Ulysses Grant was one of the most famous Union generals of the American Civil War. After the American Civil War Grant went on to become American President during the era of Reconstruction. Some historians regard Ulysses Grant as one of America’s most outstanding military leaders – but also one of her most controversial presidents.

Grant, born Hirman Ulysses Grant, was born on April 27th 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio. His family lived a comfortable life. Grant’s father owned his own tannery business. Aged 17, Grant started the US Military Academy at West Point. He graduated from it in 1843, finishing 21st out of a class of 39.

Grant fought in the Mexican American War (1846-1848). He gained a reputation as a brave junior officer and was twice mentioned for his bravery. Grant used the war to study the battle and campaign techniques of the senior officers there and became an especial admirer of General Zachery Taylor.

Grant suddenly resigned his commission in 1854. No one is quite sure why he did this but two reasons have been forwarded. The first is that Grant wanted to be with his wife and child. Grant was stationed at Fort Humboldt on the coast of California. His wife had been unable to travel with him for financial reasons and remained in Illinois with their first child. She was also pregnant at the time of his resignation with their second child. Another explanation put forward is that he was caught drunk on duty and that he was given the simple choice – resign and maintain some form of dignity or face a court martial with all that this entailed. Whatever the reason, one of the most famous of American generals resigned his commission at the age of 32.

Grant went into business. He was unsuccessful in all his ventures and he ended up working as a clerk for his father who owned a tannery business in Galena, Illinois.

Grant was a strong believer in the Union. In 1856 he voted for James Buchanan in the national election as Buchanan was known to be against secession. However, at this time Grant was not against slavery and in his lean years when his business ventures failed, he used slaves on farms and his wife owned four slaves. While the future US President was not at this stage in his life overtly political in a public sense, he did come from a Republican Party background. His father was a prominent Republican supporter in Galena. It was to this party that Grant moved to when the American Civil War finally broke out.  

In many senses the American Civil War was to be the making of Grant. While the causes of the American Civil War are complex, one of the main reasons in the minds of Americans then was the issue of secession. For Grant, the union of states was sacrosanct and when the American Civil War broke out in April 1861, he joined the Union Army. With his military background, Grant was put in charge of training new regiments in Illinois. He did this with some skill and asked for a command in the field. In recognition of the work he had done with volunteers, Grant was given the rank of colonel in the Illinois militia in June 1861 and given command of the 21st Illinois Infantry. The 21st had gained a bad reputation for indiscipline and failing to carry out commands. It was Grant’s task to ‘lick’ them into shape. This he achieved. Grant so impressed his seniors, that he was promoted to Brigadier General on July 31st 1861. An Illinois Congressman, Elihu Washburne, had pushed for Grant’s promotion and this was confirmed by President Abraham Lincoln.

Grant’s frontline military career in the American Civil War started successfully with the capture of Paducah in November 1861. However, he found much greater fame in February 1862 when he commanded men who captured two major Confederate forts on the Cumberland River – Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. The attacks were supported by Union gunships commanded by Admiral Foote. The gunships bombarded the forts. Fort Henry surrendered first. Grant called for the unconditional surrender of Confederate troops in Fort Donelson and they complied. 12,392 Confederate troops were taken prisoner. Grant’s approach was just what Lincoln wanted – an aggressive commander in the field. It was the exact approach that Lincoln was failing to get out of his senior commanders. He had rebuked General McClellan for being too passive in his approach as commander of the Army of the Potomac. The ‘go get them’ approach of Grant was just what he believed the Union Army should be doing. Lincoln promoted Grant to Major General. Grant’s success at Fort Donelson also made him famous throughout the North.

However, his popularity with Lincoln and the North’s public did not always extend to his superior officers, in particular Grant’s commanding officer, General Halleck. Grant, for right or for wrong, had a reputation for drinking and Halleck did not approve of ‘drunks’. Halleck removed Grant from his command for Halleck’s next military venture along the Tennessee River but quickly restored it, almost certainly after Lincoln had voiced his concern over Halleck’s move. Grant was given command of the Army of West Tennessee, which was changed to Army of the Tennessee. One of his subordinates was William Sherman.

The start of the campaign along the Tennessee River did not go well for Grant. The Army of Mississippi made a surprise attack on Union positions at Pittsburgh Landing on April 6th 1862 and took advantage of Grant’s failure to build defensive measures where his men were based. The near 45,000 strong Confederate force nearly forced Grant’s men into a retreat – something advised by Sherman – but it held out for a vital seven hours in the “Hornet’s Nest”. The following day, the Union force pushed back the Confederate army who were pushed back over the dead from the previous day’s fighting. The casualties at Pittsburg Landing (known as the Battle of Shiloh) were the highest of the American Civil War to that point – 13,047 killed, wounded or missing for the North and 10,699 for the South. For the South this represented a casualty rate of nearly 30% – a figure none of her armies could sustain given the size of the Confederacy’s male population at the time.   

Vicksburg, Mississippi, then became the Army of the Tennessee’s next target and Grant was given a major role to play in the campaign. His command was to be one of two prongs that would attack Vicksburg. Grant faced initial problems when Confederate troops cut off his supply line that was constantly being extended and lost ammunition and food supplies. Trains moved a great deal of Grant’s supplies, so rail lines became easy targets. In Grant’s case, Confederate troops destroyed 60 miles of rail lines with the consequent problems this brought for Grant.

