• Facebook
  • Twitter

Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses Simpson Grant
(1822-1885)
American General

Ulysses S. Grant played the principal role in the Union defeat of the Confederacy in the American Civil War, his tactical and strategic abilities proving to be superior to those of his primary foe, Robert Edward Lee. Although described as a drunkard and a butcher for the heavy casualties he experienced, Grant understood the importance of committing all military and economic assets to total warfare. In achieving victory, Grant preserved the Union of the United States of America.

Neither Grant’s civilian nor military beginnings were remarkable. Born the oldest of six children to a Point Pleasant, Ohio, tannery owner on April 27, 1822, Grant received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy in 1839. Upon reporting to West Point, Grant decided to changed his birth name from Hiram Ulysses to Ulysses Hiram to avoid the embarrassing initials “HUG.” An administrative error on the part of the congressman who nominated him for the academy recorded the name as Ulysses Simpson. To avoid further confusion and red tape, Grant made no effort to correct the error and readily became U. S. Grant.

Grant showed no great potential at West Point, graduation twenty-first among thirty-nine cadets in the class of 1843. Although horsemanship had proved to be Grant’s most outstanding attribute at the academy, the new lieutenant’s commission was in the infantry, and he reported to the Fourth Regiment at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, after graduation.

At the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846, Grant and his regiment joined Zachary Taylor along the Rio Grande border. Grant participated in the early battles of the war, earning praise for his valor at the Battle of Monterrey. In 1847 his unit transferred south to join an invasion, led by Winfield Scott, of Vera Cruz, where Grant participated in battles at Cerro Gordo in April, Churubusco in August, and Molino del Rey and Chapultepec in September. By the time Mexico City fell, Grant had earned a brevet promotion to captain and a Regular Army advancement to first lieutenant.

Grant returned to Missouri in 1848 and married Julia Dent, a local planter’s daughter whom he had met during his earlier assignment to Jefferson Barracks. Frequent transfers took the Grants to Mississippi, New York, Michigan, and the Pacific Northwest. In 1854, Grant, now a captain in the Regular Army, reported at Fort Humboldt, California. Unable to have his wife join him at his new assignment, Grant began, or according to some accounts, continued, to drink heavily and shortly thereafter resigned his commission.

During the next six years Grant tried farming and various other business ventures back in Missouri. None proved successful. In 1860 he moved his family to Galena, Illinois, and became a clerk in his father’s leather store.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Grant attempted to regain a commission in the Regular Army, but despite the massive mobilization, the military showed little interest in him. Grant finally secured a militia appointment as a colonel in command of the Twenty-First Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment and within two months advanced to the rank of brigadier general in command of the District of Southeast Missouri.

Grant’s first Civil War combat produced a limited victory at Belmont, Missouri. He did not gain the attention of President Lincoln and the Regular Army until his brilliant coordination of naval and land forces led to the capture of the Confederate forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862. Grant’s demand to the Rebel commander at Fort Donelson led to nickname “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.

In the spring of 1862, Grant received a promotion to major general and command of the Army of the Tennessee. On April 6 the Confederate army of Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston surprised the Union force at Shiloh, Tennessee, but Grant rallied his troops to beat back the Rebel attack.

After Shiloh, Grant conducted several maneuvers that displayed his mastery of battlefield tactics. Using rapid movement and aggressive action, Grant fought and won a series of five battles against numerically superior forces in Mississippi as he moved his army toward Vicksburg. Grant again coordinated his offensive with the U.S. Navy fleet on the Mississippi River and by June had Vicksburg surrounded by water and land. The city surrendered to Grant on July 4, giving the Union complete control of the Mississippi River and effectively dividing the Confederacy into two geographic sectors.

Following Vicksburg, Grant finally received an appointment to the Regular U.S. Army, promotion to major general, and command of the newly formed Military Division of Mississippi. In short order he took control at Chattanooga and broke the Rebel siege of the city, winning a decisive victory at Lookout Mountain. Grant did not rest after his victory; rather, he pursued the retreating Rebels.

For three years President Lincoln had been looking for a general who could end the war and protect the Union. In 1864 he determined that Grant was that leader and on March 9 promoted him to lieutenant general and general in chief of the Union forces. To Regular Army officers who had no fond memories of Grant and to civilians who revived stories of Grant’s drinking, Lincoln simply responded, “I need this man. He fights.”

And that is exactly what Grant did. He immediately took charge, directing the entire Union war effort from the field and by telegraph. Aware that the Southerners could not match the North’s manpower and other resources, Grant pursued a course of action based on attrition (a continuation and extension of Winfield Scott’s early-war Anaconda Plan). He ordered William T. Sherman to march on Atlanta and Philip Sheridan to neutralize the Rebel forces in the Shenandoah Valley while he himself accompanied George Mead’s Army of the Potomac against Richmond and Lee’s Army of Virginia. Although a series of bloody battle at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor resulted, Grant did not necessarily achieve victory in this campaign. In fact, Lee matched and on occasion outgeneraled him, but the Confederates continued to sustain casualties they could not replace and were forced to react to Grant rather than assume any initiative of their own.

By June 1864, Grant had Lee’s army surrounded at Petersburg, Virginia. The siege lasted until April 1, 1865, when Grant’s victory at Five Forks compromised Lee’s right-flank defenses and forced him to withdraw. Grant paralleled Lee’s westward retreat and ordered Sheridan to cut off the Withdrawal route. At Appomattox Court House on April 9, Lee recognized that he could no longer fight and surrendered to Grant. The remainder of the Rebel forces across the South followed suit over the next few weeks.

Grant remained in the army following the war, and in 1866, Congress authorized his promotion to the rank of full general, the only such promotion since 1799. in 1868 Grant won the first of two elections as president of the United States. Marred by several scandals involving fraud by political appointees – though not by Grant himself – his presidency certainly demonstrated that he was a more successful general than statesman.

After an unsuccessful third-term campaign in 1879, Grant moved to New York City. He soon proved that his business skills had not improved with time, and he lost is entire fortune in a baking venture. Diagnosed with throat cancer, Grant spend his final days writing his autobiography, finishing it only four days before his death, at age sixty-three, on July 23, 1885, at Mount Gregor, New York. The book was very successful, and its revenues adequately provided for his family’s future.

Grant – short, stock and round-shouldered – never impressed anyone with his military bearing. A failure in nearly everything else he attempted, he nevertheless ranks as one of the most influential military leaders in history. His casualty lists were long, and he did indeed often drink to excess. However, he won the most divisive and decisive war in U.S. history and ensured that the Union would survive and that slavery would be abolished.

Not as beloved as Lee or as flamboyant as J. E. B. Stuart of Philip H. Sheridan, Grant proved Lincoln correct in that he could and would fight and exactly the right general at the right time. Modern “total warfare” and the survival of the Union of the United States of America are his legacy. Without his leadership, the United States might very well have remained divided and never have risen to its current superpower status.

His influence exceeds that of other Civil Wary commanders of both sides. Of all U.S. military leaders, he ranks below only George Washington, Winfield Scott (his former commander), and the major American World War II commanders: George Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Douglas MacArthur.