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The Greatness of Grant: Six Lessons to Learn from the Man who Saved the Union

Among the pantheon of immortal American heroes, Ulysses S. Grant ranks at the very top, standing beside only George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in regard to his contributions to the United States. As his faithful friend and most trusted subordinate during the American Civil, William Tecumseh Sherman put it, “If the name of Washington is allied with the birth of our country, that of Grant is forever identified with its preservation.” Not only did Grant save the nation that Washington founded, but he also did it in a way that the father of America would have admired. U.S. Grant epitomized Washington’s timeless belief that, “Perseverance and Spirit have done Wonders in all ages." A humble and hardworking man from America’s heartland, Grant faced tremendous hardship and adversity throughout his life, but no matter how difficult the obstacles facing him were, he always confronted the challenges head-on and refused to be broken by them. His rise to greatness as the top Union commander who won the Civil War and his achievements as the 18th president of the United States forever marks him as a hero for the ages and someone who every American should strive to learn from.

I. Seize Opportunity and Run with it

The outbreak of the War Between the States found Ulysses S. Grant down on his luck and working as a clerk at his father’s leather goods store in Galena, Illinois. A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and a veteran of the Mexican-American War, Grant had resigned from the Army in 1854 and struggled mightily in life over the years before the nation split. When the call for volunteers to defend the Union came, he eagerly set out to do his duty. Despite his experience as a soldier, however, he initially struggled to obtain a commission. No matter how disheartening this situation was as his fellow Illini and others around the North mobilized for war, Grant remained ready. He soon got the chance to prove himself and seized each opportunity to the utmost. Displaying a clear talent for military leadership as he drilled and mustered in new recruits, Grant earned an appointment as colonel of the Twenty-First Illinois Infantry in June 1861. One month later, he was promoted to brigadier general.

In early 1862, U.S. Grant emerged as the supreme soldier that President Abraham Lincoln and the Northern people desperately needed. With the Union war effort seemingly stalled and the leading Federal commanders frozen in inaction, Grant conquered Forts Henry and Donelson in western Tennessee, twin triumphs which helped erase a defeatist mentality that had begun to take hold over the Northern public. As William T. Sherman put it, in America’s hour of peril, Grant had “marched triumphantly into Fort Donelson. After that none of us felt the least doubt as to the future of our country.”

General Grant on horseback in mid foreground during the Battle of Fort Donelson. (Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum)

President Lincoln proceeded to reward Grant with a promotion to major general and Northerners anointed the victorious commander with the nickname, “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. The Union had found its hero.

By seizing his initial opportunities and then running with them, Grant won the trust of many throughout the North. The more he continued to fight and win, the clearer it became to Abraham Lincoln that U.S. Grant was the military champion that the Union needed to win the Civil War.

Like Ulysses S. Grant, we must also seize opportunities in life and run with them. If we make the most of our opportunities and go on to be our very best, we too can become champions in our own right.

II. Never Admit Defeat

General Grant during the Battle of Shiloh, also known as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

On Sunday, April 6, 1862, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston’s 44,000-man-strong Army of the Mississippi struck with all its might against Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s roughly 42,000 soldiers encamped around Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River. In a clash that reached a level of bloody intensity that the United States had never seen before, Grant’s army was thrown into a desperate fight for its very existence. No matter how grim circumstances looked for his troops that day, Grant never flinched and remained a tower of strength for his men. The late Civil War historian Bruce Catton concluded that the Union commander’s greatest contribution on this heated day was “the encouragement he gave to badly beaten troops, simply by his presence and his obstinate refusal to act as if things were going badly.”

Although driven all the way back to their final line of resistance, Grant and his soldiers survived the Rebel onslaught on April 6. With his army badly bloodied and his remaining troops greatly demoralized, one of the commanding general’s subordinates asked if he should “make preparations for a retreat” that night. Grant fired right back. “Retreat? No! I propose to attack at daylight and whip them.” He spoke similarly to William T. Sherman, who found his boss standing by an oak tree in the pouring rain shortly after midnight. “Well Grant,” said Sherman, “we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” “Yes,” answered a steely-eyed Grant. “Lick ‘em tomorrow though.”

We'll Whip 'em Tomorrow by Dale Gallon. (Photo Credit: Dale Gallon)

Bolstered by reinforcements, General Grant took the initiative on the morning of April 7, 1862, launching a counteroffensive along the entire line of battle. After another day of savage fighting, Union forces had recovered the ground that had previously been lost and the Confederates were in full retreat. By standing by his men and refusing to panic in the face of relentless pressure and repeated setbacks, Grant snatched victory from the jaws of defeat at the bloody Battle of Shiloh.

When we feel overwhelmed by setbacks and fear that failure is on the horizon, we must be like Ulysses S. Grant and never admit defeat. By standing strong and finding the courage to battle back, we too can overcome life’s greatest obstacles.

III. Adapt and Overcome

“Vicksburg is the key,” declared President Abraham Lincoln early in the American Civil War. “The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.” On Saturday, July 4, 1863, the Union finally had that key in hand, courtesy of Major General Ulysses S. Grant and his Army of the Tennessee. On what Grant’s trusted protégé William T. Sherman called, “the best Fourth of July since 1776,” Confederate Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton surrendered the Rebel stronghold of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River and its garrison of nearly 30,000 soldiers. Grant’s triumph was one of the most momentous victories of the Civil War, effectively splitting the Confederacy in two and giving the Union unimpeded control of the entire Mississippi River. His operations against Vicksburg were hailed by men like Sherman as “one of the greatest campaigns in history,” but above all else, Grant’s ultimate conquest of the city was a testament to his ability to adapt and overcome tremendous obstacles.

