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Some thinkers work with a single fundamental idea, while others construct from a broad spectrum of insights and experiences. Common sense suggests that successful generals, those among the great captains of history, would be foxes. Carl von Clausewitz described war as a chameleon, with fog and friction defying even the keenest preconceptions. Napoléon Bonaparte warned against “making pictures” in advance of battle. Helmuth Graf von Moltke insisted, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” And from Marathon to Operation Iraqi Freedom the history of war is replete with examples supporting all three aphorisms. The Civil War career of Ulysses S. Grant suggests he was an archetypical fox. Grant experienced more theaters, more kinds of terrain and more situations than most of his counterparts. He commanded armies in the Mississippi Valley, Tennessee and Virginia. He fought over swamps and rivers, open country, forests and mountains. He began with an amphibious operation at Belmont in 1861. He conducted traditional sieges at Forts Henry and Donelson and head-on encounter battles at Shiloh and in the Wilderness. He withstood a siege at Chattanooga and broke it at Missionary Ridge. He executed a fast-paced, wide-ranging operational maneuver in the Vicksburg campaign and a more-focused version in the constant shifting of his axis of advance against General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the summer and fall of 1864. Capturing Vicksburg was a tour de force of movement, distraction and deception, surpassing in scale and consequences Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s iconic Valley campaign of 1862. In assaulting Richmond, Grant confronted a campaign of digging, where a unique synergy of entrenchments and firepower shaped the combat.

From start to finish Grant was flexible. Confronting a near-disaster on the first day of Shiloh in April 1862, he brought enough order out of chaos to drive the Confederates from the field the next day. When Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s flanking movement against Missionary Ridge stalled at Tunnel Hill, Grant transformed the Army of the Cumberland’s unauthorized frontal attack on the ridgeline into the key to victory. Grant challenged Lee’s entrenchments by direct assault at Cold Harbor in 1864, by using tricks like Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s mine at Petersburg, by flank marches and, finally, by repositioning the entire Army of the Potomac in the face of a skilled and determined enemy.

In short Grant appears to fit ideally the template of a martial fox. But that appearance is deceiving. Running through Grant’s performance in high command is a single shaping factor. Grant knew who he was—and he was not impressed with himself. He was 38 when the Civil War began—a West Point graduate who had not become a soldier by choice; his thrifty father saw the merit of a free college education. Grant described his cadet experience as “the most trying days of my life.” He began and ended them as an unpolished country boy, a “spear carrier” noted only for the rural skill of horsemanship. He then spent 11 years in the Army, rising only to the rank of captain despite his distinguished performance in the Mexican War—a conflict he regarded as unjust.

Had Grant been a principled war hawk, with a combat record to equal that of Alexander the Great, it would have made no difference in an army where promotion was strictly by seniority. Grant’s 1854 resignation put him in distinguished company: Sherman, George McClellan, Henry Halleck and a dozen others who would wear stars in the Civil War also sought wider opportunities out of uniform. Sherman became a bank manager and college superintendent, McClellan a civil engineer and Halleck a lawyer. Grant turned to farming, went broke, sold firewood door to door in St. Louis and washed up as a clerk in his father’s tannery in Galena, Ill.—a charity job if there ever was one. He was still there when the war began in 1861.

Nor did he become an overnight military success, even in the confused inexperience that defined Union mobilization in the Ohio-Mississippi valley. He spent three months hawking his services from office to office and got a colonel’s commission in the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry because his predecessor’s incompetence was too crass and comprehensive to be overlooked. He became a brigadier general by negative patronage: A congressman had no other viable candidate from his district.

Underlying all of Grant’s military experiences was a tag that has clung to him ever since: alcoholic, alcohol-dependant, binge drinker or plain drunk. The meme was familiar enough to have inspired James Thurber to write a 1930 piece for The New Yorker in which an inebriated Grant surrenders to Lee at Appomattox. The pattern was also familiar—beginning after the Mexican War as a reaction to loneliness and boredom and more or less controllable during the Civil War by varying combinations of willpower shaped and sustained by oft-overlooked religious convictions, the supporting presence of his family and the “tough love” of his staff, especially his adjutant, Brig. Gen. John Rawlins.

In Grant’s time alcohol use and abuse were subject to drastic moral and religious judgments. Grant’s situation, however, incorporates anomalies. Certainly Grant was not a man unable to ignore an empty glass or a full bottle. He is repeatedly and reliably quoted as saying that while at times he could drink freely, at others a glass of light wine was too much. He was absolutely correct—and the result could be rapid, public, spectacular intoxication, at least three times in 1863 alone. Civil War armies included a high proportion of hard-drinking men, and a high proportion of those somehow found explanation if not redemption. The Union brigadier who took solace in a bottle while his division was being shattered in the Crater is described as turning to alcohol to alleviate malaria symptoms. The biography of a Confederate general who thoroughly and at times indiscriminately “appreciated good whiskey” ends with a quotation from one off his soldiers to the effect that “he had his faults but we all loved him.”

