Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War Soldier and U.S. President

Wednesday, January 8, 2014 - by John Shearer
Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant

 (Editor’s Note: In connection with the recent 150th anniversary of the Civil War battles around Chattanooga, this is the third and final story on the three future presidents who took part).

Union Gen. and future President Ulysses S. Grant was considered a quiet and reserved man, yet his leadership in driving the Confederates out of Chattanooga during the Civil War grabbed plenty of attention.  In short, he turned the nation’s eyes on the Scenic City, as this important rail hub went back under complete Union control following the battles of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge 150 years ago.           

One of three future presidents to serve in the area during the war along with James Garfield and Benjamin Harrison, Gen. Grant was obviously the most famous at the time due to the fact that he was the lead Union commander here.

While he helped the battles at Chattanooga become shining moments for the Union, his connection to the local events helped put him more in the national spotlight as well. In fact, it helped make him a popular choice to be elected president of the United States less than five years later.

“I think in many ways Chattanooga was what gave him the final push to become the major military figure in the war,” said John Marszalek, the executive director and managing editor of the U.S. Grant Association and the U.S. Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State University.  “He won at Vicksburg, and the next thing they know, he’s sent to Chattanooga on a life-saving mission. The Union Army at that time was under siege by (Confederate Gen. Braxton) Bragg, and Grant succeeds. It is a rough mission, and if it goes the other way, who knows.”

A look at Gen. Grant’s life shows some moments when he was going through a form of being under personal siege as well. However, he would still survive and conquer.

Born in 1822 in Ohio, he grew up the son of a tanner. His parents were also strict abolitionists, so Gen. Grant apparently held no racist attitudes toward black people. However, the future president did own a slave for a period.

At age 17, he accepted an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he eventually graduated 21st out of a class of 39.  He then served his military duty, which included fighting in the Mexican-American War. He also married the former Julia Dent, the sister of a West Point classmate, during this time. In 1853, he left the Army amid rumors he drank a lot. On a more positive note, though, he had also developed a reputation as a skilled horseman during the war.

He then began working in multiple towns, including Galena, Ill., and was involved in such not-so-successful businesses as running a tannery and bill collecting. It was also during this period that he owned a slave who had belonged to his father-in-law. However, he later freed him at a time when slaves commanded a high price and Gen. Grant needed some money.

Gen. Grant appeared headed for a life of average worldly significance, but that would soon change in resounding fashion. When the Civil War broke out and President Abraham Lincoln put out a call for veterans, Gen. Grant was the only one with professional military experience in the Galena area, so he was asked to recruit and organize a company of soldiers.

He slowly moved up the ranks of command in the Union Army, and, in the spring and summer of 1863, helped retake Vicksburg, an important city on the Mississippi River that had been under Confederate control since early in the war.

In October 1863, with the Union in bad shape while under siege in Chattanooga after the forces retreated there following the battle of Chickamauga, President Lincoln put Gen. Grant in charge of the entire Western theater of operations except for Louisiana. And that area included Chattanooga.

But instead of initially focusing on the Confederates, Gen. Grant looked at his own army. After the Union Army of the Cumberland under Gen. William Rosecrans had failed at Chickamauga, Gen. Grant relieved him.

And, with the help of a plan devised by Maj. Gen. William H. Smith, he also figured out a way to get food through a supply line to the hungry soldiers under siege in Chattanooga. The move was no doubt an equally important form of fortification for the Union soldiers, who were also receiving more weapons.

According to the book, Chattanooga’s Story, by John Wilson, Gen. Grant also commanded plenty of respect while in Chattanooga planning the battle beginning on Oct. 23. Lame from a recent injury after arriving from Bridgeport, he had to be carried partly by soldiers up to Gen. Thomas’ headquarters in the now-razed Richardson House at 316 Walnut St.

While meeting with Gen. Thomas in Chattanooga, he showed his quiet manner, which was not that much different from that of Gen. Thomas, according to Mr. Marszalek. The two were sitting around eating and not saying a word to each other when they were supposed to be plotting strategy. Their aides thought they might have been in conflict, but that was just their nature.

“He was more of a quiet guy,” said Mr. Marszalek. “He hated public speaking.”

Union Gen. William T. Sherman, who was also at Chattanooga, was much more of an outgoing person who glad-handed everyone, he added.

Also part of Gen. Grant’s preparation while in Chattanooga was an inspection of the picket lines along Chattanooga Creek, according to Mr. Wilson’s book. After modestly telling his soldiers they did not need to turn out the guard for him, he soon heard the same request from the Confederate soldiers across the creek. This time, he went along with it, and kindly returned the salute, no doubt probably smiling as well.

His reputation as a successful military strategist had obviously preceded his time in Chattanooga, and it would only grow over the coming weeks.  After the Union Army finished preparations, it was able to drive the Confederates out of Chattanooga following the battles of Orchard Knob, Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge from Nov. 23-25, respectively.

Some people have said the battles in Chattanooga helped seal the fate of the Confederacy, even though the war would not end for almost a year and a half later. And getting much of the credit was no doubt Gen. Grant.  After eventually forcing Gen. Robert E. Lee to surrender in Virginia in 1865, Gen. Grant rode the cheers from his wartime service into the White House, where he served as president from 1869-77.

 Although some have criticized his administration for the scandals involving some of his Cabinet members, recent years have been kinder to his presidency, according to Mr. Marszalek.  “For the last 20 years, historians have been looking at him as the first modern president,” he said.  Not only did he push for full freedoms and equal rights for the former slaves, but he also took a pioneering diplomatic trip to other parts of the world, he said. He also signed the bill creating the first national park.

After dying from throat cancer in 1885 following years of smoking, he was laid to rest in a funeral that is still considered the largest in American history.    “Lincoln is dead, so Grant becomes the symbol of salvation for the Union,” said Mr. Marszalek in explaining his popularity at the time.

Today, Gen. Grant’s body lies in what is commonly called Grant’s Tomb in Riverside Park in New York City. The building, the largest mausoleum in North America, is adorned inside with several murals, including one of the battle in Chattanooga.

While his reputation as an American military hero is cemented for all time, less clear is his reputation for sobriety. Rumors of drunkenness dogged him, and, according to some historical sources, he was even reportedly taking some drug medicine in his later life after being afflicted with cancer and trying to complete his now-famous memoirs.

 Mr. Marszalek, however, says rumors of heavy drinking during the Civil War were wrong, as Gen. Grant learned quickly that he had little tolerance for liquor.  He also had little tolerance for poor results on the battlefield, and that is sobering news for all Americans realizing the key role he played in Chattanooga in helping save the Union 150 years ago.




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