Ulysses S Grant - Union General and American President
Created | Updated Jul 23, 2013
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Ulysses S Grant was one of the few truly competent Union Generals in the American Civil War, and a President of the USA. He was remembered as a good, though not great, president, and one of the best generals in the history of the country.
One of the few presidents to be better known for his affairs before office than in it, Grant at one point had the title as the overall commander of Union forces in the Civil War. He was well known for his love for whisky, and his unshaven appearance, but he was a master strategist and a very intelligent man. He is also known for rising from being a common man at the beginning of the war to the highest levels of the Union army by the end.
Grant was born as Hiram Ulysses Grant on 27 April, 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio. His early life was much less than spectacular.
When he was one, the family moved to Georgetown, Ohio, which is where he received his first education. He was shy, and other children called him 'useless.' His father, Jesse Grant, had lived an early life of poverty, so he was extremely careful with money. When he was 27, he had married Hannah Simpson, and Hiram was the first son of the couple. Jesse was a tanner, and expected his son to help the business, but Hiram hated the smell involved in the tanning.
Hiram loved horses1 and had a remarkable way with handling them that would continue his whole life. He was allowed to drive horses to earn his keep, but Jesse soon discovered his son was an inept businessman, and had him attend West Point Military Academy in 1839. Two brothers of Hiram worked in tanning with their father. At West Point, he discovered something interesting. The congressman who had appointed him to the academy didn't quite get his name right. He had accidentally signed him up as Ulysses Simon Grant, mistaking his middle name for his first and his mother's maiden name for his middle. This suited him fine, as the initials 'HUG' that came with Hiram Ulysses Grant didn't portray the image he liked. Grant took the name as his own, and the congressman unknowingly sealed the nickname of Grant years later ('Unconditional Surrender' was based on his first and middle initials, US).
In June, 1843, he graduated from West Point in roughly the middle of the class. The next month he received a command as brevet Second Lieutenant and was sent to the Fourth US Infantry in St Louis, Missouri. He didn't want a military career, but rather to earn some experience and get a teaching job at a respectable college or university.
In Missouri, he met Julia Dent, who he would soon marry. She was the sister of one of the people Grant graduated from West Point with. However, his time in the army slowed down his life with the future Mrs Grant.
In 1845, he was promoted to full second lieutenant and the Mexican-American War broke out over the southern border of Texas the next year. Grant disliked this war secretly, but was loyal to his country's cause. He fought his first battle during this war (the battle of Palo Alto), as many Civil War officers did. He wrote:
You want to know what my feelings were on the field of battle! I do not know that I felt any peculiar sensation. War seems much less terrible to persons engaged in it than to those who read of the battles... During that night I believe all slept as soundly on the ground at Palo Alto as if they had been in a palace. For my own part I don't think I even dreamed of battles.
Grant was made quartermaster of his regiment, meaning that he had to remain at the end of his group of soldiers. However, he charged into the front lines, displaying his bravery and a lack of respect for orders. He was made a staff officer after this. He liked the image of Zachary Taylor - not pretentious, like the men in the ranks.
On 23 September, he rode through enemy lines to deliver a message, standing on one side of his horse. His regiment was transferred to General Winfield Scott's army, where he met many of the people who would be generals in the Civil War. After the war ended, Grant was transferred around, and in two of his posts, in Michigan and New York, he spent time with his wife. They had married on 22 August, 1848. He was then transferred to the Oregon Country, and he was extremely bored. He missed his wife, didn't get paid very well and his superior officers didn't treat him well.
This is the time it is thought that Grant became especially fond of alcohol. He resigned from the army on 11 April, 1854, after he and his frustrating commanding officer fought. He returned to Missouri with his family, and tried to farm. He worked hard, but it just wasn't worth it. He moved again to St Louis, to set up a business of real estate, but it failed. In 1860, he rejoined his father in business, and worked in his leather shop. Indeed, when the south seceded over the election of Abraham Lincoln and began the Civil War, the future commander of Union forces was working in his father's leather shop.
