By Jean Edward Smith, author of Grant and other biographies
Reviewed by James L. Abrahamson, Contributing Editor
Before turning to Grant alone, professor Smith began his speech to a conference of the Butcher History Institute with an insightful comparison of the qualities of Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower as both generals and presidents, offering as well an explanation for their post-presidential fall and recent rise in their reputations.
Listeners next learn that Grant was a reluctant soldier who hated his years as a West Point cadet. Assigned to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, he soon married and fought successfully in the Mexican War under two generals—Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott—whom he greatly admired and from whom he learned much that shaped his behavior in the Civil War. Next, however, the army assigned Grant, without his wife, to posts on Lake Ontario and the Pacific coast, where he became bored, drank too much, and resigned his commission as preferable to a humiliating court martial.
A failure as a civilian as he had been in the peacetime frontier army, Grant sought to regain his regular commission following the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. Disappointed, he settled for a colonelcy in the Illinois militia. A string of victories—Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga—in the war’s Western Theater led to several promotions, larger commands, and finally command of all Union forces.
During that progression, Grant displayed qualities that accounted for his success: insisting on his opponents’ uncondiÂtional surrender (Donelson), refusing to accept defeat even when a battle began poorly (Shiloh), willing to take strategic risks on his own authority (Vicksburg), and abandoning traditional maneuver warfare in favor of making destruction of the enemy’s army his strategic objective (campaign in the East).
Making his headquarters with Meade’s army and putting unremitting direct pressure on the Lee’s forces, Grant also sent his subordinates marching through the Shenandoah (Sheridan) and Georgia and the Carolinas (Sherman) to deny Lee his sources of supply and convince the South that it must yield. Even so, Grant dealt gently with those who surrendered and pledged to cease fighting.
As president Grant preserved Lincoln’s victory by leaving the army in the former Confederacy and proving himself a friend of its freedmen.