Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885)


Ulysses S. Grant rose from command of an Illinois regiment to general-in-chief of all Union armies during the American Civil War (1861–1865), and served as the eighteenth president of the United States (1869–1877). Victor at important battles in the western theater, Grant arrived in Virginia in March 1864 as a newly minted lieutenant general and the military leader of all Union forces. He took the field with the Army of the Potomac rather than running the war from a desk in Washington, D.C., and provided de facto direction of that army from May 1864 until April 1865. Grant’s stature as the preeminent Union general catapulted him into the White House for two terms, and his legacy, though still debated, remains that of the soldier who won the war for the Union.

Early Life

Hiram Ulysses Grant was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, on April 27, 1822, into a successful middle-class family. He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he accumulated an average academic record and finished in 1843 ranked twenty-first in a class of thirty-nine. Due to a mistake in his nomination papers, Grant also left the academy with the name by which he would be known for the rest of his life.

Julia Dent Grant

Grant served with distinction in the Mexican War (1846–1848), in contrast to his record during the rest of his antebellum military career. Assigned to isolated posts, he languished, missing his wife and growing family. (In 1848, he married Julia Boggs Dent, the daughter of a Missouri slave owner and a distant relative of Confederate general James Longstreet.) Like most other military officers, Grant sought solace in the bottle, although his ability to handle alcohol proved far below the norm. He resigned his commission in 1854 and repaired to Missouri. For the next seven years Grant pursued a variety of professional endeavors, none of which brought him notable success, though his reputation as an abject failure has been magnified.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Grant was living in Galena, Illinois, where he clerked in his father’s store. The need for trained officers, coupled with the patronage of the local congressman, secured him the colonelcy of the 21st Illinois Infantry, a rough- and-tumble outfit that Grant polished into efficiency. His success at this humble level of command launched an unprecedented rise in military responsibility.

In the Western Theater

Grant received promotion to brigadier general in August 1861 and took command at Cairo, Illinois, at the southern tip of his adopted state. In February 1862, he captured two Confederate strongholds, Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River, opening vast stretches of the Confederacy to Union occupation and giving the North its first significant battlefield victory. (That victory came at the expense of the Confederate commander, former Virginia governor John B. Floyd, who fled before receiving Grant’s famous demand for unconditional surrender.) Two months later, Grant endured a catastrophic surprise attack along the Tennessee River near Shiloh Church, only to redeem his defeat the next day in what was the bloodiest battle in American history up to that point. Grant suffered severe criticism for his lapse at Shiloh, the jealousy of his superior officer, Major General Henry W. Halleck, and renewed whispers about excess drinking. Under pressure to remove Grant, U.S. president Abraham Lincoln demurred, stating, “I can’t spare this man; he fights.”

U.S. Grant Commission

Lincoln’s judgment proved sound, as Grant survived his critics and orchestrated a classic campaign in the spring of 1863 that resulted in the capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the Confederates’ bastion on the Mississippi River. Transferred to Chattanooga, Tennessee, that autumn, Grant reversed Union defeat by lifting the siege of Chattanooga and then driving the Confederate army into retreat at the Battles of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. By then, Grant had become the single-most-successful Union general in the field, and Lincoln and the U.S. Congress rewarded him with a promotion to lieutenant general and supreme command of all the Union armies.

In Virginia

Unlike his predecessor, the man from Galena opted not to remain in the capital and repaired to the Army of the Potomac’s winter encampments near Culpeper, Virginia. That army’s commander, Major General George G. Meade, fully expected to be replaced following questions about his slow pursuit of the Confederate army after the Battle of Gettysburg (1863). His fears were reasonable—Irvin McDowell was replaced after the First Battle of Manassas (1861), George B. McClellan after the Peninsula Campaign (1862), John Pope after the Second Battle of Manassas (1862), McClellan again after Antietam (1862), Ambrose E. Burnside after Fredericksburg (1862), and Joseph Hooker after Chancellorsville (1863)—but Grant kept Meade on. As the spring campaign unfolded, however, Grant quickly reduced Meade’s authority to administrative and tactical control of the army. In all but name, the Army of the Potomac became Grant’s own.

Union Generals Strategize

That is not to say that Grant ignored other theaters of the war. In fact, his unique contribution to the Union war effort became his ability to launch simultaneous offensives in multiple areas in order to keep the pressure on the Confederate armies across the map. His plan to attack Mobile, Alabama, foundered but his successor in the West, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, focused unrelenting attention on the Confederate army defending northern Georgia, resulting eventually in the capture of Atlanta in September 1864.

