Puzzler

U.S. Grant Is U.S. History’s Mystery Man

He lacked ambition, failed at most things he tried, and then Grant found himself and his calling with the coming of the Civil War, where he reinvented modern warfare.

01.08.17 6:00 AM ET

Widely seen as both the father of the modern American way of warfare and its most formidable practitioner, Ulysses S. Grant remains an enigma more than 150 years after the guns of the Civil War fell silent. More than 200 biographies of Grant have been published since his death in 1885, including two major recent scholarly biographies and a flurry of other works since 2000. Virtually every month, a serious book on the Civil War is published, and most of them make at least a modest attempt to take the measure of the most famous man from Point Pleasant, Ohio. 

What made U.S. Grant tick? What explains his remarkable strategic insight into the war that took more American lives than all the conflicts we’ve fought in since the beginning of the 20th century combined? Why did the Great General and Savior of the Union turn out to be such a mediocre president? 

The truth, I think, is that we really do not know, and probably never will.

Grant was the most unprepossessing of men. Our 18th president was small in stature, invariably rumpled in appearance, taciturn, and painfully shy. An indifferent student at West Point, Grant did well in the fighting as a junior officer in the Mexican War. His close contemporaries early in his military career all agree: he lacked ambition. He had no great thirst for glory, on the battlefield or elsewhere, and thought the war with Mexico a tragic mistake.

Billeted to a remote outpost in California in the early 1850s just after marrying the politically well-connected Julia Dent from his native state, he grew lonely, depressed, and began to drink heavily. Quitting the army in 1854, he went on to try his hand as a farmer, a real estate broker, and businessman. He failed at all these undertakings, and several others.

Then came the Civil War, and an early and unexpected commission to command 3,000 men in combat as a brigadier general. What comes through loud and clear in revisiting the best of the latest biographies and histories of the war is that from the outset of the struggle, Grant had an extraordinary capacity to conjure up in his mind’s eye the disposition of opposing forces over an entire theater of operations. He made quick, defensible decisions. And he showed an absolutely indomitable will to pursue his objective through to the finish. Grant shrugged off setbacks that would reduce other very fine generals to tears, despair, or both. He was absolutely unflappable.

To be sure, Grant made his share of mistakes, but so far as anyone could tell, he never dwelled on them. Nor did he make the same mistake twice. As his close confidant and subordinate William Tecumseh Sherman put it, Grant “fixes in his mind what is the true objective, and abandons all minor ones. If his plan gives way he is never disconcerted but properly devises a new one and is sure to win in the end.”

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Grant lacked the Napoleonic fixation with winning Great Battles. He thought more broadly about warfare—about entire campaigns, about ways to favorably alter the balance of forces—moral and political as well as military—in the Union’s favor.

Nor was he an adherent to the Jominian “scientific” principles of strategy most Civil War generals had learned at West Point and attempted to apply in the field. (Antoine-Henri Jomini was a Swiss officer who served in both the French and Russian armies in the early- and mid-19th century, and a much-celebrated strategist.) Grant seemed to understand intuitively that the railway, the telegraph, and the rifled barrel—all of which made their first sustained appearance in the War Between the States—rendered Jomini pretty much irrelevant. “If men make war in strict observance of rules,” said Grant, “they will fail. No rules apply to conditions of war as different as those which exist in Europe and America … War is progress, because all the instruments and elements of war are progressive.”

Grant’s early encounters with the Confederate armies in the western theater clearly left him with the abiding conviction that defeating the South would be an immensely arduous undertaking. The resolve of the population, the caliber of its generalship, and its sheer size, were sure to make it so. He was skeptical of the conventional wisdom that seizing its capital or driving several of its armies from the field in big battles would do the trick. 

In his view, vast, highly mobile armies in both the east and west would have to dismember the Confederacy, bit by bit, destroying its war-making capacity, and battering its armies into submission. Grant seemed to see early on what other Union generals did not: that defeat of the South would require a master strategic design—even though he didn’t work out the details of that design until spring 1864.

Grant’s first great contribution to the dismemberment process came in February 1862, when 15,000 of his troops and a fleet of Union gunboats assailed Forts Donelson and Henry, which guarded the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers respectively, south of the Kentucky-Tennessee border. Henry’s small garrison succumbed to the gunboats almost immediately, and fled to Donelson. At Donelson, Grant managed to besiege 21,000 Confederates, and forced their “unconditional surrender,” earning himself a new nickname. These rebels were the first of three armies that would surrender to forces directly under Grant’s command en masse.

Having lost control of the two rivers, Gen. Albert S. Johnston was forced to withdraw all Confederate forces from Kentucky and from most of Tennessee.

