Ulysses Simpson Grant, (1822-1885), American general and 18th President of the United States. Grant, the most capable of the Union generals during the Civil War, was a master strategist. He won the first major Union victories. President Abraham Lincoln staunchly defended him against critics and promoted him to command all Union forces. Grant accepted Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. However, Grant had no disposition for political leadership, and as president (1869-1877) he scarcely attempted to control events. He made injudicious appointments to public office, and official corruption tainted his administration, although Grant himself was not involved in the peculations.
Grant was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, on April 27, 1822, and baptized Hiram Ulysses. The eldest son of Jesse Root Grant and Hannah Simpson Grant, he came from a family that, he proudly declared, had been American “for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral.” In 1823 his father moved his tanning business to Georgetown, Ohio, where “Lyss” spent his boyhood. His education at a grammar school in Georgetown, at Maysville Seminary in Maysville, Ky., and at the Presbyterian Academy of Ripley, Ohio, was superficial and repetitious, and the boy showed no scholarly bent. He became noted, however, for his sturdy self-reliance and for his ability to ride and control even the wildest horses.
In 1839, Jesse Grant secured for his son an appointment to the U. S. Military Academy. When he arrived at West Point he learned that he was on the muster roll as Ulysses Simpson Grant, through an error of the congressman who had nominated him. Finding it impossible to change this official listing, Grant accepted the inevitable and dropped Hiram from his name.
“A military life had no charms for me,” Grant said later, and his only purpose at the academy was “to get through the course, secure a detail for a few years as assistant professor of mathematics at the Academy, and afterwards obtain a permanent position as professor at some respectable college.” Understandably, his West Point record was not spectacular. In 1843 he graduated in the middle of his class (21st in a class of 39), was commissioned brevet 2d lieutenant, assigned to the 4th U. S. Infantry, and sent to Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis, Mo. There he began to learn his army duties and, even more important, met his future wife, Julia Dent, sister of a West Point classmate.
The orders that sent Grant’s regiment to the Southwest frontier in May 1844 temporarily interrupted his romance.
Grant served with distinction in the Mexican War (1846-1848), a conflict that he privately deplored as an unjust war to extend slavery. Promoted on Sept. 20, 1845, to full 2d lieutenant, he took part in the battles of Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, and Monterrey. Grant’s commanding general in all these engagements was “Old Rough and Ready,” Gen. Zachary Taylor, whose informal dress and lack of military pretension he was to copy in later years. In 1847, Grant’s regiment was transferred to the army of Gen. Winfield Scott, and he participated in all the battles that led to the capitulation of Mexico City: Veracruz, Cerro Gordo, Contreras, Churubusco, Molino del Rey, where he was made 1st lieutenant for his bravery, and Chapultepec, where he was brevetted captain. Besides teaching Grant the practical lessons of warfare, the Mexican conflict gave him a personal acquaintance with most of the men who were later to command the Confederate armies.
After the Mexicans surrendered, the American military establishment was drastically curtailed, and Grant was assigned to routine garrison duty. His four years at Sackets Harbor, N. Y., and Detroit, Mich., were pleasant, because Julia, whom he had married on Aug. 22, 1848, was with him. But in 1852, when the regiment was transferred to Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, his wife and young family had to be left at home. Grant’s next two years, spent in barracks life on the West Coast, were the most miserable in his career. His duties were dull and routine; his superior officer, Col. Robert Buchanan, rode him hard; his income was inadequate, and efforts to increase it by farming and cattle raising were unsuccessful. Most of all, he missed Julia, the one woman in his life. Like so many other peacetime officers of the period, Grant began drinking.
Though he was promoted to a captaincy, he continued forlorn and unhappy, and a quarrel with Colonel Buchanan helped to precipitate his decision, on April 11, 1854, to resign his commission.
Returning to Missouri, Grant settled his family on 80 acres of land given him by his father-in-law and tried to farm. With grim humor he called the place “Hard Scrabble,” for he had to bear all the work of clearing the land, hauling wood, plowing, and cultivating his crop. After four years he abandoned farming and set up an unsuccessful real-estate business in St. Louis. In 1860 he moved to Galena, Ill., where he worked in his father’s leather shop.
