Without question, Ulysses S. Grant is one of the dominant figures of the Civil War. His role in leading the Union armies in the West and, eventually, commanding all the Union armies as General-in-Chief was a critical factor in the war’s outcome. However, it has been my experience that Grant is, at best, a misunderstood figure in the eyes of the average modern-day American.
Ask anyone who has been through the typical high school or college American history course about Grant and the response may include any or all aspects of the following characterization: An unsophisticated, ignorant drunk, whose lack of integrity led to a disastrous presidency, and a brutal butcher, whose success on the battlefield occurred only because he had overwhelming manpower, which he willingly slaughtered to achieve success. If any of that sounds familiar, welcome to the club. That description pretty much sums up what I learned about Grant in high school and as a college undergraduate history student. And, as I would learn, it is dead wrong.
First, like any of us, Grant was a far more complex man than the sum total of all the labels applied in that characterization. At the same time, however, he was, in many ways, remarkably simple. In his narration of Ken Burn’s PBS documentary, “The Civil War,” David McCollough can be heard describing Grant as “a failure in everything except war and marriage.” That is actually a concise and reasonably fair assessment of Grant and his life. He was unsuccessful as a peacetime garrison soldier, a farmer, a clerk, and a politician and, in each occupation, he failed because it just did not fit him and his temperament. However, as a wartime general and as a husband, he was quite remarkable and, in both cases, he left an enduring legacy.
My impressions of Grant began to alter from the moment I began my graduate studies in Civil War history. From the first course to the last, Grant’s considerable influence on the war was obvious, and I began to see him differently. However, once I read his memoirs, my opinions were forever transformed. If you have never read Grant’s memoirs, please make a note to do so—they are unlike the memoirs of any other major figure from the war and will take you on a most insightful journey. First, most memoirs authored by Civil War commanders contain the flowery prose of the times, which is typically employed to obfuscate their failures, enhance their victories, and, in general, defend their military records. Plus, they also come across as products of convenient memory, and, as a result, their accounts of the war seem, for the most part, more than a little disingenuous. However, in total contrast, Grant’s memoirs provide clear, crisp recollections, marvelous anecdotes, and an almost disarming penchant for honesty. While there are places where he, perhaps, takes less blame than he should for a mistake and, while he also compliments a few rivals in an attempt to mend fences, for the majority of the book, he tells things exactly as he saw them. Further, his writing style is tight, concise, and clear, much like the battlefield orders he wrote, which many military historians consider remarkable for their clarity and directness.
Grant was, undoubtedly, a failure on several occasions in his adult life. His first major failure came while serving as a peacetime officer in a lonely western garrison. He missed his wife and family terribly, and the dull routine of garrison life provided no distractions from the ache and longing that he felt. So, he turned to drink and developed a somewhat undeserved reputation that would always follow him. His other truly noteworthy failure was as President of the United States. This failure, although it has been somewhat exaggerated over time, was caused by scandal and corruption during his administration, which was a direct result of Grant’s inconsistent ability to accurately gauge who was trustworthy, reliable, capable, and even honorable.
This limitation was primarily due to Grant’s tendency to not only quickly form opinions of people, but also to seldom change his mind, no matter how much evidence there was to the contrary. For example, he unfairly pegged General George Thomas as so slow and cautious that he was unreliable as a field commander. In fact, history would prove Thomas was a courageous soldier and tenacious fighter who simply was more deliberate than the always aggressive Grant. A more telling example of the problems in Grant’s judgment of ability, however, is that of General George Meade. In Meade’s case, we can see how Grant often allowed his judgment of others to be affected by his natural empathy towards those who, like him, had been judged harshly by the world. Grant seems to have felt a keen sense of kinship with officers who had received sharp criticism from the press, the Congress, or the public at large. As a result, when he encountered men like Ambrose Burnside, who had been justifiably criticized for the debacle at Fredericksburg, he would go out of his way to treat them with deference and courtesy, even when the results were not militarily expedient.
It was this very empathy and desire to see the good in these sorts of men that would influence his decision to retain George Meade as commander of the Army of the Potomac and keep him there despite all evidence and advice to the contrary. Meade had been vigorously attacked by members of the Lincoln the administration, the press, and Congress because he did not aggressively pursue Lee’s army after Gettysburg. As a result, when Grant first met with Meade after assuming command of all the Union armies, he felt a fairly strong sense of empathy for Meade. Then when Meade generously offered to step down as commander of the Army of the Potomac in favor of someone of Grant’s own choosing, Grant was so moved by this display of honesty, humility, and sincere patriotism, that he immediately decided to retain Meade in his position. Unfortunately, Meade’s plodding nature and irascible disposition made him the worst possible choice to execute Grant’s aggressive campaign against Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. The result would be lost opportunity and, worse, lost lives.
Eventually, when this trait, combined with Grant’s generally trusting nature, was exposed to the often slimy realm of politics, it led to an administration plagued by financial and political turmoil. Simply put, Grant was ill-suited by experience, training, and disposition to live in the world of politics, and his time in the White House forever tarnished his good name and reputation.
