Profile of American Civil War Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant

"Unconditional Surrender" Grant

Ulysses S. Grant

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Hiram Ulysses Grant was born April 27, 1822, at Point Pleasant, Ohio. The son of Pennsylvania natives Jesse Grant and Hannah Simpson, he was educated locally as a young man. Electing to pursue a military career, Grant sought admission to West Point in 1839. This quest proved successful when Representative Thomas Hamer offered him an appointment. As part of the process, Hamer erred and officially nominated him as "Ulysses S. Grant." Arriving at the academy, Grant elected to retain this new name, but stated that the "S" was an initial only (it is sometimes listed as Simpson in reference to his mother's maiden name). Since his new initials were "U.S.", Grant's classmates nicknamed "Sam" in reference to Uncle Sam.

The Mexican-American War

Though a middling student, Grant proved an exceptional horseman while at West Point. Graduating in 1843, Grant placed 21st in a class of 39. Despite his equestrian skills, he received an assignment to serve as quartermaster of the 4th U.S. Infantry as there were no vacancies in the dragoons. In 1846, Grant was part of Brigadier General Zachary Taylor's Army of Occupation in southern Texas. With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, he saw action at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. Though assigned as a quartermaster, Grant sought out action. After taking part in the Battle of Monterrey, he was transferred to Major General Winfield Scott's army.

Landing in March 1847, Grant was present at the Siege of Veracruz and marched inland with Scott's army. Reaching the outskirts of Mexico City, he was brevetted for gallantry for his performance at the Battle of Molino del Rey on September 8. This was followed by a second brevet for his actions during the Battle of Chapultepec when he hoisted a howitzer to a church bell tower to cover the American advance on the San Cosmé Gate. A student of war, Grant closely watched his superiors during his time in Mexico and learned key lessons that he would apply later.

The Interwar Years

After a brief postwar stint in Mexico, Grant returned to the United States and married Julia Boggs Dent on August 22, 1848. The couple ultimately had four children. Over the next four years, Grant held peacetime posts on the Great Lakes. In 1852, he received orders to depart for the West Coast. With Julia pregnant and lacking funds to support a family on the frontier, Grant was forced to leave his wife in the care of her parents in St. Louis, MO. After enduring a harsh journey via Panama, Grant arrived at San Francisco before traveling north to Fort Vancouver. Deeply missing his family and the second child who he had never seen, Grant became discouraged by his prospects. Taking solace in alcohol, he attempted to find ways to supplement his income so that his family could come west. These proved unsuccessful and he began to contemplate resigning. Promoted to captain in April 1854 with orders to move to Fort Humboldt, CA, he instead elected to resign. His departure most likely was accelerated by rumors of his drinking and possible disciplinary action.

Returning to Missouri, Grant and his family settled on land belonging to her parents. Dubbing his farm "Hardscrabble," it proved financially unsuccessful despite the assistance of an enslaved person provided by Julia's father. After several failed business endeavors, Grant moved his family to Galena, IL in 1860 and became an assistant in his father's tannery, Grant & Perkins. Though his father was a prominent Republican in the area, Grant favored Stephen A. Douglas in the 1860 presidential election but did not vote as he had not lived in Galena long enough to obtain Illinois residency.

Early Days of the Civil War

Through the winter and spring after Abraham Lincoln's election, sectional tensions heightened culminating with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. With the beginning of the Civil War, Grant aided in recruiting a company of volunteers and led it to Springfield, IL. Once there, Governor Richard Yates seized on Grant's military experience and set him to training newly arriving recruits. Proving highly effective in this role, Grant used his connections to Congressman Elihu B. Washburne to secure a promotion to colonel on June 14. Given command of the unruly 21st Illinois Infantry, he reformed the unit and made it an effective fighting force. On July 31, Grant was appointed a brigadier general of volunteers by Lincoln. This promotion led to Major General John C. Frémont giving him command of the District of Southeast Missouri at the end of August.

In November, Grant received orders from Frémont to demonstrate against the Confederate positions at Columbus, KY. Moving down the Mississippi River, he landed 3,114 men on the opposite shore and attacked a Confederate force near Belmont, MO. In the resulting Battle of Belmont, Grant had initial success before Confederate reinforcements pushed him back to his boats. Despite this setback, the engagement greatly boosted Grant's confidence and that of his men.

Forts Henry and Donelson

After several weeks of inaction, a reinforced Grant was ordered to move up the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers against Forts Henry and Donelson by the commander of the Department of Missouri, Major General Henry Halleck. Working with gunboats under Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, Grant began his advance on February 2, 1862. Realizing that Fort Henry was located on a flood plain and open to naval attack, its commander, Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman, withdrew most of his garrison to Fort Donelson before Grant arrived and captured the post on the 6th.

