Hiram Ulysses Grant was born on April 27, 1822. His maternal grandfather picked his first name. His own father picked his middle, choosing to name him after the Romanized version of Odysseus.
We, of course, do not know him as Hiram Ulysses Grant. He’s passed in to history as Ulysses S. Grant. It seems a mistake was made when he was signed up for West Point and his name changed overnight. It is fitting, though, that history would remember the seventeen year-old who was all of 5’1” and 117 pounds when he went to West Point with the same name as that wiliest of Greeks. Odysseus was not highly regarded for his prowess on the battlefield, after all, but for his cunning and ability to win through intelligence and trickery.
Our Ulysses, however, was not always so clever as his namesake. There is a story of his attempt to purchase a horse. When he was nine he had enough money for his first colt. He approached the owner, and when asked what his offer was, Grant responded, “Papa says I may offer you $20 for the colt, but if you won’t take that I am to offer you $22.50. And if you won’t take that, to give you $25.” He walked out with a colt and 25 fewer dollars in his pocket. It was not an auspicious beginning to a career as a horse trader. He would prove to be an uninterested student, as well, although mostly because of that strange situation where a bright student underachieves because of an undemanding curriculum. West Point would be more demanding, but Ulysses only went at the insistence of his father, so it’s not difficult to imagine that his disinterest in education would have continued.
For all its reputation as an elite military institution, West Point barely taught the martial arts during the first few decades of its existence. It seems that the United States was mostly interested in creating an educated officer corps. The early United States Army was to be lead by engineers and philosophers, not warriors.
Still, those who were interested studied the campaigns of Napoleon in their spare time. It was nearly four decades since Waterloo, but a cult of Napoleon was growing within the officer corps of the United States. It would have been hard to choose a better idol than Napoleon for strategic purposes. From a tactical perspective an officer corps that had studied Napoleon and faced off against itself was a liability at the outset of the Civil War.
The American Civil War ushered in a new age of fighting. Forces that began the war marching in column and deploying a hundred yards from their opposites in the manner of Napoleonic infantry tactics finished the war by digging trenches and earthworks and turning the Virginia countryside into a preview of the hellish trenches of World War I. Ulysses S. Grant would end up being largely responsible for the shift. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Grant graduated 21st in a class of 39. This does not completely tell the story. At the same time Grant attended West Point he rubbed elbows with Thomas Jefferson Jackson, George B. McClellan, William Tecumseh Sherman, James Longstreet, Don Carlos Buell, Fitz-John Porter, William S. Rosencrans, George Thomas, George Pickett, A.P. Hill, and Winfield Scott Hancock. These were all men who would go on to become generals in the Civil War.
Before the Civil War there was the Mexican-American War. It was a baptism of fire for the young officer corps. When Zachary “Old Rough and Ready” Taylor took a force from the north that included Braxton Bragg, Jefferson Davis (who would not be a general, but the President of the Confederate States of America), and a regimental quartermaster named Ulysses S. Grant, the prevailing sentiment was that the war would be over quickly. As so often happens in war, it wasn’t. Taylor’s move was blunted.
President James K. Polk decided on an end run. Winfield “Old Fuss and Feathers” Scott landed a force at Vera Cruz and drove toward Mexico City. His officer corps included Robert E. Lee, Joe Johnston, Gideon Pillow, PGT Beauregard, and Ulysses S. Grant. In the climactic Battle of Chapultepec Grant and a Sergeant named Robertson carried a mountain howitzer to the top of a church bell tower in order to gain a tactical advantage. This move was copied by a naval officer named Raphael Semmes, who would go on to become the captain of the CSS Alabama, the most famous Confederate blockade runner and probably the third-most famous ship of the Civil War behind the Monitor and the Merrimac/Virginia.
Grant’s bravery and quick thinking did not win him a lasting post in the Army after the Mexican-American War. In the mid-1850s he was cashiered and headed to Illinois to start a farm, which he called Hardscrabble. Part of his problem was that Grant had no military bearing whatsoever. As biographer Geoffrey Perret put it, he “possessed as much military bearing as a sack of potatoes.” That, plus his bad habit of drunkeness, would haunt him through his career.
With the Civil War looming Grant signed up for the volunteer army and ended up in Cairo, Illinois. John C. Fremont, known as The Pathfinder, was one of those great American adventurers. His resume included pretty much single-handedly wrestling California from Mexico during the Mexican-American War and an unsuccessful run at the Presidency, wasn’t much of a general, but he was a good judge of character. He put Grant in charge of the troops in Cairo. He also built a fleet of ironclad river gunboats, as prescient a decision as anyone made in the early days of the Civil War.
