The main Ulysses S Grant facts concern him winning a large percentage of all Union victories in the Western, Middle, and Eastern theaters. But what made him such a successful general? As T. Harry Williams writes, “The qualities of Grant’s generalship deserve more analysis than those of Lee, partly because they have not been sufficiently emphasized but largely because Grant was a more modern soldier than his rival.”
13 Ulysses S Grant Facts Winning Characteristics
Ulysses S Grant Fact #1 Modesty
Grant’s modesty was a distinguishing trait. One of his acquaintances described him as “a man who could remain silent in several languages.” Adam Badeau, his military secretary, discussed Grant’s mix of humility and decisiveness:
Not a sign about him suggested rank or reputation or power. He discussed the most ordinary themes with apparent interest, and turned from them in the same quiet tones, and without a shade of difference in his manner, to decisions that involved the fate of armies, as if great things and small were to him of equal moment. In battle, the sphinx awoke. The outward calm was even then not entirely broken; but the utterance was prompt, the ideas were rapid, the judgment was decisive, the words were those of command. The whole man became intense, as it were, with a white heat.
Ulysses S Grant Facts #2 Lucid Orders
Unlike Lee and many other generals on both sides, Grant wrote orders that were lucid and unambiguous—even when issued in the heat of battle. General Meade’s chief of staff commented that “there is one striking feature of Grant’s orders; no matter how hurriedly he may write them on the field, no one ever has the slightest doubt as to their meaning or even has to read them over a second time to understand them.” Horace Porter described Grant’s drafting a flurry of orders after his arrival at Chattanooga: “His work was performed swiftly and uninterruptedly, but without any marked display of nervous energy. His thoughts flowed as freely from his mind as the ink from his pen; he was never at a loss for expression, and seldom interlined a word or made a material correction.” “Historians have always regarded Grant’s orders as some of the clearest in the war, rarely leaving room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation,” writes R. Steven Jones, citing evidence that Grant often wrote his own orders because that was quicker than explaining to someone else what he wanted to say.
Grant’s orders were lucid because they were simple. His oral and written orders set goals, leaving the means to the discretion of his subordinates. “Better than any Civil War general, Grant recognized the battlefield was in flux,” writes Jean Edward Smith. “By not specifying movements in detail, he left his subordinate commanders free to exploit whatever opportunities developed.” That approach reflected Grant’s willingness to delegate discretionary authority to Sherman, Sheridan, Meade, and other subordinates.
Ulysses S Grant Facts #3 Topographical Memory
James McPherson attributes to Grant a “topographical memory.” He “could remember every feature of the terrain over which he traveled, and find his way over it again; he could also look at a map and visualize the features of terrain he had never seen. . . . Grant could see in his mind the disposition of troops over thousands of square miles, visualize their relationship to roads and terrain, and know how and where to move them to take advantage of topography.”
Grant’s subordinate Horace Porter recalled that “it was always noticeable in a campaign how seldom he consulted [maps], compared with the constant examination of them by most other prominent commanders. The explanation of it is that he had an extraordinary memory as to anything that was presented to him graphically. After looking critically at a map of a locality, it seemed to become photographed indelibly upon his brain, and he could follow its features without referring to it again.”
Ulysses S Grant Facts #4 Use of Staff
Grant made excellent use of his staff. While the members of Lee’s staff, mainly lieutenant colonels, were not much more than glorified clerks, Grant’s staff, which ultimately included some generals, “was an organization of experts in the various phases of strategic planning.” A prime example of an excellent staff officer is Horace Porter, Grant’s aide-de-camp beginning in the spring of 1864, who served as his personal emissary to Sherman in Georgia in late 1864 and advised him in selecting the commander for the successful assault on Fort Fisher, North Carolina. Porter, who served Grant until 1872, described his commander as “direct, open, intelligent, offensive-minded, dedicated, and having ‘singular mental powers which are rare military qualities.’” Porter also pointed out that Grant “studiously avoided performing any duty which someone else could do as well or better than he, and in this respect demonstrated his rare powers of administration and executive methods.”