After occupying Fort Henry, Grant immediately moved against Fort Donelson eleven miles to the east. Situated on high, dry ground, Fort Donelson proved near invulnerable to naval bombardment. After direct assaults failed, Grant invested the fort. On the 15th, Confederate forces under Brigadier General John B. Floyd attempted a breakout but were contained before creating an opening. With no options left, Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner asked Grant for surrender terms. Grant's response was simply, "No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted," which earned him the nickname "Unconditional Surrender" Grant.

The Battle of Shiloh

With the fall of Fort Donelson, over 12,000 Confederates were captured, nearly a third of General Albert Sidney Johnston's Confederate forces in the region. As a result, he was forced to order the abandonment of Nashville, as well as a retreat from Columbus, KY. Following the victory, Grant was promoted to major general and began to experience problems with Halleck who had become professionally jealous of his successful subordinate. After surviving attempts to replace him, Grant received orders to push up the Tennessee River. Reaching Pittsburg Landing, he halted to await the arrival of Major General Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio.

Seeking to halt the string of reverses in his theater, Johnston and General P.G.T. Beauregard planned a massive attack on Grant's position. Opening the Battle of Shiloh on April 6, they caught Grant by surprise. Though nearly driven into the river, Grant stabilized his lines and held. That evening, one of his division commanders, Brigadier General William T. Sherman, commented "Tough day today, Grant." Grant apparently responded, "Yes, but we'll whip em tomorrow."

Reinforced by Buell during the night, Grant launched a massive counterattack the next day and drove the Confederates from the field and sent them retreating to Corinth, MS. The bloodiest encounter to date with the Union suffering 13,047 casualties and the Confederates 10,699, the losses at Shiloh stunned the public. Though Grant came under criticism for being unprepared on April 6 and was falsely accused of being drunk, Lincoln refused to remove him stating, "I can't spare this man; he fights."

Corinth and Halleck

After the victory at Shiloh, Halleck elected to take to the field in person and assembled a large force consisting of Grant's Army of the Tennessee, Major General John Pope's Army of the Mississippi, and Buell's Army of the Ohio at Pittsburg Landing. Continuing his issues with Grant, Halleck removed him from army command and made him the overall second-in-command with no troops under his direct control. Incensed, Grant contemplated leaving, but was talked into staying by Sherman who was quickly becoming a close friend. Enduring this arrangement through the Corinth and Iuka campaigns of the summer, Grant returned to independent command that October when he was made commander of the Department of the Tennessee and tasked with taking the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, MS.

Taking Vicksburg

Given free rein by Halleck, now general-in-chief in Washington, Grant designed a two-prong attack, with Sherman advancing down the river with 32,000 men, while he advanced south along Mississippi Central Railroad with 40,000 men. These movements were to be supported by an advance north from New Orleans by Major General Nathaniel Banks. Establishing a supply base at Holly Springs, MS, Grant pressed south to Oxford, hoping to engage Confederate forces under Major General Earl Van Dorn near Grenada. In December 1862, Van Dorn, badly outnumbered, launched a large cavalry raid around Grant's army and destroyed the supply base at Holly Springs, halting the Union advance. Sherman's situation was no better. Moving down the river with relative ease, he arrived just north of Vicksburg on Christmas Eve. After sailing up the Yazoo River, he disembarked his troops and began moving through the swamps and bayous toward the town before being badly defeated at Chickasaw Bayou on the 29th. Lacking support from Grant, Sherman opted to withdrawal. After Sherman's men were drawn off to attack Arkansas Post in early January, Grant moved to the river to command his entire army in person.

Based just north of Vicksburg on the west bank, Grant spent the winter of 1863 seeking a way to bypass Vicksburg with no success. He finally devised a bold plan for capturing the Confederate fortress. Grant proposed to move down the west bank of the Mississippi, then cut loose from his supply lines by crossing the river and attacking the city from the south and east. This risky move was to be supported by gunboats commanded by Rear Admiral David D. Porter, which would run downstream past the Vicksburg batteries prior to Grant crossing the river. On the nights of April 16 and 22, Porter two groups of ships past the town. With a naval force established below the town, Grant began his march south. On April 30, Grant's army crossed the river at Bruinsburg and moved northeast to cut the rail lines to Vicksburg before turning on the town itself.