Not particularly interested in politics, Grant was nominally a Democrat at this time; but when the South seceded, he had no trouble in making up his mind to support the Union cause. He helped organize the first company of Union volunteers in Galena and accompanied the men to Springfield. At the request of the Illinois governor, Richard Yates, he remained to muster in the new volunteer regiments, for his experience as quartermaster, commissary, and adjutant in the field made him invaluable. Grant longed for active duty, however, and on May 24, 1861, tendered his services to the U. S. government, suggesting modestly that he was “competent to command a regiment.” Failing to secure such an appointment, he accepted from Governor Yates the command of the 21st Illinois Regiment, quickly brought it under excellent discipline, and did good service against guerrillas in Missouri.
On Aug. 7, 1861, President Lincoln appointed Grant brigadier general of volunteers, and he took up headquarters at Cairo, Ill. Only a few days after he assumed his new command, he occupied Paducah, Ky., at the strategic junction of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers. On November 7 he attacked the Confederates at Belmont, Mo., in an assault that was not well planned or executed. The arrival of Confederate reinforcements compelled him to retreat. The general was still learning his trade.
In February 1862, after much persuasion by Grant, Gen. Henry W. Halleck, Grant’s superior officer, authorized him to move against Forts Donelson and Henry, the Confederate positions guarding the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. With 17,000 men and a flotilla of gunboats under the command of Commodore Andrew Hull Foote, Grant captured Fort Henry on February 6 and promptly moved against Donelson 12 miles (19 km) away. When the Confederate commander there, Brig. Gen. Simon B. Buckner, asked for terms of capitulation, Grant replied tersely: “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.” On February 16, Buckner surrendered with over 14,000 men. The capture of Forts Henry and Donelson, the first major Union victories in the war, opened up Tennessee to the Federal armies. For the first time “Unconditional Surrender” Grant became prominent on the national scene. Despite Halleck’s jealousy, Lincoln made him major general of volunteers.
Grant’s next important battle was at Shiloh, or Pittsburg Landing, Tenn., on April 6-7, 1862. Early in the morning of April 6, Gen. Albert S. Johnston’s Confederate army burst through the unfortified Union lines near Shiloh meetinghouse and threatened to drive Grant’s men back into the Tennessee River. Historians differ on almost every aspect of the battle: whether Grant was at fault in being at Savannah, 9 miles (14 km) from Pittsburg Landing, at the beginning of the battle; whether Grant was surprised by Johnston; whether Union troops should have been entrenched; whether Grant was personally responsible for checking the Confederate advance; and whether the arrival of Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s army saved the day for the Union cause.
At any rate, on April 7 the Union forces recaptured the initiative and drove the Confederates back in great disorder. When the news reached the North, a storm of abuse broke out against Grant, who was blamed for this bloodiest battle yet to occur on the American continent, and it was falsely whispered that he had been drunk and negligent of his duty. But Grant also had defenders, among them Lincoln, who said simply, “I can’t spare this man–he fights.”
On April 11, General Halleck arrived at Pittsburg Landing and took personal command of the army. In the ensuing campaign against Corinth, Miss., Grant occupied an ambiguous and humiliating position. Nominally second in command of the army, he was in fact ignored during the slow advance that occupied the Union troops until the end of May. When Halleck was called to Washington in July, Grant was left in command of the District of West Tennessee, holding a wide territory with few troops. He was, nevertheless, able to drive Maj. Gen. Sterling Price’s Confederates from Iuka, Miss., on September 19-20, and a part of his army, under Brig. Gen. William S. Rosecrans, defeated Price and Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn at Corinth on October 3-4.
On Oct. 25, 1862, Grant was made commander of the Department of Tennessee and was charged with taking Vicksburg, Miss., the principal Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. He first followed a rather conventional strategy, advancing with 30,000 men overland through Mississippi while sending Brig. Gen. William T. Sherman’s troops down the river from Memphis. On December 20, Van Dorn destroyed Grant’s principal supply base at Holly Springs; nine days later Sherman was bloodily repulsed at Chickasaw Bayou.
