Ulysses S. Grant

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Ulysses S. Grant

Born April 27, 1822
Point Pleasant, Ohio
Died July 23, 1885
Mount McGregor, New York

Union general who captured Vicksburg and defeated Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, ending the Civil War

Eighteenth president of the United States

Ulysses S. Grant was one of the greatest—and most unlikely—military commanders in American history. Prior to the Civil War, he struggled to provide for his family, first as a soldier and then as a businessman. But when the war began, he quickly showed that he was one of the North's top military leaders. During the first two years of the conflict, his victories at Fort Donelson, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga helped the Union seize control of the Confederacy's western states.

Grant then moved to the war's eastern theater (a large geographic area in which military operations take place), where he was given command of all the Union armies. Beginning in the spring of 1864, he brought the full power of the Union forces against the South. Grant's merciless use of sustained pressure against the weary armies and citizens of the Confederacy eventually forced the South to surrender in 1865. Four years later, Grant became president of the United States. But the North's greatest military hero never really learned how to be a good political leader, and his two terms in the White House were marked by scandal.

Humble beginnings

Ulysses S. Grant was born on April 27, 1822, in Point Pleasant, Ohio. His parents were Hannah Simpson Grant and Jesse Root Grant, who supported his family as a tanner (a converter of animal hides into leather) and farmer. Named Hiram Ulysses by his parents, Grant was a quiet and sensitive child. As a youngster he labored in his father's tannery for a time, but he disliked the tedious work of tanning hides and his father's constant criticism. He later received permission to work on the family's small farm, where he developed a deep love for horses.

When Grant was seventeen, his father pushed him to apply for admittance into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, America's leading military academy. Grant dutifully took the school's entrance exam and was surprised when he learned that he had passed. He entered the academy a few months later, only to discover that the school had erroneously listed his name as Ulysses Simpson Grant rather than Hiram Ulysses Grant. He tried to have his name corrected, but when his initial efforts failed, he simply accepted his new name and used it for the rest of his life.

Early life in the military

Grant's years at West Point passed quietly. Nicknamed "Sam" by his friends, Grant posted grades that were acceptable but unremarkable. In fact, the only subjects for which he showed any enthusiasm at all were watercolor painting and horsemanship. "A military life held no charms for me," he later admitted. Despite his lack of enthusiasm for the military, Grant became a soldier after graduating from West Point in 1843. He requested assignment to a federal cavalry unit so that he could work with horses, but was instead placed in the infantry.

Grant's first exposure to war came in 1846, when the United States and neighboring Mexico went to war. The Mexican War (1846–48) came about when the United States became interested in acquiring significant sections of Mexican territory in order to expand its own land holdings. In 1845, America annexed (added) Texas to the Union and tried to buy California and New Mexico from Mexico. But Mexico regarded Texas as part of its own territory, and it refused to give up California and New Mexico. America's determination to take possession of these lands did not diminish, however, and the two countries ended up going to war over the territories.

Grant worked as a regimental quartermaster (a military officer responsible for providing food, clothing, ammunition, and other equipment to troops) during the war, serving under both General Zachary Taylor (1784–1850) and General Winfield Scott (1786–1866; see entry). As the war unfolded, Grant became an admirer of the decisive military style favored by these two military leaders. In fact, their example has often been credited as an influence in Grant's own generalship during the Civil War.

But while Grant learned some valuable lessons about leading men into combat during the Mexican War, he regarded the war itself as a "wicked" one. Grant took part in the war because "I considered my supreme duty was to my flag." But he and many others believed that America had basically picked a fight with Mexico so that when Mexico struck back against its bullying behavior, the United States could go to war and take the land that it wanted without feeling guilty about it.

This conflict ended in 1848, when American military victories forced Mexico to cede (give up its claims on) Texas, California, New Mexico, and other lands in the West in exchange for $15 million. Everyone knew that the land was worth far more than $15 million, but the Mexican government had no choice but to accept the deal. Years later, Grant called the Mexican War "one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation."

A long period of struggle

In 1848, Grant married Julia Dent, the daughter of a slave-owning Missouri planter. They started a family, and eventually had three sons and a daughter. But military assignments along the Pacific coast placed Grant far away from his wife and children for long periods of time, and he proved unable to raise enough funds so that his family could join him. In the summer of 1854, Grant—a captain at the time—abruptly resigned from the army under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Many historians believe that he left the military because of charges of alcoholism, but unhappiness over his long separation from his family might have been a factor, too.