The Glorious Fourth, depicting the victor of Vicksburg, Ulysses S. Grant, on the day of his great triumph, by Mort Künstler. (Photo Credit: Mort Künstler)

Vicksburg had nearly every advantage that a defender could hope for. Towering over a commanding bluff and overlooking a 180-degree bend in the Mississippi River, Rebel artillery was perfectly positioned to guard against Union warships. On top of that, the fortress was surrounded by thick swamps and bayous, making it very difficult for Union troops to attempt a cross-country assault. With the land and water approaches to the city protected by heavy guns and stout fortifications, confident Southerners nicknamed their stronghold the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” The job of taming this great gray beast fell to Ulysses S. Grant.

In December 1862 and through the early months of 1863, Grant tried and failed in his efforts to reach Vicksburg. His many “experiments” to find the best path forward included an attempt to dig a large canal, creating a new route to allow Union ships to bypass Vicksburg’s formidable defenses, but despite his ingenuity, this endeavor, like all of the others, came up empty. Some in the North grew impatient with the lack of progress in Grant’s campaign, but the general himself remained as committed as ever and unleashed a bold new plan in the spring.

Under the cover of darkness on April 17, 1863, Union Admiral David Dixon Porter’s fleet daringly streamed past the mighty guns of Vicksburg. Now that he had the required naval power in the optimal position, Grant was able to cross the river below Vicksburg on April 30. Over the next three weeks, the general and his army were simply unstoppable. As the great Civil War historian James M. McPherson explains, during that span, “Grant’s men marched 130 miles, fought and won five battles against separate forces that, if combined, would have been nearly as large as Grant’s own, and penned the Confederates up in the Vicksburg defenses.”

After nearly six months of frustration and failure, U.S. Grant and his soldiers finally had Vicksburg in their sights. Once the city was surrounded, the general launched two heavy assaults on May 19 and 22, both of which were bloodily beaten back by the Rebels. Adapting once again to the challenges before him, Grant made the decision to dispense with costly direct assaults against the strong Confederate defenses and ordered his army to dig in to besiege the city. After 47 days of siege, the Rebels finally surrendered on the fourth of July, and the great prize of Vicksburg was at last in Union hands.

The Siege of Vicksburg. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

By continually brushing off failure and looking for new ways to adapt and overcome the obstacles before him on the road to Vicksburg, Ulysses S. Grant ultimately succeeded, achieving a victory that helped turn the tide of the Civil War in favor of the Union. As the general later wrote in his Personal Memoirs, “The fate of the Confederacy was sealed when Vicksburg fell.”

Like Ulysses S. Grant, we too must be creative, perseverant, and tenacious to adapt and overcome roadblocks. If we always keep pushing forward and continue to look for new ways to approach our problems, we too will win whatever prize we are after.

IV. See the Big Picture

Following up his brilliance at Vicksburg, Major General Ulysses S. Grant was sent to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he rescued the besieged Union Army of the Cumberland and orchestrated the defeat of Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee in November 1863. After this latest triumph, President Abraham Lincoln elevated Grant to the sacred rank of lieutenant general in March 1864, making him the first officer to be promoted to that grade since America’s most revered soldier, George Washington. Lincoln had spent many agonizing days throughout the war searching for a military champion to guide the Union to ultimate victory. By naming Grant general-in-chief of the Armies of the United States, the president finally had his man. It was now up to U.S. Grant to finish off the Confederacy, once and for all.

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As Union general-in-chief, Grant took the field with the Army of the Potomac, helping to guide it in some of the fiercest battles of the war against Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his vaunted Army of Northern Virginia. While he engaged Lee’s stout soldiers in his immediate front, Grant also saw far beyond the battlegrounds of Virginia. With overall command of all Union armies, he made the most of his manpower and resources, setting Federal forces in motion far and wide across the war-torn nation to apply maximum pressure against the Confederacy. As Grant kicked in the front door of the Confederacy by relentlessly battling Lee in Virginia, other men in blue like his faithful protégé William T. Sherman stormed the backdoor, ripping the heart out of the Southern heartland by marching with unmatched power through Georgia and the Carolinas.

By tying down Lee and his troops in the trenches of Petersburg, Virginia, which was the lifeline of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Grant’s unabated pressure over the course of a roughly 10-month siege ultimately drained the mighty Army of Northern Virginia of its strength. After collapsing under the weight of a renewed offensive push by the Army of the Potomac in the spring of 1865, Richmond was finally in Union hands on April 3. Just days later, Robert E. Lee surrendered what remained of the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, a pivotal event that helped spark the subsequent capitulation of other Confederate forces across the South, bringing the bloody Civil War to a close.

Robert E. Lee surrendering to Ulysses S. Grant in the small parlor of Wilmer and Virginia McLean’s home in the rural town of Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9, 1865. (Photo Credit: National Park Service)

The intensity of the fighting and the challenges that arose during the final year of the Civil War were truly staggering, but through it all, Grant never allowed anything to steer him from his course to bring the struggle to a close. By fully comprehending the big picture of the war and harmonizing the many armies under his command so that they functioned as one grand war machine, he won the war and saved the Union from ruin.