Few people have left so indelible a mark on the United States of America as did Ulysses S. Grant. Like George Washington, Grant led the people of this land both in time of war and, subsequently, as president of the country. His two presidential terms (1869-1877) were marred by widespread charges of corruption within his administrations. In stark contrast to his record as president, Grant’s accomplishments as Lieutenant General and leader of the Army of the Potomac in the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) assured his fame.
Lt. General U.S. Grant at Cold Harbor, Virginia, 1864
The appointment by President Abraham Lincoln of Grant as Commanding General of the entire Union Army in March of 1864 signaled the end of the president’s White House horrors with previous commanding generals who refused to carry the battlefield fight to Robert E. Lee and his confederate army. The list of prior commanders whose reticence and caution so vexed Lincoln numbers four, beginning with George McClellan and moving rapidly through Burnside, Hooker, and Meade. In Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln finally found his general, one “who would fight.”
The personal memoirs of Gen. Grant (1885) and Gen. Sheridan (1888)
Grant’s personal memoirs, published in 1885 by Mark Twain and his publishing company, Charles L. Webster & Co., tell the story of his later military career while revealing the qualities as military commander which so endeared him to Lincoln. Anyone who has seen Steven Spielberg’s movie, “Lincoln,” will appreciate the extent to which Lincoln not only intently followed the detailed progress of the war, but also personally “steered” its conduct during the long leadership vacuum prior to Grant’s arrival as commanding general. Lincoln would often don his shawl and amble out of the White House into the cold darkness of late night, headed for the nearby army telegraph office to monitor the latest news from the front. With Grant firmly in command, Lincoln was finally able to see hope for the outcome of the war and the union cause.
The Gettysburg address of 1863 spotlights Lincoln’s masterful talent for brevity and directness in his communications. Grant was that way, as well, as evidenced by his memoirs. None of the flowery prose, so prevalent at the time, is found, within. Instead, one finds tautly written, detailed accounts of what happened during Grant’s participation in the Mexican-American War of 1846 and the momentous battles of the U.S. Civil War – the costliest, bloodiest war in our nation’s history. Despite his ultimate success as Commanding General of the Union Army, Grant had some terrible moments.
On page 276 of volume 2 of his memoirs, Grant confesses:
“I have always regretted that the last assault on Cold Harbor [Virginia] was ever made….At Cold Harbor no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy losses we sustained.”
Indeed, seven thousand union soldiers were killed in one hour on June 3, 1864, during the frontal assault on Lee’s fortified positions. The soldiers, viewing the entrenched enemy they were about to storm and recognizing their dim prospects, wrote their names on slips of paper and pinned them to their uniforms.
Although Lincoln’s confidence in Grant never wavered, others were not so worshipful. Mary Lincoln, the president’s wife, called Grant a “butcher,” but who is to judge such a man placed in such a difficult circumstance. No successful military commander can yield to timidity in battle resulting from excessive concern about his troops, it seems. I suppose this old adage applies to would-be military commanders: “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” One might add: “If you do go in, be prepared to be badly burned…and severely criticized.”
Lincoln and Grant understood each other. When Grant refused a request from his command chain within the administration to displace a portion of his entrenched troops during a critical siege, Lincoln backed him writing:
“I have seen your despatch expressing your unwillingness to break your hold where you are. Neither am I willing. Hold on with a bulldog grip and chew and choke as much as possible.”
While Lincoln was careful to let Grant “run the Army,” he was clear and direct as Commander-in-Chief when necessary. In the final days of the war when Grant and General Phil Sheridan were chasing Lee toward his surrender at Appomattox Court House, Lincoln telegraphed Grant in the field while the president was staying at Grant’s City Point, Virginia, army headquarters:
Lieut. Gen. Grant. City Point, April 7, 11 AM 1865
“Gen. Sheridan says ‘If the thing is pressed, I think Lee will surrender.’ Let the thing be pressed.” A. Lincoln
And press it, Grant and Sheridan did. Lee surrendered his confederate army two days later, on April 9.
Grant Hears From General Sheridan on March 12, 1865
Here is a letter, hand-written and signed by General Grant on “Headquarters Armies of the United States” stationery just three weeks before Lee’s surrender. It is marked “Cipher” (meaning to be sent by telegraph) and addressed to Lincoln’s Secretary of War, E.M. Stanton, in Washington. In it, Grant reports to the War Department on the condition of Sheridan’s mounted command as they chase Lee and his army to the final encounter at Appomattox. It is an important “war letter,” one with the latent power to transport its reader back to the dramatic, closing days of our nation’s worst war. A typewritten transcript follows.
I purchased this letter many years ago from a well-known dealer in such manuscripts, or “autographs,” at a time when I was gainfully employed and the value/price of significant documents such as this was much lower than on today’s collecting market.
Here is a legible transcript of the above letter. Note that the “White House” reference is a location along the James River, not the presidential residence.
It is fascinating to find direct reference in Grant’s memoirs to the incident and “the scouts” which brought news of Sheridan’s location and condition to Grant – as detailed in Grant’s letter on the 12th of March.
On page 427 of Volume 2, Grant wrote:
“The other consideration was that General Sheridan with the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac was operating on the north side of the James River, having come down from the Shenandoah. It was necessary that I should have his cavalry with me, and I was therefore obliged to wait until he could join me south of the James River.”
