Today is the 126th anniversary of the death of US Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. When most people think of the most popular, well known people of 19th Century United States they immediately think of Abraham Lincoln. While Lincoln was well known then, his greatest fame, and martyrdom, would come during the 20th Century. During the Civil War and postbellum period, Ulysses S. Grant was by far the most well known person. He would best be considered a celebrity in today’s world. However, there was nothing in his childhood and early adult life which could be used to predict his future greatness.
Hiram Ulysses Grant was born on April 27, 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio. His childhood was much like many 19th Century children. His father, Jesse Root Grant, owned a tannery business which was located adjacent to their home. In his autobiographical memoir, Grant recalled being disgusted by the stench of the tannery business.(i) He believed this was the cause of his lifelong abhorrence to the sight of blood. An accomplished horseman, he would ride as often as he could during his formative years. Later in life he would long for a time when he could settle with his wife, Julia Dent, on a farm and raise horses.
Young Grant would receive a general education and would be appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1839. A clerical error in his admission records would list his name as Ulysses Simpson Grant (Simpson being his mother’s maiden name). From that point forward, he would be U.S. Grant – Sam Grant to his friends. He graduated in 1843, 21st in a class of 39 cadets. Second Lieutenant Grant would be sent to St. Louis after his graduation. He was assigned to the 4th United States Infantry which was garrisoned at Jefferson Barracks. While in St. Louis he would meet his wife, Julia Dent, and a long courtship followed. He married Julia on August 22, 1848. Together, they would have four children.
His first experience in war would come during the Mexican War, during which he would receive two brevet promotions for gallantry. After the Mexican War he would be assigned to New York, the Oregon territory and California. When Grant went west, Julia stayed in St. Louis as he feared for her health during the crossing of the isthmus of Panama. Lonely to the extreme, Grant resigned his recently received captain’s commission on July 31, 1854.
Returning to Julia in St. Louis, Grant would build a home on his father-in-law’s property. There, he would try his hand at farming the rough ground west of town. The soil proved too tough for profitable row crops and he would be forced into selling firewood in St. Louis. Over the coming years he would work diligently to provide for his family, but would be forced to move to Galena, Illinois in 1860. While at Galena, Sam Grant would work at his father’s dry goods store and tannery, where he was forced to humble himself by working for his brother.
While not outwardly vocal about his political beliefs, Grant could not have failed to watch the 1860 presidential campaign as it unfolded before him. While he did not vote during the general election, he supported Democrat Stephen Douglas. With Lincoln’s election, he watched from the sidelines as the Secession Crisis erupted. After the bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter, Grant quickly determined that he would offer his services to his country. Unfortunately, due to rumors of heavy drinking, he was unable to secure a commission in the Regular U.S. Army. Eventually he would travel to Springfield, Illinois where he would help organize the Illinois volunteer infantry regiments as the mustered into service. On June 14, 1861 he was appointed colonel of the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry by governor Richard Yates.
The 21st Illinois was known as a raucous unit. Grant quickly brought organization and morale to the unit and spent time drilling the volunteers. Grant would lead the regiment on assignments in Missouri. In July 1861, Grant would be surprised to learn that he had been nominated for brigadier general. It was quickly confirmed by the U.S. Senate and he would receive his commission in August. His first assignment was command of the District of Southeast Missouri, stationed at Cairo, Illinois.
Some men are best suited for business pursuits, others for farming and some for leading men in battle. Grant was best suited for battle. Having failed at farming, bill collection and sales, he would quickly find his calling leading soldiers. U.S. Grant’s first battle as commander, was the Battle of Belmont, November 6, 1861. Here he would lead a successful attack against the Confederates camped across the Mississippi River from their fort at Columbus, Kentucky. With the disorganized Rebels fleeing for safety, Grant’s troops quickly started plundering the enemy’s camp. Confederate reinforcements quickly came ashore, from Kentucky, and organized an attack against the Federals who broke in retreat to their steamer. Grant throughout the disorganized retreat was a calming influence on his men. He ensured that his troops were on the steamer and would be the last soldier to board, sliding his horse down the steep bank and onto the riverboat just as it was pulling away.(ii) While the results of the Battle of Belmont were inconclusive at best, Grant had proven himself under fire.
Over the coming 30 months of the Civil War, Grant would grasp victory from defeat on several occasions. He would be the only army commander in the United States to capture three Confederate armies (Fort Donelson, Vicksburg, Appomattox). As a commander, he would never again lead his men away from the battlefield in defeat – he would only push on – always determined to wear the enemy down and capture them. Capturing points, a tactical goal for most U.S. army commanders of the time, was never his goal. Grant wanted to force surrender and end the war. While he was often called a “butcher” for leading bloody assaults against fortified positions, the numbers do not bear this out. As a percentage of forces engaged, his armies suffered lower casualty rates than Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.(iii)
Grant is most well known for leading his men to victory in the following battles:
- Fort Donelson (August 25-26, 1862)
- Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862)
- Champion Hill (May 16, 1863)
- Vicksburg (May 18 – July 4, 1863)
- Third Battle of Chattanooga (November 23-25, 1863)
- Overland Campaign – the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna, Cold Harbor (May 5 – June 12, 1864)
- Petersburg Campaign (June 9, 1864 – March 25, 1865)
- Appomattox Campaign (March 29 – April 9, 1865)
During his tenure commanding in the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant was promoted from Colonel of U.S. Volunteers to Lieutenant General U.S. Regulars. He would be the first man to reach the rank of lieutenant general since George Washington.
- Colonel, 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry (June 28, 1861)
- Brigadier General, Volunteers (August 7, 1861)
- Major General, Volunteers (February 16, 1862)
- Major General, U.S. Regular Army (July 4, 1863)
- Lieutenant General, U.S. Regular Army (March 2, 1864)
- Full General, U.S. Regular Army (July 25, 1866)
On November 3, 1868, Ulysses S. Grant was elected 18th president of the United States. He would serve two terms as president and would be forever tied to scandals including Black Friday and the Whiskey Ring. Over the past twelve decades, Grant’s legacy has been on the rebound. While he is still often thought of as a “butcher” and a corrupt president, he is in most scholarly circles considered one of the best army commanders in history and even his presidency is being reevaluated.
After his presidency, Grant and Julia would travel the world. He was a remarkable ambassador for the United States. In 1884, he would be diagnosed with terminal throat cancer – an obvious result of smoking cigars for many years. After being financially ruined by the bankruptcy of an investment banking company his son, Ulysses, Jr., was a partner in, Grant determined to use his final days writing his memoirs. He completed them days before succumbing to his cancer. His memoirs were published by Mark Twain and would be a phenomenal success, providing financial security for Julia during her remaining years.
Ulysses S. Grant died at Mount McGregor, New York on July 23, 1885. He is buried at General Grant National Monument in Manhattan, New York, next to Julia. The Grant Tomb is the largest mausoleum of its type in North America.
(i) Grant, Ulysses S., Memoirs and Selected Letters, Published by The Library of America in 1990, Pg. 22.
(ii) Ibid, Pg. 184.
(iii) Bonekemper, Edward H, III, A Victor, Not a Butcher: Ulysses S. Grant’s Overlooked Military Genius, Published by Regnery Publishing, Inc. in 2004, Appendix II, Pg. 323.