Grant was the son of a frontier family. He was born Hiram Ulysses Grant in 1822 in a two-room cabin in Point Pleasant in southwestern Ohio, near the Ohio River. His father, Jesse Root Grant, was a tanner. Hannah Simpson Grant, his mother, was a pious, hardworking frontier woman. When Ulysses was one year old, his father moved the family to nearby Georgetown, where the boy grew up and attended school. He later went to nearby Maysville Seminary in Maysville, Kentucky, and the Presbyterian Academy in Ripley, Ohio. He also worked on his father’s farm, remarking in his memoirs: “I did all the work done with horses. When Ulysses was 17, his father secured his admission to the U. S. Military Academy at West Point through U. S. Congressman Thomas L. Hamer of Ohio. Grant entered West Point in May 1839.
He now became Ulysses Simpson Grant through Congressman Hamer’s error in writing the name. His classmates dubbed him “U. S. ,” “Sam,” and “Uncle Sam” Grant. Although he excelled at horsemanship and mathematics, Grant liked drill and discipline no more than most cadets. After a ten-week furlough home, he confided: “The ten weeks were shorter than one week at West Point. Grant graduated in 1843 with a barely average scholarship record, ranking 21st in a class of 39. He had hoped to get a position teaching mathematics at the academy and later a professorship “in some respectable college,” but he was instead assigned to infantry duty on the southwestern frontier. For two years he served in various posts in Missouri and Louisiana. In 1845 he joined the command of General Zachary Taylor in Texas. He fought in the Mexican War (1846-1848), but although twice cited for bravery in combat, he had little heart for the campaign.
Later he told a friend, “I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico. I thought so at the time, when I was a youngster, but I had not moral courage enough to resign. ” Stationed in Missouri in 1848, Grant married Julia Dent, the daughter of a plantation owner and the sister of a West Point classmate. In the next ten years four children were born to Ulysses and Julia Grant: three boys, Frederick, Ulysses, Jr. , and Jesse, and a daughter, Ellen. From 1848 to 1852, Grant served at army posts in Detroit, Michigan, and Sackets Harbor, New York.
In 1852 he was transferred to the Pacific Coast, first to Fort Vancouver in Oregon Territory, then to Fort Humboldt in California. Grant’s Pacific Coast duty made him miserable. Because of the expense and hardship of the trip, his family did not go with him. High living costs in California, a legacy of the 1849 gold rush, left him without enough money to send for them. He tried to supplement his army pay by farming, woodcutting, selling ice imported from Alaska, and dealing in livestock. But all these enterprises were failures.
Grant felt homesick and isolated, and grew morose. “How broken I feel here,” he wrote to his wife in February 1854. He took to drinking heavily and quarreled with his commander, Brevet Colonel Robert C. Buchanan. Two months later he was made to resign. He had reached the rank of captain. Grant then accepted a partnership in a real estate and rent collection firm in St. Louis, but this did not work out either. For a month he held a job in the St. Louis customhouse, but he lost it when the collector died.
Grant had started working in his brothers’ leather shop in Galena, Illinois, when the Confederate States of America, or Confederacy, seceded from the federal Union and the Civil War broke out. Loyal to the Union, Grant applied to serve as an officer when a call for troops went out in Illinois. Grant mustered in a volunteer Galena regiment and took it to the state capital, Springfield. There he took charge of mustering several more regiments and came to the attention of the governor, Richard Yates. In June 1861 Yates appointed Grant colonel of the rebellious 21st Illinois volunteer regiment.
Grant soon taught the unruly men military discipline and led them against pro-Confederate guerrillas in Missouri. Because of his demonstrated leadership ability, Grant was then made brigadier general in command of the volunteers district at Cairo, Illinois. Grant fought his first battle, an indecisive action against the Confederates at Belmont, Missouri, in November 1861. Three months later, aided by Commodore Andrew H. Foote’s gunboats, he captured Fort Donelson, on the Cumberland River, and Fort Henry, on the Tennessee River.
These were the first major Union victories of the war. The Confederate commander, Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner, an old friend of Grant’s, yielded to Grant’s hard conditions of “no terms except unconditional and immediate surrender. ” Buckner’s surrender of 14,000 men made Grant a national figure almost overnight, and he was nicknamed “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. This victory also won him promotion to major general of volunteers. Two months later, at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in April 1862, Grant did not fare so well. Waiting for General Don C.
Buell and the Army of the Ohio to join his own Army of the Tennessee for a major offensive, Grant was caught unaware by a Confederate attack. He had not fortified his position, and his forces suffered severe losses before Buell’s army arrived and helped turn back the attack. Abuse was heaped on Grant throughout the North. Some accused him of having been drunk or grossly negligent at Shiloh. Major General Henry W. Halleck took over command of the Union offensive, and although Grant was second in command, Halleck ignored him. Humiliated, Grant thought of resigning.
