Ulysses Simpson Grant
By John T. Marck
The man who would grow to be one of the best generals during the Civil War and President of the United States, was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio on April 27, 1822.He was christened Hiram Ulysses Grant, but his name change came as a result of an error a congressman made when appointing him to West Point.
Grant's family descended from Puritans who had come to New England in the seventeenth century. His father was a hardworking tanner, but Ulysses was a quiet boy, who appeared to most as one who was lethargic, almost lazy. Because of this observation, his father, Jesse Root Grant believed him not suited for business and secured an appointment for him to West Point, with the help of a friend in Congress. Entering West Point in 1839, Grant did graduate in 1843, ranking twenty-one in a class of thirty-nine cadets. Considered an average student, he did possess poor study habits, preferring romance novels to military tactics. He did however, possess strong skills in math and horsemanship.
His skill with and love of horses leaned him in the direction of joining the cavalry division, but he became a lieutenant in the 4th Infantry instead. In 1847 he fought in the Mexican War, and although he believed the war was strictly fought for politicians who desired territorial gains, he did have an admiration for his commanders, including Zachary Taylor. Grant fought well in the war, gaining respect and winning brevets for heroism at Molino de Ray and Chapultepec.
On August 22, 1848, Ulysses married Julia Boggs Dent, and they made their home in St. Louis, Missouri, Julia's hometown. Together they would have four children; Frederick Dent (1850-1912); Ulysses Simpson (1852-1929); Ellen Wrenshall (1855-1922); and Jesse Root (1858-1934).
After the Mexican War, Grant was assigned to several remote forts including Fort Humboldt in California. At Humboldt in 1854, without his wife Julia and at this time their two children, boredom and loneliness be fell him and as a result he started drinking. Although he did indulge many times throughout his life, he did drink much less than his legend would have one believe. Still, it seemed that he would not stop his drinking until either his family, friends or events in which he was involved, intervened. In 1854, criticized by his regimental commander as a result of his drinking at Fort Humboldt, Grant resigned his commission as captain, and returned to his wife and family in St. Louis.
Back in St. Louis, Grant led a haphazard life and career, whereby he was reduced to selling firewood on the streets of St. Louis to earn an income. Unable to find suitable work, he was then forced to move his family to his parents' home in Galena, Illinois, and relied on charity from his father. In Galena he worked at a number of different jobs, but none was a success for him. Unfortunately for the country the Civil War began, and with it Grant would finally find success. Initially Grant tried to join the volunteer army but was refused. Then, thanks to a congressman named Elihu B. Washburne, and Governor Richard Yates, Grant was appointed a colonel in the 21st Illinois Infantry in June 1861. An outstanding commander, Grant soon took the disorganized 21st and whipped them into fighting trim. For his efforts, Grant was promoted to brigadier general.
At Belmont, Missouri, Grant received his first command that started off well but ended in a fiasco. Following this, Grant was placed in an administrative post until he was able to reclaim the honor he lost at Belmont. Returning to active service, he excelled under the command of General Henry W. Halleck by breaking through the Confederate defenses lines and capturing Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. At Fort Donelson, his dazzling maneuvers as well as his refusal to accept anything less than an unconditional surrender brought him instant national distinction.
But Grants military success would come and go. On the heels of his success at Fort Donelson, Grant and his troops were surprised by Rebels and almost defeated at Pittsburg Landing and again at Shiloh Church, Tennessee. The next day, Grant did drive the Rebels back but that was not enough to improve his image. For months, the public condemnation of his personal habits, his dress and drinking, and his military mistakes, damaged his career. To makes matters worse, Grant's failure initially to capture Vicksburg, due to Confederate supply-line raiders, further damaged his reputation.
By the summer of 1863, events starting improving for Grant and can be noted as finally a turning point in his career. Using his tactical skill and relentless attacks, Grant was able in July 1863 to take Vicksburg and the Confederacy's division. Through this victory Grant was promoted to major general in the Regular Army. Grant continued his winning ways, when four months later he successfully led a mission in the Siege of Chattanooga, and another victory at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. Now Grant was considered the Union's celebrated fighter. The following March 1864, President Abraham Lincoln promoted Grant to general-in-chief, reviving the three-star rank.
Now armed with a monstrous army and supplies, Grant is viewed by many as one who massacred the enemy, regardless of the cost to his men. This image however is no true. The Union's multi theatre operations that would follow were carefully planned and mapped out that included General Sherman with his operations in Georgia, General Benjamin Butler and his operations on the James River, and General Philip Sheridan's operations in the Shenandoah Valley. It was Grant's plan with others, to outflank the enemy and reach their rear, whereby destroying their communications which in turn would hinder their survival. What Grant did in the campaigns from the Wilderness to Appomattox (with the exception of a costly defeat at Cold Harbor) was to outmaneuver the Confederates, rather than outfight them. While attempting to move on Richmond, Grant decided to go around General Lee and did so through a crafty movement, and turned instead toward Petersburg. From this point, Grant used various incursions that forced Lee to extend his lines so thin that they were at the breaking point. As a result, Lee had no choice but to surrender on April 9, 1865. Grant won the war by not using force, but by his speed, coordination, and cunning.
Compared to being an equal of George Washington for his military abilities, after the war, Grant was once again unable to use those talents he had in wartime. Upon being elected president of the United States in 1869, and serving two terms, Grant conducted himself in the same simple manner and ethics that he had since his youth. Being naive politically, his rudimentary view of complicated situations combined with his inability to analyze members of his staff, brought his administration into disrepute, resulting in corruption and scandals. Following his presidency that ended in 1877, he traveled the world, then attempted several businesses that resulted in failure. To provide for his almost destitute family, he began to write his memoirs. Although the pen is mightier than the sword, in Grant's case, the pen brought for him the fame that he had lost by laying down his sword.
As Grant was completing his memoirs, he suffered from painful throat cancer. While suffering from his illness he completed his memoirs only four days before he died on July 23, 1885 at Mount McGregor, New York at the age of sixty-three. His book titled the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant was published after his death in 1885. His writings encompass Grant's supreme remembrance, as his words, like his military tactics, display a paradoxical genius. Grant's wife Julia died in Washington, D.C. on December 14, 1902. Ulysses and Julia are buried in Grant's Tomb in New York.
Copyright © 1993-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributedfor compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.