This installment of my series on leadership and success is largely based on my Amazon article, “Bloody Shiloh and the Rise of U.S. Grant.”
It would be difficult to find a more nondescript beginning to success than that of U.S. Grant, who rose from several failures in civilian life to become General of the Army on behalf of all Union forces during the Civil War and then went on to become 18th President of the United States.
The Civil War had begun badly for Union forces, marked by their 1861 fiasco at Bull Run in Northern Virginia. Following the Bull Run debacle, President Lincoln began a long and difficult search for reliable military leaders.
With the dawn of 1862, few on either side would foresee how immensely the war would grow in size and scope. As prospects for peace receded, few areas were left unaffected. Even the western states became involved as Confederate troops from Texas invaded New Mexico, drawing in Union fighters from California and Colorado.
While the battle of Bull Run centered on a rail junction, the conflict in the West revolved around control of a different form of transportation, i.e., the rivers of the Mississippi Valley, vital lifelines for the Confederacy. Throughout 1861, little attention had been paid to the river network emanating southward from Cairo, Illinois, located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. But in early 1862, these rivers became the scene of heavy fighting and decisive action. Reflecting its enormous strategic value, Cairo had become a large Union military and naval base, providing access to the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland River complex. These rivers had long been major thoroughfares for the transportation of food, livestock, timber, and iron, but now became vital for the transport of different commodities, those which were indispensable to the conduct of any war – men, equipment, armaments, and munitions. Retention of Cairo as a Union base was therefore of vital importance.
Following the Union Army’s fiasco at Bull Run in northern Virginia, on July 25, 1861 President Abraham Lincoln appointed Major General John Fremont as commander of the Union Army’s Western Department. It was in the Western Theater where Grant became first known and began to emerge as a military leader. Despite Fremont’s speckled background, Lincoln had high expectations for the intrepid California pathfinder, who was to play a pivotal role in launching Grant’s military career. He had been in France at the start of the War, but returned to Washington to receive his appointment as Major General, and was made commander of the Western Department, covering all of the territory between the Mississippi River and the Rockies, plus the state of Illinois.
On August 30, 1861, Fremont, in a far-sighted move, appointed then unknown Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant to command the Military District of Southeastern Missouri, whose headquarters was in strategically located Cairo, Illinois, where the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers met. This appointment marked the beginning of Grant’s military odyssey.
On November 7, 1861, operating from his base at Cairo, Grant made his debut as a military commander as he took five regiments down the Mississippi and attacked the Confederate outpost at Belmont, Missouri. This attack was launched as a diversion in aid of another Union effort in Missouri. Grant’s attack initially resulted in a rout of rebel forces there but he was soon surrounded as the Rebels, led by Major General Leonidas Polk, an Episcopal Bishop, counterattacked using forces from the heavily fortified Rebel stronghold across the river at Columbus, Kentucky, the “Gibraltar of the South.” Overruling some of his officers who advised surrender, Grant replied bluntly to the effect that they had cut their way in and they would cut their way out, a reply that reflected his refusal to panic, a trait that became commonplace in future operations. The breakout was accomplished, not without Union loss, but heavier losses were inflicted on the Confederates.
The battle of Belmont was of little importance in the overall conduct of the war, and in fact, according to Grant himself, was criticized in the North as being wholly unnecessary. But it exemplified Grant’s coolness under fire, his indomitable will, and provided needed confidence for the troops under him who were raw recruits from Illinois and Iowa. Lincoln did not realize it yet but Grant would become the general he needed to take charge of the overall war, one whose able efforts stood out in contradistinction to the mostly inept efforts of Pope, Hooker, McClellan, and other Union generals.
The resounding Union victory at Fort Donelson, February 14-16, 1862, led by Grant, was celebrated all the way East in Washington. Lincoln rewarded Grant with a promotion from Brigadier general to Major General, placing him as the 10th ranking man in the U.S. army. His reputation in the North soared and he became an overnight sensation. Grant’s initials caused some to quip that they stood for “Unconditional Surrender.” An aura of importance now surrounded his name, and his fame led to an appearance on the cover of Harper’s Weekly. Grant’s strategy, which was to become clear as the war progressed, was simple enough – destroy the Confederacy’s armies wherever they were found. It was a strategy he would pursue to the war’s end.
It was an amazing personal and professional turnaround, considering Grant’s obscure beginning. His early life gave no hint as to the military and political success which was to later overtake him. He entered West Point in 1839 at age 17. Although he was a West Point graduate, he did not distinguish himself academically while at the Academy. For Grant, military life was no charm. He did not consider the military as a calling and had no interest in pursuing an army career but intended to seek a college professorship.
Although his seedy, unkempt appearance was unsettling, because of his military experience in the Mexican War he had been appointed by Illinois Governor Yates as a Colonel in the 21st Illinois, which was originally a state organized regiment but subsequently mustered into United States service those men who were willing to volunteer for three years of war. Later, Illinois Congressman Elihu Washburne, who liked Grant, and with only one name to submit at his disposal, submitted Grant’s name for appointment as Brigadier General, which was approved. Grant had been in the right place at the right time. It was an inauspicious beginning of a remarkable career for a man who was to ultimately wind up in the White House some eight years later as the eighteenth President of the United States.
Grant had now established himself as a resolute commander who could be counted on, one who accepted responsibility for his assignments without complaining about lack of sufficient troops, a commonplace complaint heard from other officers. “I can’t spare the man. He fights,” was the compliment Lincoln reportedly paid him, an extraordinary compliment considering the difficulties Lincoln had had with other Union generals, particularly McClellan, who, according to Lincoln, had the “slows.” Grant ultimately proved himself the ablest commander in the Union army. According to Civil War historian Douglas S. Freeman in his book “Lee’s Lieutenants, A Study in Command,” his capabilities were well recognized by the Confederacy, which viewed him as an “able, self-reliant, aggressive adversary.” And as noted by General Horace Porter in his book, “Campaigning With Grant,” perhaps no more telling observation of Grant’s make-up was made than by Confederate General James Longstreet, who warned that Grant “…will fight us every day and every hour till the end of the war.”
Arnold G. Regardie