Ulysses S. Grant: Civil War General and US President

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) made his mark in American history as the general who led US forces to victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War in 1865. In Grant, President Lincoln at last found a general whose tenacity and perseverance would win the war. As an American hero, Grant was later elected the 18th President of the United States (1869-1877).

West Point Cadet
In 1839, 17-year-old Hiram Ulysses Grant entered the US Military Academy at West Point, New York. He wrote a cheerful letter to a cousin about his experience: “On the whole I like the place very much. so much that I would not go away on any account. The fact is if a man graduates here he safe fer life. let him go where he will. There is much to dislike but mere to like. I mean to study hard and stay if it be possible.”

Grant’s watercolor of the view from West Point reflects the description of the Hudson Valley in his 1839 letter: “So far as it regards natural attractions it is decidedly the most beaut-iful place that I have ever seen; here are hills and dales, rocks and river; all pleasant to look upon. From the window near I can see the Hudson; that far famed, that beautiful river.”

Grant graduated in June 1843 and, after serving in the Mexican-American War, married Julia Dent, a classmate’s sister. In 1854 he resigned from the army, trying his hand at a variety of jobs to support his growing family.

Return to Duty
When the Civil War began in 1861, Grant quickly rejoined the army. He gained a reputation as a skilled and determined commander, and played a key role in securing the West for the Union.

In February 1862 Grant led a successful attack on Fort Donelson, a key Confederate base in Tennessee. He earned his nickname, “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, refusing to accept any terms but “unconditional and immediate surrender.”

Click here to read Grant's words on the fall of Fort Donelson.

Grant at Vicksburg
Control of the Mississippi River was critical to winning the Civil War, and Vicksburg was a key battleground. Grant and his troops reached the city in May. After two failed attacks, he settled in for a siege. On July 4, 1863, Grant accepted the surrender of Vicksburg, a momentous victory for the Union.

Grant’s orders to General Stephen Hurlbut reveal his belief that “Vicksburg is so strong by nature and so well fortified that ... it must be taken by a regular siege or by starving out the Garrison. ... The entire rebel force heretofore against me are completely at my mercy.”

This issue of the Vicksburg Daily Citizen, dated July 2, includes a new “Note” added later by the Federals: “Two days bring about great changes, The banner of the Union floats over Vicksburg. Gen. Grant has ‘caught the rabbit;’ he has dined in Vicksburg, and he did bring his dinner with him.”

Ira Blanchard, an Illinois soldier who fought at Vicksburg, wrote home, “Hencefort[h] the forth of July will have a new meaning and V. along with Yorktown and Bunkers Hill will enkindle a new luster in the patriots [hart].”

Click here to read Grant's words on the capture of Vicksburg.

Lincoln’s Partner in the Fight to Save the Union
Lincoln recognized both Grant’s resolve and his success on the battlefield, and believed that he had at last found a general who could win the war. Lincoln appointed Lt. General Grant commander of the Armies of the US in March 1864. Their partnership defeated the Confederacy, preserved the Union, and ended slavery.

On June 15, 1864, Lincoln sent a telegram confirming his confidence in Grant’s strategy: ”I begin to see it. You will succeed. God bless you all.”

Click here to read Grant's words on serving President Lincoln.

The End of the Civil War
After four years, major fighting in the Civil War ended with the Union capture of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, on April 2. General Robert E. Lee’s retreat was blocked on April 8, and he surrendered his army to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865.

Grant was generous in the terms he offered Lee: “The Officers give their individual parolls not to take up arms against the Govt. of United States … This done each officer, and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by the U. S. Authorities, as long as they observe their parolls, and laws in force where they may reside.”

Grant spent the months after Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s death traveling across the country, establishing military governments to enforce Reconstruction and protect newly freed African American men and women.

Click here to read Grant's words on the cause of the Civil War.

President of the United States
Grant was elected the 18th President of the United States in 1868. He oversaw the ratification of the 15th Amendment and supported the Radical Republican plans for Reconstruction in the former Confederate states. However, his political inexperience showed, and scandals and graft rocked both of his presidential terms.

Shortly after learning he had cancer in 1881, Grant began writing his memoirs of life as a soldier to fulfill public demand. He hoped that the sale of the books would support his family after his death.

A nation mourned Grant’s death on July 23, 1885, at age 63.

“Although a soldier by profession, I have never felt any sort of fondness for war, and I have never advocated it, except as a means of peace.” -Ulysses S. Grant, Memorial Life of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

Credits: Story

Developed by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

Grant, Ulysses S. Memoirs and Selected Letters: Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Selected Letters 1839-1865. New York: Library of America, 1990.

Allen, Stephen Merrill. Memorial Life of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Boston: Webster Historical Society, 1889.

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