President Lincoln was pressed to remove Grant but would not do so. “I can’t spare this man,” declared Lincoln. “He fights. ” In the summer of 1862, Lincoln called Halleck to Washington as general in chief and made Grant commander of all Union forces in western Tennessee and northern Mississippi. Besides leading his own Army of the Tennessee, Grant now had authority over the Army of the Ohio. In the autumn of 1862, Grant began planning the drive on Vicksburg, Mississippi, the Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River, which was to yield one of his greatest military successes.
After several unsuccessful attempts on Vicksburg during the winter, Grant devised a new strategy of attack. In April 1863 he marched his army south along the west side of the river to a point well below the heavily defended city. There, with the aid of the Union river fleet, he crossed the river and began a swift march eastward. On May 12 he captured Jackson, Mississippi, the capital of the state, directly east of Vicksburg. Then he turned west toward Vicksburg. On May 16 and 17 at Champion’s Hill and Big Black River, Grant defeated General John C.
Pemberton, commander of the Confederate forces defending Vicksburg, and drove him to prepared positions within the city. Grant’s assault on the main Confederate works at Vicksburg failed, however, and he resorted to a siege, or isolation of the city from supplies or reinforcements to compel it to surrender. The siege lasted six weeks. On July 4, 1863, bottled up on land and prevented by Union gunboats from escaping across the river, Pemberton surrendered his 30,000 men to Grant. Grant’s capture of Vicksburg and the Union victory at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the same day brought great joy to the North.
Besides giving the Union control of the Mississippi River, the Vicksburg victory removed a Confederate army from the field and freed Grant and his men for operations elsewhere. Grant was made a major general in the regular army. Another objective of the Union was to control western Tennessee. For this they needed to capture and hold the major railroad center of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Chattanooga was occupied in late 1863 by the Army of the Cumberland (formerly the Army of the Ohio) under General William S. Rosecrans, but he was quickly challenged by the Confederate army of General Braxton Bragg.
Bragg faced Rosecrans at the Battle of Chickamauga, about 12 mi south of Chattanooga, on September 19 and 20, 1863, and forced him back. The Army of the Cumberland retreated into the city, where Bragg bottled them up. It was decided that Grant should save the situation, and for this he was given another promotion. In mid-October Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton met Grant in Louisville, Kentucky, with new orders. Grant was to be supreme commander in the West, a post that had been unfilled since General Halleck was called to Washington, D. C. Reporting to him were General George H.
Thomas, replacing Rosecrans as head of the Army of the Cumberland; General William T. Sherman, taking over Grant’s old command, the Army of the Tennessee; and General Joseph Hooker, with 20,000 men sent west from the Army of the Potomac. With 60,000 troops at his command, Grant resumed the offensive and, from November 23 to 25, engaged Bragg in the Battle of Chattanooga. Bragg’s army was dug in on two promontories, Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, overlooking the city. Grant skillfully directed the movement of his three armies, and on November 25, the third day of action, his men took Missionary Ridge.
The Confederate army was forced to retreat. Grant’s victory at Chattanooga cleared Tennessee of Confederate troops and opened the way for an invasion of the lower South. By the end of March 1865, Sheridan had joined Grant in Virginia, and on March 29, with an army of more than 100,000 under his immediate command, Grant began the final campaign against Lee. The end came on April 9, at the village of Appomattox Court House, Virginia. There, at Lee’s request, Grant met with his defeated foe to discuss terms for the surrender. Because Lee was now commander in chief of all the Confederate armies, his surrender effectively ended the war.
Grant’s surrender terms were generous. He allowed Lee’s men to keep their horses and mules, and he shared his army’s rations with the Confederates. In his memoirs, Grant recalled that he felt no exultation on Lee’s surrender. He felt “sad and depressed” and “like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause. ” Although Grant would later serve two terms as president of the United States, it was probably in the command of his country’s army that his career found its true climax. He was a keen judge of military men and knew how to elicit their best efforts.
If he was not a brilliant tactician, he did understand modern mass warfare. He could plan and carry out campaigns involving large armies and complex supporting operations. Personally, Grant commanded the respect of his common soldiers as well as his fellow officers. A member of his staff, the younger Charles Francis Adams, described Grant’s impact on his associates: “He handles those around him so quietly and well, he so evidently has the faculty of disposing of work and managing men, he is cool and quiet, almost stolid and as if stupid, in danger, and in a crisis he is one against whom all around instinctively lean. “