Solving the Riddle of Ulysses Grant; He Was Not a Military Genius, but He Won with Determination

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 14, 2006 | Go to article overview

Solving the Riddle of Ulysses Grant; He Was Not a Military Genius, but He Won with Determination


Byline: John M. Taylor, Special to The Washington Times

Even in his own day, Ulysses S. Grant was sometimes likened to the Sphinx. Inscrutable and inarticulate, he had little of the charisma associated with great soldiers. He had few friends, and they generally were Army colleagues such as William Tecumseh Sherman and John Rawlins. His life before the Civil War had brought one business failure after another, doubtless with some damage to his self-esteem.

The most recent author to attempt to decipher the "silent soldier" is Edward Longacre, a prominent Civil War historian whose earlier works include biographies of Gens. John Buford and Wade Hampton. Mr. Longacre has not provided a full biography of his subject but covers him just until the end of the war. He seeks to tell us what made Grant tick.

The general did not have a happy childhood. Although he had a fairly good relationship with his father, his mother, Hannah, was remote and cold. Even when Grant became the hero of the nation, he could elicit no praise from his mother, and she never found time to visit Washington during her son's eight years in the White House. Mr. Longacre lays all this out for the reader without descending into psychobabble.

Pressed by his father, Grant sought and received an appointment to West Point. There he failed to distinguish himself but was widely regarded as the best rider at the academy. He graduated in 1843 but took an early dislike to garrison life. He had a way with horses, not with people.

Although out of sympathy with the Mexican War, he served in Mexico with some distinction. By then he was engaged to Julia Dent, a dumpy St. Louis girl whose father took a dim view of Grant as a prospective son-in-law.

"Sam" Grant and Julia were married in 1848, however, and enjoyed several happy years until Grant was transferred to a remote California post. Lonely for his wife and children, he began to drink. Warned by his commanding officer to shape up, Grant chose to resign from the Army in 1853.

This was the beginning of a dark period for Grant, who was unsuccessful as a farmer and shopkeeper. The outbreak of the Civil War found him a clerk in his brother's tannery in Galena, Ill., and his initial application for military duty went unanswered in Washington.

Then his luck turned. After being appointed to command a regiment in June 1861, Grant was promoted quickly to brigadier general and given command of a military district with headquarters at Cairo, Ill. There he proposed to his superior, Gen. Henry W. Halleck, that he attempt to capture two Confederate river posts, Forts Henry and Donelson, which he perceived as vulnerable.

Fort Henry fell quickly, and Grant invested nearby Fort Donelson. To a Confederate request for an armistice, Grant replied, "No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted." Donelson fell, and "Unconditional Surrender" Grant became a hero in the North.

Grant moved south, and the Confederates, led by Gen. …

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