The fortress city of Vicksburg commanded the Mississippi River, a crucial route of supply and communications for the South, and the seam between the eastern and western Confederate states. Grant’s effort to wrest the fortifications from their 40,000 defenders got off to a very rough start when the Union’s main supply base was captured by Southern cavalry before the operation got off the ground. Rejiggering his scheme of maneuver, Grant sent Sherman’s infantry to assault the Vicksburg bluffs in early December 1862. They were repulsed with high casualties. Over the course of the winter, several other Federal initiatives came to grief, thanks in large measure to the strength of the fortifications and the pernicious terrain.

Then in May, Grant executed a plan as brilliant as it was unorthodox. He marched his army well south of the fortress city on the west (Louisiana) side of the river, out of range of the big Confederate cannons. Meanwhile, the Union Navy’s gunboats and a fleet of transports ran past the Vicksburg artillery late at night, incurring minimal casualties. 

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Downriver, the Navy shuttled 33,000 troops back to the east side of the Mississippi. Grant then punched hard into Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s forces near Jackson, Mississippi, as they scurried west to reinforce the Vicksburg garrison, defeating them soundly in several engagements. Then, Grant’s forces pivoted east to rip into Gen. John Pemberton’s Vicksburg defenders, driving them back into their works.

Over the course of 17 days, Grant had marched his army 180 miles, fought five battles, won them all, and inflicted more than 7,000 casualties on the enemy. After a six-week siege, Pemberton surrendered his army of 29,000. The Union now had the entire run of the Mississippi, and the Confederacy was effectively split in two. “The capture of Vicksburg,” writes historian James McPherson, “was the most important strategic victory of the war.”

After Vicksburg, Grant’s generalship again sparkled in the crucial fight for Chattanooga, and in March 1864, a much-relieved Abraham Lincoln promoted Grant to lieutenant general in command of all Union forces. At last, he’d found a general who could fight—and win! The two men worked extraordinarily well together, fashioning a strikingly original kind of strategy of attrition that in the space a single very bloody year brought the South to its knees.

With laser-like focus, the new commander worked out the details of his plan. There were to be five simultaneous strikes against the Confederate armies. Two thrusts in the west would converge on Atlanta. Three armies in the east would fight and maneuver their way toward Richmond, capital of the Confederacy, so ably and bravely defended by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia—the force virtually everyone in the North had come to see as the embodiment of Confederate defiance and indomitability.

Detractors have painted Grant to be little better than an impassive manager/butcher, indifferent to the lives of his troops, whose ultimate victory was assured by superior numbers and resources. This is ahistorical nonsense. 

There was nothing pre-ordained about the defeat of the South. By spring of 1864, the North was bone-weary of war, and Lincoln’s re-election was seriously in doubt. Unless Grant and his armies were able to deliver several big victories to raise morale—and more troops—George B. McClellan would become president of the United States in January 1865, and McClellan, who hated to fight even as a general, would have negotiated a peace settlement. 

The Union’s strategy of attrition placed extraordinary demands on commanders as well as troops, but it was also brilliantly conceived. By attacking on five fronts simultaneously, Grant prevented the South from exploiting its critical advantage of interior lines, i.e., the Confederate leadership couldn’t reinforce faltering defensive lines in one theater without fatally weakening them in another.

Nor were the Confederate armies the only target. Grant envisioned a series of raids to destroy crops in the breadbasket of Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley, and against major supply lines, food stores, and war-production facilities in Georgia and South Carolina. He would thereby deny the Confederate armies the means to carry on the fight even as he pounded away at them in battles around the entire perimeter of the South. And by marching armies through large swaths of undefended Southern territory, Grant would eviscerate civilian morale. And that would suck the wind out of the Confederate armies.

Grant would direct four of the major campaigns of 1864-1865 via the telegraph from his field command post with the Army of the Potomac. It was that army that witnessed the most furious, unrelenting fighting of the entire war against Lee in the Overland Campaign. For 40 days and nights, the Army of the Potomac of 125,000 men hammered away at Lee’s force of 60,000, attempting to force the rebels out of their vast defensive entrenchments around Richmond into a decisive battle. 

Lee refused to sally forward, letting the Union come to him. In three major battles—the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and Cold Harbor, Lee’s troops fended off repeated massive assaults, inflicting unprecedented numbers of bluecoat casualties but taking heavy losses themselves. From May 5 through May 12, Grant’s army suffered 32,000 casualties. All Union armies combined had never taken so many casualties in a single week’s fighting.

During the entire month of May, the Union lost 44,000 men in the Overland Campaign, while Lee lost 25,000—none of whom he could replace. “This was a new kind of relentless, ceaseless warfare,” comments McPherson. For virtually the entire campaign, the two armies were in direct “contact with each other. Some kind of fighting along with a great deal of marching and digging took place almost every day and a good many nights as well.”

This kind of fighting produced widespread exhaustion and nervous breakdowns. Union Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes—the future Supreme Court justice—noted that “Many a man has gone crazy since this campaign began from the terrible pressure on the mind and body.”

