Ulysses S. Grant (April 27, 1822–July 23, 1885)

Updated: June 30, 2014

Ohioan Ulysses S. Grant was an American military and political leader during the nineteenth century. Rising from humble beginnings, a lackluster military career, and an undistinguished civilian life prior to the American Civil War, Grant emerged to become General of the Army, eighteenth President of the United States, and, perhaps, the most famous person in the world during his time.

Pre-Civil War

Ulysses Simpson Grant was born Hiram Ulysses Grant on April 27, 1822, in Point Pleasant, Ohio. In 1823, his family moved to Georgetown, Ohio. Grant attended public school in Georgetown, as well as the school of Richeson and Rand at Maysville, Kentucky (1836-1838), and the Presbyterian Academy at Ripley, Ohio (1838-1839). As a youth, he also worked at his father's tannery, although he disliked this job greatly.

In 1838, New York Congressman Thomas L. Harvey's nominated Grant for an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Grant did not want to attend this institution, but his father insisted. When Grant arrived at West Point in 1839, he discovered that Harvey had mistakenly listed his name on the application as Ulysses Simpson Grant. Grant adopted the name Ulysses S. Grant, and insisted throughout his life that the initial "S" stood for nothing. While at West Point, he acquired the nickname U.S. Grant.

Grant graduated from West Point on June 23, 1843. He ranked twenty-first in a class of thirty-nine cadets. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant on July 1, 1843, and officials ordered him to report to the Fourth U.S. Infantry at Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis, Missouri on September 30. While stationed at Jefferson Barracks, Grant often visited the home of his West Point roommate, Frederick Dent, near St. Louis. There he met and fell in love with Dent's sister, Julia. The couple became secretly engaged in 1844, but they were not married until August 22, 1848, after Grant returned from the Mexican-American War.

In June 1844, Grant and the Fourth Infantry were sent to Natchitoches, Louisiana. In September 1845 they sailed from New Orleans, bound for Corpus Christi, Texas, where a border dispute was brewing between the United States and Mexico. On March 11, 1846, forces serving under General Zachary Taylor, invaded the disputed territory between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande, prompting Mexico to declare war on April 23. Grant served as a quartermaster throughout the Mexican-American War, experiencing some combat at Palo Alto, Monterey, Molino del Rey, San Cosme Garita. 

When the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, Grant returned to St. Louis, married Julia, and was ordered to Detroit, Michigan on November 17. Grant spent the next four years with Julia in Michigan and other more easterly posts, but in 1852, he was ordered west. He arrived at Fort Vancouver, Washington on September 20, 1852. Grant was unhappy about being separated from his family. With no prospect of reunion in sight, fellow officers reported that Grant turned to alcohol to console himself. On September 30, 1853, Grant received notice that he had been promoted to captain, and he was ordered to report to Fort Humboldt, California. After another lonely winter, Grant received his official commission as captain on April 11, 1854, and he wrote a letter of resignation from the army on the same day. Ironically, the letter resignation was accepted by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederate States of America.

In 1854, Grant returned to St. Louis and was reunited with his family. As a civilian, he first tried his hand as a farmer on Dent family land. Appropriately, Grant named his farm "Hardscrabble;" despite working hard, the farm did not provide much of a living. From 1858 to 1859, Grant went into the real estate business with his wife's cousin. During that period, Grant freed his one slave, William Jones, who came to him from the Dent family. When the real estate venture failed, Grant moved to Galena, Illinois in May 1860. Here, Grant became a clerk in his father's leather store.

Civil War Career

After the Battle of Fort Sumter (April 12-13, 1861), Grant volunteered for military duty. In June, he visited General George McClellan's headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, but McClellan refused to see him. On June 15, he returned to Galena and accepted an appointment as a colonel in the Illinois militia. On July 31, at the urging of several Illinois congressmen, President Lincoln submitted a request to Congress to commission Grant as a as a brigadier-general in the volunteer army, retroactive to May 17, 1861. Congress approved Lincoln's request, and Grant was officially commissioned on August 9. On September 1, Western Department Commander Major General John C. Frémont selected Grant to command the District of Southeast Missouri, and Grant established his headquarters at Cairo, Illinois. His command was soon reconfigured and renamed the District of Cairo.