The war started in April of 1861 with the shelling of Fort Sumter. The first major engagement came on July 21, with the Union debacle at First Bull Run, the battle where Thomas Jefferson Jackson became Stonewall after General Bernard Bee cried, in an attempt to rally his own troops, “Look at Jackson, standing like a stone wall!” Irvin McDowell, Union commander at Bull Run, was replaced by George B. McClellan, who sat on the north side of the Potomac, built up the Army of the Potomac, and believed his Pinkerton spies when they came back with reports that Joe Johnston’s Army of Northern Virginia was three or four times its actual size. The action in the east ground to a halt.
At the tail-end of 1861 it became obvious to Confederate General Leonidas Polk, a former West Pointer and Episcopal Bishop, that Kentucky would be crucial in the defense of the south. He moved up to the banks of the Cumberland, at which point he was replaced by Albert Sydney Johnston, one of the best generals on the Confederate side.
Johnston only had about 45,000 troops to defend the entire Kentucky frontier, so he concentrated his forces in fortresses. He built up Columbus, Ohio, then built two forts – Henry and Donelson – to guard the approaches along the Cumberland. It would fall to Grant to take those forts down and open the way to Nashville, Tennessee.
This was a strategic issue. Natural defenses are the most important aspects of warfare, especially in a time when armies moved at the speed of weary, foot-sore infantry. Contested territory was generally taken a few yards or maybe a mile at a time. A marching column in uncontested territory could only be expected to move ten or twenty miles. If forced to march long distances they were generally useless when they reached their destination.
So if the Union could reduce Forts Henry and Donelson, they’d have access to the south side of the Cumberland River and be able to use the river as a highway to reach Johnston’s bastion at Columbus. One of Sun-Tzu’s timeless maxims of war is that it’s best to win a battle without ever engaging. Taking Henry and Donelson meant it would be possible to force Johnston to withdraw even from Tennessee without a major battle.
Henry was easy enough to take. The fort flooded the night before, so when Foote’s gunboats appeared around a bend in the Cumberland the fort was nearly defenseless. Grant arrived with his army and the taking of the fort was almost anticlimactic. Donelson was tougher. Johnston reinforced it after the fall of Henry and it wasn’t about to get flooded.
After three days of shelling the commanders of Donelson asked for terms. Grant replied, “No terms except an immediate and unconditional surrender can be accepted.” The reply resonated with an exasperated public and people started to say that Grant’s real name was “Unconditional Surrender.”
All was not well, though. Henry Halleck, Grant’s boss, was conspiring with George McClellan, at that time head of the entire Union Army as well as commander of the Army of the Potomac, to get Grant kicked out. When Lincoln fired McClellan from his supreme command duties and suggested he get his rear in gear and take the Army of the Potomac to the field it broke Halleck’s plans. He sent Grant back in to the field, but not until after enough time had passed that Johnston and PGT Beauregard were able to re-build the western armies.
After abandoning Columbus and Nashville, Beauregard and Johnston re-grouped at Corinth, Mississippi with an army of about 50,000. Grant followed with a column of 45,000 while Don Carlos Buell moved to join with an additional 25,000. When Grant made camp at Pittsburgh Landing near Shiloh Church 20 miles from Corinth with Buell a few days off the Confederates made their move.
They hit the Union encampment at Shiloh on the morning of April 6, 1862 while Grant was several miles upriver in conference with his generals. The Confederates nearly pushed the Union in to the river while Grant rushed southwards. He arrived in nick of time to organize a last-ditch defensive line anchored by gunboats. The following morning, reinforced by Buell and an errant division that had wandered through the woods instead of marching to the sound of the guns the previous day, the Union troops pushed the Confederates back. They retreated to Corinth.
The Union lost 13,000 men at Shiloh and the Confederacy just under 11,000. But the cost was greater for the Confederacy, as the South could ill-afford to lose men at that ratio.
Rumor spread in the aftermath of Shiloh that Grant was drunk at the outset of the battle and this created the near disaster. Inquiries were called and Grant nearly lost his job for the second time in the war. Following an impassioned plea to Lincoln to ditch Grant, Lincoln replied, “I cannot spare this man. He fights.”
The uproar did allow Halleck to temporarily take matters out of Grant’s hands. Halleck took personal command of Grant’s forces and took Corinth from Beauregard, at which point he pretty much stopped doing anything. There was wisdom to Lincoln’s statement as to Grant’s value as an army commander.
Grant wouldn’t get back out of the woods until July of 1862, but his position was never again as perilous as in the days immediately following Shiloh.
The damage was done by Halleck, however. He’d allowed Beauregard’s army to escape from Corinth. As long as there was a viable Confederate force in the neighborhood, the Union couldn’t move with impunity. That, combined with a temporary operational shift to eastern Tennessee, delayed the Union’s domination of the all-important Mississippi River.
Grant was forced to wait nearly a year to launch his master stroke.
I’m going citation-lite in these, since I’m doing most of the Civil War entries from memory. However, my best source on Grant is Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President by Geoffrey Perret. My copy of The American Heritage New History of the Civil War by Bruce Catton is also invaluable…