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Profile - Sam Grant: From the Tannery to the White House

Until the Civil War broke out, Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), had pretty much failed at everything he tried to do. But with the outbreak of the Civil War, “Sam” Grant began a spectacular rise, proving to be an outstanding general, which ultimately resulted in his election to the presidency.

Grant’s family arrived in Massachusetts from England in 1630, and took up farming. During the French and Indian War (1756-1763), Grant’s great-grandfather, Noah Grant, served in Roger’s Rangers, rising to Captain. On September 20, 1756, Captain Grant disappeared while on a scouting mission around Ft. William Henry, near Lake George, New York, and was presumed to have been killed by Indians. Family tradition has it that the president’s grandfather, Noah II, took part in the “Boston Tea Party.” He certainly served in the Revolutionary War, fighting his way from Bunker Hill to Yorktown, while rising to captain. After the Revolution, Captain Grant took his family to the Ohio country. Several of the president’s uncles served in the War of 1812, but his father, Jesse, did not, pursuing a career as a tanner. 

Although not studious, as a young man, Hiram Ulysses Grant, as he was originally named, received an excellent education. In 1839 he entered West Point, where through an odd set of circumstances "Lyss" Grant's name was transmogrified into the more familiar Ulysses S. Grant, the new middle initial standing for his mother’s maiden name, Simpson. Grant graduated in 1843, 21st out of a class of 39, thirteen of whom went on to become generals in Blue, among them John S. Rosecrans, John Pope, and Abner Doubleday, and four who rose to lieutenant general in Gray, Daniel H. Hill, Richard H. Anderson, Earl Van Dorn, and James Longstreet. Although a superb horseman (Grant today could work as a stunt man in western movies), he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the infantry. 

Assigned to the 4th Infantry Regiment, stationed in Missouri, Grant spent several years on the frontier. Although he had serious reservations about the justice of the war with Mexico (1846-1848), he remained in the army and accumulated a distinguished war record. Initially assigned to Zachary Taylor’s little army on the Rio Grande, Grant fought in the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma in May 1846, and took part in the storming of Monterrey the following September. Early in 1847 his regiment was transferred to Winfield Scott’s army, and Grant took part in the siege of Vera Cruz in March, the battles of Cerro Gordo (April), Churubusco (August), and Molino del Rey, as well as in the storming of Chapultepec Castle and the final capture of Mexico City (all September). Although for most of this campaign, Grant was actually assigned as regimental quartermaster, he voluntarily took part in several actions, and earned two brevet – honorary – promotions and a citation for merit from General Scott (which was delivered to him by 1st Lt. John Pemberton, who would surrender Vicksburg to him in 1863). Promoted to first lieutenant, during the final weeks of the occupation of Mexico, regimental funds amounting to over $1000 in silver were stolen. Although Grant was cleared of any criminal responsibility in the matter, he remained liable for the money, something like a year’s pay for a lieutenant; the debt would hang over him until 1862, when, after 13 years of trying, Congress forgave it, because by then Grant had attained enormous success in the field.

Returning to the U.S. in April of 1848, Grant married Julia Dent, with whom he had been engaged for several years. Julia came from a prosperous slave owning family, and was the sister of a West Point classmate, and a cousin of James Longstreet, who was a member of the wedding party.

In the years following, Grant held various routine assignments at army posts scattered from New York to California. In 1853 he was promoted to captain and assigned to a company at Humboldt Bay, California. It was a lonely post, and his wife Julia, of whom he was very fond, was far away. Soon rumors began spreading that Grant was drinking too much; although the charge was apparently untrue, at a time when most men in the army were heavy tipplers it was readily believed. Unhappy with military service, and greatly missing his wife, in 1854 Grant resigned his commission and settled in Missouri. In civilian life Grant embarked upon a series of increasingly disastrous business ventures; he even proved unable to make a living selling firewood in the winter. But he also demonstrated considerable strength of character. Having been given a slave, Grant freed the man, when he could have reaped a tidy profit from selling him. By early 1861 he was working as a clerk in his father’s leather goods store in Galena, Illinois. 

When the Civil War broke out in the Spring of 1861, Grant applied to the War Department for reinstatement in the army. Rumors that he was overly fond of liquor apparently led to his application being pigeonholed. But the governor of Illinois, needing experienced officers to train the many volunteers, appointed Grant an officer in the state militia. Grant soon proved himself an excellent training officer. He performed this task so well, that in June he was commissioned a lieutenant colonel of volunteers. Soon afterwards he was promoted to colonel and given command of the 21st Illinois, which was shortly assigned to duty in Missouri.