Grant's first Civil War action took place in Missouri at the inconclusive Battle of Belmont (November 7, 1861). Grant intended to attack a Confederate force commanded by Brigadier General Gideon J. Pillow, which had invaded Kentucky. As he approached the Rebel force from Cairo, Grant learned that Pillow had crossed the Mississippi River to Belmont, Missouri. Grant attacked there instead and initially drove the Confederates back. The Rebels were reinforced and rallied against Grant's undisciplined soldiers. The battle ended when the Federals withdrew, with neither side proving much.

Capture of Fort Donelson and Fort Henry

By late 1861, President Abraham Lincoln was pressuring Union commanders in the west to invade the South. On January 30, 1862, Grant's commanding officer, Major General Henry Halleck, reluctantly approved Grant's request to attack Fort Henry on the eastern bank of the Tennessee River just south of the Tennessee-Kentucky border. Grant left Cairo, Illinois on February 2, with 15,000 soldiers, plus a flotilla of seven gunboats commanded by United States Navy Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote. On February 4 and 5, Grant landed his force in two locations near Fort Henry and prepared for battle. Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman realized that he had little chance of defending Fort Henry against Grant's sizable force. On February 5, Tilghman sent the majority of the occupants of Fort Henry to Fort Donelson, twelve miles to the east, leaving behind only a handful of artillerymen to defend the fort. By February 6, Foote's flotilla maneuvered into position and began bombarding the fort. Seventy-five minutes later, Tilghman surrendered.

Following the surrender of Fort Henry, Grant turned his attention toward investing Fort Donelson. Fort Donelson was built on a hill on the west bank of the Cumberland River just south of the Tennessee-Kentucky border. Grant marched his army toward the Cumberland River on February 12 and 13. After traversing the twelve-mile span between the two forts, Grant positioned his troops in a semi-circle around the western side of Fort Donelson. On February 14, Foote's flotilla traveled up the Cumberland River and attempted to reduce the fort with naval gunfire from the eastern side. The bombardment proved to be ineffective, however, because the Confederates held the higher position. Eventually, Rebel fire forced Foote's gunboats to withdraw, setting the stage for a land engagement.

On the morning of February 15, Confederate troops surged out of the fort, attacking the Union right flank. The Federals were driven back, but they were not routed. Grant ordered a counterattack on the left, forcing the Rebels back into a defensive position. By nightfall, the Federals had reclaimed much of the ground that they had lost in the morning. During the night, the Confederate commanders determined that their situation was now hopeless. The Federals awoke the next morning surprised to see white flags of truce flying over Fort Donelson. The fort's commander, Simon B. Buckner, requested an armistice and asked Grant for his terms of surrender. Grant replied that, "No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted." Buckner had reason to believe that Grant would be more generous because of their personal relationship in the Union Army before the war. Nevertheless, he was forced to capitulate to what he termed Grant's "ungenerous and unchivalrous terms." In the aftermath of the battle, "Unconditional Surrender" Grant became an instant celebrity, and he was promoted to major general of volunteers.

Battle of Shiloh

The fall of Forts Henry and Donelson were serious blows to the Confederacy. It forced General A.S. Johnston, the commander of Rebel forces in the West, to abandon Kentucky and consolidate his position deeper in Tennessee. The fall of the two forts also provided the Federals with two major waterways in the West from which to launch an invasion of the South. Consequently, Halleck ordered Grant to march his army south to Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, near the Tennessee-Mississippi border, to await the arrival of General Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio. Halleck's intention was to consolidate the two armies and then move south to cut the Memphis & Charleston Railroad line at Corinth, Mississippi.