After returning to civilian life in the eastern United States, Grant worked hard to provide for his family. But every career and business scheme that he attempted failed, from bill collecting to real estate. One Christmas, he sold his watch so that he would have a little money to buy presents for his wife and children. As one business venture after another failed, Grant was finally forced to accept a clerk position at an Illinois tannery owned by his father in order to feed his family.

The Civil War begins

Grant left his father's tannery in the spring of 1861, when the American Civil War began. The Civil War came about because of long-standing and bitter disagreements between America's Northern and Southern states over several issues. One of these issues was slavery. Many Northerners believed that slavery was wrong and wanted to abolish (completely do away with) it. But the economy of the South had been built on slavery, and Southerners resented Northern efforts to halt or contain the practice.

The two regions also disagreed about the appropriate balance between state and federal authority. The Northern states favored a strong central government and argued that the Union—the entire country—was more important than any individual state. Southern states, though, supported the concept of states' rights, which held that people in each state could make their own decisions about slavery and other issues. America's westward expansion during this time made these disputes even worse, since both sides wanted to spread their way of life—and their political ideas—into the new territories and states.

By early 1861, hostilities between the two regions had become so strong that several Southern states voted to secede from (leave) the United States and form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America (eleven Southern states eventually seceded).The U.S. government declared that the formation of the Confederacy was treasonous (an illegal betrayal of the country) and warned that it was willing to use force to make the Southern states return to the Union. But the South refused to back down, and in the spring of 1861, the two sides finally went to war.

Return to military service

The Civil War gave Grant a second opportunity to prove himself in the Federal army. But although his choice to rejoin the army was based partly on his desire to revive his military career, he also had a genuine desire to see the Confederacy destroyed and the Union restored. "I have but one sentiment now," Grant stated at the beginning of the war. "We have a government and laws and a flag and they must be sustained. There are but two parties now: traitors and patriots."

When the war started, Union military leaders gave Grant command of a group of Illinois volunteers because of his previous military experience. Promoted to brigadier general, he spent most of 1861 in Kentucky and Missouri. Grant's troops got into a couple minor scrapes during this time. The biggest of these minor battles was a clash at Belmont, Missouri, that ended without a clear winner.

In the spring of 1862, Grant posted his first major triumph of the war when his small army captured a Confederate garrison (military post) of fifteen thousand men at Fort Donelson, Tennessee. This victory came at a time when many other Union generals were suffering terrible defeats, so Northerners naturally embraced Grant as a hero. Their opinion of Grant surged even higher when they heard that he had responded to Confederate requests to negotiate terms of surrender by saying, "The only terms I can offer are immediate and unconditional surrender." Grant's uncompromising stand greatly appealed to Northerners, who started saying that his initials, U.S., stood for "Unconditional Surrender."

The Battle of Shiloh

After his performance at Fort Donelson, Grant was given more important responsibilities. In March 1862, he was ordered to take forty-five thousand troops and track down a Confederate army commanded by General Albert S. Johnston (1803–1862). Grant pursued Johnston all the way to the northern Mississippi town of Corinth, where Johnston received reinforcements that increased the size of his army to about forty-four thousand troops. Grant, meanwhile, stopped his advance outside of Corinth, near a small country church called Shiloh. He set up camp and waited for reinforcements of his own to arrive.

As Grant waited for his reinforcements, however, he established only basic defenses around the camp because he figured that Johnston's exhausted army would not dare to attack him. On April 6, though, Johnston launched a deadly surprise attack on the Union camp just as Grant's soldiers were waking up for breakfast. The Confederate offensive smashed the unprepared Federal troops, and for a time it appeared that the Union Army would be forced to call a full retreat. But Grant furiously rallied his men, and the troops held their ground until nightfall, when he finally received his reinforcements.

Armed with these new troops, Grant ordered a full-scale Union attack the following morning. All day long, Grant delivered terrible punishment to the outnumbered rebel army. The Confederate troops finally had to retreat back to Corinth in order to avoid total defeat. Grant did not give chase, though, because he knew that his own army was exhausted.

The Battle of Shiloh shocked people all across the country because it produced casualty figures that were far higher than had been seen before. When people in the North and South heard that more than twenty-three thousand Union and Confederate soldiers were classified as killed, wounded, or missing at Shiloh, they realized that they had been fooling themselves with their dreams of easy and bloodless victory.