This is not to say, however, that Grant was always wrong in his assessment of people. His trust and confidence in Sherman was proven repeatedly, and their close professional relationship was vital to winning the war. He also formed an alliance with Admiral David Porter that led to the development of the sort of joint operations so critical in seizing and controlling the Mississippi River. Further, he correctly realized that General John McClernand was a dangerous man, a meddling politician turned soldier who would sacrifice the success of the whole in order to gain personal power. Interestingly, Grant’s friendship with Sherman and, to an extent, that with Porter resulted form something else Grant learned from failure. Grant would always be unfailingly loyal to those who stood by him when things were toughest. He knew what it was like to be down, to be trodden on, and any one who would support him, help him, and be his ally at the worst of moments would forever be his friend.
The other critical skill Grant gained from failure was to always learn something from every experience. As a result, whether he might succeed or fail, Grant always looked for the lessons he might learn and then he never forgot them. Further, his ability to analyze a situation after the fact, consistently identify the correct lessons to be learned, and then apply the appropriate solutions, was quite extraordinary. For example, during Grant’s first military action of the war, he found himself full of trepidation as he and his small army approached a Confederate outpost in Missouri. However, when they arrived, he discovered that the Confederate forces had fled upon hearing of his approach. Grant later wrote that this proved to be a seminal moment for him, as he realized that his opponent "had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him." He never forgot that small but important lesson and, as a result, he never let fear rule his actions, especially the fear of failure. Further, this knowledge also led him to always gain and hold the initiative—he would never await an opponent’s next move.
The final aspect of this life skill that Grant applied so successfully was to never dwell on a failure, but, rather, to learn from it quickly and move on. Following the disastrous assault at Cold Harbor, any other commander might have been so overwhelmed with grief and regret that they would have hesitated, froze, and been unable to go forward, leading to the potential for an even more serious disaster. But that was not who Grant was. While he deeply regretted the command he had issued for the attack, with a few days, he astutely moved his army across the James River, flanking Lee, and eventually pinning the Army of Northern Virginia inside the fortifications around Petersburg. Once that happened, the end of the war was simply a matter of time.
Now, however, let me turn to Grant the general, the strategist. Here, the picture that emerges is one of a relatively humble man possessed with enormous common sense, resolute tenacity, and a most remarkable gift for the art of the calculated risk. He could quickly analyze a situation and break it down to its most basic elements. In doing so, he always demonstrated a clarity of thought and purpose that amazed those around him. He simply could see things that they could not. As a result, he was, in many ways, a man who might be characterized today as a true “out-of-the-box” thinker.
In May 1863, when he had successfully run the gauntlet of guns defending the Mississippi River at Vicksburg and moved his army to dry ground south of the city, he elected to strike east towards Jackson rather than to move immediately against Vicksburg itself. His plan in doing so was to, first, stop a Confederate army under Joseph Johnson from coming the Vicksburg garrison’s support and, then, draw that same garrison out of its fortifications and into open battle. However, moving east would allow the Vicksburg garrison to threaten Grant’s lines of communication, an unpardonable sin in conventional military thinking, and his generals, including Sherman, told him he was flirting with disaster. So, Grant simply decided that his army would move to the east rapidly, live off the land as they marched, and simply abandon their lines of communication – to his mind, the enemy could not threaten something that did not exist. The result was one of the most brilliant campaigns in the annals of military history. In fact, Grant would eventually craft an overall strategy as General-in-Chief that not only ended the war, it provided what was arguably a revolutionary change in warfare, leading to the total wars of the 20th century. But, that is a subject for another discussion.
The final impressions of Grant I wish to leave are those regarding Grant as a husband. Ulysses Grant met Julia Dent when he was a young lieutenant serving at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis. He quickly fell in love with her and she would truly be the love of his life, as much any person could be. They would marry upon his return from duty in Mexico and he would always be utterly devoted to her and their children. If you read the letters Grant wrote to Julia during the war, they are quite revealing. Many of letters written by other senior officers to their wives during the war exhibit little honest warmth or emotional intimacy, which is likely a reflection of that era. In fact, many of these men signed their full names in their letters home—but not Grant. Grant’s letters were always signed with the short endearment, “Ulys” and were filled with the sort of confidences and humor one would only share with their closest and most intimate friend. Finally, he almost always concluded by saying, “Kisses for you and the children.”
However, the best evidence we have of Grant’s devotion to Julia would come after the war and after his two terms in the White House. Following his presidency, Grant’s financial position was not the best and, while he probably did not worry about it too much, it became a matter of intense concern when he was diagnosed with cancer of the throat. He worried that, following his death, Julia would not have sufficient funds to live on and would be forced into an existence where she had to rely on charity. So, despite the fact that he had repeatedly refused requests from publishers for his memoirs, he decided now to write them in the hopes that they would generate some meager means of subsistence for Julia.
In a race with death, Grant wrote his memoirs with the same focus and energy he had displayed on the battlefield. He often experienced intense pain as the cancer progressed, but would refuse the opiates prescribed for him nonetheless, lest they cloud his mind and inhibit his ability to write. In the end, he would win the race, finishing his manuscript a few weeks before his death on July 23, 1885. On December 10 of that same year, Mark Twain, his publisher and the man with whom Grant had become quite close in his final years, published the first volume of Grant’s memoirs. It would become one of the best selling books of the century. Two months later, Twain presented Julia with a royalty check for $200,000, the largest royalty payment in American publishing history up to that time. In all, she would receive nearly $450,000 from her husband’s book, quite a considerable sum in the late 19th century. As a result of his steadfast and courageous fight, Grant’s beloved Julia would live comfortably the remainder of her life. It was his final and, perhaps, greatest victory.