The Amazing Life of Ulysses S. Grant

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Jul 2, 2018

No American led a more eventful life than Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States and the Union Army's most celebrated general. Garry Adelman, director of history and education at the Civil War Trust, tells Grant’s amazing story in this inspiring video.


This video was made in partnership with the American Battlefield Trust.  Learn more about the Civil War and America's Battlefields here.

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Before Ulysses S. Grant took command, the Union was repeatedly beaten by the motivated and competently led Confederates.

  • In the early stages of the Civil War, the Union lost several high profile battles, such as the Battle of Bull Run and Wilson’s Creek, despite having superior resources.View Source
  • The Union had more resources than the South, producing 90 percent of the nation’s manufacturing output, including 20 times as much pig iron as the South and 32 times more firearms.View Source
  • Despite having a clear advantage in resources and numbers, President Lincoln struggled to find competent leaders.View Source
  • The Union needed a counterpart to the Confederates’ Robert E. Lee. That military leader turned out to be Ulysses S. Grant.View Source

Ulysses S. Grant is one of the more unlikely military and political heroes of American history.

  • Ulysses S. Grant had no ambition to be a soldier but was pushed into it by his father.View Source
  • Grant went to West Point but was unexceptional in his performance and graduated 21st out of a class of 39.View Source
  • Though he performed admirably the Mexican-American War, Grant later condemned the war as “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”View Source
  • When he was assigned to the Pacific Northwest, Grant, missing his family, allegedly started to drink heavily and finally resigned his army post in 1854 to avoid a court-martial.View Source
  • After failing at several business ventures, Grant went back to work for his father in 1860.View Source
  • Related reading: “Ulysses S. Grant at West Point, 1839” – The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American HistoryView Source

The Civil War was a turning point in the life of Ulysses S. Grant, who proved to be the leader the Union desperately needed.

  • Ulysses S. Grant volunteered for the Union army and quickly advanced through the ranks. His leadership skills were obvious.View Source
  • In 1862, Grant scored a major victory at Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and another at Fort Donelson, along Cumberland River.View Source
  • After his victory at Fort Donelson, Grant earned the nickname "Unconditional Surrender Grant.”View Source
  • He followed his early success up with a costly but ultimately victorious engagement in the Battle of Shiloh, one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.View Source

In Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln found the aggressive and competent general he had been searching for to lead the Union to victory.  

  • In the early stages of the Civil War, President Lincoln struggled to find effective leaders.View Source
  • Lincoln had been repeatedly frustrated by overly cautious generals, but Ulysses S. Grant’s approach was aggressive and unflinching.View Source
  • Grant had a talent for identifying the enemy’s vulnerabilities and exploiting them, as he did in his bold 1863 campaign for Vicksburg.View Source
  • Related reading: “Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on the Siege of Vicksburg, 1863” – The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American HistoryView Source

In March 1864, Ulysses S. Grant became the commander of all the Union armies and within a year brought the Civil War to a close. 

  • In March 1864, Abraham Lincoln made Ulysses S. Grant commander of all the Union armies.View Source
  • The last Confederate general surrendered on June 2, 1865, formally ending the war.View Source
  • President Lincoln and General Grant had developed a close bond over the course of the war.View Source
  • WATCH: “Grant and Lee at Appomattox” – American Battlefield TrustView Source

After saving America as a general, Ulysses S. Grant worked to save it as a politician, winning the presidency in 1868 and 1872. 

  • After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Ulysses S. Grant had to walk a tightrope between new president Andrew Johnson’s pro-South agenda, and protecting the newly won rights of the freed slaves.View Source
  • Running as the Republican, Grant won the presidential election in 1868 and then again in 1872.View Source
  • President Grant supported the passage of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed that the right of all American citizens to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States, or by any State, on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”View Source

President Ulysses S. Grant supported the 15th Amendment and promoted civil rights for African Americans and Native Americans.

  • President Grant supported the passage of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed that the right of all American citizens to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States, or by any State, on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”View Source
  • Grant worked to end the Ku Klux Klan with the Ku Klux Act, which authorized the president to use military force against the Klan.View Source
  • He also advocated for the rights of Native Americans and attempted to change for the better U.S. government policy relating to Native Americans.View Source
  • Grant presided over the completion of the transcontinental railroad and a rapidly expanding industrial economy.View Source
  • Grant also created the Department of Justice.View Source

Ulysses S. Grant’s legacy as a nation-saving general and a civil rights-promoting president lives on to this day.