R. Steven Jones’s exhaustive analysis of Civil War generals’ use of personal staffs shows that Porter was just one of several military professionals Grant used effectively on his personal staff—particularly in the second half of the war. By the time of the Overland Campaign, Grant’s staff had progressed from a “civilian staff” to an “accidental staff” to “professional staff.” As early as Shiloh, one of Grant’s aides was positioning artillery, another herding troops to the right area, and two others trying to get Lew Wallace’s division into the fight. Throughout the
Overland Campaign, Grant frequently sent members of his personal staff as his emissaries and even as he alters egos to far sectors of the battlefield and to other theaters, such as Georgia. Jones concludes that only Grant among Civil War generals took the lead in expanding the duties of personal staff and that he developed something close to the Prussian system of delegation of responsibility. Summarizing Grant’s role as a commonsense innovator in the use of staff, Jones writes:
In Grant, all of the factors compatible with staff advancement came together: large armies, cooperative operations, and a willingness to experiment with staff improvements. Grant was not a staff reformer; he was a competent, intelligent general looking for more efficient ways to fight a complicated war. As such, he spent no time talking or writing about staff work. He did not promote his innovations as a model for the whole United States Army. He simply found a creative way to use an organizational element available to all Civil War generals—the personal staff—and made it his right hand of command.
Ulysses S Grant Facts #5 Perseverance
Perseverance, including a disinclination to retrace his steps, was an important aspect of Grant’s character. He displayed it at Vicksburg when he launched his daring campaign across the Mississippi south of Vicksburg instead of returning to Memphis to start another overland campaign from the north. During that campaign, James R. Arnold observes, Grant “accepted war’s uncertainty by flexibly adjusting to new circumstances while maintaining a determined focus on the main chance.”
Again, in 1864–65, Grant demonstrated his perseverance (Gordon Rhea calls it “persistence”) as he carried out his campaign of adhesion against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, achieving all his goals within a year. As he explained in his official reports, “The battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, and Cold Harbor, bloody and terrible as they were on our side, were even more damaging to the enemy, and so crippled him as to make him wary ever after of taking the offensive.” That comment was typical of Grant’s “refusal to treat reverses as defeats.” Arnold sums up Grant’s determination and focuses throughout the war: “Grant was a simple man who dealt with the facts as he found them. While his contemporaries saw the war in all its complexities and too often took counsel of their fears, from Belmont to Appomattox Grant saw the main chance, stuck to it, and thus led his armies to victory.”
Ulysses S Grant Facts #6 Full Use of Superior Union Resources
Grant’s effective recognition and deployment of the North’s superior resources distinguished him from McClellan and Halleck and most other Union generals. Gary Gallagher writes, “The North always enjoyed a substantial edge in manpower and almost every manufacturing category, but none of Grant’s predecessors proved equal to the task of harnessing and directing that latent strength. Grant’s ability to do so stands as one of his greatest achievements.” Arnold adds, “When he massed for battle he brought every available soldier to the field, sublimating those secondary considerations that so often consumed the attention and resources of weaker generals.”
By brilliantly concentrating his forces in each battle of the Vicksburg campaign, he negated the Confederates’ overall numerical superiority in that theater. In fact, Grant was remarkable for fighting uncomplainingly with the soldiers he had on hand. “He rarely complained, never asked for reinforcements, and went ahead and did the job with whatever resources were available.” Unlike McClellan, Grant did not grossly exaggerate the strength of his opponents in an effort to secure reinforcements, excuse inaction, or justify a potential defeat. Lincoln told his third secretary, “[Grant] doesn’t ask me to do impossibilities for him, and he’s the first general I’ve had that didn’t.” When Grant did ask for more troops, he did so subtly, as when he wrote, “The greater number of men we have, the shorter and less sanguinary will be the war. I give this entirely as my views and not in any spirit of dictation—always holding myself in readiness to use the material given me to the best advantage I know how.”
Ulysses S Grant Facts #7 Minimizing Support Personnel
The more successful Grant was in advancing into Confederate territory, consistent with the Union’s strategic goals, the more manpower he needed to establish garrisons and provide logistical support for his front-line troops. By late 1863 and in 1864, he decided to deal with this problem by conducting army-size raids with little or no logistical support, destroying the Confederate infrastructure, and reducing the need for garrisons and supply lines in his rear. His efficiently moving against Vicksburg, sending Sherman on his Meridian campaign, approving Sherman’s March to the Sea, and reducing the Washington, D.C., garrisons in 1864 all were consistent with this approach.