By early April, Grant's army of nearly 50,000 men was encamped along the western side of the Tennessee River near Pittsburg Landing. Not believing that Johnston's army was within striking distance, Grant used the time awaiting Buell's arrival to drill his troops rather than construct defensive fortifications. Johnston, however, was done retreating. Rather than waiting to confront the combined Union armies at Corinth, he launched a surprise attack on Grant's unprepared soldiers on the morning of April 6, 1862. In the ensuing confusion, many of the Federal troops fled in panic. Others were able to form lines of battle and mount some resistance, but the Union lines were gradually driven back to a defensive position behind Shiloh church. As the Rebels pressed their advance, Union soldiers made a stand at a position, since popularized as the "Hornet's Nest," near a road now known as the "Sunken Road." Although many of the men were eventually killed or captured, their seven-hour stand bought valuable time for Grant to reorganize his men and establish a final defensive line. During the stand, General Johnston was mortally wounded, and General P.G.T. Beauregard assumed command of the Confederate forces.

When the Battle of Shiloh began, Grant was about ten miles downriver at Savannah, Tennessee, nursing a swollen ankle, which had him on crutches, from a horse-fall the day before. Upon hearing the sounds of the battle, Grant rushed to the scene, arriving about 8:30 a.m., and began re-establishing order amongst his troops. As the first day of the battle concluded, the Confederate advance had spent itself, and Grant had set up a defensive line near the river. Johnston's replacement, General P.G.T. Beauregard, attempted a final assault during the early evening, which the Federals repulsed. At that point, Beauregard called off the attack. That night, a confident Beauregard sent a telegram to Confederate President Jefferson Davis proclaiming "A complete victory." Beauregard went to bed that night expecting to drive Grant's army across the Tennessee River the next day. Grant, however, had established a strong position and reinforcements from Buell's army were arriving on the scene. Although the size of the armies was about equal on the first day of the battle, Beauregard was now outnumbered.

On the morning of April 7, 1862, to Beauregard's surprise, Grant and Buell launched a counterattack. Outnumbered and running low on ammunition, the Rebels began to fall back. Despite several attempts to counterattack, the Confederates gradually lost the ground that they had captured the previous day. Eventually, Beauregard knew he had lost and began an orderly retreat back to Corinth. To Buell's dismay, Grant chose not to pursue the retreating Rebels. With the exception of short cavalry encounter at a place called Fallen Timbers on April 8, the Battle of Shiloh had ended.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Shiloh, inflammatory articles in the Northern press severely criticized Grant for being surprised by Johnston's attack. Rumors circulated that Grant was drunk as Union soldiers were bayoneted in their tents as they slept. Halleck consolidated his armies and assumed personal command, relegating Grant to his second-in-command. When Halleck was promoted to General-in-Chief of the Union Army and transferred to Washington, D.C. on July 23, 1862, Grant was returned to a command position, in charge of the Army of the Tennessee.

Capture of Vicksburg

With two of the three main rivers connecting the North and South in the Western Theater under Union control, Grant turned his attention to Vicksburg, Mississippi. Known as "The Gibraltar of the Confederacy" because it is situated on a high bluff overlooking a horseshoe-shaped bend on Mississippi River, Vicksburg was key to controlling traffic on the Mississippi River. Grant was determined to capture the river fortress and split the Confederacy in two, denying it supplies from the Far West. 

The bluff upon which the city sits made Vicksburg nearly impossible to assault from the river. To the north, nearly impenetrable swamps and bayous protected the city. To the east, a ring of forts mounting 172 guns shielded the city from an overland assault. The land on the Louisiana side of the river, opposite Vicksburg was rough, etched with poor roads and many streams. After several failed attempts to assault the city, from December 1862 through April 1863, Grant settled on a bold plan to march his army down the west side of the Mississippi, cross the river south of Vicksburg, and attack the fortress from the south and the east. In late March, Federal engineers undertook the arduous task of building roads and bridges through swamps in Louisiana, so that Grant could march his army south. By late April, Grant's army crossed the river south of Vicksburg, back into Mississippi. On May 14, 1863, Grant captured the Mississippi capital at Jackson and gained control of the railroad into Vicksburg, denying the Confederate defenders in the river fortress supplies or reinforcements. The Federals then converged on Vicksburg and the trapped Rebel army. After two failed attempts to assault Vicksburg on May 19 and 22, Grant decided to besiege the city. The Confederate army along with Vicksburg civilians held out for six weeks, but on July 4, 1863, the Confederate commander, Lieutenant Commander John C. Pemberton surrendered his army and the city. Grant was promoted to major general in the regular army effective the same day.