Grant now faced the most important decision of his career. To pull back to Memphis and mount a new expedition would be an admission of defeat and a severe blow to Union morale. To any retreat Grant had an instinctive aversion. “One of my superstitions,” he wrote, “had always been when I started to go anywhere, or to do anything, not to turn back, or stop until the thing intended was accomplished.” He decided, therefore, “There was nothing left to be done but to go forward to a decisive victory.” That is precisely what he did, in a plan as brilliant in conception as in execution.
Abandoning the overland approach, Grant moved his army to the position Sherman had occupied across the Mississippi from Vicksburg and ostensibly busied his troops during the rainy winter months in constructing a canal bypassing Vicksburg, while beginning to gather supplies for a daring experiment. By April 1863 he was ready. He ran his provisions down the river under the guns of Vicksburg, marched his men through the backcountry, reached a position on the west bank of the Mississippi below Vicksburg, crossed over to high ground on the eastern side, and commenced operations behind the Confederate lines. Grant had cut himself off from communications and supplies from the North; his troops had to subsist on the country until victory. He drove inland to Jackson, Miss., held off a threatened attack from Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s army to the north, and pushed Lieut. Gen. John C. Pemberton’s troops on the west into the defenses of Vicksburg. After a regular siege, on July 4, 1863, Pemberton was obliged to surrender his 30,000 men.
The victory was one of the most decisive in the war. It eliminated a major Confederate army from the conflict; it cut off the trans-Mississippi states from the rest of the Confederacy (the capture of Port Hudson, La., by Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks promptly followed); and it brought to the attention of the Northern government and people the ablest Union general of the war. President Lincoln wrote Grant a personal letter of congratulations and nominated him major general in the Regular Army.
Grant’s next major engagements saw him in a different field of operations. In September the Confederate general, Braxton Bragg, defeated Rosecrans at Chickamauga and placed the Union army in Chattanooga under virtual siege. Grant was summoned to the rescue. He acted promptly: Rosecrans was replaced by Maj. Gen. George Henry Thomas; Sherman’s troops were ordered to march east; a “cracker line” was opened to bring in desperately needed food for the garrison; and reinforcements from the Army of the Potomac were speedily moved west by rail. By the end of November, Grant was prepared to take the offensive. On November 24, Brig. Gen. Joseph Hooker cleared Lookout Mountain of Confederates, and on the following day Thomas’ men stormed Missionary Ridge. Bragg retired, demoralized, to Dalton, Ga.
Grant’s new victory made him the man of the hour, and he was brought to Washington to receive the personal thanks of the President, a gold medal voted by Congress, and the newly created rank of lieutenant general commanding all the armies of the United States. Grant looked anything but a hero. He was, as Richard Henry Dana observed, “a short, round-shouldered man, in a very tarnished … uniform. … There was nothing marked in his appearance. He had no gait, no station, no manner, rough, light-brown whiskers, a blue eye, and rather a scrubby look withal.” But behind the unprepossessing exterior and the modesty of manner lay a powerful strategic genius.
Grant now gave to the Union armies something they had never had before, a concerted plan of action. He ordered simultaneous movements (commencing May 4, 1864) of all the Union armies–Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac, which he personally accompanied; Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James; Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee; and Banks’ troops in Louisiana. Throwing enormous concentrated force against the enemy, Grant planned to batter the Confederates constantly and, if only through attrition, to compel their surrender. The advance of Meade’s army into the Virginia Wilderness was skillfully parried by Gen. Robert E. Lee’s strategy, but undeterred by the appalling loss of 17,666 men; Grant gave the enemy no rest. At Spotsylvania Court House and on the North Anna, Lee again fended off Grant’s sledge-hammer blows. At Cold Harbor, Grant ordered a direct assault on the Confederate lines, only to lose 6,000 men in an hour’s fighting. Though he was wearing down the Confederates, he had failed to defeat Lee in a single engagement. His prestige plummeted, and enemies in the North began to call him “Grant the Butcher,” careless of his men’s lives.
Grant continued to hammer away. On June 12 he shifted his base, adroitly withdrew from Lee’s front, and crossed the James River. Failing to capture Petersburg by surprise, he settled down to a regular siege. From June 18, 1864, to April 2, 1865, the Army of the Potomac was engaged chiefly in mining, sapping, assaulting, cutting Lee’s transportation lines, and sending out flanking expeditions. But while Grant was starving Lee in Richmond, Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan was devastating the valley of Virginia, and Sherman’s army, far to the south, was burning a trail of desolation through Georgia.