The Civil War
Though Grant wasn't interested in politics, he shifted his beliefs from those of the Democrats to those of Lincoln. He believed in the preservation of the Union, and organised the first group of volunteers to leave his hometown. The governor of Illinois asked him to help organise volunteer groups. This wasn't exciting enough for Grant, though, and he asked the US government for the command of a regiment. He received his wish, and the command of the 21st Illinois Regiment. He organised and trained the men quickly. He led them to success in battles in Missouri.
Early in the war, on 1 August, 1861, President Lincoln recognised Grant's talent and made him a Brigadier-General of volunteers. His headquarters were in Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi River. Still gaining experience, he made a few mistakes, but acted with intelligence and competence.
In 1862, Grant convinced Henry Halleck, who was his superior officer, that it would be prudent to take Forts Henry and Donelson, which guarded the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. His 17,000 men and a flotilla of gunboats captured the forts without a fight, demanding an 'Unconditional Surrender'. This brought great attention upon Grant, and it was said US Grant stood for 'Unconditional Surrender' rather than, as he said, Ulysses 'nothing'. Lincoln promoted him to Major General of Volunteers.
Shiloh was the severest battle fought at the West during the war, and but few in the East equalled it for hard, determined fighting. I saw an open field, in our possession on the second day, over which the Confederates had made repeated charges the day before, so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping on dead bodies, without a foot touching the ground.
Grant moved to take the vital railroad junction in the city of Corinth, Mississippi. Grant rested his troops near Shiloh church, and they were resting. There weren't any fortifications and the Union men weren't prepared for an attack. Grant was waiting for a group of men from Ohio to join his army, but a Confederate army under Albert Johnston struck the unprepared Union men. The Union men defended a thick forest nicknamed 'The Hornet's Nest' until the Union forces were organised. However, they were pushed back to Pittsburg Landing.
When the Ohioans reinforced Grant, the Union men were able to push the Confederates back. Halleck, jealous of Grant's national glory for the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson, took control of the army and moved to take Corinth. However, the slow speed and avoidance of the army was completely counter to Grant's military philosophy. He almost resigned, but William Sherman, who he got along with well, convinced him to stay in the army.
On 2 November, Grant began a long campaign to take Vicksburg, Mississippi. A series of battles were won by Grant to get into the strategically important city of Vicksburg, including Raymond, Port Gibson and Champion Hill. Grant went towards Vicksburg, and after a series of assaults, decided the best way to take the city was to lay siege to it. After a long wait, Grant and the Union men took the city on 4 July, 1863.
Following his victories, he went to Washington, where Lincoln thanked him and he received a medal from Congress. It was clear that, after the poor performances of Generals Meade, Hooker, McClellans and Burnside, among others, Grant was one of the most competent. He didn't look like a hero; his uniform wasn't always clean, he had rough facial hair and he wasn't well-mannered. Still, you can't argue with results.
Grant was promoted to Lieutenant General in charge of all Union armies. He created a strategy in which he moved all the Union forces simultaneously to score decisive victories and lower Southern morale and power until they surrendered. Grant led the Army of the Potomac to face Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, attempting to capture Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. They fought battles at The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Cold Harbor and Petersburg. At Cold Harbor, Grant basically sent his men to slaughter at the nearly impenetrable Confederate defences2. He always regretted this attack.
At the town of Petersburg, the Union men laid another siege under Grant. At one point during the siege, Grant ordered a group of miners to tunnel the Confederate defences and literally blow a hole in them. This was known as the 'Battle of the Crater'. Eventually, with the Army of Northern Virginia running low on supplies and men, Lee withdrew from Petersburg and into Appomattox County.
Grant invaded Petersburg and Richmond, much to the delight of Union men. Victory was within Grant's grasp, and most of his army went to oppose the army of Northern Virginia. However, Robert E Lee was tired of war, and decided to surrender his army. And so he did at Appomattox Court House.
I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.
There, both the Army of the Potomac and Northern Virginia stood without firing on each other, in mutual respect. Both sides had fought hard against each other, killed friends, wounded brothers and charged with bayonets at total strangers. Yet, each side had a silent respect, and the officers negotiating the surrender held only the highest esteem for each other. Grant gave (or you could say, granted) Lee generous terms, which Lincoln authorised.