Although a great Union victory, the Vicksburg Campaign was not without some controversy for Grant. Exasperated by black-market trade between Northern merchants and Rebels, Grant issued his ill-conceived General Order Number 11, on December 17, 1862, expelling all Jews from the Department of the Tennessee. The order created such a protest throughout the North that President Lincoln rescinded it on January 4, 1863. Also, that spring several Union generals engaged in smear campaign, accusing Grant of being a drunkard. When the allegations were brought to President Lincoln's attention, Lincoln purportedly said, "If it [drink] makes fighting men like Grant, then find out what he drinks, and send my other commanders a case!" Nevertheless, Lincoln took the allegations seriously enough to send Charles Anderson Dana to keep a watchful eye on Grant. It was during this time that Grant's friend and advisor, John Aaron Rawlins, reportedly devoted himself to helping Grant maintain his sobriety. 

Battle of Chattanooga

On October 17, 1863, Grant met with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, a fellow Ohioan, and was given command of the Department of the Mississippi, encompassing the Armies of the Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee. Stanton also ordered Grant to move as quickly as possible to relieve Major General William S. Rosecrans's Army of the Cumberland, which was under siege by General Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Tennessee. Grant responded by relieving Rosecrans of his command and replacing him with Major General George Thomas. He also ordered Major General William T. Sherman to transport the Army of the Tennessee to Chattanooga. Grant himself arrived in Chattanooga on October 23, 1863 and took personal command of all forces within the city.

Upon his arrival, Grant set about establishing a new supply line into Chattanooga, known as the "Cracker Line." The Cracker Line cut the distance of the existing supply line into the city in half. On October 30, 1863, the first supplies began arriving in Chattanooga over the new route, and conditions within the city immediately began to improve.

While awaiting Sherman's arrival, Grant began preparing for offensive operations to drive the Rebels away from Chattanooga and relieve the city. Sherman's army began arriving at Chattanooga on November 20, and on November 23, the offensive moved into action. On November 23, about 14,000 Federal soldiers left their defensive works and overran the 600 Confederate defenders of a hill between Chattanooga and Seminary Ridge, known as Orchard Knob. The Union soldiers fortified the hill, and Orchard Knob served as Grant's headquarters for the remainder of the breakout. The next day, about 10,000 Union forces under the command of Major General Joseph Hooker captured Lookout Mountain, a strategic position overlooking Chattanooga. On November 25, a large-scale Federal assault on Missionary Ridge forced Bragg to retreat into northern Georgia. The successful breakout ended the siege and gave the Union uncontested control of Chattanooga, the "Gateway to the Lower South." After lifting the siege at Chattanooga, Grant sent Sherman north to relieve Major General Ambrose Burnside's forces in Knoxville, Tennessee, which were being besieged by General James Longstreet. In the face of Sherman's advancing army, Longstreet withdrew from the Knoxville area on December 3 and 4, giving the Union complete control over Tennessee.

War in the East: the Overland Campaign

On February 29, 1864, President Lincoln signed legislation restoring the rank of lieutenant general in the United States Army. The next day, Lincoln submitted Grant's nomination, and Congress confirmed it on March 2. On March 3, Grant was ordered to Washington to receive his commission. On March 10, Lincoln issued an executive order appointing Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. On March 17, 1864, Grant issued General Orders, Number 12, taking command of the armies. Grant brought with him a reputation for the doggedness that Lincoln was seeking. Unlike previous Union generals, whose leadership was marked by their own timidity, Grant was tenacious. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert. He also devised his Overland Campaign to invade east-central Virginia and destroy Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Grant instructed General George Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, "Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also." Grant realized that with the superior resources he had at his disposal, Lee was destined to lose a war of attrition, as long he was persistently engaged.