In Virginia, Grant ordered Meade to concentrate on pursuing and attacking Confederate general Robert E. Lee‘s Army of Northern Virginia, rejecting the traditional focus on capturing the Confederate capital at Richmond. Meade would receive help from two smaller armies. Major General Franz Sigel would move up the Shenandoah Valley, threatening Lee’s strategic left flank with an eye toward severing the rail connections between the Valley and Richmond. Major General Benjamin F. Butler, meanwhile, would lead his new Army of the James up the James River to City Point and Bermuda Hundred, twenty miles below Richmond, to pressure the capital’s back door while Meade pounded on the front. Grant set his campaigns in motion during the first week of May 1864.

The next eleven months would bring an unprecedented brand of warfare to Virginia. Rather than fighting a brief battle and then separating to lick their wounds, the armies commenced a series of engagements that followed one on the other without interruption. Grant dictated this style of warfare and it earned him mixed reviews. Following tactical draws at the Wilderness (May 5–6), Spotsylvania (May 8–21), and North Anna (May 23–26), Grant suffered a lopsided defeat at Cold Harbor (June 3). This series of engagements, known collectively as the Overland Campaign, resulted in more casualties for Grant than Lee had soldiers in his entire army. Critics labeled the Union commander a butcher and pointed out that his military acumen amounted to playing a grim game of human arithmetic, counting on raw attrition to accomplish what superior generalship could not.

Members Grant's Staff at City Point

“The Yankees came up to the butchery splendidly,” wrote a Georgia soldier after the Battle of Cold Harbor, “and our men like shooting them so well, that they say as long as they can get ammunition and something to eat, they will stand in the breastworks and let Grant bring up the whole Yankee nation.”

Grant next targeted the railroad hub of Petersburg, twenty-three miles south of Richmond. After his assaults failed to capture the city between June 15 and June 18, Grant incrementally captured all the supply lines serving the city. His climactic attack on April 2, 1865, broke Lee’s lines and forced the Confederates to evacuate both Richmond and Petersburg that night.

Grant could not prevent the Army of Northern Virginia from escaping but he did thwart Lee from turning south and uniting with another Confederate army in North Carolina. Grant trapped Lee near Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, and accepted the Confederate commander’s surrender that afternoon. Although the war would continue for a few more weeks, Grant’s conquest of Lee marked the practical end of the conflict.

The Postwar Years

Political Cartoon Critiquing Corruption in Grant's Presidency

Grant continued to serve as general-in-chief after Lincoln’s assassination and during the administration of U.S. president Andrew Johnson. Despite Grant’s having held no political office and seeking none, the demands of the nation proved too much to resist during the tumultuous final year of Johnson’s presidency. Grant accepted the Republican nomination for president and easily won election in 1868, carrying all but eight states. His reelection in 1872 provided an even wider margin of victory.

Unfortunately, Grant’s administration did not justify the voters’ confidence. Grant brought the same untutored trust and honesty to the White House as he had to the battlefield, but unscrupulous subordinates betrayed him. Racked by corruption and scandal, his presidency marked a low point in American politics.

Ulysses S. Grant in Egypt

Personally untainted by the excesses of his administration, Grant toured the world as a sort of first citizen of the United States. He was again victimized by schemers, however, and late in his life poor investments reduced him to dire financial straits. Grant struggled to finish his memoirs while battling throat cancer, and aided by the writer Mark Twain, his two-volume work appeared in 1885 to critical acclaim. Shortly after completing his manuscript, Grant died at his cottage in Mount McGregor, New York, and his remains rest in Grant’s Tomb, a spectacular mausoleum on Riverside Drive in New York City.

General Grant Evaluated

Ulysses S. Grant occupies a unique place in Civil War history. Practically devoid of flamboyance and show, persistently accused of domination by demon rum, and his successes diminished by critics of his alleged callous disregard of the lives of his men, Grant has never quite enjoyed the reputation that his battlefield accomplishments seem to warrant. Yet no man in uniform on either side wielded more influence on the outcome of the Civil War.

If Grant lacked the sort of colorful personality that endeared him to his men, his steady determination and quiet confidence earned him their respect and loyalty. “He habitually wears an expression as if he had determined to drive his head through a brick wall, and was about to do it,” wrote one observer. That tenacity explains much of his success.

General Ulysses S. Grant Writing His Memoirs

There is no evidence that Grant’s drinking ever influenced his behavior on a battlefield. There can be no doubt, however, that Grant could not handle his liquor, and despite the best efforts of a staff officer to keep him sober, the general fell off the wagon a time or two during the war. Still, this flaw emerges as irrelevant to Grant’s performance as a military commander.

