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General Ulysses S. Grant – a Great War Leader

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On June 3, 1864, the Union and Confederate armies met on a battlefield in Cold Harbor, Virginia. The Confederates were well entrenched and prepared to mount a defensive stand. The Union soldiers on the other side of the lines were preparing for an attack that would prove to be disastrous. They knew what the outcome would be. In only 20 minutes of fighting, 7,000 Union soldiers were killed or wounded. As the Yankees prepared to go into action, many began sewing tags with their names on them into their clothes so their bodies could be identified after their deaths. One dead Union soldier was found with a small diary in his pocket. The final entry, dated June 3, 1864, read simply, ‘I was killed’.

Many men like him knew they were going to die that day, and yet they went forward anyway, and met their fates. Many people, military and civilian, questioned the intelligence of the attack, and rightfully so. But the decision was made, and the men carried it out. They carried it out because it was given by General Ulysses S. Grant, the man who was the first to continually win battles against Robert E. Lee, and the man who finally won the war for the United States. They carried it out because Grant was perhaps the most respected general ever to serve in the U.S. Army to that point. They carried it out because Grant was a leader.

Grant was not always the leader that won the war and became president. He was first a failure in business, a quiet young soldier with little social life, a general whose peers criticized him and charged him with drunkenness, and later a president plagued by scandal and rumor.

Ulysses S. Grant was born to Jesse and Hannah Grant on April 27, 1822, in Point Pleasant, Ohio, then still a frontier town on the Ohio River. Ulysses was the oldest of six children, two boys, Simpson and Orvil, and three girls, Clara, Virginia, and Mary. He was named Hiram Ulysses, but was called Ulysses by almost his entire family, mainly because his father had favored that name originally. Jesse was an outspoken man who was well respected as a tanner, a profession at which he eventually became very prosperous. He was an abolitionist and Whig who was nearly alone in a part of Ohio populated by tobacco-growing Southerners. He wrote many vain letters to the editor, most of which were more right than wrong in their statements. Jesse was quirky, overly well-dressed, and very proud of Ulysses. Hannah, on the other hand, kept to herself. She was a strict Methodist whose only un-baptized child was Ulysses. Hannah was not exactly negligent in her motherly duties, but she did show a noticeable degree of indifference to their safety, and their achievements. She never hugged her children, and rarely showed affection.

The Grant family soon moved to Georgetown, Ohio, where Ulysses received local schooling before attending boarding schools in Maysville, Kentucky and Ripley, Ohio. He despised working for his father in the tannery, although that would not be a problem for long, because he received an appointment to West Point in 1839. It was then that he became known as Ulysses S. Grant. Fearing the ridicule of his future classmates, he changed the initials on his luggage from ‘H.U.G.’ to ‘U.H.G.’ The man who signed his papers, however, thought that his middle initial was S, and so after repeated attempts at trying to fix his new name, Grant resigned himself to it.

This resignation was a trait he showed often. Rather unlike his braggart father, Grant was quiet, and the harshness with which upperclassmen treated new cadets was less appealing to Ulysses than anyone. He did not particularly excel in any subject, although he made a fair showing in math without studying much. He eventually graduated twenty-first out of thirty-nine.

It was at West Point, however, that Grant met Fred Dent, brother of Julia Dent, Grant’s future wife. Julia was the daughter of a slaveholding Southerner from Missouri. Grant was stationed as a brevet second lieutenant near St. Louis in 1843, and was often able to visit Julia. Shortly before the outbreak of war with Mexico, Grant proposed to Julia, and they were officially engaged. While Grant got along well with Julia’s family, he often engaged, or rather was engaged by her father, in slavery debate. While Grant did not like slavery, he would eventually own slaves through Julia, and so his willingness to debate was probably based solely on an effort to please his father-in-law.

Before these debates, however, came the war with Mexico. Grant never exactly stated his position on the U.S. involvement with Mexico and Texas during the war, but later he let it be known that he did not agree with the way the issue was pushed. War was declared In 1846, and Grant went with the 4th Infantry as company commander and later regimental quartermaster, a duty considered very important for the large army in Mexico.

Ulysses was on hand for most of the most important battles. At the battle of Chapultepec, Grant and several other men gained good positioning for a cannon, and their fire from the spot gained a great advantage for the U.S. forces, who eventually won the battle and the war. Grant was recognized for his work, and was awarded a brevet captaincy. He was also given generally favorable remarks in battle reports.

After the war, the army stayed in Mexico, sorting things out. Grant severely missed Julia, and most of his letters to her express this. He also wrote to her of his feelings during battle. ”Although the balls were whizzing thick and fast about me, I did not feel a sensation of fear…they have less horror when among them than when in anticipation”. After the horrors of battles had ceased, Grant went to see a bullfight, but left before it was over, disgusted with the cruelty to animals.

This war did more than just open up the young troops to new things. Men like Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, and Grant himself were basically trained in war for the first time. They formed friendships, Grant with Dent and Longstreet especially, and set the stage for their own military careers.

