Civil War Profiles — The metamorphosis of Ulysses S. Grant

Date Published: 
Sept. 29, 2017

A person who failed at most things in life until he passed the age of 30 would not be expected to become president of the United States. Yet, that is what happened in the case of a young man from Point Pleasant, Ohio, whose parents, Jesse Root Grant and Hannah Simpson Grant, named him Hiram Ulysses when he was born on April 27, 1822.


Jesse Grant arranged for his son to attend the Military Academy at West Point. However, confusion during the enrollment process led to his name being listed as Ulysses S. Grant.

“Sam” Grant, as his classmates dubbed him, was a mediocre student and not fond of the military program at the school. Yet, he proved to be a natural-born horseman.

After graduation in the Class of 1843, he went off to fight in the Mexican War — earning two citations for gallantry and one for meritorious conduct. Later, remote assignments away from his beloved wife, Julia, led Grant to neglect his work, and he begin to drink heavily.

Grant resigned his commission to avoid court-martial and spent the next six years unsuccessfully trying his hand at farming, as a small-businessman and a clerk in his family store in Galena, Ill.

Ulysses joined the volunteer army when the Civil War began in 1861 and soon received command as colonel of the 21st Illinois Infantry. As remarkable as it may seem, after only a few months, he won promotion to brigadier general for his leadership in the field.

When he captured the Confederate forces at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, Tenn., in February 1862, he was hailed as “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. Two months later, his initial surprise and large number of casualties suffered at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee, however — despite recovery and eventual victory — led to demands for his removal. President Abraham Lincoln refused, saying, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.”

When Grant forced the surrender of the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, Miss., in July 1863 and came to the rescue of another Union army at Chattanooga, Tenn., in November, Lincoln decided to put the rejuvenated West Point graduate in command of the entire Union army.

While other Union generals were unsuccessful in fighting against Gen. Robert E. Lee, Grant came east and pursued Lee during the spring and summer of 1864, until placing his army under siege in the Petersburg/Richmond area of Virginia.

When the Confederate capital fell in April 1865, Grant pursued the remnants of Lee’s army to a small community a few miles to the west, named Appomattox Court House, where the Rebel general surrendered.

The war soon ended, and Grant continued to serve as commander of the army until elected president of the United States in 1869. Although not particularly happy in that role, he served two terms before stepping down in 1877.

Ulysses and Julia Grant decided to see the world, and spent the next two years travelling as visiting dignitaries on a triumphal tour from one country to another throughout Europe and Asia. Upon his return, Grant’s business investments turned sour, and he and his wife became financially destitute.

The great general spent his final years writing his memoirs of the Civil War, completing them just before his death in 1885. Considered one of the finest memoirs written about the four-year conflict between the states, it sold well and brought in considerable income, allowing his wife, Julia, to live comfortably during the years before her passing in 1902.

This quiet and unassuming person failed in his early endeavors and is not particularly honored for his accomplishments as a military commander and president of the United States. Still, it was Ulysses S. Grant who played a key role — if not the key role — in preventing the balkanization of the 33 states that existed at the outbreak of civil war in this country, and allowed healing to begin leading to formation of a strong national identity.

For further reading, see “Grant” by Jean Edward Smith, and “U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth” by Joan Waugh.

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.