  • One week before his death on July 23, 1885, Ulysses S. Grant completed his autobiography. It became one of the best-selling books of its time.View Source
  • Of Grant’s amazing life, Frederick Douglass wrote, “In him, the negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.”View Source
  • In the areas of civil rights and foreign policy, Grant’s presidency was successful and innovative.View Source
  • Grant died July 23, 1885, at Mount McGregor, New York.View Source
  • Related reading: “Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant” – Ulysses S. GrantView Source

The year was 1862. America was in the depths of the Civil War. 

Looking back, it’s easy to believe that a Union victory was inevitable. The North had more money, more population, more industry. But no one thought that at the time.  In the first year of the war, it looked as if the South would win. A series of high-profile victories in the east convinced many that Confederates were better fighters, under better leaders.

Where would President Lincoln find a battlefield general who could do for the Union what Robert E. Lee was doing for the Confederacy—lead it to victory?

The man he found, the man who saved the Union, was Ulysses S. Grant. He wasn’t Lincoln’s first choice—or second, or third. In fact, when the war started in 1861, Lincoln had no idea who Ulysses S. Grant was. Hardly surprising since, at the time, Grant was selling hats to farmers’ wives in a small town in Illinois.

His rise to glory is one of the most amazing stories in American history.

Born in Ohio on April 27, 1822, Grant had no ambition to be a soldier. His father pushed him into it, thinking he wasn’t suited for much else. Grant’s West Point career wasn’t especially distinguished, either. But during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), Grant proved himself to be an officer of unusual ability. He was cool under fire, daring, but rarely reckless. Even more important, the men under his command trusted him.

After that war, Grant returned to St. Louis to marry his fiancée, Julia Dent, the daughter of a slave-owning Missouri farmer. Grant was never happier than when he was with Julia. And he was never unhappier than when he was not. Unfortunately, in this period, Army life forced them to be separated—sometimes for many months. 

To assuage his loneliness, Grant started to drink. While in a distant posting in northern California, a thousand miles from Julia, his drinking got the better of him. He resigned his Army commission to avoid an embarrassing court-martial.

It was downhill from there, one business venture failing after another. By 1860, thoroughly humiliated and with no money and no prospects, he was back working for his father in the small town of Galena, Illinois.

Then, the Civil War happened.

The Union was in desperate need of experienced soldiers. Grant volunteered. His leadership skills were immediately obvious. He quickly advanced through the ranks.

In a little more than six months, he scored two major victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, along the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. He followed these up with victory in the largest battle in American history up to that time—the Battle of Shiloh—making him a true Union hero in a cause that was starved for heroes.

There was nothing flashy about Grant’s generalship. All he did was win.

Unlike the overly-cautious generals that drove President Lincoln to distraction, Grant’s battle plan was to always move forward, always put pressure on his foes. Any advantage the Union had in technology or manpower he employed to the fullest.

Like Napoleon, Grant was a superb reader of maps. He could identify the enemy’s vulnerabilities and exploit them, as he did in his brilliant 1863 Campaign for Vicksburg—a campaign that is still studied at war colleges.

In March 1864, Lincoln made Grant commander of all the Union armies. It took more than a year of the war’s hardest fighting before Lee surrendered and the war finally came to an end.

By this point the president and his general had developed a close bond. Shortly after Grant returned to Washington, Lincoln invited the Grants to join him and Mary Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. Grant accepted. Julia, however, had developed an intense dislike for Mary Lincoln and insisted that her husband get out of the commitment. Embarrassed, Grant did.

That night, in that theatre, Lincoln was assassinated. 

As the commander of all Union armies, Grant was placed in a terrible bind, having to walk a tightrope between new president Andrew Johnson’s pro-South agenda, which favored the old white aristocracy, and protecting, as Lincoln intended, the newly-won rights of the freed slaves.

Grant had saved America once as a general. Could he save it again as a politician?

Running as the Republican candidate for president, Grant easily won election in 1868, and then again, in 1872.

During his tenure, he fought to secure the passage of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed all American citizens the right to vote, regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

He created the Department of Justice, broke up the Ku Klux Klan, and advocated for the rights of Indians.

He presided over the completion of the transcontinental railroad and a rapidly expanding industrial economy.

But Grant wasn’t done.

One week before his death on July 23, 1885, he completed his autobiography. It became one of the best-selling books of the 19th century.

Of Grant’s amazing life, Frederick Douglass wrote a fitting epithet: “In him, the negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.”

I’m Garry Adelman, director of history and education at The Civil War Trust, for Prager University.

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