Ulysses S. Grant is without doubt one of the most famous and important Generals in US history. He was born on 27th April 1822 at Point Pleasant in Ohio. His parents were poor and his father austere and pious. He was schooled from the age of 6 to 17 but worked hard for his family often outdoors with animals and soon became a skilled horseman. In 1839 he secured a place at West Point. He was christened Hiram Ulysses Grant but he didn’t want the initials HUG on his academy record so he reported his name as Ulysses Hiram but confusion followed as the congressman who had originally handled his application had put his name down incorrectly as Ulysses Simpson. To correct this Grant faced a huge amount of red tape so he just left the mistake as it was. He was described as short and stocky, round shouldered and untidy even in uniform with an inscrutable face and heavy jaw with a light brown beard and clear blue eyes.
Grant had little interest in a long term military career at this point, he was the best rider in class but not academically gifted. When he graduated in 1843 there were no cavalry vacancies so he joined the 4th infantry. After serving in Louisiana he went with his regiment to join the army of Zachary Taylor in Texas which was guarding the Mexican border. When the Mexican war broke out he saw active service under Taylor and served with distinction at Monterey in 1846. After this his regiment served under Winfield Scot and took part in the advance from Vera Cruz to Mexico City, during which time Grant was the regiment’s quartermaster. He saw considerable combat and did well, ending the war a first lieutenant and brevet captain. Following the Mexican war he served in Mississippi and then on the Pacific coast after travelling through a disease ridden Panama in 1852. His pay was insufficient to really support his wife and family and he was unable to bring them out to California despite being promoted to captain in 1853. Stationed in a desolate frontier post Grant took to heavy drinking and when he was warned about this he resigned in July 1854, hardly a promising start to his military career.
For next half decade or so he wandered from town to town trying to establish himself in various types of business and failing each time. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Grant was working in his father's leather store in Galena, Illinois. He was appointed by the Governor to command an unruly volunteer regiment. Grant whipped it into shape and by September 1861 he had risen to the rank of brigadier general of volunteers much to his own surprise. Grant’s first action in the civil war was a confused attack on the Confederate position at Belmont. Grant’s untried troops won but then scattered to loot and were nearly caught by enemy reinforcements.
In November 1861 Grant captured the forts of Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers which were the keys to the Confederate cordon across Kentucky. Grant had 17,000 men and a squadron of ironclad gunboats with which he took Fort Henry on 6th February and then marched overland to Fort Donnelson while two gunboats followed by the river. Despite a strong Confederate counter attack Grant held the siege and the fort fell on 25th February which earned Grant promotion to Major-General of volunteers. During March and April Grant gathered his forces for a push against Corinth but the Confederates took his force by surprise in a dawn attack near Shiloh lead by General A.S Johnston. Bloody fighting ensued but the Union forces managed to hold until reinforcements arrived under General Buell. The next day by shear weight of numbers the Union forces drove the Confederates back towards Corinth. Leadership was poor but great heroism was shown by the troops and the battle left nearly 24,000 killed or injured out of a total of just over 100,000 men engaged. Grant had many critics, but President Lincoln refused to dismiss him saying “I can’t spare this man, he fights”.
Grant spent the next few months at Corinth planning his attack on the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg on the Mississippi. In November Grant moved with the Army of Tennessee towards Vicksburg while General Sherman led an amphibious attack which failed. Confederate attacks on Grant’s supply lines and rail network crippled him and the campaign had to be abandoned.
In April 1863 Grant was ready to try again, he concentrated his forces south of Vicksburg and ferried his 41,000 men across the river under the support of Union gunboats under Rear Admiral S.S.Porter. Grant pushed deep into enemy territory and placed himself between two confederate armies. Turning to crush first one and then the other enemy armies before they could unite against him, Grant then laid siege to Vicksburg. Vicksburg fell on 4th July 1863. This Big Black River Campaign as it became known made Grants reputation and cut the Confederacy in two earning him promotion to regular Major-General. Grant then pressed on to Chattanooga which had been under siege by Confederate forces since the Union defeat at the battle of Chickamauga. Grant quickly established communications and supplies to the besieged forces and then on 24th and 25th November his forces drove off the Confederate forces from their position on Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. This earned Grant promotion to Lieutenant General and then in March 1864 Lincoln appointed him General in Chief and gave him a free hand.