The army returned in 1848, and Grant and Julia were married in August. His new post was in Detroit, where Julia gave birth to a son, Fred, in 1850. Grant had much spare time, and generally socialized with army circles. He drank, and ‘…invariably stood on the fringe, never dancing, seldom speaking’ at social gatherings.

Grant’s regiment was moved to California in 1852. Julia was expecting another child, and could not go. Grant longed for his family more than ever. ”I am almost crazy sometime to see Fred,” he wrote Julia. It was then that he began to drink to push away his loneliness. He tendered his resignation, and returned home in July, settling with Julia and his two sons on a sixty-acre farm given to them by Julia’s father in Missouri.

The family grew with a daughter, Ellen, and another son. Grant built a house, named it Hardscrabble, and proceeded to fail miserably as a farmer. He gave farming up after two years which saw him pawn his gold watch, and set one of his new slaves free, when he could have sold him and got out of trouble.

Grant then became a partner in a rental collection and real estate agency with Julia’s cousin, Harry Boggs. But he was not determined enough to be a collector, and so he tried and failed to get a job as a county engineer. He lost a later job in the St. Louis Custom House when the owner died, and finally turned back to his family’s own leather business in Galena, Illinois. He was working there as a clerk when the war that would change his life began.

When the Civil War began in April of 1861, Grant reenlisted. He did not show any great enthusiasm, but simply felt like he could make himself useful with his prior training. He did this mainly by helping to organize Ohio and Illinois volunteer regiments, whipping them quickly into shape. He was promoted to brigadier general in August, in charge of the 21st Illinois regiment, protecting the boundaries around Kentucky and Ohio. He quickly gained control of Paducah, Kentucky to counteract Confederate movements. This and his nature of staying with things once he started made him very popular with his troops.

Grant spent most of the beginning of his Civil War career in what is known as the Western Theater. He eventually became commander of the Army of Tennessee, after being second in command behind General Halleck. Halleck never liked Grant, and after Grant practically ignored an order to stay put and attacked Fort Donelson, his disdain for him grew stronger.

It was during this attack that Grant told the Confederate commander that he would accept ‘no terms but unconditional surrender.’ The enthralled civilian public now began to say that the U.S. in his name must have stood for Unconditional Surrender. They had found a hero.

Cutting into the heart of Tennessee, Grant and his forces eventually arrived near a small church in Tennessee known as Shiloh. It was here that one of the bloodiest battles of the war was fought. Grant and his forces nearly lost the battle several times, and the fighting was done mainly by inexperienced soldiers and leaders. In the end, the Union forces were victorious after two days of fighting and over 25,000 combined casualties.

After Shiloh, many people called for Grant’s removal from power. Leaders like Halleck had continually blasted Grant for his drinking habits. It is still not known if Grant was an alcoholic, but he certainly enjoyed drinking. For his part, commander-in-chief Abraham Lincoln responded to criticisms of Grant’s drinking by saying that he wished to know what brand of whiskey Grant drank, so he could send it to all of his generals.

Part of what would silence these critics, at least for a time, was Grant’s masterful capture of the Mississippi River, culminating with the taking of Vicksburg in July of 1863. Vicksburg was the key to taking the Mississippi, and the Mississippi was the key to dividing the Confederacy. For two months, he laid siege to the city, finally deciding to cross the river below the city and attack from behind. Grant was constantly alongside the lines during the slow march, dirty and watching, but egging his troops to close up their ranks and continue.

After winning five tough battles on the way, Grant finally surrounded the city of Vicksburg. After trying an assault, the Army of the Tennessee prepared for a siege. He bombarded the city every day from April until July. Finally, worn out, the Confederates surrendered Vicksburg on July 4, 1863.

Grant was once again a hero, and people who had lambasted him for his drinking, go-ahead attitude, sloppiness, and any other problems they could find were now praising him above all others.

Despite his detractors, Grant was appointed lieutenant general, and commander of all the Union forces. The Army of the Potomac consisted of 500,000 men, and Grant soon took them southward in what he hoped would be a final push toward the capitol of Richmond.

The first major fight was in a dense forest in Virginia known as the Wilderness. The battle was chaos, and was made worse by having to fight the usually unbeatable Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Lee finally smashed Grant’s flank, ceasing the battle for a time. After the first day of battle, Grant cried in his tent; the next day, he began a march. No other general before him had marched much at all, and Grant now did it after a defeat, instilling confidence in his men and a public that had watched slower generals fumble about for too long.

The army moved on to Spotsylvania, where the firing never ceased for two days. These types of battles continued for a month, with Grant trying to move around the Confederate flank repeatedly, trying to get to Richmond.

It was during this series of flanking maneuvers that the battle of Cold Harbor occurred. Cold Harbor was Grants’s only regret. Lee was entrenched, and there was now a deadlock. Grant was accused of using his men as if they were not human. He was called ‘The Bloody Butcher’ for his head-on tactics.

Finally, Grant and his troops crossed the Potomac on pontoons, and headed toward Petersburg, Virginia, south of Richmond. There was a slow attack, and it allowed the Confederates to reinforce their trenches. A siege that lasted 10 months began. On March 25, the Rebels mounted a small attack that was soon met with a counter attack that finally pushed the Confederates out of Petersburg. As with the other battles in the campaign, there was a great cost to Grant’s forces, but he was now nearer to Richmond than ever.

