NEW IPO Logo - by Charles Larry Home Search Browse About IPO Staff Links

Ulysses S. Grant
Savior and Blunderer

Dan Kammler
Carbondale Community High School, Carbondale

Ulysses S. Grant can be identified with two major events in American history. The first is his military leadership during the Civil War as a Union general. The second is his eight-year presidency.

Grant's military campaigns are far more significant in terms of positive historical importance than his presidency. Perhaps the most important campaign in which he was involved was Vicksburg. Vicksburg was of tremendous strategic importance; its fall helped drive a wedge between the eastern and western halves of the Confederacy. It also increased Grant's fame and made his name known all over the nation. That fame ushered him into the White House where he would lead one of the most corrupt administrations the nation had ever seen.

On April 27, 1822, in a small house at Point Pleasant, Ohio, Jesse and Hannah Grant's first child was born. They gave the child the name of Hiram Ulysses Grant. One year later, his family moved to Georgetown, Ohio, where he would spend the rest of his childhood. His early education was not very beneficial, due to the fact that he often was busy with farm chores. Grant recalled this particular aspect of his life in his memoirs:

When about eleven years old I was strong enough to hold a plough. From that age until seventeen I did all the work done with horses, such as breaking up the land, furrowing, ploughing corn and potatoes, bringing in the crops when harvested, hauling all the wood, besides tending two or three horses, a cow or two and sawing wood for stoves.

In 1839, when Grant was seventeen, he entered West Point weighing only 117 pounds and measuring five feet, one inch in height. Grant did not like West Point, but he nevertheless excelled in the subjects of mathematics and French. During his last year at West Point he roomed with a man named Fredrick Tracey Dent. After graduating in 1843, he was assigned to the Fourth Infantry Regiment and stationed at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis. While there he spent much time with Fredrick and his sister Julia. In 1844 Grant was engaged to Julia Dent. However, it was not until August 1848 that they married, in the Dent house in White Haven. During much of the interim, Grant was busy serving as a quartermaster of the Fourth Infantry in the Mexican War. Although Grant did not like his years at West Point, they, in combination with his experiences during the Mexican War, helped him rise high in the military ranks. Perhaps what helped him most was his ability to draw "on what he had seen people do and on what he knew of his own weaknesses to understand the men he had to fight with and against," as biographer William McFeely wrote. Those characteristics helped him to rise to the rank of general during the Civil War. Early in 1863, Grant planned his strategy tor the capture of Vicksburg, one of the most crucial campaigns of the Civil War.

Confederate General John C. Pemberton commanded some 30,000 men, and it was his job to defend Vicksburg. Vicksburg and Port Hudson, which was 150 miles farther south, kept the Confederacy together. Historian Bruce Catton wrote that "as long as Vicksburg and Port Hudson held out, the Confederacy ran unbroken from the Chesapeake to the Rio Grande, and the trans-Mississippi region could send men, livestock, grain, and foreign imports to the East." Vicksburg was the more heavily fortified of the two and thus was the real key to controlling the river and splitting the Confederacy.

Grant had made one attempt to capture the fort in the winter of 1862 but failed. He had attempted to

ULYSSES S. GRANT
Grant

28 ILLINOIS HISTORY / FEBRUARY 1993


march an army down the route of the Mississippi Central Railroad south into Confederate territory. The railroad ran parallel to the Mississippi River and extended south from Tennessee about one hundred miles into Mississippi. At the same time Sherman was ordered to go down the Mississippi River. Grant's strategy had been to draw Pemberton away from Vicksburg and engage him, while Sherman attacked Vicksburg to the south. This plan failed, however, when Confederate General Van Dorn sneaked behind Grant and destroyed his supply base at Holly Springs, near the Tennessee-Mississippi state border. Other attempts had been made to build a canal across the loop of the Mississippi, near Vicksburg, thereby bypassing it. Those attempts also failed.

The final campaign for Vicksburg began in late March 1863 at Milliken's Bend, Louisiana. From there Grant marched some 45,000 troops divided into three corps under the control of McClernand, Sherman, and McPherson to Hard Times Landing, Louisiana. There the troops were ferried to Bruinsburg by boats that had run past the fort some time earlier. The first battle of that campaign was fought in April at Port Gibson. It was an easy Union victory. From there Grant had his army break off from its supply lines and live on its remaining rations and the land. On May 12 McPherson's corps, which was some seven miles east of Grant and Sherman, met a Confederate army and defeated it. After catching up, Grant ordered McPherson and Sherman to accompany him to Jackson while leaving McClernand behind at Raymond. At Jackson, Grant was once again victorious over the Confederates and drove General Johnston from the city. He then turned west and headed for Vicksburg, leaving Sherman behind to finish the destruction of the city. As Grant marched west with McPherson, he learned that a large number of Confederate troops were amassing somewhere in front of him. He immediately sent for both Sherman and McClernand to come to his aid. Sherman arrived in time to help Grant deal the Confederate troops a lethal blow on May 16. McClernand arrived at the end of the battle to join in the pursuit of the badly demoralized enemy soldiers. One day later Grant caught up with the fleeing soldiers who had dug themselves in at the Big Black River. Due to the low morale brought on by the previous day's horrible defeat, the Confederate soldiers were easily routed and fled in fear to Vicksburg where they would make their final stand.