By January 1863, Grant was ready to attack Vicksburg. He spent three months trying to find a way into the city. These probing attacks failed and ended with the media in the North attacking Grant and once again linked him with an excessive alcohol intake. However, for Grant the raids were vital as they provided him with information as to the strength of the Confederate forces in and around Vicksburg.

The attack on Vicksburg started on April 29th when Sherman made a diversionary attack on Confederate positions. By May 7th, both Sherman and Grant were in a position to attack Vicksburg. Confederate forces around Vicksburg were quickly defeated but breaking into the heavily fortified city proved to be a lot more difficult. Grant resorted to a six-week siege. Knowing that the Confederates under General Pemberton could not leave nor bring in reinforcements, Grant’s army simply had to sit it out. Pemberton surrendered his forces on July 4th 1863. Just on the previous day, the Confederacy had suffered a major defeat at Gettysburg. July 3rd and July 4th 1863 were probably the two days when the American Civil War was won by the North. The media in the North once again embraced Grant and Lincoln referred to him as “my man”.

Grant’s next target was the important railway hub of Chattanooga, which commenced on November 24th1863. An attack by the Union General Thomas was so overwhelming that the Confederate troops in Chattanooga retreated. Victory here opened up the heartland of the Confederacy. According to General Joseph Hooker, Grant later claimed that such was the impact of the attack by the men of General Thomas, that he, Grant, had nothing to do with the victory. This view was not shared by Lincoln who promoted Grant to the rank of Lieutenant General in the regular army.

After Chattanooga, Grant concentrated his efforts against Robert E Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the Eastern Theatre. William Sherman was given effective control of the Army of the Tennessee in the Western Theatre.

Grant formulated a plan for a wholesale co-ordinated attack against Confederate forces across the whole of the Confederacy – Richmond, Atlanta, Mobile and railway hubs. It was a bold and aggressive plan that the full support of Lincoln. In the past, the various components that made up the Union Army had effectively operated outside of a grand co-ordinated strategy. Now Grant required them to act as one force in a coordinated attack that, in theory, would knock-out the South. This would be total war, whereby civilians would become legitimate targets as would all forms of the South’s economy. The attack was known as ‘The Overland Campaign’.

Grant’s plan had occasional setback built into it. Grant did not believe that the ‘Overland Campaign’ would be Union success followed by Union success. He accepted that on occasions, Lee would get the better of the North’s forces. But Grant knew that any form of military contact would further bleed Lee’s army of men and equipment – neither of which could be easily replaced. In some battles in the ‘Overland Campaign’, the North actually lost more men – but they could be replaced. This happened at the Battle of the Wilderness. Grant lost 17,666 men while Lee lost 11,125 men. The North’s losses were unfortunate but recoverable from. The South’s losses were a disaster. At Cold Harbor, the North lost 12,737 men while the South lost 4,595. But Grant’s strategy served two purposes: first, they were bleeding the South white regarding men and equipment and second, the North was continually putting Lee on the defensive.

In June 1864, Grant’s men attacked and besieged the vital rail city of Petersburg. This city had a major rail line to the Confederate capital, Richmond. He then suffered one embarrassing setback. Jubal Early, a Confederate Lieutenant General, launched a surprise raid against Washington DC. Lincoln ordered Grant to resolve this and he had to withdraw two corps to attack Early’s men. The threat to Washington was sufficient to cause panic and undermined the seeming constant success of Grant. Early’s force was only defeated in October 1864.

Grant gave his full backing to Sherman’s policy in Georgia. Here Sherman saw civilian homes as legitimate targets and destroyed anything that might have been of use to the Confederacy if Sherman’s army had to retreat. It was a brutal policy that spread fear throughout the South. However, Sherman’s version of total war was very successful from a military point of view and one that was supported by Grant.  

Short of men and equipment and driven to the point of exhaustion, Lee offered his surrender to Grant at the Appomattox Court House on April 9th 1865. Grant had no wise to drive home the Union’s victory and he offered lee generous terms, believing that reconstruction was vital to America. On July 25th 1866, Congress created a new rank and offered it to Grant. He was made General of the Army of the United States by President Andrew Jackson.

In 1868, the Republican Party nominated Grant for the presidential election. A sign of his popularity was that he had no serious opposition to the nomination. Grant won a landslide victory winning 214 Electoral College seats to his opponent’s 80. At the age of 46, Grant was the youngest president ever. Grant was re-elected in 1872.

Grant’s time as President tends to be overshadowed by the numerous scandals associated with it. He tended to surround himself with former army colleagues who were not very well controlled by the President. Grant took personal criticism badly. He also could not tolerate the criticism of those he had appointed to cabinet positions as he saw such criticism as an attack on himself. Grant wanted to run for a third term as President but was beaten to the party nomination by James Garfield. By this time he has run into serious financial problems having been swindled out of a large sum of money. Grant was reduced to selling off his civil war memorabilia to pay off his debts. With no income, Grant decided that he had no option but to write his memoirs regarding the American Civil War. Grant finished his memoirs just days before he died of throat cancer. They made his family $450,000.

Ulysses Grant died on July 23rd 1885 at the age of 63.

Related Posts

  • Henry Halleck was a senior commander in the Union army during the American Civil War when he fought in the ‘Western Theatre’. By the end…