Turning Point in the West

Conducting a brilliant campaign, Grant swiftly drove back Confederate forces on his front and captured Jackson, MS on May 14. Turning west towards Vicksburg, his troops repeatedly defeated Lieutenant General John Pemberton's forces and drove them back into the city's defense. Arriving at Vicksburg and wishing to avoid a siege, Grant launched assaults against the city on May 19 and 22 taking heavy losses in the process. Settling into a siege, his army was reinforced and tightened the noose on Pemberton's garrison. Waiting out the enemy, Grant forced a starving Pemberton to surrender Vicksburg and his 29,495-man garrison on July 4. The victory gave Union forces control of the entire Mississippi and was the turning point of the war in the West.

Victory at Chattanooga

In the wake of Major General William Rosecrans's defeat at Chickamauga in September 1863, Grant was given command of the Military Division of the Mississippi and control of all Union armies in the West. Moving to Chattanooga, he reopened a supply line to Rosecrans' beleaguered Army of the Cumberland and replaced the defeated general with Major General George H. Thomas. In an effort to turn the tables on General Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee, Grant captured Lookout Mountain on November 24 before directing his combined forces to a stunning victory at the Battle of Chattanooga the next day. In the fighting, Union troops drove the Confederates off Missionary Ridge and sent them reeling south.

Coming East

In March 1864, Lincoln promoted Grant to lieutenant general and gave him command of all Union armies. Grant elected to turn over operational control of the western armies to Sherman and shifted his headquarters east to travel with Major General George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac. Leaving Sherman with orders to press the Confederate Army of Tennessee and take Atlanta, Grant sought to engage General Robert E. Lee in a decisive battle to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia. In Grant's mind, this was the key to ending the war, with the capture of Richmond of secondary importance. These initiatives were to be supported by smaller campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley, southern Alabama, and western Virginia.

The Overland Campaign

In early May 1864, Grant began marching south with 101,000 men. Lee, whose army numbered 60,000, moved to intercept and met Grant in a dense forest known as the Wilderness. While Union attacks initially drove the Confederates back, they were blunted and forced back by the late arrival of Lieutenant General James Longstreet's corps. After three days of fighting, the battle turned into a stalemate with Grant having lost 18,400 men and Lee 11,400. While Grant's army had suffered more casualties, they comprised a lesser proportion of his army than Lee's. As the Grant's goal was to destroy Lee's army, this was an acceptable outcome.

Unlike his predecessors in the East, Grant continued to press south after the bloody fight and the armies quickly met again at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. After two weeks of fighting, another stalemate ensued. As before Union casualties were higher, but Grant understood that each battle cost Lee casualties that the Confederates could not replace. Again pushing south, Grant was unwilling to attack Lee's strong position at North Anna and moved around the Confederate right. Meeting Lee at the Battle of Cold Harbor on May 31, Grant launched a series of bloody attacks against the Confederate fortifications three days later. The defeat would haunt Grant for years and he later wrote, "I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained."

Siege of Petersburg

After pausing for nine days, Grant stole a march on Lee and raced south across the James River to capture Petersburg. A key rail center, the capture of the city would cut off supplies to Lee and Richmond. Initially blocked from the city by troops under Beauregard, Grant assaulted the Confederate lines between June 15 and 18 to no avail. As both armies arrived in full, a long series of trenches and fortifications were constructed that presaged the Western Front of World War I. An attempt to break the deadlock occurred on July 30 when Union troops assaulted after the detonation of a mine, but the attack failed. Settling into a siege, Grant kept pushing his troops further south and east in an effort to cut the railroads into the city and stretch out Lee's smaller army.

As the situation at Petersburg became drawn out, Grant was criticized in the media for failing to achieve a decisive result and for being a "butcher" due to the heavy losses taken during the Overland Campaign. This was intensified when a small Confederate force under Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early threatened Washington, DC on July 12. Early's actions necessitated Grant sending troops back north to deal with the danger. Eventually led by Major General Philip H. Sheridan, the Union forces effectively destroyed Early's command in a series of battles in the Shenandoah Valley later that year.

While the situation at Petersburg remained stagnant, Grant's broader strategy began to bear fruit as Sherman captured Atlanta in September. As the siege continued through the winter and into the spring, Grant continued to receive positive reports as Union troops had success on other fronts. These and a deteriorating situation at Petersburg led Lee to assault Grant's lines on March 25. Though his troops had initial success, they were driven back by Union counterattacks. Seeking to exploit the victory, Grant pushed a large force west to capture the critical crossroads of Five Forks and threaten the Southside Railroad. At the Battle of Five Forks on April 1, Sheridan took the objective. This defeat placed Lee's position at Petersburg, as well as Richmond, in jeopardy. Informing President Jefferson Davis that both would need to be evacuated, Lee came under heavy attack from Grant on April 2. These assauls drove the Confederates from the city and sent them retreating west.