These men, and most of their counterparts, drank under stress; Grant during the war drank in its absence. The crucial difference, however, was that Grant was a public drunk and a sloppy drunk. To cold-water temperance advocates—there were many in the Union army—and to controlled drinkers as well, that made him an embodiment of the fate lurking for those who overindulged. No less significantly, Grant was a man who could not “hold his liquor” in a country, an era and a profession in which that quality was an everyday test of masculinity. Before and after Charles Dickens, European observers of 19th century America described with varying degrees of horror, shock and amusement the high levels of low-quality hard liquor imbibed at all levels of society.

Deep into the 20th century heavy drinking remained a linchpin of socialization in America’s armed forces. Moreover, the Regular officer corps, before and during the Civil War, was a small, closed community in which rumor often substituted for fact and a negative image was easier to acquire than to shed. During the 1864–65 Siege of Petersburg, Grant was, according to some accounts, deliberately fed liquor by a senior subordinate, then placed on his horse and sent back to his headquarters covered in vomit. Was it jealousy, malice or something else?

It has been suggested that Grant’s successes as a general reflected the fact he had nothing to lose and could take chances his counterparts eschewed. A variation presents Grant as fundamentally an outsider in the Union command structure, an unmilitary general replicating his West Point experience by a studied indifference to the symbols of rank, playing against the system and winning more often than losing because of that system’s defects. Both fit a “fall and redemption” theme central to American culture, from Hester Prynne and Sam Houston to the latest public figure exiting a rehab program. But the evidence Grant was a man on a mission, a man with something to prove, is more inferential than substantive.

What is evident in Grant’s wartime behavior—and above all in his deathbed memoirs—is an unusual degree of self-awareness. Grant was neither confessional nor indeed particularly introspective. But in addressing his drinking, he had taught himself who he was far more accurately than any good- or ill-wishers could hope to match. When he looked inward, Grant had no illusions and few delusions. The nature of the Civil War pitilessly exposed the soft spots of senior officers— Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville, Maj. Gen. George Meade in Gettysburg’s aftermath, General Braxton Bragg at Chickamauga. Grant knew his soft spots when he assumed command of the 21st Illinois and periodically reminded himself of them in an unmistakable way.

The way Grant addressed his drinking arguably gave him a focal point for his character. As an operational commander from Belmont to Vicksburg, Grant manifested an underlying balance, never getting too high or too low; generally evaluating his subordinates and his soldiers accurately; seldom under- or overestimating his opponents. On the evening of July 6, 1862, Sherman encountered his commander after the dispiriting first day at Shiloh. “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” he said. “Yes,” Grant replied. “Lick ’em tomorrow, though.” Then he made it happen. In 1864, checked by Lee in the first battles of the Wilderness, Grant ordered the Army of the Potomac to a crossroads in the middle of nowhere. One way led back toward Washington; the other pointed south, toward the fight. When Grant and his staff took the hard road, the marching columns cheered him to the echo. Grant responded neither to the cheers, nor to the curses hurled at him in the aftermath of Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. Proverbs 24:16 reads, “For a just man falleth seven times and riseth up again.” Grant lived that quotation, personally and professionally.

That same mind-set shaped Grant’s evolving approach to strategy. As he saw “one big thing” operationally, he came to realize as well that the war was not a sequence of campaigns but “one big thing.” The stakes, he saw, were mortal: the survival of the Union, the persistence of slavery. Militarily the challenge was to develop and apply the Union’s superior resources systematically and coherently. As commander in chief of the Union forces, his master plan for 1864 involved deploying five armies against the Confederacy in different places but within the same time frame. The Army of the Potomac and Sherman’s army group in Tennessee would fix and defeat the main Confederate forces; simultaneous secondary operations against Mobile, on the James River and in the Shenandoah Valley would prevent the Confederates from using interior lines to transfer reinforcements, as had been done between Gettysburg and Chickamauga. Hard war, absolute war, total war—the definitions were best left to historians. What mattered at the time was the stark black and white of results.

This level of clear vision was remarkable, arguably unique, among Civil War generals. Of the politicians only Abraham Lincoln matched it. The president once said of Grant: “I can’t spare this man. He fights.” It was no less true that Grant thought—and thought in terms of a grand strategy and a grand design—in other words, “one big idea.” “He walked through a crowd as though solitary,” a woman once said of Grant. That can happen when a man knows one big thing about himself—and builds on it.

For further reading Dennis Showalter recommends Grant: A Biography, by William S. McFeely, Grant, by Jean Edward Smith, and The Autobiography of General Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs of the Civil War.

Originally published in the July 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.