On May 4, 1864, Grant launched the Overland Campaign when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers. Although Meade nominally commanded the Army of the Potomac, as General-in-Chief of the Armies, Grant chose to accompany the army in the field so that he could personally supervise overall campaign operations. Throughout the month of May, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia slugged it out in a series of battles including the Wilderness (May 5-7), Spotsylvania Court House (May 8-21), North Anna (May 23-26), Totopotomoy Creek (May 29-30) and Cold Harbor (May 31-June 12, 1864). Although the Rebels inflicted high casualties on the Federals during those battles, Grant continued his strategy of moving south and east to Lee's right and then re-engaging the Confederate forces. Grant's moves forced Lee to reposition his lines continually to defend Richmond.

The Overland Campaign was a strategic success for the North. By pounding at the Army of Northern Virginia, Grant hindered Southern efforts to send reinforcements to halt the scorched earth campaigns of Philip Sheridan in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and William T. Sherman in Georgia. In addition, although the Federals suffered higher casualties (39,000 to 31,500) than the South, the Confederacy was not able to replace their losses as readily as the North. Finally, Grant tied down the Army of Northern Virginia, limiting Lee's options for the remainder of the war. Despite the strategic success of the Overland Campaign however, it was not without its critics. High casualty rates and horrific battle conditions shocked war-weary Northerners. Some began to refer to Grant as a butcher, whose strategy of winning by attrition exacted too high of a toll in human life. The mounting losses provided ammunition for Peace Democrats intent on defeating Lincoln in his reelection bid in 1864. Many critics were quieted by the autumn however, as Grant's strategy facilitated Sheridan's and Sherman's successful campaigns, securing the President's reelection and enhancing prospects for restoring the Union.

Richmond Campaign and Surrender at Appomattox Court House

The battles of the Overland Campaign had forced Lee to leave Petersburg, Virginia, an important supply center near Richmond, unprotected. In early June 1864, Grant changed his strategy. Instead of pursuing the Army of Northern Virginia, Grant decided to attack Petersburg and cut off supplies to Lee's army guarding Richmond. On June 15, 1864 Union forces overran Petersburg's outer defenses. On June 16, the Federals renewed their attack, but the Confederate defenders held and were reinforced by Lee's army on June 18. Unable to break through the Confederate defenses, Grant settled into a siege that lasted over nine months. With his army weakened by desertions, disease, and hunger, Lee was forced to abandon Petersburg and Richmond by late March 1865. On April 3, 1865, both cities surrendered to Federal control. For the next few days, Grant pursued the Army of Northern Virginia until Lee capitulated at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9, 1865, marking the third time an entire Confederate army surrendered to Grant. Grant's terms of surrender were generous. None of Lee's soldiers were to be imprisoned or prosecuted for treason. In addition, Grant allowed Lee's officers to keep their side arms and personal baggage. Soldiers with horses or mules were allowed to take them home to help with the spring planting. Finally, Grant supplied rations for Lee's starving army. Lee's surrender to Grant did not end the American Civil War, but it did doom the Confederacy. As news of the surrender spread, other Southern armies laid down their arms. By May 13, 1865, the fighting stopped and the war was over.

Post-war Life

Following the Civil War, Grant remained in the United States Army. On July 25, 1866, he was appointed General of the Army. He was the first person since George Washington to hold that rank. Grant also became involved in the conflicts between the United States Congress and President Andrew Johnson. Johnson sought a lenient policy towards Southern states that had seceded from the Union, while a majority in Congress wanted a harsher approach. Congress succeeded in repudiating Johnson's plan for Reconstruction, but the president retaliated by firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. By doing so, Johnson did not follow the recently passed Tenure of Office Act. That act stated that the president could not fire any officeholder that had received Senate approval before being hired until the Senate approved a successor. Johnson violated this act by firing Stanton and replacing him with Grant. Grant quickly resigned the office, preferring to remove himself from the dispute.

