From the Annals of the Civil War – In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as Lieutenant General in command over all Union forces. Grant was promoted from Major General in command of the western front of the War with the Armies of the Tennessee and Cumberland. From this point on, the fate of the Nation rested largely in the hands of one rather ordinary man who had both a hatred and genius for war. At the beginning of the war, if anyone had suggested that Sam Grant, the failed shopkeeper and farmer from Ohio, would rise to command the entire Union Army, the laughing and knee slapping would have gone on for hours. In fact, Grant himself would probably have thought that he might aspire to be a competent Brigade commander based on his West Point training and experience in the Mexican-American War. Grant’s primary experience had been as a quartermaster in charge of supplies and provisions. From that work, Grant knew exactly what was required for fighting units to succeed. His first units were superbly equipped and it showed on the battlefield. Grant’s victories at Forts Henry and Donelson were two of the very few early Union successes and were widely publicized in the North. These victories secured him a quick promotion to Major General and command of the Army of the Tennessee. And his victory at Shiloh, at almost unspeakable cost for both sides, secured him a top leadership position for the remainder of the war. Grant understood that just being in the Army was the greatest danger most soldiers faced. More troops were dying from illness and disease than from combat wounds. It was a brutal numbers game, but he was determined to bring the war to a swift conclusion by fighting. The 30 Days campaign was intended to do just that and it broke the back of the Army of Northern Virginia. Even though the war on the Eastern front settled into trench combat for many months, the 30 Days Campaign assured ultimate Union victory. It is not hyperbole to say that but for U.S. Grant, there is no United States of America as we know it.
Grant has been much maligned over the years as an incompetent general and corrupt politician. His skill as a military man should be unquestioned. His greatest blunder was at Cold Harbor where troops were forced to wait to assault Confederate lines giving the rebels a chance to dig in. Grant was forthright in acknowledging his mistake. But as a general, he knew he had the power of men and might on his side and used them effectively. As President (for Grant was not a politician), his administration had several notable achievements. He secured the Treaty of Washington which ended all disputes between the U.S. and Great Britain and set in place the greatest alliance of the past 175 years, he almost single-handedly stopped the extirpation of the plains Indians, he balanced the budget, he supported the rights of the freedmen in the South (who were later abandoned by the Republican Party), and negotiated the annexation of the Dominican Republic (which was stopped by a short-sided Congress).
There is some new thinking on Grant, exemplified by Jean Edward Simith’s tremendous biography Grant. And if you are in the mood for an excellent read on Texas in the late 1840’s, read Grant’s Memoirs.