Grant captures Vicksburg

Grant's next major mission took him to Vicksburg, Mississippi, a heavily fortified city located high atop bluffs along the Mississippi River's eastern shoreline. Vicksburg was the last major Confederate stronghold along the Mississippi. Grant knew that if he could capture the city, Northern control of the river would be complete. The eastern Confederate states would have no way of getting grain, cattle, and other desperately needed supplies from Confederate lands west of the river like Texas, Arkansas, and western Louisiana.

At first, Vicksburg's rebel defenders pushed back every one of Grant's offensives. But in April 1863, the Union general launched a daring and brilliant plan to capture the stronghold. He marched his troops southward down the western banks of the Mississippi, then ferried his army across the river on boats that had earlier dashed past Vicksburg's mighty cannons under cover of darkness.

Grant's strategy worked flawlessly. By the end of April, he had successfully transported his army across the river to the eastern shoreline. Grant's army was now on the same side of the river as Vicksburg itself. Over the next few weeks, he steadily advanced on Vicksburg, destroying rebel supplies and small Confederate armies with ease. By mid-May, Grant had captured the town of Jackson, chased off the main Southern army in the region, and completely encircled Vicksburg.

Shortly after surrounding Vicksburg, Grant tried to take the city by force. When these attempts failed, however, he settled in for a long siege of the city. By stopping all shipments of food and supplies into Vicksburg, Grant planned to starve the city into surrendering. Once again, Grant's strategy worked. On July 4, the Confederate garrison surrendered the city to Grant, and Union troops moved in. A few days later, Grant took control of Port Hudson, Louisiana, a smaller rebel outpost on the Mississippi. Thanks to Grant's brilliant campaign, the entire Mississippi River Valley now belonged to the North.

Victories in the West

By the fall of 1863, Grant's successes and tough style had made him a favorite of President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry). Writing in Reflections on the Civil War, historian Bruce Catton noted that Lincoln viewed Grant as "a man who was completely reliable, who got the job done, who could be trusted, and who always seemed to come out on top." In mid-October 1863, Lincoln's confidence in Grant led him to give the general command over the newly created Division of the Mississippi, which included all Union forces operating between the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Mountains.

Grant immediately proved that the president's confidence in him was well placed. At the time of his promotion, the Union-held cities of Chattanooga and Knoxville were both under siege from Confederate armies. But by the end of the year, Grant had lifted the siege on both cities and forced the Confederate military out of Tennessee.

Lincoln picks a new general

In March 1864, Grant was ordered to Washington to take command of the entire Union Army. Promoted to the rank of lieutenant general—a position last held by George Washington—Grant was given complete freedom to use the military as he saw fit. "After years of searching, Lincoln had found what he wanted," wrote Catton. "A completely reliable General to whom he could turn over the entire conduct of the military part of the war, without needing to look over the General's shoulder, be told what he was doing, and help him plan strategy. Lincoln called Grant in, gave him a free hand, and undertook to support him as vigorously as he could."

Grant immediately made plans to launch a coordinated offensive (attack) against Confederate military targets using the full might of the Union Army. He gave General William T. Sherman (1820–1891; see entry) command of the armies in the West and ordered him to march into the South and destroy the main Confederate army there. Meanwhile, Grant took control of the Army of the Potomac—the Union's primary army in the East—and marched southward in search of Robert E. Lee (1807–1870; see entry) and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

Grant and Lee

As Grant moved his army into Virginia, he clashed repeatedly with Lee's army. The first of these battles took place in early May 1864 in a region of dense, tangled woods known as the Wilderness. In two horribly bloody days of fighting, Grant lost approximately seventeen thousand men. But unlike earlier Union generals who had always retreated when challenged by Lee, Grant expressed grim determination to continue his campaign. "I'm heartily sick and tired of hearing what Lee is going to do," he snapped at one of his worried officers during the Wilderness battle. "Go back to your command and think about what we're going to do to Lee instead of worrying about what he's going to do to us."

Instead of returning to Washington, Grant pushed deeper into Virginia. Again and again, he tried to maneuver his army around the right flank of Lee's army in order to destroy it and then move on the Confederate capital of Richmond. Grant knew that if he could break Lee's army and capture Richmond, the South would have to give up. But Lee anticipated Grant's strategy and successfully fended off every Union attack. The struggle continued for six long weeks, as the two weary armies met in bloody combat at Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and countless other places in the Virginia countryside.