Grant’s first experience of regimental command “under fire” occurred at Florida, Missouri. Information indicated that a Confederate force under Col. Thomas Harris had concentrated at the town. In mid-July of 1861 Grant was ordered to take his regiment and capture the town. Grant performed this mission perfectly. And although no fighting actually took place, the operation might be said to have been the most important of his career. As he later wrote in his excellent Memoirs,

As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we could see Harris' camp, and possibly find his men ready formed to meet us, my heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything then to have been back in Illinois, but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on. When we reached a point from which the valley below was in full view I halted. The place where Harris had been encamped a few days before was still there and the marks of a recent encampment were plainly visible, but the troops were gone. My heart resumed its place. It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterwards.


A month later, in August, Grant was commissioned a brigadier general of volunteers and given command of operations in southeastern Missouri. He captured Paducah, Kentucky, on September 6th, after the Confederacy violated the state’s self-proclaimed neutrality, giving the Union control of the lower Tennessee, and earning Grant command of all Union forces in western Tennessee.   In February 1862 Grant undertook a brilliant winter campaign. Cooperating with the Union Navy’s river gunboats, he advanced up the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, to capture the two most important Confederate posts defending central Tennessee, Forts Henry and Donelson, bagging over 20,000 Confederate troops at minimal cost to his own. When the Confederate commander at Donelson asked what terms Grant offered, the latter replied, “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted,” which brought Grant instant fame, with the nickname “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. 

Thereafter Grant played an increasingly important role in the Union war effort, to the extent that it be impossible to discuss in this space. Although occasionally suffering a reverse, the net outcome of all of Grant’s operations was to advance the Union cause. His most notable campaigns were the operations leading up to and including the Battle of Shiloh in April of 1862, the Vicksburg Campaign of 1862-1863, and the Chattanooga-Missionary Ridge Campaign of 1863. Then, early in 1864, Lincoln appointed Grant Commanding General. This put him in charge of all army operations. Grant undertook major operations in Virginia that lasted from the Spring of 1864 to that of 1865, and led to the surrender of Robert E. Lee.

Grant always attempted to outmaneuver his opponents, rather than outfight them. This worked quite well in the West, where there was lots of room for maneuver, and his opponents were by no means in his league. Conditions were less favorable in Virginia, for the theater was much narrower, making sprawling maneuvers riskier, and also because, for the first time Grant was up against a commander of equal skill, Robert E. Lee, who had also been spending his time confronting second-stringers. The result was a complex series of maneuvers and counter-maneuvers that often resulted in clashes costly to both sides. Nevertheless, by mid-1864 Grant had pinned Lee to the positional defense of a long front from Richmond to Petersburg. Lee had run out of maneuvering room, and could neither advance nor retreat without abandoning the Confederate capitol. There followed a long, grinding investment – not really a siege – until the following spring, when Grant managed to turn Lee’s southern flank. When Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, the war was essentially over.

Although he had a post-war reputation of being wasteful of manpower, Grant was in fact quite careful about his troops, and was troubled by situations in which men died unnecessarily. Grant was a simple, unpretentious soldier with a thorough knowledge of his profession. At Donelson, for example, he correctly guessed that a major enemy attack was actually a breakout attempt by examining the contents of a soldier’s pack; the three day’s rations it contained was the tip-off. Unlike many other generals in the war, including Lee, Grant learned from his mistakes. Always careless of his appearance, even when promoted to lieutenant general in early 1864, Grant rarely wore anything but a private’s tunic, in this regard emulating Zachary Taylor, another notably careless dresser. Although Grant did partake of alcohol, he was not usually a heavy drinker, despite rumors, and certainly never drank during operations, though his consumption of cigars often soared remarkably.

After the war Grant remained as the army’s senior officer, becoming embroiled in the dispute over Reconstruction that raged between President Andrew Johnson and the Radical Republicans. In 1868 Grant was elected president. Grant resigned from the army on March 3, 1869, the day before his inauguration. Re-elected in 1872, he remained immensely popular throughout his two terms in office.

Militarily, Grant’s administration was characterized by the problems of maintaining a token occupation of the South with an army of very modest size, little more than 25,000 men, many of whom were committed to service on the frontier. Grant tried to support the civil rights of the freemen, with mixed success. 

