The Emergence of Ulysses S. Grant

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"It is men who wait to be selected, and not those who seek, from whom we may always expect the most efficient service."

-GEN Ulysses S. Grant

LTG Ulysses S. Grant emerged from the American Civil War in resplendent glory. As the victor at Fort Donelson, Vicksburg, Chattanooga and Appomattox, Grant has long since been enshrined in the pantheon of American military commanders. Though Grant's critics claimed his victories were achieved at the price of excessive casualties, few could argue with the results Grant achieved on the battlefield. More than any other Union commander, Grant justified President Abraham Lincoln's confidence when he appointed Grant the commanding general of all Union armies in March 1864.

Could the war have been shortened had Lincoln assigned Grant command of the Army of the Potomac and ordered him to bring Confederate GEN Robert E. Lee to battle in 1863? Why did Lincoln endure a series of mediocre commanders in the Eastern Theater when Grant had already demonstrated that he was willing to fight the enemy on the very terms that the President was urging his commanders to employ? If Lincoln was so politically and militarily astute, as leading historian james McPherson claims, why did it take the President three years to appoint Grant to senior command?

No one in the U.S. Army could possibly have imagined that Ulysses S. Grant would rise to such a prominent position during the war. Grant was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1839, but he later confessed in his personal memoirs, "A military life had no charms for me, and I had not the faintest idea of staying in the army even if I should be graduated, which I did not expect." His academic record was undistinguished, in part because Cadet Grant discovered that he "did not take hold of [his] studies with avidity [and] rarely ever read over a lesson a second time during [his] entire cadetship."

In December 1839, Congress considered a bill abolishing the Military Academy- Grant viewed these discussions as an honorable way to obtain a discharge, and he "read the debates with much interest" and "growing impatience at the delay in taking action." The resolution failed, and somehow Grant managed to graduate, in the lower half of his class. His single achievement at West Point had been to set a high-jump record on a horse that no other cadet could ride.

Initially assigned to the Fourth Infantry Regiment at Jefferson Barracks, Mo., Grant performed weli enough in the Mexican War to earn several brevet promotions. He resigned from the Army in disgrace for drunkenness in 1854 and seemed unable to hold a job for any prolonged period. Thirty-nine years old and working in his father's leather goods store in Galena, III, when the Civil War began, Grant immediately volunteered for service. "J /eej myself competent to command a regiment, if the President, in his judgment, should see fit to intrust one to me," he informed the Army's adjutant general on May 24, 1861. Because of Grant's reputation in the Old Army, the adjutant general did not reply. Considering Grant's past record of service in the peacetime Army and his repeated failures in civilian life, few Regular Army officers would have agreed with Grant's own assessment of his martial potential. How, then, did he succeed when the war commenced? Grant owed his commission as colonel and subsequent promotion to brigadier general to the good services of Illinois Congressman Elihu B. Washburne and Governor Richard Yates, who were scraping the bottom of the barrel for officers capable of mustering the undisciplined mass of Illinois volunteers into state service. As Galena's sole West Point graduate. Grant got the job as mustering officer. Grant's own father suffered no illusion of his son's potential, telling Grant when he learned of the promotion to brigadier general, "Be careful, Ulyss, you're a general now; it's a good job, don't lose it." In the words of historian McPherson, Grant remained at best "a man of no reputation and little promise. …