“Lee’s army will be your objective. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” With that order given to George Gordon Meade, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant changed the strategy of the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War. Instead of fully attempting to take the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, the goal was now to whip Lee’s army of Northern Virginia until it could fight no more. The plan Grant put into action came from what he had learned fighting in the Western Theater from 1861-1863. There, he had made some brilliant campaign strategies that would break the back of the C.S.A., and bring the South to its knees in the months to follow.
It seemed that the military life was suited for Ulysses Sampson Grant. So it is surprising to think that the man who virtually saved the United States of America when he forced Lee to surrender at Appomattox had no enjoyment of military life. In fact, when he went to West Point in 1839, it was really not of his own choosing, but rather the will of his father to do so. Although not the most successful student, he was gifted at mathematics and horseback riding, and was able to graduate 21st in his class in 1843. Although he intended to become a teacher after West Point, the Mexican War intervened in his plans, and Grant did serve with some distinction.
After the war, he married Julia Dent, and started a family life with her. But military service took its toll on Grant. The long separation from Julia and his family made Grant very lonely, and he soon took up drinking. His problems with alcohol forced him to resign from the military in 1852. In the nine years between his resignation and the outbreak of civil war, Grant tried unsuccessfully at several different ventures, including farming, before working as a clerk for his brother at a leather shop in Galena, Illinois. When the war broke out, Grant was made Colonel of the 21st Illinois Infantry, and eventually became a General.
Success at Forts Henry and Donelson earned him the rank of Major General. Although surprised at the Battle of Shiloh in April of 1862, and almost underdone by officers jealous of his popularity, he overcame those obstacles. On July 4th, 1863, he forced the surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi after a long siege, gaining control of much of the Mississippi River, and splitting the Confederacy in two. Coupled with the Union Victory at Gettysburg the day before, this was seen as the turning point of the war. He followed this success with the triumphant victory at Chattanooga in November, where he broke the Confederate siege of the city, and paved the way for Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign. Following that success, Grant was made Lieutenant General in 1864, and given command of all Union forces in the field. By April of 1865, after pressing the attack against the Eastern and Western forces, the Confederacy was wrecked, and the major Confederate armies in the field had no choice but to surrender. Due in large part to the plans of Ulysses S. Grant, the Union was saved.
One of the unique things about Ulysses S. Grant is that he was very successful as an officer in command of armies at war, but seemed a failure at everything else. He was unable to keep a job long between his resignation and the outbreak of Civil War. After the war was over, he did succeed at becoming President of the United States, but his two terms were rocked by controversy and scandal, and he left office with his reputation tarnished. He also lost a lot of money following the war, but with the backing of Mark Twain and others, he wrote his memoirs, which were published not long after his death in 1885, and became a bestseller that brought much-needed money to his family.
But it is not his failures in business and the Presidency, or his bouts of alcoholism and depression, that we remember Grant for. We remember Ulysses S. Grant because of his great success in the American Civil War. He saw what needed to be done in order to achieve victory, and set out to follow those plans. Although thousands of men died under his command, occasionally in fruitless and ill-planned attacks against strongly-defended positions, his perseverance paid off, and the armies of the North proved triumphant over the Confederates after four years of bloody conflict. But most important of all, Grant is a unique and fascinating human character, a man who was deeply flawed, but also a good and decent man as well. His story is uniquely American, and one that fascinates almost everybody who studies him.
Michael C. Hall, best known for his role as the serial killer who goes after other serial killers on Showtime’s “Dexter,” has been cast as Grant for the upcoming miniseries To Appomattox. Mr. Hall has his work cut out for him. The character he will portray is a well-rounded one, full of life in all its good and bad parts. Based on the talented cast being assembled for the program, there is no denying that the character of Ulysses S. Grant is in good hands with Mr. Hall, and should prove to be the highlight of this epic series.