Skip to content

Ulysses Simpson Grant

1822, commander in chief of the Union army in the Civil War, 18th President of the United States (1869), b. Point Pleasant, near New Richmond, Ohio. He was originally named Hiram Ulysses Grant.

Military Career

Grant spent his youth in Georgetown, Ohio, was graduated from West Point in 1843, and served creditably in the Mexican War. Grant was forced to resign from the army in 1854 because of his excessive drinking. He failed in his attempts at farming and business, and was working as a clerk in the family leather store in Galena, Ill., when the Civil War broke out. He was commissioned colonel of the 21st Illinois Volunteers, and in Aug., 1861, became a brigadier general of volunteers.

Grant assumed command of the Dist. of Cairo, Ill., in September and fought his first battle, an indecisive affair, at Belmont, Mo., on Nov. 9, 1861. In Feb., 1862, aided by Union gunboats, he captured Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland. It was the first major Union victory, and Lincoln at once made him a major general of volunteers. However, in April at Shiloh, it is likely that only the arrival of the army of Gen. Don Carlos Buell saved him from defeat.

The Vicksburg campaign (1862) was one of Grant’s greatest successes. After repeated failures to get at the town, he made a brilliant advance in cooperation with a fleet and finally took Vicksburg by siege. The victory of Braxton Bragg, the Confederate general, at Chickamauga, led to Grant’s accession to the supreme command in the West, Oct., 1863. At Chattanooga in November his forces thoroughly defeated Bragg. The President, in March, 1864, made him commander in chief with the rank of lieutenant general, a grade especially revived by Congress for him.

Grant himself directed George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac against Gen. Robert E. Lee in the Wilderness campaign. His policy of wearing Lee out by sheer attrition was effective, though it resulted in the slaughter of Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. Failing to carry Petersburg by assault in June, 1864, Grant had that city under partial siege until April, 1865. Philip H. Sheridan’s victory at Five Forks made Petersburg and Richmond no longer tenable. Lee retreated, but was cut off at Appomattox Courthouse, where he surrendered, receiving generous terms from Grant, on April 9, 1865.

Grant went about the distasteful business of war realistically and grimly. He was a skilled tactician and at times a brilliant strategist (his Vicksburg campaign is regarded by many as one of the great battles of history). His courage as a commander of forces and his powers of organization and administration made him the outstanding general of the North. Grant also was notably wise in supporting good commanders, especially Sheridan, William T. Sherman, and George H. Thomas. Made a full general in 1866, he was the first U.S. citizen to hold that rank.

Presidency

Grant at first seemed to favor the Reconstruction policy of President Andrew Johnson. In April, 1867, Johnson appointed him interim Secretary of War, replacing Edwin Stanton. Johnson expected him to hold the office against Stanton and thus bring about a court test of the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act, but Grant turned the office back to Stanton when the Senate refused to sanction Stanton’s removal. It was apparent then that the general had thrown his lot in with the radical Republicans. The inevitable choice of the Republicans for President, Grant was victorious over the Democratic candidate, Horatio Seymour, in 1868.

Characterized chiefly by bitter partisan politics and shameless corruption, his administrations were a national disgrace. The punitive Reconstruction program of the radicals was pushed with new vigor, and monetary legislation favorable to the commercial and industrial interests was passed. The President associated with disreputable politicians and financiers; James Fisk and Jay Gould deceived him when they tried to corner the gold market in 1869. In foreign affairs, however, much was accomplished by the able Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish.

The party unanimously renominated Grant in 1872, and he was reelected easily over Horace Greeley, the candidate of the Liberal Republican party and the Democrats. Toward the end of his second term his Secretary of War, William W. Belknap, and his private secretary, Orville E. Babcock, were implicated in graft scandals. Through the loyalty of the deceived Grant, both escaped punishment.

Later Years

The two years following his retirement from the White House were spent in making a triumphal tour of the world. In 1880 the Republican ld Guard led by Roscoe Conkling, tried to secure another nomination for Grant but failed. He took up his residence in New York City, where he invested money in a fraudulent private banking business. It collapsed in 1884, leaving Grant bankrupt.

Fatally ill from cancer of the throat, he set about writing his Personal Memoirs (2 vol., 1885; new ed., ed. by E. B. Long, 1952, repr. 1962) in order to provide for his family. He died a few days after the manuscript was completed. As solid and unpolished as Grant himself, these memoirs rank among the great narratives of military history. The remains of the general and his wife lie in New York City in Grant’s Tomb (completed in 1897; made a national memorial in 1959).