As has been the case whenever a former general has sat in the White House, Grant much preferred diplomacy to war. A threatened conflict with Spain that grew out of the First Cuban Revolution (1868-1878) was resolved through negotiation, and Grant took a firm stand against the efforts of the Irish nationalist Fenians to invade Canada from American soil in 1869 and 1870.

Toward the end of Grant’s second administration, white penetration of the Black Hills led to the Great Sioux War (1876-1877), during which the Army suffered several reverses, most notably the disastrous defeat of George A. Custer and the 7th Cavalry on the Little Big Horn (June 25, 1876). Although by the time Grant left office, on March 4, 1877, the Sioux and their Cheyenne allies had been defeated, most fleeing into Canada, the war cast a shadow over the final months of his presidency,

Although his administration had been scarred by scandal, the President was not involved, nor his reputation affected, and he was one of the most popular ex-presidents ever. In retirement Grant made a world tour, and was given a hero’s welcome wherever he went. During his last years, knowing he was terminally ill with cancer, Grant wrote his autobiography, one of the best memoirs in the English language, completing them just days before he died.

Grant’s reputation as a soldier suffered greatly at the hands of the “Lost Cause” pseudo-historians, who sought to explain away the Confederacy’s defeat and how the noble Lee could have been bested by the tanner’s son. Using uncorroborated testimony, juggling casualty figures, and resorting to outright fabrication when necessary, they in effect indicted Grant as a mediocre commander who was wasteful of the lives of his men and won by sheer attrition. This smear attained considerable circulation, and Grant’s reputation as a commander only began to recover more than a century after the war, as a new generation of historians began taking a hard look at casualty figures and evidence. 

U.S. Grant was a man who could do three things well, ride horses, write memoirs, and win wars. 

Neither of the president’s brothers, Samuel and the curiously named Orvil, served, though several of his cousins did. Walter Warder Hudson, an officer in the Iowa Volunteers during the Mexican War, was later commissioned in the Regular Army and was killed in an Indian fight in 1850. Walter’s brother Peter Todd Hudson served on Grant’s staff during the Civil War, rising to lieutenant colonel. Several other cousins who resided in the South served in the Confederate Army. Noah Grant, who had also been a volunteer officer in the Mexican War rose to colonel in Confederate service, while William Hewitt Tompkins and his brother Charles Clifton Tompkins both rose to captain; Charles, a surgeon, was present at Appomattox, where he met with Peter Todd Hudson.

The president’s son Frederick was introduced to soldiering at an early age. He served as his father's orderly during the Civil War, and was wounded in the left thigh by a musket ball during the Battle of the Big Black River (May 17, 1863), when he was just 13. Frederick later attended West Point, graduating in 1870. He served in the Regular Army from 1870 to 1881, retiring as a colonel. During the Spanish-American War, Frederick returned to active service, commanding Brooklyn’s 14th New York Volunteers for a time before being promoted to brigadier general. He commanded a brigade during the Philippine Insurrection and retired as a major general in 1906. 

Frederick’s son, U.S. Grant III, graduated from West Point 6th in 1903, four slots behind Douglas MacArthur. He served in the Regular Army, retiring as a major general in 1945. During World War I he was Secretary of the American Delegation to the Supreme War Council in France. Between the wars he supervised the reconstruction of the White House during the Coolidge administration (doing a bad job of it, too). In World War II, Grant III served as Deputy Director of Civil Defense, under Fiorello La Guardia. His sister Julia married Prince Michael Mikhailovich Cantacuzene, a Russian Army officer and the descendant of a distinguished Byzantine family, and their son, Rodion Cantacuzene graduated from Annapolis in 1952, and rose to captain in the Navy before retiring in the late 1970s.

Grant’s other sons, Jesse and Ulysses S. Grant, Jr., saw no military service. Junior’s son, Ulysses S. “Buck” Grant IV (because Frederick had named his son Ulysses S. Grant III, counting his father and brother Junior as I and II), enlisted as a private in New York’s 7th Regiment early in World War I. Commissioned shortly after the regiment was federalized as the 107th Infantry, Buck Grant rose to second lieutenant by the end of the war, after which he became a distinguished Professor of Paleontology.

BookNotes:  Grant’s The Complete Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant provide an invaluable insight into the man and his life. Brooks D. Simpson’s Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865 (2000) is the best treatment of the general’s life, military career, and presidency.


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