In the spring of 1865, Grant was ready for the final push. Sheridan’s victory at Five Forks (April 1, 1865) was the beginning of the end. The next day when Grant assaulted the Confederate right, Lee was obliged to abandon Richmond and Petersburg and march west, hoping to join the army of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. Grant cut off his retreat, and a series of running battles made it clear that further resistance was useless. On April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House, Lee capitulated. Grant’s terms were magnanimous, and Lee accepted them without question. Seventeen days later Johnston surrendered his army to Sherman, and the Civil War was over.
Given the grade of full general (newly created) in 1866, Grant oversaw the sale of wartime surpluses, had the Indian frontier policed, and protected the gangs constructing the transcontinental railroad. The most ticklish part of his postwar duties related to the reconstruction of the Southern states. At first he was inclined to be easygoing with the ex-Confederates; and when President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, sent him on a fact-finding tour of the South in 1865, he reported that the “mass of thinking men of the south” were willing to accept their defeat. But Johnson’s pro-Southern policy and the outbreak of renewed violence and rioting in the former Confederacy disturbed the peace-loving general.
Despite growing doubts, Grant accompanied Johnson on his “swing round the circle” in 1866, an attempt to publicize presidential reconstruction plans. On Aug. 12, 1867, when Johnson suspended Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Grant agreed to act as secretary ad interim. During the next five months he served rather uncomfortably in the cabinet; but when the Senate refused to concur in the suspension of Stanton, he resigned. While the President publicly accused him of bad faith, Grant drifted into the Radical Republican camp, supported the impeachment of Johnson, and became the obvious Republican candidate for the presidency in 1868. He easily defeated the Democratic candidate, Horatio Seymour, and won 214 out of the 294 Electoral votes.
Grant was not a politician, and he entered the presidency with no real comprehension of the powers and duties of his office. For his Cabinet he picked not the strong leaders of his party but personal friends, such as Secretary of War John Aaron Rawlins, or wealthy men who had contributed to his campaign chest, such as Secretary of the Navy Adolph Edward Borie. His famous motto, “Let us have peace,” was a slogan, not a program of executive action. Grant explicitly denied any intent to exert leadership over Congress and his party; he had no policy “to enforce against the will of the people,” he declared. For the eight years that he occupied the White House, therefore, one is obliged to speak of the events of Grant’s administration, not of the actions of the president.
On questions of Southern reconstruction, Grant acquiesced in the plans of the Radicals to enfranchise blacks. Half-hearted efforts to enforce the 14th and 15th amendments proved futile, and not even the Force Acts of 1870-1871 put down Ku Klux Klan violence in the South. By 1876 most blacks had been driven from the polls, and the former Confederate states were becoming the solidly Democratic South.
In financial matters Grant followed conservative Republican economic theorists who deplored the inflated paper money issued during the war. One of the first important measures to receive his signature was an act declaring the government’s ultimate intention to redeem these greenbacks in coin. Grant’s financial ignorance led him to serve as a dupe of the unscrupulous Jay Gould and James Fisk in their attempt to corner the gold market in 1869. But when he discovered their scheme, he ousted the lesser officials whom they had bribed, ordered prompt sale of government gold, and on Black Friday (September 24) broke the corner. Later, not even the panic of 1873 shook
Grant’s distrust of inflation, and in 1875 he signed a bill pledging the resumption of specie payments in January 1879.
On foreign policy, Grant generally followed the advice of his cultivated, aristocratic secretary of state, Hamilton Fish. Through Fish’s caution, Grant’s desire to recognize the belligerence of Cuban insurgents (who had set up a republic in 1869) was curbed. His one independent effort at making foreign policy, his plan to annex Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic), led to a rupture with Charles Sumner, powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and annexation was defeated in the Senate (1870). In a treaty with Great Britain in May 1871, Fish settled the Alabama and other claims arising from British aid to the Confederacy during the Civil War. Later, he also secured a peaceful adjustment of the Virginius crisis with Spain in 1873.
Grant’s Southern policy alienated the former Confederates; his financial policy discouraged debt-ridden Western farmers who desired inflation; and his foreign policy outraged Sumner and some other Republican leaders. Nevertheless, his popularity with the masses was unimpaired in 1872, and the regular party bosses enthusiastically urged his renomination. Dissident Liberal Republicans and Democrats joined in nominating Horace Greeley as his opponent, but Grant was triumphantly elected for a second term, receiving 286 of the 349 electoral votes.
Grant’s second four years in the White House were not happy ones. A storm of scandal, which had started while the campaign was still under way, broke about his head. Leading Republican congressmen and officials were involved in railroad scandals; his whole party was implicated in the “salary grab” act (February-March 1873), which retroactively increased the pay of congressmen and the executive; and his secretary of war, William Worth Belknap, shared in Indian agency frauds. The president’s private secretary, Orville E. Babcock, had a hand in the Whiskey Ring peculations, and Grant, refusing to doubt his integrity, supported him to the last. Grant himself was not involved in the corruption, but when his close advisers proved faithless, the popular conviction grew that he was a failure as president.
The more completely the Republican Party was discredited, however, the more firmly did party stalwarts like Roscoe Conkling, Zachariah Chandler, and Oliver P. Morton cling to Grant as the one man who could bring victory at the polls. Their attempt to run him for a third term had Grant’s assent and Mrs. Grant’s enthusiastic approbation, but the Republican National Convention of 1876 refused to break with precedent and nominated Rutherford B. Hayes. In the disputed election that followed, Grant’s presence in the White House had a steadying effect and discouraged hotheaded supporters of both Hayes and the Democratic candidate, Samuel J. Tilden.
Upon leaving office, Grant made a tour of the world with his wife and youngest son, during which he was treated not as a discredited president of the United States but as the triumphant victor of the Civil War. After two years of travel, he returned more than ever interested in a third term, which now seemed possible because Hayes did not seek reelection. At the Republican National Convention in 1880 in Chicago he had 306 supporters, organized by Conkling; but a coalition of his opponents gave the nomination to James A. Garfield on the 36th ballot, and Grant’s political career was ended.
The last years of Grant’s life were sad ones. Admirers collected a fund of $250,000, which they placed in trust for him; when the securities in which the fund was invested became worthless; however, he was so hard up for money that he had to sell his wartime swords and souvenirs. He became a partner in the brokerage firm of Grant & Ward, but like all his previous business ventures, it failed (May 6, 1884) and he went into bankruptcy. A move to have him restored to the rank of general, which he had resigned to run for the presidency, met political opposition and was not approved until the last day of Chester A. Arthur’s administration (March 3, 1885). Grant had only a few months to enjoy the salary that Congress thus voted him.
Afflicted with a cancer of the throat, the general was heroically trying to provide for his family during these last years. The success of an article on the Battle of Shiloh, which he wrote for the Century Magazine in 1884, led him to plan writing his own account of the war in which he had played so large a part. In his sickroom at Mount McGregor near Saratoga, N. Y., he composed the two volumes of personal recollections that remain one of the great war commentaries of all times. Published by Mark Twain, the Personal Memoirs ultimately brought the Grant family nearly $450,000 in royalties. Grant himself did not live to reap the reward. Exhausted from his heroic battle, he died quietly at Mount McGregor on July 23, 1885, and his body eventually found its last resting place in the great mausoleum (dedicated 1897) in New York City overlooking the Hudson River.
William S. McFeely is a very well known historical writer. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for his biography on Ulysses S. Grant. He has written more than 8 books on the Civil War. These include:
Proximity to Death, Sapelo’s People: A Long Walk into Freedom, and Memoirs of General William T. Sherman. Not only does McFeely give a good historical background of Grant, he makes points about his life and draws conclusions that add a lot to the book.
I thought the book was very good. I found that he originally did not want to be a military man but instead wanted to be a college professor. McFeely’s conclusions can sometimes be a little annoying and seem too much like literature instead of history but, surprisingly, after researching the book from multiple sources very few of McFeely’s points are incorrect. I thought that the book got a little long after the section on his military career was over. But, how can politics be as interesting as military achievement?