Civil War 150: The Rise of Ulysses S. Grant

He was a champion general of the Civil War, a United States President and his face is printed on the $50 bill. Yet even with a recognizable name and face, much remains a mystery about Ulysses S. Grant.

Born in Ohio on April 22, 1822, Grant was originally named Hiram Ulysses Grant, until an administrative mistake at West Point had his name changed to Ulysses S. Grant. He graduated in the bottom half of his class and would spend his life fighting to rise through the ranks. While he was known for his involvement in the Mexican American War, it was not until his amazing campaign in Vicksburg, Mississippi, that he became a household hero for the north. Those who were threatened by Grant’s quick rise to fame tried to convince Lincoln not to trust him, proclaiming, among other things, that Grant was a drunk.

Ulysses S. Grant. Library of Congress image: LC-DIG-pga-07645 .

According to James McPherson’s book Battle Cry of Freedom, Grant was rumored to have a binge drinking problem. However, there is little to no proof that Grant was drinking heavily during the war, especially not during critical battles. Grant’s support system comprised his wife and staff. His own honor and pride prompted him to become an example for his men by not allowing alcohol to be a crutch during the war. Most importantly, Lincoln trusted Grant.

Lincoln’s belief in Grant stemmed from his continuous victories at war as well as the failure of other generals to take charge and fight. Until this point in the war, Lincoln had been pushing his generals, including George B. McClellan and George Meade, to chase after a bruised Robert E. Lee. Where these generals failed, Grant had repeatedly demonstrated his ability to follow through with campaigns in the western theatre, especially so with the creation of an elaborate and inevitably successful campaign in Vicksburg. In response to a push for the removal of Grant from the army, Lincoln rose to his defense, stating, “I can’t spare this man; he fights.”

On October 16, 1863, Grant was put in charge of the Military Division of the Mississippi, which merged multiple military divisions, including the Departments of Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee. At this time, Lincoln charged General Meade with chasing after Lee and his forces, and his failure to do so made it easier for Lincoln to recommend “Unconditional Surrender” Grant to succeed Meade as head of the United States Army. Grant’s actions brought a swift end to the war the following spring at a courthouse in Appomattox, Virginia—an event that would ensure Grant’s place in history as a celebrated American icon and hero.

Connie Golding earned a bachelor’s degree in History with a minor in Fine Arts from The George Washington University.