Over a century and a half ago, an important decision was made that affected the outcome of the American Civil War. On March 9, 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was commissioned by Abraham Lincoln as lieutenant-general and commander of all the Union armies. Without Grant’s determination and efforts in leading the war, the Union likely wouldn’t have been able to defeat the Confederacy by 1865.
As we know, Grant was well-loved by the people for his heroic efforts during the war and eventually went on to become the 18th president of the United States. Despite Grant’s notable accomplishments, decisions made in his earlier years didn’t exactly make him the ideal candidate for lieutenant-general of the Union, let alone the president of the United States.
Let’s take a look at his life and how he came to be a remembered war hero that saved the Union.
U.S. Grant’s Humble Beginnings
On April 27, 1822, Hiram Ulysses Grant was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, to Jesse Root Grant and Hannah Simpson. Despite his grandfather serving in the American Revolution and his great-grandfather doing so in the French and Indian War, Grant didn’t have much of a desire to serve in the military.
When his father pressured him to attend an appointment with the United States Military Academy, Grant had to make a choice – work for his father’s tannery (which he detested), or further his education through means of the military.
Deciding to enroll in the military, he changed his name from Ulysses Hiram Grant to Ulysses S. Grant. Historians are unsure of why he changed his name – some say it was a mistake, others say he did it to avoid the initials H.U.G. According to Grant, his middle initial “S” didn’t have any particular meaning. However, his nickname in school was “U.S. Grant,” “Uncle Sam,” or “Sam.”
Although he found the military curriculum to be incredibly uninteresting and preferred horse handling and literature, he graduated as second lieutenant to the 4th U.S. Infantry in St. Louis, Missouri. While in Missouri, he met his roommate’s sister, Julia, whom he fell in love with and later secretly engaged before serving in the Mexican-American War.
After several post-war assignments and a failed business venture, Grant began to drink heavily, which led him to resign from his duties in 1854. Indecisive of a vocation, Grant attempted to pursue farming and real estate, but failed and ended back at his father’s tannery. It wasn’t until April 12, 1861, when the American Civil War began, that Grant gained newfound courage to fight for a cause he very much believed in – ending slavery.
U.S. Grant and The American Civil War
Grant’s life began to change dramatically during the American Civil War. He started his war efforts by recruiting and drilling troops in the town he was living in. After leading them to the state capital in Springfield, he was assigned to work at the state adjutant general’s office until he was made colonel, and then later became a general.
Grant’s father told him, “Be careful, Ulyss, you are a general now — it’s a good job, don’t lose it!”. To his father’s surprise, Grant soon after gained command of the District of Southeast Missouri.
On February 16, 1862, Grant won his first major Union victory in Tennessee when the Confederacy’s general requested terms for surrender. Grant responded with, “No terms except unconditional surrender can be accepted.” From there, 15,000 troops surrendered, and Grant’s initials “U.S.” suddenly stood for “unconditional surrender.”
Pleased with Grant’s victory, he was promoted to major general and was known for encouraging black soldiers to join in the war. On April 6, Grant and his troops defeated a surprise attack by the Confederates at the Battle of Shiloh, which unfortunately resulted in the loss of many lives.
Damaging his reputation, he lost command of the army until, on July 4, 1863, Grant gained his reputation back by capturing the Confederacy’s last major stronghold in Vicksburg, Mississippi – forcing them to surrender and ultimately cutting the Confederacy in half.
When Did Grant Take Command of the U.S. Army?
On March 9 of 1864, Grant was appointed lieutenant-general and commander over all U.S. armies by President Lincoln. He used a straightforward tactic to disable General Robert E. Lee and his army in a series of engagements that led to his pinning the Confederate general’s forces at St. Petersburg. Not long afterward, Lee surrendered, effectively ending a war that crossed over five Aprils.
Grant described in his memoir that he, at the time of surrender, felt “sad and depressed … at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was one of the worst for which a people ever fought.”
U.S. Grant Post-War
Grant was celebrated as a national hero and became a full general – making him the first to hold the rank since America’s first president, George Washington. However, five days after his victory, President Abraham Lincoln invited Grant and his wife to celebrate at the Ford’s Theater. The couple declined his invitation due to his wife’s plans to travel to Philadelphia. The president was fatally shot by John Wilkes Booth that same evening.
Grant was horrified by this act of terrorism. Many believed, including Grant himself, that he and Lincoln were Booth’s main target that night. If Grant had attended the event, it was likely that he too would have been shot. At Lincoln’s funeral, he wept openly, saying that “he was the greatest man I have ever known.”
On April 15, Vice President Andrew Johnson was sworn in as president. Grant had every intention of supporting him until, in 1867, Johnson removed Edwin Stanton from Secretary of War, and instead gave Grant the title. This violated the Tenure of Office Act, which led Grant to resign – infuriating Johnson and causing tension between the two.
This led to many controversies, which eventually resulted in Johnson’s impeachment. After Johnson was saved by one vote, Grant gained popularity among the Republican Party and was unanimously nominated for president in 1869. That same year, Grant won the election, making him the youngest president at that time to hold office at the age of 46. He easily won reelection in 1872.
Although Grant had no political experience and wasn’t adequately equipped to help the damaged country recover from the Civil War, he did his best to keep the peace during his time in office by supporting equal rights for all citizens – including African Americans, Native Americans, and women.
During this time, he helped to expand westward and establish the nation’s first park, Yellowstone. You can learn more about the creation of Yellowstone National Park and Grant’s hand in its establishment in our article, “Yellowstone National Park is Created.”
Unfortunately, during Grant’s presidency, corruption spread throughout his administration, and he was accused of bribery and fraud. This led to the decline of his popularity among the people.
In 1870, Grant supported the 15th Amendment, which “prohibited the federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s ‘race, color or previous condition of servitude.’” He also took significant steps to resist the first rumblings of the Ku Klux Klan, helping to keep them at bay until the early 1900s.
After his years in office, Grant spent time in Europe and Asia before settling in New York City, where he fell into poverty because of a failed business investment. A friend and famous author, Mark Twain, offered to publish Grant’s memoirs to help him and his family during their financial struggles. However, on July 23, 1885, a week after Grant finished his memoirs, he died of cancer.
His book, The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, was critically acclaimed and resulted in such success that his wife and family were left with more than enough money to live comfortably.
Teaching Your Kids About U.S. Grant’s Legacy
Today we celebrate Grant’s many successes as both a leader in the Civil War and as president. Grant being commissioned as lieutenant-general and commander of the Union armies will give you the perfect avenue to discuss with your kids how a simple man who suffered failures in his early life grew to establish a legacy of accomplishments and humble heroism.
If you’re looking for more Civil War Resources, check out our Time Traveler’s Civil War Study. It’s designed to create a hands-on learning experience, with 25 lessons covering slavery and emancipation, secession, several specific battles, many important leaders and figures, women of the war, reconstruction, and more.
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