Two schools of thought still swirl around Grant’s grasp of military operations. His critics—especially those influenced by the Lost Cause interpretations of the war—argue with little persuasiveness that Grant’s victories during the last year of the war owed more to the expanding disparity of resources between North and South than any particular military genius on the part of the Union commander. But to dismiss Grant as a plodding and unimaginative officer ignores the bold and brilliant campaigns of maneuver that brought about victories at Vicksburg and Chattanooga against the determination and skill of his opponents.

Perhaps Grant’s most important military attributes were his dedication to seizing and holding the initiative, his grasp of the political nature of modern war, and his character as a general, described by some as moral courage. “The art of war is simple enough,” wrote Grant. “Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike at him as hard as you can and as often as you can, and keep moving on.” This philosophy guided Grant through all of his campaigns, particularly those in Virginia where, when faced with similar adverse circumstances, all his predecessors had blinked.

Grant's Tomb in New York

Grant fully understood the importance of operating within the context of political realities, a trait he shared with the war’s other great commander, Robert E. Lee. He avoided becoming embroiled in policy matters and manifested no overt political ambitions. This earned him the trust and confidence of Abraham Lincoln and sustained him even when events on the battlefield turned against him.

Finally, Grant believed in himself, and once committed to a course of action, he pursued that tack even in the face of setbacks and naysayers. Sometimes, such as at Cold Harbor, this trait betrayed him, but at Shiloh, Vicksburg, the Wilderness, and beyond, Grant’s determination served him well. Although far from perfect, Ulysses S. Grant’s generalship deserves all of the praise accorded it by posterity and only a portion of the criticism.

April 27, 1822
Hiram Ulysses Grant is born in the Ohio River town of Point Pleasant, Ohio.
Hiram Ulysses Grant is admitted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point under the name Ulysses Simpson Grant, Simpson being his mother's maiden name. He uses this name the rest of his life.
Ulysses S. Grant graduates twenty-first out of thirty-nine in his class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Ulysses S. Grant serves in the Mexican War.
Ulysses S. Grant resigns his military commission and returns to civilian life in Saint Louis, Missouri.
June 17, 1861
Ulysses S. Grant receives a commission as colonel of the 21st Illinois Infantry.
August 9, 1861
Ulysses S. Grant receives a commission as a brigadier general in the Western Department.
November 7, 1861
Ulysses S. Grant commands at his first significant Civil War engagement in Belmont, Missouri.
February 1862
Ulysses S. Grant captures forts Henry and Donelson in western Tennessee and earns national renown as "Unconditional Surrender" Grant.
April 6—7, 1862
Ulysses S. Grant commands at the Battle of Shiloh, where his army is surprised on the first day of battle, only to rally and win the engagement the following day.
July 4, 1863
Confederate lieutenant general John C. Pemberton surrenders Vicksburg, Mississippi, to Ulysses S. Grant. He chooses Independence Day in hopes that Grant will provide him better terms. This is a turning point of the war, splitting the Confederacy in two. It comes a day after the Confederate loss at Gettysburg.
October—November 1863
Ulysses S. Grant is named commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi, lifts the siege of Chattanooga, and wins important victories at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge.
March 10, 1864
Ulysses S. Grant is promoted to lieutenant general and named general-in-chief of all U.S. armies.
May 4—June 12, 1864
Ulysses S. Grant serves as the de facto commander of the Army of the Potomac during the Overland Campaign.
June 15, 1864—April 2, 1865
Ulysses S. Grant presides over the Petersburg Campaign and effects the evacuation of Richmond and Petersburg.
April 9, 1865
Confederate general Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia surrender to Union general Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House.
March 4, 1869—March 4, 1877
Ulysses S. Grant serves two terms as eighteenth president of the United States.
July 23, 1885
Ulysses S. Grant dies of throat cancer at Mount McGregor, New York.
  • Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1968.
  • Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. 2 vols. New York: Charles Webster & Company, 1885–1886.
  • Simon, John Y., ed. The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant. Vols. 10–14. Carbondale, Ill: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982–1985.
  • Simpson, Brooks D. Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861–1868. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
  • Simpson, Brooks D. Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822–1865. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
  • Williams, T. Harry. McClellan, Sherman, and Grant. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1962.
APA Citation:
Greene, A.. Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/grant-ulysses-s-1822-1885.
MLA Citation:
Greene, A.. "Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 12 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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