After occupying Petersburg, Grant began chasing Lee across Virginia with Sheridan's men in the lead. Moving west and harried by Union cavalry, Lee hoped to re-supply his army before heading south to link up with forces under General Joseph Johnston in North Carolina. On April 6, Sheridan was able to cut off approximately 8,000 Confederates under Lieutenant General Richard Ewell at Sayler's Creek. After some fighting the Confederates, including eight generals, surrendered. Lee, with fewer than 30,000 hungry men, hoped to reach supply trains that were waiting at Appomattox Station. This plan was dashed when Union cavalry under Major General George A. Custer arrived in the town and burned the trains.

Lee next set his sights on reaching Lynchburg. On the morning of April 9, Lee ordered his men to break through the Union lines that blocked their path. They attacked but were stopped. Now surrounded on three sides, Lee accepted the inevitable stating, "Then there is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths." Later that day, Grant met with Lee at the McLean House in Appomattox Court House to discuss surrender terms. Grant, who had been suffering a bad headache, arrived late, wearing a worn private's uniform with only his shoulder straps denoting his rank. Overcome by the emotion of the meeting, Grant had difficulty getting to the point, but soon laid out generous terms which Lee accepted.

Postwar Actions

With the defeat of the Confederacy, Grant was required to immediately dispatch troops under Sheridan to Texas to serve as a deterrent to the French who had recently installed Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico. To assist the Mexicans, he also told Sheridan to aid the deposed Benito Juarez if possible. To this end, 60,000 rifles were provided to the Mexicans. The following year, Grant was required to close the Canadian border to prevent the Fenian Brotherhood from attacking Canada. In gratitude for his services during the war, Congress promoted Grant to the newly created rank of General of the Army on July 25, 1866.

As general-in-chief, Grant oversaw the U.S. Army role during the early years of Reconstruction in the South. Dividing the South into five military districts, he believed that military occupation was necessary and the Freedman's Bureau was needed. Though he worked closely with President Andrew Johnson, Grant's personal feelings were more in line with the Radical Republicans in Congress. Grant became increasingly popular with this group when he refused to aid Johnson in deposing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

U.S. President

As a result of this relationship, Grant was nominated for president on the 1868 Republican ticket. Facing no significant opposition for the nomination, he easily defeated former New York Governor Horatio Seymour in the general election. At age 46, Grant was the youngest U.S. president to date. Taking office, his two terms were dominated by Reconstruction and mending the wounds of the Civil War. Deeply interested in promoting the rights of formerly enslaved Americans, he secured passage of the 15th Amendment and signed laws promoting voting rights as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1875. During his first term the economy was booming and corruption became rampant. As a result, his administration became plagued by a variety of scandals. Despite these issues, he remained popular with the public and was re-elected in 1872.

Economic growth came to an abrupt halt with the Panic of 1873 which keyed a five-year depression. Responding slowly to the panic, he later vetoed an inflation bill which would have released additional currency into the economy. As his time in office neared an end, his reputation was damaged by the Whiskey Ring scandal. Though Grant was not directly involved, his private secretary was and it became emblematic of Republican corruption. Leaving office in 1877, he spent two years touring the world with his wife. Warmly received at each stop, he aided in mediating a dispute between China and Japan.

Later Life

Returning home, Grant soon faced a severe financial crisis. Having been forced to cede his military pension to serve as president, he was soon swindled in 1884 by Ferdinand Ward, his Wall Street investor. Effectively bankrupted, Grant was forced to repay one of his creditors with his Civil War mementos. Grant's situation soon worsened when he learned he was suffering from throat cancer. An avid cigar smoker since Fort Donelson, Grant had at times consumed 18-20 a day. In an effort to generate revenue, Grant wrote a series of books and articles which were warmly received and aided in improving his reputation. Further support came from Congress which restored his military pension. In an effort to aid Grant, noted author Mark Twain offered him a generous contract for his memoirs. Settling at Mount McGregor, NY, Grant completed the work only days before his death on July 23, 1885. Memoirs proved both a critical and commercial success and provided the family with much-needed security.

After lying in state, Grant's body was transported south to New York City where it was placed in a temporary mausoleum in Riverside Park. His pallbearers included Sherman, Sheridan, Buckner, and Joseph Johnston. On April 17, Grant's body was moved a short distance to the newly constructed Grant's Tomb. He was joined by Julia following her death in 1902.


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Hickman, Kennedy. "Profile of American Civil War Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). Profile of American Civil War Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Profile of American Civil War Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).