Ulysses S Grant Facts #8 Fully Using Assigned Generals
Although Grant became frustrated with generals he perceived as lacking timely aggressiveness and with incompetent political generals, he rehabilitated several Eastern generals who had been shipped west after less than glowing careers. Among these generals who served at least somewhat successfully under Grant were Joe Hooker, O. O. Howard, and Ambrose Burnside. In his powers of rehabilitation, Grant was superior to Lee, who “dumped” his less successful generals onto other theaters.
Ulysses S Grant Facts #9 Decisiveness
Grant was decisive. Colonel James F. Rusling of the quartermaster general’s staff recalled that in the winter of 1863–64, a quartermaster officer approached Grant for approval of millions of dollars of expenditures for the coming Atlanta campaign, and Grant approved the expenditure after briefly examining the papers involved. Questioning Grant’s swift decision, the officer asked him if he was sure he was right. Grant replied, “No, I am not, but in war, anything is better than indecision. We must decide. If I am wrong we shall soon find it out and can do the other thing. But not to decide wastes both time and money and may ruin everything.”
In discussing Grant’s influence on the usually victorious Army of the Tennessee, Steven E. Woodworth points to his prompt and decisive counterattack at Shiloh: “Perhaps in part at least it was not so much that Grant infused confidence into his army as that he refrained from destroying—by timid campaigning—the confidence of men who knew they had survived the worst the enemy had to throw at them.”
Grant’s decisiveness paid off especially in the heat of battle. He learned as early as Belmont and Fort Donelson that in every battle there is a critical point when both armies are exhausted and “the one which can nerve itself for one more attack at such a time is very likely to win.” Grant applied that lesson again at Shiloh, Champion’s Hill, and Chattanooga.
Ulysses S Grant Facts #10 Moral Courage
Grant displayed what he himself called “moral courage.” His friend William T. Sherman remarked, “But I tell you where he beats me, and where he beats the world. He don’t care a damn for what the enemy does out of his sight. . . . He uses such information as he has, according to his best judgment. He issues his orders and does his level best to carry them out without much reference to what is going on about him.”
David Donald quotes an early analysis of Grant, written in 1908 by C. F. Atkinson: “Grant’s distinguishing feature as a general . . . was his character, which was controlled by tremendous will; with Grant action was translated from thought to deed by all the force of a tremendous personality. This moral strength of Grant’s may be news to some present-day historians, but it was overpoweringly apparent to all who were thrown into close association with him.”
As James McPherson points out, moral courage went beyond the physical courage that Grant and others had demonstrated while carrying out attacks in the Mexican War under the command of others:
This was a quality different from and rarer than physical courage. . . . Moral courage involved a willingness to make decisions and give the orders. Some officers who were physically brave shrank from this responsibility because decision risked error and initiative risked failure. This was George B. McClellan’s defect as a commander; he was afraid to risk his army in an offensive because he might be defeated. He lacked the moral courage to act, to confront that terrible moment of truth, to decide and to risk.
General Fuller said, “In the Vicksburg campaign Grant’s moral courage has seldom been equaled, certainly seldom surpassed.” A subordinate, Major General Jacob D. Cox, said, “[Grant’s] quality of greatness was that he handled great affairs as he would little ones, without betraying any consciousness that this was a great thing to do.” T. Harry Williams notes that Grant’s approach was to “seek out the enemy and strike him until he is destroyed”—an approach that required “a tremendous will and a dominant personality.” Grant had both; he had character.
Ulysses S Grant Facts #11 Moral Political Common Sense
Unlike McClellan, Beauregard, Joseph Johnston, and many other Civil War generals, Grant made it his business to get along with his president. That cooperation included tolerating political generals—men like McClernand, Sigel, Banks, and Butler—until Grant had given them enough rope to hang themselves. T. Harry Williams cites Grant’s handling of McClernand, a friend of Lincoln, as a prime example: “In this whole affair Grant showed that he realized the vital relation between politics and modern war.”
