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Ulysses S. Grant
Civil War General

Eugene Rinaldi
St. Luke School, River Forest

Ulysses S. Grant was born in the Ohio River town of Point Pleasant on April 22, 1822. He was the oldest of Jesse Grant's and Hannah Simpson's six children. Ulysses was christened Hiram Ulysses Grant, but he later changed it to Ulysses Hiram Grant to avoid being teased about his initials, which would have spelled H.U.G.

Grant attended West Point, graduating in 1843. Grant became engaged to the sister of a classmate. Their wedding was delayed due to the threat of the war with Mexico. In 1844 Grant took part in the war. In 1847 he participated in the capture of Mexico City, which won him praise and promotion for his bravery. He was made first lieutenant by the end of the war. Grant's experience would be helpful in his later military career.

In 1852 Grant was stationed at Fort Vancouver. He did not take his family west because his army pay was too little. To Grant, Vancouver was a lonely place. Separated from his family, Grant became depressed and started drinking heavily. Several critics charged him with drinking, but there was no formal evidence. In 1853 Grant won promotion to captain and was transferred to Fort Humboldt in California. Soon after, Grant resigned from the army to live with his family in St. Louis.

For the next six years Grant's life was difficult. Mrs. Grant's father gave her a farm near St. Louis. There Ulysses built a cabin that he called "Hardscrabble." The family lived on the farm from 1855 to 1858. Grant tried and liked farming, but he failed because crop prices were low and his health was poor. In 1859 Grant sold the farm and moved to St. Louis. There a relative gave him a job in a real estate office, but Grant could not collect rents. In 1860 Grant's father gave him a $50-a-month job as a clerk. Ulysses accepted, but showed no ability as a storekeeper.

In 1861, when the Civil War started, Grant was 39 years old. He hated slavery and freed his only slave. As soon as war broke out, Grant knew he had to fight for the Union. After Grant volunteered, he trained a volunteer unit formed in Galena. Then he went to Springfield and worked for the Illinois adjutant general. In 1861 President Lincoln promoted Grant to brigadier general.

Grant gradually revealed the qualities of a great military commander. He took the initiative, fought hard, and made decisions quickly. In September 1861 Grant established his headquarters at Cairo, Illinois. On November 7, 1861, his troops drove the Confederates from Belmont, Missouri, but the enemy rallied and retook positions.

In January 1862 Grant's army approached Fort Henry in Tennessee. Most of the Confederates withdrew. Grant captured the fort easily. Grant, at his own initiative, then lay siege to Fort Donelson in Tennessee. When the general of the fort asked for the terms of surrender, Grant replied: "No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted." After Grant captured the forts, he was promoted to major general.

On April 6, 1862, the Confederates opened the Battle of Shiloh on the Tennessee border near Mississippi by launching a surprise attack on Grant's forces. The Union troops barely held them off until reinforcements came. Never again was Grant surprised in battle.

Persistence brought Grant a great victory at Vicksburg, Mississippi. All through the winter of 1862-63, his troops advanced against the key Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. Grant defeated a Confederate army and then besieged Vicksburg in May 1863. The Confederates surrendered on July 4, 1863.

Early in 1864 Congress promoted Grant to the rank of Lieutenant General. Only George Washington and Winfield Scott had held that rank before him. At the same time, he assumed command of all Union armies. For the first time, the Union had a coordinated plan of assault that involved all military forces of the United States. While General William T. Sherman in the West moved toward Atlanta, Grant joined General George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac and personally directed the assault against Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in May 1864.

Grant's 1864 campaign was the bloodiest and most horrible of the entire Civil War. With more than 90,000 men, he crossed the Rapidan River and engaged Lee in the terrible Battle of the Wilderness; Grant wanted to get between General Lee's army and Richmond and force Lee to attack him in a final fight.

Lee, with only about 70,000 men, was badly outnumbered and attacked Grant in a dense forest called the Wilderness, where Grant's superior numbers would not work so much to his advantage. The battle turned into a blind, confused struggle in which both generals had great difficulty controlling their troops. The forest caught fire, and more than 250 men burned to death during the night, trapped in no-man's-land between the lines.

During the three-day struggle, Grant first nearly broke Lee's line and defeated him, but Lee later


counterattacked and punched in Grant's center line and both flanks. After three days of fighting Grant lost nearly 18,000 men while inflicting about two thirds as many casualties on General Lee.

Everyone thought that General Grant would retreat, as had all other Union generals under similar circumstances, but in one of the bravest and most brilliant decisions of the war, he marched south instead to Spotsylvania Court House, hoping to entrench his army and force Lee to attack him. In the Civil War, the advantage was always with the defender, and by 1864 generals on both sides tried to entrench their armies and fight defensively, forcing the enemy to attack.

But General Lee had a shorter route to Spotsylvania and got his men there just minutes before Grant arrived. General Lee entrenched his army and forced Grant to attack him repeatedly in a battle that lasted for ten days. Everyone agreed that the battle of Spotsylvania Court House was the worst of the Civil War. The worst part of the battle started before dawn on May 12, 1864. Grant attacked Lee's trenches with 60,000 men, and the two armies locked in a bloody fight that lasted until after midnight. The men were in close range all day, firing rifles and cannons at point blank range, beating one another to death with muskets and stabbing men to death with bayonets. It rained almost all day, so the armies fought in slimy, muddy trenches that ran with blood, while the dead stacked up and wounded men were buried alive. Lee pulled out of his trenches to another line further back. Nothing was gained for either army as they kept fighting until May 18. Grant lost about 18,000 men. Lee about 12,000.

Grant then tried again to get between Lee and Richmond, and after much effort they fought the Battle of Cold Harbor in June 1864. In another assault on Lee's trenches Grant suffered his worst defeat, losing thousands of men in less than fifteen minutes.

By the end of June, however, Grant had maneuvered Lee into trenches around Richmond and Petersburg, and the two armies entered into siege warfare that by March 1865 forced Lee into the retreat that ended with his surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.

Many people have failed to give Grant the credit he deserves as a general because of the great losses he suffered in this campaign. But Grant was a brave, resourceful, and brilliant general whom no one had been able to defeat, and who was gambling against desperate odds. Lee always traveled a shorter route and fought defensively on terrain with which he was familiar. But Grant knew all along that he had more resources and men and could wear Lee out by fighting him constantly and brutally. Grant was said to be absolutely fearless in battle, and he never lost his nerve or his self-confidence, especially when things were at their worst.

General Grant
General Ulysses S. Grant

One of the greatest things Grant did for his country was to offer decent and easy surrender terms to General Lee. By doing so, he made it very hard for some of the Northern leaders to take revenge against Southerners after the war. Grant proved throughout the war that he was a fearless soldier, a great general, and a humble man. Historians are now giving him more of the credit he deserves.[From Bruce Catton, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War; Gregory Jaynes, The Killing Ground; and Shelby Foote, Red River to Appomattox.]


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