By mid-June, Grant had pushed Lee's army back to Petersburg, where the Confederate general erected a final defensive position to keep the Union forces out of nearby Richmond. By this time Grant's army had lost fifty thousand men, an average of about two thousand casualties a day. These high casualty numbers shocked Union communities, and some Northern critics charged that Grant was a poor general who did not value human life. "Grant is a butcher and not fit to be at the head of an army," First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (1818–1882; see entry) declared at one point. President Lincoln remained loyal to his general, though. He recognized that Grant's campaign had immobilized (brought to a halt) Lee's forces and put the Army of Northern Virginia into a situation where it would have to try and outlast a Union force that was far larger and better supplied.

Grant laid siege to Petersburg for ten long months. During this time, Lee stood by helplessly as other Union armies further west posted a string of major victories. By the spring of 1865, Lee's army remained bottled up in Petersburg and Richmond. Outside of Virginia, meanwhile, Union armies led by Sherman and others had torn the Confederacy apart.

In April, Lee decided to abandon Petersburg. Leaving Petersburg and Richmond to Grant's army, the Confederate general fled south with the hungry and battered remnants of his army in a desperate bid to gain supplies and continue the fight. But Grant chased Lee down. On April 9, 1865, the Civil War came to an end when Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia.

Grant's White House years

The Union's dramatic victory made Grant one of the great heroes of the North. After the war, he joined the Republican political party. In 1868, he was elected president of the United States, defeating Democratic nominee Horatio Seymour (1810–1886) by a slim margin. In 1872, he easily defeated Horace Greeley (1811–1872; see entry). Grant entered the White House hoping to help America heal the many deep wounds left by the Civil War. But he struggled with his presidential duties, and his administration became known for scandal and mismanagement of the national economy. "The qualities that served U.S. Grant so well in war—resolution, independence, aversion to [dislike of] politics—deserted him in peacetime," commented Geoffrey C. Ward in The Civil War. "He entered the White House pledged to peace, honesty, and civil rights [for blacks]. But corruption tainted [damaged] his two terms—though it did not touch him personally—and the North was already weary of worrying about the status of southern blacks."

Financial troubles return

In 1877, Grant left the White House and became involved in a variety of business ventures. In 1880, he invested heavily in a Wall Street brokerage firm, only to see the company crumble a few years later when another partner stole millions of dollars. The collapse of the brokerage firm nearly bankrupted Grant, who also found out around this time that he was suffering from inoperable cancer of the throat.

In 1885, Grant moved to a cottage in the Adirondack Mountains and began writing his memoirs. He hoped that sales of the book would provide his family with financial security after his death. All summer long, he worked on his memoirs on the front porch of the cottage. After awhile, his throat cancer made it impossible for him to eat or speak, but he remained determined to complete the book. He finished his manuscript on July 16 and died one week later.

Grant's memoirs were published later that year by famed American novelist Mark Twain (1835–1910). Grant's work, which was published in two volumes, proved enormously popular with American book buyers, and his family quickly regained its financial security. Today, Grant's memoirs continue to be regarded as one of the most thoughtful and interesting works ever written about the Civil War era.

Where to Learn More

Archer, Jules. A House Divided: The Lives of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E.Lee. New York: Scholastic, 1995.

Catton, Bruce. Grant Moves South. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960.

Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969.

Grant Cottage. [Online] http://saints.css.edu/mkelsey/cottage.html (accessed on October 10, 1999).

Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. 2 vols. New York: C. L. Webster, 1885. Reprint, New York: Modern Library, 1999.

Kent, Zachary. Ulysses S. Grant: Eighteenth President of the United States. Chicago: Children's Press, 1989.

Marrin, Albert. Unconditional Surrender: U. S. Grant and the Civil War. New York: Atheneum, 1994.

McFeely, William S. Grant: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1981. Newtown, CT: American Political Biography Press, 1996.

National Park Service. General Grant National Memorial. [Online] http://www.nps.gov/gegr.index.htm (accessed on October 10, 1999).

National Park Service. Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. [Online] http://www.nps.gov/ulsg (accessed on October 10, 1999).

O'Brien, Steven. Ulysses S. Grant. New York: Chelsea House, 1991.

Rickarby, Laura N. Ulysses S. Grant and the Strategy of Victory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

Simpson, Brooks D. Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics ofWar and Reconstruction, 1861–1868. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Ulysses Grant Home Page: Civil War General and President. [Online] http://www.mscomm.com/~ulysses/ (accessed on October 10, 1999).

Ulysses S. Grant Association. [Online] http://www.lib.siu.edu/projects/us-grant/ (accessed on October 10, 1999).

Ulysses S. Grant Network. [Online] http://saints.css.edu/mkelsey/gppg.html (accessed on October 10, 1999).