Grant’s political instincts also kept him from “retreating” back up the Mississippi River to begin a fresh campaign against Vicksburg or moving back toward Washington after “setbacks” in the Overland Campaign. Such regressive moves, he knew, would provoke an unfavorable public reaction and damage the morale of his soldiers and the public.
Ulysses S Grant Facts #12 Focus On Enemy Armies
Grant’s recognition early in the war that he needed to defeat, capture, or destroy opposing armies, not simply occupy geographic positions, was critical to his success. At Fort Donelson, Vicksburg, and Richmond, Grant maneuvered his troops to capture enemy armies as well as to occupy important locations. He stood in stark contrast to McClellan, Hooker, Rosecrans, and Meade, who ignored Lincoln’s admonitions to pursue and destroy enemy armies, as well as with Halleck, who was satisfied with his hollow capture of Corinth.
Ulysses S Grant Facts #13 Maneuverability
Although he was consistently on the strategic offensive, Grant practiced the art of maneuver as much as possible. In his Vicksburg campaign, which Thomas Buell calls “the equivalent of a Second World War blitzkreig,” he caught his adversaries completely off-guard, proving that he could be, in the words of Edwin Bearss, “daring and innovative.” At Chattanooga, he maneuvered on both of Bragg’s flanks before the central attack on Missionary Ridge broke through. During his Overland Campaign, he maneuvered around Lee’s right flank until he forced Lee back into the lethal partial siege at Richmond and Petersburg. As Jean Edward Smith writes,
Grant’s detaching a 115,000-man army from his foe and secretly crossing the James River was a perilous maneuver and an incredible tactical accomplishment, and it in no way diminishes Patton’s accomplishment [in changing fronts during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944] to say that it pales alongside Grant’s withdrawal from Cold Harbor and his crossing of the James in June 1864.
The final word on this subject should go to General Fuller:
Grant has gone down to history as a bludgeon general, a general who eschewed manoeuvre and who with head down, seeing red, charged his enemy again and again like a bull: indeed an extraordinary conclusion, for no general, not excepting Lee, and few generals in any other war, made greater use of manoeuvre in the winning of his campaigns, if not of his battles. Without fear of contradiction, it may be said that Grant’s object was consistent; strategically it was to threaten his enemy’s base of operations and tactically to strike at the rear, or, failing the rear, at a flank of his enemy’s army.
Ulysses S Grant Facts #14 Intelligent Aggressiveness
Unlike most Union generals, Grant knew what had to be done—take advantage of the North’s numerical superiority and invade and conquer the Confederacy—and he did it. “Better than any other Northern soldier,” writes Bruce Catton, “better than any other man save Lincoln himself, [Grant] understood the necessity for bringing the infinite power of the growing nation to bear on the desperate weakness of the brave, romantic, and tragically archaic little nation that opposed it. . . . ”
General Cox said, “[Grant] reminds one of Wellington in the combination of lucid and practical common-sense with aggressive bulldog courage.” Grant advanced aggressively and creatively, attacking with vigor but usually avoiding suicidal frontal attacks. In light of a large number of battles fought by his five winning armies, the total of ninety-four thousand killed and wounded (154,000 total casualties) suffered by his commands was surprisingly small—especially when compared to the 121,000 killed and wounded (209,000 total casualties) among the soldiers in one losing army commanded by Robert E. Lee.
In his study of Grant’s use of military intelligence, William Feis disagrees with Sherman’s conclusion that Grant did not “care a damn for what the enemy does out of his sight.” After analyzing Grant’s increasing use of intelligence throughout the war, Feis concludes, “In reality, he cared a great deal about what the enemy did on the ‘other side of the hill,’ but unlike Henry Halleck, George McClellan, or William Rosecrans, he refused to allow that concern to become an obsession in which the search for ‘perfect’ information became an end in itself, effectively stifling intuitive risk taking.”
Ulysses S Grant Facts Summary
Grant’s modesty, lucid orders, topographical memory, full use of his staff, perseverance, full use of Union resources, minimizing support personnel, full use of assigned generals, decisiveness, moral courage, political common sense, focus on enemy armies, maneuverability, and intelligent aggressiveness all combined to make him the best general of the Civil War and to demolish the myth of “Grant the Butcher.” Grant was one of the greatest generals in American history.