After each clash, Grant maneuvered the army to the southeast, around Lee’s eastern flank, forcing the Gentleman General to withdraw farther and farther south. Then, in a brilliantly executed maneuver, Grant’s engineers built the longest pontoon bridge in military history, permitting powerful elements of the federal army to cross the James River and penetrate the rear of the Army of Northern Virginia. There they threatened to capture its vital supply-communications hub at Petersburg.

Had Union general William “Baldy” Smith immediately attacked the defensive works in front of Petersburg upon arrival, it would have been his, and the war in Virginia probably would have been over in a matter of a few weeks, for the works were manned only by a token force of rebel troops. But Smith hesitated, thinking he needed more men to attack, and Lee rushed defenders into Petersburg just in time to hold on to that vital objective.

Nonetheless, the Army of Northern Virginia could maneuver no more. Grant had achieved a significant strategic victory in fixing the Confederate army in place at last. Lee then found his forces under an essentially unbreakable siege. His only hope—the South’s only hope, as Lee himself said—was to avoid any major defeat until November, and pray that Lincoln would be defeated.

It was not to be. In September, Sherman took Atlanta. The people of the North rejoiced; the people of the South despaired. It was the greatest railway hub of the Confederacy. Then, Sherman commenced his “March to the Sea,” laying waste to everything of military value not only in Georgia, but in the Carolinas as well.

Lincoln easily won re-election. In December, George Thomas, whose army had been with Sherman’s in the Atlanta campaign, destroyed the Army of Tennessee at Nashville.

Lee held on grimly in Petersburg until Union forces seized the last of its five rail lines to Richmond in late March. Now Lee had no choice but to attempt a desperate breakout and try to link up with the only remaining Confederate army of any size—Joe Johnston’s in North Carolina. His path was blocked by two full corps of Grant’s infantry at a place called Appomattox. We all know what happened there …

And so it was over at last. As commander of all union armies, Grant had made virtually all the key strategic decisions, issuing each day a torrent of precise, lucid orders, rapid-fire, as he sat at his field desk, smoking an endless chain of cigars. It had been a spectacular piece of generalship all around, executed within a vast area of operations, and with deft exploitation of a handful of new technologies that made “modern war” possible.

Over the course of the conflict, historian Russell Weighley wisely observes, Grant “had developed a highly uncommon ability to rise above the fortunes of a single battle and to master the flow of a series of events, almost to the point of making the outcome of any single battle, victory, draw, or even defeat, serve his eventual purpose equally well.”

Grant’s contribution to the Civil War did not end when he put forward those famously generous surrender terms to General Lee at Appomattox. While many of the leading players in the Great Struggle published self-aggrandizing memoirs about their war experiences, Grant modestly demurred, claiming that he had little new to add to a well-known story line. Besides, he was no writer.

Then tragedy struck, and it struck hard. Grant had invested his life savings with an unscrupulous speculator named Ferdinand Ward. By 1884, Ward was in jail for fraud, and Grant was $150,000 in debt. In October of that year, he learned that he had incurable throat cancer. To pay off the debts and provide for his beloved wife, Julia, and his family, he began to compose his memoirs. Displaying the same indomitable will and focus he had shown on so many earlier battlefields, Grant composed 275,000 words in 10 months, dogged every step of the way by growing pain and exhaustion. As any professional writer can tell you, that’s a hell of a lot of scribbling in ten months.

The manuscript, which is tightly focused on the war years, was completed a few days before he succumbed. It’s no exaggeration to say that The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant is a literary tour de force. Grant was a writer after all. The prose is muscular and vigorous, and the text is peppered with trenchant insights and no small amount of humor. His judgments of former adversaries and comrades in arms alike are fair-minded and astute. The book, published by his friend Mark Twain, earned at least $450,000—the equivalent of about $12 million today.

Few works by famous personages have garnered such wide acclaim. The great literary critic Edmund Wilson, notoriously stingy with praise, called Grant’s book “the most remarkable work of its kind since The Commentaries of Julius Caesar.” John Keegan, the superb British military historian, was even more generous, describing the book as “perhaps the most revelatory autobiography of high command to exist in any language. If there is a single document which explains ‘why the North won the Civil War,’ it is The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant.”

And so it was that a rumpled, shy man from Point Pleasant, Ohio not only did as much as anyone other than Lincoln to save the Union. Twenty years later, in a short race against death, he explained with uncommon intelligence and clarity how that monumental task was accomplished.

Notable Recent Books about U.S. Grant

American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald C. White. Random House, 2016.
The Man Who Saved the Union: U.S. Grant in War and Peace by H.W. Brands. Knopf, 2013.
Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year by Charles Bracelen Flood. DaCapo, 2011.