeply fascinated is Ulysses S. Grant, who rose from his peacetime failures to become overall commander of the Union forces and eventually president of the United States.
I have read extensively about Grant and watched documentaries that elaborate upon his life and achievements. One of my favorite documentaries is Ken Burns’ acclaimed PBS series The Civil War, which I have watched numerous times. Today, while watching a segment that described Grant’s personality and qualities as a field commander, the thought occurred to me that a case could be made for the possibility of Grant having Asperger’s Syndrome, and therefore I decided to make this subject the focus of my article.
Ulysses S. Grant was born on April 27, 1822, in Point Pleasant, Ohio, to a tanner’s family. One of his earliest childhood memories was the smell of hides in his father’s tannery, which Grant found repugnant and which had a lasting influence on his choice of meat.
The documentary noted that he was “sensitive and withdrawn with people,” a trait which is commonly found among Asperger’s individuals due to the social challenges associated with the diagnosis. Furthermore, Grant had a profound affinity for horses and shared a bond with them that he lacked in his interactions with other people – this was referenced by the documentary in describing a wartime incident in which Grant ordered a teamster tied to a tree for six hours for mistreating a horse. The depth of Grant’s attachment to horses, as opposed to his relationships with people, could conceivably be regarded as a possible reflection of Asperger’s since many individuals with the diagnosis have much closer relationships with animals who provide them with a source of comfort, a fact exemplified by English naturalist Chris Packham in the documentary Asperger’s and Me.
Following his graduation from West Point, Grant married Julia Dent, the daughter of a wealthy slave-holding family, and served with distinction in the Mexican War. In the aftermath of the Mexican War, Grant was posted in California, where he began drinking due to depression over the absence of his wife. Resigning his commission in 1854, Grant returned to his family and tried his hand at a series of unsuccessful business pursuits, including farming, real estate, and peddling wood in the street.
It could be argued that Grant’s peacetime failures stemmed in part from an absence of order and structure that had been the norm in his military service, and individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome commonly have an affinity for structured routines in their lives. If a case can be made for Grant having Asperger’s Syndrome, his sense of routine and structure could be regarded as supporting evidence, and in this case the absence of such structure in civilian life, together with depression and a lack of business acumen, might be regarded as partially contributing to his failures.
When the Civil War broke out, Grant returned to military service, achieving national renown for his victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg and Chattanooga in the Western Theatre. Following Chattanooga, President Lincoln felt he had found in Grant the commander with a decisive resolve that other Union generals in the Eastern Theatre had lacked, and therefore he promoted Grant to overall command of Union armies in March 1864. As an army commander, Grant displayed qualities that set him apart from many of his peers, including a lack of ostentation or pretentiousness, which was noted by his men.
In addition, the documentary stated that Grant showed an aversion to marching bands, remarking that he could only recognize two tunes: “One was Yankee Doodle, the other wasn’t.” While Grant’s lack of ostentation can be made attributable to his sense of humility, these qualities might also be regarded as indicative of Asperger’s Syndrome since Asperger’s individuals tend to have a strong sensitivity to loud noises and often show a preference for things to be kept very simple and to the point, a tendency which Grant showed not only in his appearance but also in his manner of issuing orders, as exemplified by his instructions to subordinate George Meade: “Lee’s army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.”
Another noteworthy trait which might be considered attributable to Asperger’s Syndrome was Grant’s strict insistence that his meat be cooked dry at all times. In explaining this food routine, Grant maintained that any suggestion of blood on his meat would make him sick. While the experience of his father’s tannery definitely influenced Grant’s reasoning, this idiosyncrasy could also be seen as reflective of Asperger’s Syndrome since individuals with Asperger’s often follow very strict food routines, sometimes in the form of aligning the food on their plates in a certain order so that the different ingredients don’t mix with each other. This can also apply to the way that they want their meal served, and they may strongly disapprove of any deviation from the standard food routine. While Grant’s childhood experience was certainly a key factor, it does not rule out the likelihood of Asperger’s Syndrome as another contributing factor.
Several important traits that Grant displayed as a military commander could also fall into the realm of a possible Asperger’s diagnosis, including his methodical technique and his remarkable cool-headedness under fire, which he had demonstrated in the Mexican War by riding his horse through a hail of bullets to bring ammunition to his troops. The eminent Civil War author Shelby Foote, featured in the documentary, states that Grant had a unique “4:00 in the morning courage,” which Foote describes as Grant’s ability to wake up at 4:00 in the morning and promptly get to work without showing any sign of fear if he was notified that the enemy had turned his flank.
Furthermore, Foote elaborates that Grant had an unusual ability to concentrate, staying focused on tasks at hand and not leaving his tent until they were completed. This degree of concentration and cool-headedness is very common among individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome since they tend to exhibit an intensive single-mindedness and diligence in completing their academic or professional work, to the extent that they will not let anything else disturb their peace of mind. While Grant was deeply moved by the reports of heavy casualties among his men – at one point he broke down and wept after learning of the losses sustained in the Battle of the Wilderness – as a military commander his cool-headedness and powers of concentration were important strengths which, Foote maintains, made him a brilliant general.
In summation, the qualities that Ulysses S. Grant exhibited in his personal life and in his military career share many commonalities with the traits found among individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome, including a socially withdrawn demeanor; his close attachment to horses as opposed to people; his strict food routine with respect to the cooking of meat; and his intensive level of focus and concentration.
Some observers who take a dissenting view may point to the close human attachments that Grant formed in spite of his socially withdrawn demeanor, such as his close friendship and working relationship with subordinate William T. Sherman; the fact that Grant’s drinking sprees occurred during periods of inactivity or depression; and to the fact that his abilities as a commander were shared by other generals who did not display traits commonly associated with Asperger’s Syndrome. Nonetheless, I feel that a plausible case can be made for the possibility of Grant having Asperger’s Syndrome, particularly in consideration of the fact that one of his contemporaries on the Confederate side, Stonewall Jackson, is speculated to have had the diagnosis due to his own eccentricities. Ultimately, it must be left to scholars and students of Civil War history to make up their own minds on this topic, keeping in mind that however awkward Grant’s idiosyncrasies may have been, his abilities as a commander proved vital to achieving military success for the Union cause.
Furthermore, in light of the current social unrest surrounding the issue of Civil War monuments, I feel it is important that we educate members of the public about the history behind the individuals commemorated by these statues. During the nationwide wave of protests this summer, not only Confederate monuments but even Union monuments have become targets of vandalism or calls for removal. In San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, protesters tore down a statue of Ulysses S. Grant in spite of the fact that he led the Union armies to victory over the Confederacy.
While it is true that Grant married into a slave-holding family and issued an antisemitic order that expelled Jews from his military department, he freed a slave who came under his ownership; he developed an appreciation for the fighting effectiveness of black Union soldiers during the Civil War; and as president during Reconstruction he fervently promoted civil rights for African Americans, appointed numerous Jews to federal office, and advocated on behalf of Jews in Romania and Tsarist Russia.
It is therefore essential that people learn the complete history of Grant’s life so that they may have a more informed and nuanced understanding of both his flaws and his accomplishments.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I’m now working on a secondary Master’s in Library Science. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.