The Confederate government was moved, and Richmond was evacuated; the fleeing people burnt the city behind them. Grant’s army moved in, and the Confederate capitol now belonged to him, while Lee and his army retreated to a small crossroads town called Appomattox Court House. Grant followed quickly behind him, with a force nearly 5 times larger than Lee’s.

Grant wired Lee in April, asking him to surrender. The Rebel army was surrounded and nearly out of supplies, and Lee agreed to meet Grant and sign a treaty of surrender on April 9, 1865. They met at a local home, called the MacLean house, in the evening. Lee came dressed as finely as possible for a great general, and Grant arrived spattered with mud and wearing a private’s jacket. Grant offered extremely generous terms; he allowed those with horses to keep them, and arranged to give Lee rations to feed his starving troops. As Lee rode off, Grant hushed his cheering troops, saying that they should not gloat, and that the Rebels were now their countrymen.

Thus ended what most consider the highest point of Grant’s life. He had failed in all until the war began, and now had achieved the final and greatest victory of the entire war. Now what followed, his presidency, is considered to be perhaps the worst presidency in the history of the United States.

Grant was elected easily on the Republican ticket in 1868. His eight years in office would prove to be disastrous to his reputation; he appointed cabinet members almost recklessly, and these members made his administration a shambles. Jay Gould and James Fisk, Jr. had schemed ‘to inflate the price of gold and corner the market, and their scheming ended on September 24, 1869…’ or Black Friday. Grant ordered a large gold supply to be sold in order to lower the price, but many businessmen were already ruined, and one of Grant’s in-laws had already been involved.

The next scandal occurred in 1871, when Grant refused to step in on political turmoil in Louisiana. William Kellogg, the Republican governor, had won a recent election in a very suspicious manner. When Grant and others in Washington refused to step over party boundaries and investigate, riots nearly erupted in Louisiana.

Grant’s third scandal was the near impeachment of his Secretary of War, William W. Belknap. Belknap had been ‘…accepting bribes from western traders who were cheating the Indians’. All of these problems, coupled with the ever present allegations of drunkenness throughout his two terms as President, nearly crippled Grant’s reputation forever in the hearts of the American public.

In 1877, Grant, now a private citizen, toured the world with his wife. They received wondrous greetings from every country they visited, and Grant returned to the U.S. as a revitalized man. But it would not last for long. He invested in a crooked banking house in 1881, and lost most of his family’s savings and means of support.

He began to write articles for books in 1884, the same year in which he found out he had throat cancer. Soon, he was approached by Mark Twain, who offered to give Grant seventy percent of the profits if Grant would let him publish his memoirs. Dying, Grant saw it as the only way to save his family from poverty after his death.

By the summer of 1885, Grant could not talk, but struggled heroically to complete the memoirs and save his beloved family. He passed his final days on a cottage porch in the Adirondacks. U.S. Grant died on July 23, 1885. He was buried in Manhattan. He left his family, a grieving nation, and the legacy of a man who struggled in everything but war behind him.

It was a confused legacy, however, and one that seems to have Grant always on the edge of popularity and downfall. In his early years, he was overlooked to the point of having his name changed unwillingly. A failure in everything except war, Grant was criticized incessantly even during times of war, and more incredibly during times in which he was helping to win the war. His drinking may have led him farther from society than he already was, and his timidity still farther. During his presidency, he was plagued by scandal, and was one of the most unpopular Presidents of all time. His serious demeanor and straight ahead manners resulted in horrendous casualties in wartime, and great scandals during his presidency. After the presidency, he seemed to return to his bungling business dealings, and it was only by struggling through throat cancer that he secured a livelihood for his family before his death. Yet he is still seen, probably rightfully, as one of the greatest Americans ever born. Ulysses S. Grant may have been the embodiment of the born soldier who knew nothing else. He seemed a societal outcast during the war, and even when he was popular enough to become President of the United States, he eventually lost that popularity to scandal. Grant was marginal in that he and society never seemed to understand each other, and his life is a series of ups and downs within that society, and perhaps even fighting it.

Grant was a man who had control of two of Gardner’s (1993) intelligences: interpersonal and logical. He could move and supply armies with ease, and it is no small feat to move the largest army in the world smoothly. He was an excellent horseman, but otherwise possessed no great physical qualities. His spelling and writing skills were horrendous, and he could recognize only two tunes. One was Yankee Doodle Dandy, and the other, he said, was not.

So with the two intelligences he did have, Grant proceeded to make a great man of himself. His skill in getting men to follow him with abandon is one of the skills that makes a great general, or any other leader. He demonstrated that he could this at Cold Harbor. He also showed knowledge of his enemy and his enemy’s mind. His logic in organizing supplies for the army was demonstrated early on in the Mexican War.

But it seems that his intelligences only served him in wartime, making almost another intelligence of their own, that of making war. As President, he severely lacked interpersonal skills in picking and managing his cabinet. He showed little knowledge of safe money handling strategies and lost most of his savings more than once. He was a Great War leader and general, and seemingly not much else but a kind man. 

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