The following day, May 18, Grant's army closed ranks around the fort and sealed off all escape by land. Sherman, who held the right of the line, had re-established the army's supply line with the North, thus making a long siege possible. McPherson's troops held the center of the line, McClernand held the left. In hopes of taking Vicksburg quickly and avoiding a long siege, Grant ordered two assaults made on the fort. The first came on May 19 and the second on May 22. Both, however, failed. Now began the long siege. To help quicken the pace, Grant ordered two mines dug under the fortress, one on the east side and the other on the northeast. Both mines, when completed, were loaded with tons of black powder and exploded. The first mine was exploded on June 25 and the second on July 1. These explosions damaged the fortifications and caused the Confederate soldiers to come out and fight. After only a couple of days the Southerners realized the futility of their efforts, and on July 3 Pemberton called for a peace conference with Grant. Grant demanded unconditional surrender, and on July 4 he got it. Port Hudson, to the south, had been under siege since May 28 by General Banks, and on July 7, after learning of the fall of Vicksburg, it, too, surrendered. The South was now cut in half, and the Union was in control of the Mississippi.

The blow that Grant dealt the South by taking Vicksburg was lethal. Indeed, Grant had won a key battle and the nation was grateful for it. Many others around the country celebrated Grant's victory, and he became a Northern hero.

In 1868 the country had just finished with a long fight between Andrew Johnson and Congress and before that had finished with four years of civil war. That situation, wrote a Grant biographer, "called for a popular leader and one of character to carry on the reconstruction of the country, so recently divided, and create conditions conducive to peace not only without arms but without violent emotional discord." Grant believed he was the country's most popular citizen and therefore best qualified to bear the burden. Running on the Republican ticket, he won the majority of the popular votes and received 214 electoral votes, thus winning the election. Little did the country know what it was getting into.

Perhaps an early warning sign of the many problems associated with Grant's presidency was his drinking habits. During the Civil War he had often been told by others to stop, but he had disregarded those warnings. His drinking habits caused him to lose the respect of individuals in the military community. Those same habits probably contributed to his poor selection of individuals to head various offices.

Besides having problems with alcohol, Grant was inept at statecraft. He often used patronage in a rather flippant manner. An excellent example of that was his handling of the opportunity to appoint four judges to the Supreme Court. "He chose them with about the same discernment that went into his selection of consuls and postmasters," wrote biographer McFeely.

Another problem for Grant was his basic political innocence. His popularity with the common man did not prepare him for the White House. His political innocence allowed corrupt people to take advantage of him. A classic example of that was a scandal in his first term involving Grant, Jay Gould, and Jim Fisk. Fisk and Gould planned to buy up the country's supply of gold and hold it until the de-

ILLINOIS HISTORY / FEBRUARY 1993 29


mands of trade made prices skyrocket. In order for their scheme to work the government had to withhold its own gold supplies from the public during the crisis. Gould and Fisk convinced Grant that the release of gold into the U.S. economic system would cause farm prices to drop. Grant assured them he would not let any gold out. When the price of gold soared and the stock exchange panicked on September 24, 1869, Grant realised that he had been tricked and released $4 million in gold into the market. While the release came in time for some, others were devastated. That scandal and Grant's association with Gould and Fisk caused Grant to be viewed among many circles as a corrupt politician, when in reality he was merely naive. Unfortunately for him, there were to be many more scandals, some much worse than that one, throughout his eight years as president.

Grant was indeed one of the nation's most significant figures. As general he helped win the Civil War. His leadership in the key campaign of Vicksburg was the most important of his achievements. That triumph helped to secure the Union victory. It also gave him great fame. Although Grant's administration was notorious for its corruption, Grant himself was remembered for his invaluable military contributions during the Civil War.[Bruce Catton, U. S. Grant and The American Military Tradition; Henry A. M. Coppee, Grant and His Campaigns: Henry C. Deming, The Life of Ulysses S. Grant, General U. S. Army; Ulysses S. Grant III, Ulysses S. Grant: Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant; William B. Hesseltine, Ulysses S. Grant, Politician; Robert R. McCormick, Ulysses S. Grant, The Great Soldier of America; and William S. McFeely, Grant.]

30 ILLINOIS HISTORY / FEBRUARY 1993


|Search| |Back to Periodicals Available| |Table of Contents| |Back to Illinois History A Magazine for Young People 1993|
Illinois Periodicals Online (IPO) is a digital imaging project at the Northern Illinois University Libraries funded by the Illinois State Library