General Ulysses S. Grant: The Soldier and the Man

By Edward Longacre, Da Capo Press, 2006, 384 pages, $26.

On the eve of the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant was a failure at almost everything he had tried. After resigning from the Army under murky circumstances in 1854, he spent the next seven years in a futile search for a career. In Edward Longacre’s meticulously researched and accessible account of Grant’s life up to 1865, Grant is most often notable for the depths of his mediocrity.

Grant didn’t want to attend West Point, and did so only because his father insisted. The future commander once wrote that he “had not the faintest idea of staying in the army even if I should be graduated, which I did not expect.” When he graduated in 1843, he ranked in the bottom half of his class.

After the Mexican War, Grant remained in Mexico, but soon became bored and lonely. A pattern emerged that would haunt Grant’s entire military career, says Longacre, when he “sought release from his troubles in alcohol.” From 1843 to 1854, while Grant was posted all over the West, he became a “binge drinker,” who drank “under the influence of stress or depression,” according to Longacre.

Eventually, Grant’s drinking got him in trouble and led to his resignation. Grant’s loneliness, postulates Longacre, “contributed heavily to the chain of events that caused his downfall, but the proximate cause was his weakness for alcohol.”

As a civilian, Grant was a nonentity, sometimes unlucky and sometimes simply inept. His father-in-law helped set him up as a farmer, but the Panic of 1857 devastated Grant’s finances, and then a serious illness prevented him from farming.

He later found a job in St. Louis as a real estate agent, but he was utterly unsuited for business. The soft-hearted Grant was a frequent target for sob stories told by poor mothers who couldn’t pay their rent.

In 1860 Grant swallowed his pride and asked his father for a job. He went to work as a clerk in the family’s store in Galena, Ill.

Within a year Grant, the ne’er-do-well job-hopper with an alcohol problem finally found success. In June 1861, shortly after the outbreak of war, Grant got his chance when Illinois Governor Richard Yates appointed him to command the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry.

In a world awash in amateur soldiers and “politician-generals” who had never commanded troops, Grant’s military experience was a major asset. He did such a superb job of instilling discipline and esprit into his band of volunteers that he was made a general.

Longacre offers readers a highly detailed description of Grant’s battlefield tactics. Unlike other Union generals, men who had reputations to protect, the clerk from Galena didn’t worry about what the enemy was doing.

“Grant felt little concern about what his enemy might do to him,” explains Longacre. “He concentrated on what he could do…to the enemy.” Grant’s early victories, especially the near-disaster at Shiloh, proved that he was a fearless counterpuncher who could sustain heavy casualties yet continue attacking. When a Northern newspaper editor demanded that Lincoln fire Grant after the battle because of massive Union casualties, Lincoln famously retorted, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.”

Longacre seeks to counter the image of Grant as the callous butcher shoving troops into the meat grinder of battle. Grant took casualties personally, claims the author, who describes Grant fleeing from a makeshift battlefield hospital because he couldn’t stand looking at all the suffering. But above all, Grant understood that winning wars meant fighting, not playing politics or flinching from bloodshed.

During the long siege of Vicksburg, Grant began drinking again, according to Longacre. Here, as at other times, the people around the general protected him from public disgrace. Indeed, Longacre refers to those around Grant as conducting “a conspiracy of silence” intended to protect their boss’ image and his job. Ultimately, only Union victories protected him. Longacre shows that Grant prevailed because he had the stomach to fight, no matter how he handled his demons.

Longacre skillfully builds a portrait of Grant the battlefield tactician, but more important, he brings us closer to Grant the human being, the melancholy man on intimate terms with failure. He sheds light on the human condition by describing a man who is triumphant in one set of conditions but a miserable failure in another.

In a peaceful world, Ulysses Grant might have spent 1861-65 as a store clerk, living up to his childhood nickname, “Useless.” War gave Grant an opportunity, and for once he didn’t botch it.

 

Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here