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Ulysses S. Grant


Disciplines > Warfare > Military commanders > Ulysses S. Grant

Early years | Battles and presidency | In battle | With troops | Critical factors | See also


Early years

Ulysses S. Grant (1822 - 1885) was born in Ohio into Tanning/Farming family. He went to West Point in 1839, but with no military ambition.

Despite being morally opposed to the war, he fought with distinction and innovation in the US-Mexico wars, for example by bombarding Mexican positions from a church tower.

He resigned commission in 1854 to be with his wife, but was no good at farming and joined the family tanning business. In 1860, with the election of Lincoln, the Southern states seceded. Grant started by drilling local volunteers then joined up again.

Battles and presidency

In early 1862, he coordinated a land and river assault to take Fort Donelson which led to the capture of 16500 soldiers for loss of just 3000. This gave him his first national prominence.

Later in 1862 he forced a draw at Shiloh and 1863 (now in charge of the Armies of Tennessee) he besieged Vicksburg.

In 1864 he was made Union commanding general. Lincoln had been seeking initiative and action and saw this in Grant's actions.

In 1864 he fought the battle of Wilderness and in April 1865 Lee surrendered after great losses on both sides.

In 1869 he was elected president. He was pretty average, as they go, being better on the battlefield than in politics. Afterwards he wrote up his memoirs, which are now considered great works of literature.

In battle

he learned about war by trial and error as he went along. He nearly lost his first battle due to lack of discipline in troops.

He realized that his West Point education was not that helpful. It was based on older open-plain forms of battle, yet the American Civil War was mostly skirmishes in undergrowth. It also was changed by train and telegraph.

He said: 'Some of our generals failed because they worked out everything by rule...They were always thinking about what would Napoleon do. Unfortunately for their plans, the rebels would be thinking about something else.'

He understood the strategies of war and innovated as necessary. At Vicksburg, he abandoned supply lines to live off the land.

He united the armies into a single campaign and kept plans very secret as long as possible. He said: 'I look upon the conquering of the organized armies of the enemy as
being vastly more important than the mere acquisition of their territory.'

He once said: 'Find out where you enemy is, get at him as soon as you can and strike him as hard as you can and keep moving on.'

He was one of the very few who seemed to have the courage to accept that war was murderous but had to be fought as such and not shied away from. Knowing this, he was ruthless and determined. He played a war of attrition against Lee, knowing he had more men and spent their lives in order to win.

Overall, Union losses were 40%. Confederates lost 60, though totals were higher for Union.

With troops

He ensured his soldiers were self-sufficient  and each soldier carried three days rations and 50 rounds. He also kept ten days' rations and ammunition in wagons.

He injected energy into his people, always encouraging fortitude.

At Shiloh despite pain from an injury he was a rock of strength and organized ammunition supplies, redeployed new troops and rode about the front line plugging gaps, offering encouragement and trying to stop the fleeing troops. He also visited every divisional commander in turn, and inspired them with his own determination.

He cared about people and liked to be at the front. He did not pursue Confederates at Shiloh as he felt his men were too tired, for which he was reprimanded.

He understood the psychology of defeat and after Vicksburg, he allowed Confederates to go home if they promised not to bear arms again.

He preferred to stay with his troops and even later on, he only went to Washington once a week. He normally wore simple clothes with General's insignia pinned to shoulder.

In person, he was calm, personable and perceptive. His silence was remarkable. He knew how to keep his temper. In battle, as in camp, he went about quietly, speaking in conversational tone, yet he appeared to see everything that went on, and was always intent on business. Whether the news was good or bad, whether the noise of battle was close or not, he remained calm and collected

Critical factors

  • He was driven by idea of 'the Union' rather than being anti-slavery.
  • He cared about his troops and demonstrated this.
  • He inspired his people by clarity and action rather than oratory.
  • He had a strategic understanding of war (not just battle
  • He pushed his men and sacrificed them as he saw fit.
  • He was tenacious and determined.
  • He was composed and cool in battle.

See also


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