President Grant

In 1868, the Democratic Party chose Horatio Seymour as its presidential candidate. Seymour, a former governor of New York, supported states' rights and opposed equal rights for African Americans with whites. The Republican Party selected Grant, a defender of equal opportunities for blacks with whites and a supporter of a strong federal government. On Election Day, 53% of American voters selected Grant. He easily won the Electoral College vote, capturing twenty-six of the thirty-four states, to become the 18th President of the United States. Grant sought reelection in 1872, and easily won again, receiving fifty-six percent of the popular vote.

Grant's presidency was troubled with political scandals. Numerous leaders and cabinet members were accused of engaging in corrupt activities. Grant remained above the controversy, but many Americans faulted him for his political appointments and his inability to control his cabinet. In the South, the nation seemed far from healing its war wounds. Violence increased between whites and the African-American population. A growing number of Republicans lost their enthusiasm for Radical Reconstruction policies and encouraged Grant to withdraw federal troops from the South. In 1873, an economic depression further alienated the American people from Grant. Thousands of businesses closed over the next five years, causing rampant unemployment. Due to Grant's declining popularity, the Republican Party nominated Rutherford B. Hayes as president, even though Grant desired to seek a third term. Grant also sought the party's candidacy in 1880, but the Republicans selected James Garfield instead.

Late Life

On May 17, 1877, Grant and his family embarked on a trip around the world that lasted over two and one-half years. During the trip, Grant was wildly received by huge crowds and honored in many countries. When he returned home in December 1879, he took up residence in New York City. At his son's urging, Grant became a silent partner in the brokerage firm of Grant and Ward. In May 1884, he discovered that Ferdinand Ward had swindled him of his life savings and left him $150,000 in debt. Determined to repay his debts and provide for his family, Grant began to write articles about his military life for The Century Magazine during the summer. In November of the same year, doctors informed Grant that he had throat cancer.

Grant's cancer diagnosis presented the general with one last test of the mettle that had served him so well in the Civil War. On February 27, 1885, Grant signed a contract with his friend Mark Twain to publish his memoirs and thereby provide for the support of his family after his death. On March 4, 1885, President Chester A. Arthur signed legislation restoring Grant to the rank of General of the Army, providing Grant's family with a much-needed pension. Throughout the spring, Grant endured overwhelming pain as he dictated his memoirs. Incredibly, by May 23, 1885, the first volume of the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant went to press. By that time Grant was no longer able to speak. In June, Grant moved to the cooler climate of Mount McGregor. Wracked with pain, Grant used pencils to scribble the second volume of his memoirs on paper tablets, to be transcribed by his oldest son, Frederick, and a former staff officer, Adam Badeau. Grant completed the second volume on July 19, 1885. Four days later, Ulysses S. Grant died, surrounded by his family. Grant's Memoirs became an immediate bestseller and insured that Grant's wife, Julia, would be financially secure for the remainder of her life.

Funeral services were held at Mount McGregor on August 4, 1885. Grant's coffin was then displayed at Albany, New York and the City Hall in New York City, before being buried in Riverside Park in New York. On April 27, 1891, ground was broken for the construction of Grant's Tomb. The tomb was dedicated on April 27, 1897, the 75th anniversary of Grant's birthday.

Grant's legacy remains mixed. To be sure, his presidency was tarnished by corruption and his poor judgment of character. Much has been made about Grant's struggles with alcohol, although there is no evidence that alcohol had any detrimental effects on his combat performance. Some have even questioned Grant's military leadership, suggesting that his battlefield successes were more the product of overwhelming manpower and support than of strategic or tactical genius. Such assertions, however, diminish Grant's inspired campaigns at Vicksburg and Chattanooga. They also overlook the fact that Grant succeeded where other Union generals who enjoyed the same advantages failed. Despite his personal aversion to blood and distaste for the results of battle, Grant's doggedness and determination drove him to victories that eluded others, and eventually restored the Union.

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Ulysses S. Grant

Ohioan Ulysses S. Grant was an American military and political leader during the nineteenth century. Rising from humble beginnings, a lackluster military career, and an undistinguished civilian life prior to the American Civil War, Grant emerged to become General of the Army, eighteenth President of the United States, and, perhaps, the most famous person in the world during his time.

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