Grant’s plan was brutal and bound to be bloody but as history shows it worked. On 4th May 1864, 253,000 Union soldiers began to move, a steam roller to crush the south once and for all. General Meade was to lead the Army of the Potomac against General Lee’s forces and crush them no matter how far they fled, Grant went with this army. Gen Butler’s army of the James was to move against Lee’s lines of communication and Richmond while Sherman was to drive against Atlanta.
Early May saw bloody fighting between Grant and Lee in the Wilderness but although Lee blocked and out manoeuvred Grant at every turn the Confederates were still falling back. Lee’s final blocking position was at Cold Harbour only ten miles from Richmond. The death toll was high before Grant gave up the idea of carrying the position by assault, it had been a bloody campaign in which Lee out manoeuvred Grant yet strategically it was a success. Grant now played his master stroke, with Lee’s back against the wall; Grant shifted the axis of the attack, pulling back out of contact with Lee to attack Petersburg but Grant’s subordinates failed to take the town before Lee’s reinforcements arrived. Grant was now in a strong position and had forced Lee to extend his line to defend 37 miles with 60,000 exhausted men. Grant drew on the Union’s superior reserves and massed 122,000 men for the attack while probing attacks struck all along the line. The siege of Petersburg lasted from 18th June 1864 till April 1st 1865 a testament to the bravery of the defenders. The Battle of Five Forks opened up Lee’s right flank and the next day he withdrew from Richmond and Petersburg and headed west only to be cut off by Sheridan’s cavalry. The war ended on 9th April.
After the war Grant was commander in chief but the role was ill defined and the rank of full general, not used since 1799, was revived for Grant in 1866. For a while in 1867 Grant was his own secretary for war as political arguments raged.
When he was elected President in 1868, the American people hoped for an end to turmoil. Grant provided neither vigour nor reform. Looking to Congress for direction, he seemed bewildered. One visitor to the White House noted "a puzzled pathos, as of a man with a problem before him of which he does not understand the terms." As President, Grant presided over the Government much as he had run the Army. Indeed he brought part of his Army staff to the White House. Grant allowed Radical Reconstruction to run its course in the South, bolstering it at times with military force. Although a man of scrupulous honesty, Grant as President accepted handsome presents from admirers. Worse, he allowed himself to be seen with two speculators, Jay Gould and James Fisk. When Grant realized their scheme to corner the market in gold, he authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to sell enough gold to wreck their plans, but the speculation had already wrought havoc with business.
After retiring from the Presidency, Grant became a partner in a financial firm, which went bankrupt. About that time he learned that he had cancer of the throat. He started writing his recollections to pay off his debts and provide for his family, racing against death to produce a memoir that ultimately earned nearly $450,000. Soon after completing the last page, on 25th July 1885 Grant died of throat cancer at Mount McGregor.
Grant’s place in American history is guaranteed but as a great General there is more dispute. Tactically he was far from consistent, for which some have unkindly blamed his heavy drinking, but he was certainly a butcher, far more willing than say Lee to accept heavy casualties to achieve an objective, but the same could be said for many Generals throughout history, including Napoleon. It is also worth bearing in mind that Grant was well aware of the disparity between the Union and Confederacy in manpower. Strategically his plan to end the war was skilled and without doubt successful if, typically of Grant, costly. It recognised the need to engage all the Southern armies at once to prevent mutual support and carve up the South piecemeal and as history shows it worked and secured Grant a place among history’s great commanders.