“Let us now take account of what he was doing. On the 5th of March I had heard from Sheridan. He had met [Jubal] Early between Staunton and Charlottesville and defeated him, capturing nearly his entire command. Early and some of his officers escaped by finding refuge in the neighboring houses or in the woods.”
“On the 12th I heard from him again. He had turned east, to come to White House. ….I had supplies sent around to White House for him and kept the depot there open until he arrived….Sheridan had about ten thousand cavalry with him, divided into two divisions commanded respectively by [General George] Custer and Devin….His cavalry was in as fine a condition as when he started, because he had been able to find plenty of forage. He had captured most of Early’s horses and picked up a good many others on the road.”
It is quite clear that General Grant had my letter of his in hand as he wrote his memoirs in 1884/85. The details of the letter are clearly set forth in that section. The very fine condition of the letter itself (written for cipher transmission to Stanton) supports the contention that the letter, along with many others, was carefully filed away for years after the war. The quality of Grant’s recollections reflects the likelihood that he had a large cache of important documents at his disposal.
In General Sheridan’s 1888 personal memoirs, also published in identical format by Mark Twain’s company, Charles L.Webster & Co., Sheridan highlights the incident, as well and stresses its importance.
On page 120 of Volume 2, Sheridan recalls:
“I made Columbia [Virginia] on the 10th [of March, 1865], and from there sent a communication to General Grant reporting what had occurred, informing him of my condition and intention, asking him to send forage and rations to meet me at the White House…”
“It was of the utmost importance that General Grant should receive these despatches without chance of failure, in order that I might depend absolutely on securing supplies at the White House; therefore, I sent the message in duplicate, one copy overland directly to City Point by two scouts, Campbell and Rowan, and the other by Fannin and Moore, who were to go down the James River in a small boat to Richmond, join the troops in the trenches in front of Petersburg, and, deserting to the Union lines, deliver their tidings into General Grant’s hands. Each set of messengers got through, but the copy confided to Campbell and Rowan was first at Grant’s headquarters.”
This is history as it is meant to be learned and experienced. Could we not find a way to incorporate such an approach to teaching U.S. history in the schools? Youngsters would enthusiastically embrace learning our history if we could!
The Ultimate Tragedy of Ulysses S. Grant
Grant and his wife Julia embarked on an extended around-the-world adventure after leaving office at the end of his second presidential term, in 1877. The trip was costly, requiring Grant to start an investment business with his son, Ulysses S. Grant, Jr. and a young partner named Ferdinand Ward. Grant essentially did little more than lend his famous name to the new enterprise called “Grant and Ward,” and he remained distant from business details, often signing papers without reading them. By 1884, Grant found himself penniless thanks to the shady business practices of his partner and his own detached attitude. Grant and Ward had failed in May of 1884, and Grant found himself headed for financial ruin. That fall, Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer, a fatal diagnosis in those days. Likely, the years of cigar smoking coupled with his affection for whiskey took their toll.
Under the most adverse conditions imaginable, Grant heroically embarked on a plan in the fall of 1884 to provide for his wife and family after he was gone. His friend, Mark Twain was to publish the general’s wartime memoirs in return for a handsome royalty for Grant’s family. Grant worked feverishly and heroically on this project under the most severe deadline of all, his soon-to-come death. He was assisted by a former aide on his staff, Adam Badeau, who helped with many of the tasks required to organize and research materials. Friends and even former battlefield foes stopped by to pay their respects as he raced the calendar. Now confined to his wicker chair and writing up to fifty pages a day despite constant pain and discomfort, Grant finished his memoirs on July 18, 1885. Five days later, he was gone. He had won his final battle.
Grant’s memoirs were a smash sales success for both Mark Twain’s company and for Grant’s wife and family. Within a few short years, the threat of poverty had been swept aside in light of the reportedly $450,000 of royalty payments his heroic efforts had generated for Julia and the children.
Historians with a literary bent have long lauded Grant’s personal memoirs as perhaps the finest major military account ever written – not only for its candor and its thorough revelations, but for its literary merit, as well.
That is indeed high praise for the former rough, unassuming young West Point cadet, class of 1843, who ranked an undistinguished 21 out of 39 in his class. A point of interest and comparison: Grant’s ultimate foe in the battle between North and South was the regal and supremely competent Robert E. Lee, West Point class of 1829. Young Lee graduated second in his class and accumulated one of the finest records seen at West Point since its inception in 1802. Besides excelling in all academic subjects, he received not one conduct demerit throughout his four years at the Point, a feat rarely duplicated. One who also received no demerits was George Mason, Lee’s extraordinary classmate who just edged out Lee academically for top spot in the class of 1829.
I have a special fondness for my copy of the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. When I reflect upon the grand events of Grant’s life, it strikes me that the most heroic thing he ever did occurred not on any battlefield, but in that wicker chair as he bravely battled those most formidable of foes, the onslaught of father time and our ultimate mortality.
One added postscript: Grant’s friend and benefactor, Mark Twain, was at the peak of his powers after successfully publishing Grant’s memoirs in 1885. Within five years, he, like Grant, would be in danger of losing it all – even his beloved Hartford, Connecticut home – because of foolish investments and bad business decisions.