Grant let Lee formally surrender to Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a hero of Gettysburg from the 20th Maine Regiment. Chamberlain had the Union men salute as they dropped their arms. This basically ended the Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, and again in 1864. However, with his death3 in early 1865, Vice President Andrew Johnson became President. The war was over, but reconstruction and bringing the Union together was a huge issue.
Grant had a few duties as a general after the war, such as selling surplus supplies and keeping peace with Indians. Johnson had Grant go on a tour of the South to find the mood of the people there. Grant believed they were willing to accept peace, but the South was upset with the loss and there was a lot of violence. He felt Johnson wasn't handling the violence well.
A group called the Radical Republicans held control of Congress at the time. They led the fight for punishing the South and letting it back into the Union slowly. They passed an act for the purpose of making Johnson violate the law so they could throw him out of office, which made it necessary for the Senate to confirm it, before the President removed a cabinet-level official. They knew that Johnson was ready to get rid of Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, and he dismissed him. Johnson said that Grant was the new Secretary of War. However, Stanton actually locked himself in his office and refused to let Grant take office. Grant was the interim Secretary of War until the Senate didn't allow for the removal of Stanton, when he resigned.
Johnson was nearly removed from office for this, but narrowly escaped being thrown out. The Radical Republicans knew that without the South voting, whoever the Republicans nominated would win the election. Ulysses S Grant was a natural choice, for his record in the war.
Grant was nominated, and easily defeated the Democratic candidate. His slogan was 'Let us have peace'. He was inaugurated on 4 March, 1869. However, he wasn't a politician, and didn't exactly know how to work the office. His cabinet was filled with political and social friends.
In fact, Grant didn't want to do much. He wanted to let his party, his Congress and his country be and occasionally respond to things if they did not please him. Grant passed laws the Congress gave him, and, let it be.
He signed a law saying that America would redeem bills with coins to bring economic confidence up. He also signed a bill giving pretty generous terms of amnesty to ex-Confederates.
Grant was re-elected in 1872, with a huge margin in the Electoral College. The campaign and his time in office had been marred with accusations of scandal and insults. In his inaugural address, he said:
I acknowledge before this assemblage, representing, as it does, every section of our country, the obligation I am under to my countrymen for the great honour they have conferred on me by returning me to the highest office within their gift, and the further obligation resting on me to render to them the best services within my power. This I promise, looking forward with the greatest anxiety to the day when I shall be released from responsibilities that at times are almost overwhelming, and from which I have scarcely had a respite since the eventful firing upon Fort Sumter, in April, 1861, to the present day...I have been the subject of abuse and slander scarcely ever equalled in political history, which to-day I feel that I can afford to disregard in view of your verdict, which I gratefully accept as my vindication.
In 1873, there was a large-scale financial panic, and unemployment rose significantly. Grant attempted to curtail inflation by limiting the amount of currency.
A newspaper in St Louis wrote about a group of corrupt politicians and officials called the Whiskey Ring, many appointed and supported by Grant. Though Grant had no part in the scandal, he was not looked upon favourably for it.
Grant considered running for a third term, leading some to think he was a tyrant. Since George Washington, no President had served more than two terms, and it would have been against tradition to have more than two terms4. Grant agreed to not run for office the next year.
Rutherford B Hayes was elected President following Grant, and he retired to private life. He travelled around the world, and was honoured in many countries. Beginning in 1883, when he slipped on ice and developed pleurisy, he became more and more ill. He dictated his memoirs, but cancer was growing in his throat, which made it difficult to speak. The first part of his memoirs were published, and the second part was written in his hand.
He died in a cottage in New York on 23 July, 1885. His tomb was placed in Riverside Park in New York City. His memoirs were published after his death, and his wife made about a half-million dollars. She was buried next to him.
- The Beginning of the American Civil War
- The Events of the War - Charleston Harbor to Chancellorsville
- The Events of the War - Vicksburg to Mobile Bay
- The End of the War
- Life of Abraham Lincoln
- Death of Abraham Lincoln
- Legacy of Abraham Lincoln
- Jefferson Davis
- Robert E Lee
- Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson