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In November 1863, Ulysses S. Grant stood as the most successful Union general of the Civil War. “General Grant, out of a maze of tactics more wondrous than ever before puzzled the brains of observers afar off, has evolved a victory for our arms the importance of which it is impossible to estimate,” declared an admiring New York World. The victor at Fort Donelson, at Shiloh, at Vicksburg and at Chattanooga had demonstrated strategic brilliance and tactical success. “The art of war is simple enough,” Grant reportedly said. “Find out where your enemy is, get him as soon as you can, and strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.” Unlike his timid eastern Union counterparts, Grant was aggressive in battle and secured conquered territory to such an extent that no western Confederate general or army remained unscathed. Outwardly quiet and unpretentious, inwardly confident, Grant’s style of command was practical, flexible and, above all, decisive. Grant emerged a celebrated warrior-chieftain whose likeness was plastered on innumerable Northern posters, illustrations and postcards. Unprepossessing in real life, his visual representation spoke of power, of strength, of courage and of a country that would remain united. A thriving prewar commercial market for newspapers, journals, magazines and portraiture swelled to greater heights as it collided with a public hungry for war news and striking visual representations of famous battles and leading generals.

“In Civil War military portraiture Ulysses S. Grant…reigned supreme,” observed Mark E. Neely Jr. and Harold Holzer in The Union Image. Northerners eagerly followed his exploits with the aid of newspaper columns and journals filled with details of his victories in Mississippi and Tennessee. The author of an admiring book rushed into print in March 1864 previewed its content:

“The best introduction to this volume that can be written, is to state that the subject of it is but forty-one years of age; has participated in two great wars; has captured during the present struggle five hundred guns, one hundred thousand prisoners, and a quarter of a million of small arms; has redeemed from rebel rule over fifty thousand square miles of territory; has reopened to the commerce of the world the mightiest highway on the globe; has stubbornly pursued his settled path in spite of all obstacles, and has never been beaten. All this has been realized…for the sole and patriotic purpose of securing the restoration of the Union.”

In Nashville, a soldier captured Grant’s growing celebrity: “Gen. Grant passed through on the train and the soldiers who have never seen him lined the track and gazed at him as they would a caged animal, crowding as close as they can to the car, sticking their heads in the windows and gawking at him.” Lincoln wanted to appoint Grant the commander in chief of the Union armies. With Grant’s ascension in mind, Elihu Washburne was pushing a bill through Congress to revive the rank of lieutenant general, not bestowed since it was given to George Washington. The New York Tribune offered its approval: “Gen. Grant has fought more successful battles than any of our Generals.…His Vicksburg campaign last Summer is the most brilliant series of successes achieved during the war, while his later victory at Missionary Ridge argues that blending of audacity in conception with energy in execution which argues a decided Military genius.…Success and renown to Lieutenant-General Grant!”

Lincoln hesitated for a short time before promoting Grant, whose immense popularity had prompted some of the president’s opponents to think about him as a possible candidate in 1864. The pro-Democrat New York Herald proclaimed, “The next president must be a military man.” Herald editor James Gordon Bennett was pushing hard for Grant to run in the election on the Democratic ticket, replacing the hated Lincoln. A Herald editorial gushed: “The whole country looks up to him as the great genius who is to end this war, restore the Union and save us from the dangers which the end of the war may bring upon us.” Although Grant was in agreement with Republican policy by 1864, his political inclinations were unknown, and both parties courted him. Lincoln feared appointing another general-in-chief like George B. McClellan, a prominent Democrat and harsh administration critic who was also being touted as a candidate. Lincoln needed reassurance, as he put it, that Grant did not have the “presidential grub” gnawing at him. Grant eased Lincoln’s concerns through Washburne and others. In a letter responding to a prominent Democrat’s request that his name be forwarded as a candidate, Grant expressed astonishment and declared: “Nothing likely to happen would pain me so much as to see my name used in connection with a political office. I am not a candidate for any office nor for favors from any party.” Writing to his father, Grant vented his frustration at politicians who were pressuring him to run for office: “All I want is to be left alone to fight this war out, fight all rebel…opposition, and restore a happy Union, in the shortest possible time.” Lincoln was pleased by what he heard and never again worried about political competition from his top general.

Grant’s lack of interest in running for political office did not mean he was ignorant about the role of politics in the war. Lincoln’s statement in his second inaugural address—“The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends”—illuminates how little separation existed between politics and military in the war. To a greater or lesser extent, every Civil War general played two roles: soldier and statesman. Many fell by the wayside. The best struggled to meet the challenge. A few were very successful. U.S. Grant emerged as the leading Union general of the Civil War because he developed political skills that complimented his military abilities. “He understood,” observed T. Harry Williams, “as did no other general on either side, that there was a relation between society and war, that sometimes in war generals had to act in response to popular or political considerations.” And because of his deep understanding of politics, soldier-statesman Grant knew the president’s role as commander in chief of the war was unquestioned.

One excellent example of Grant’s political sagacity was his unstinting support for emancipation. In 1861, the “Union as it was” (i.e., with slavery) provided the justification for waging war. In 1863, the Union Cause was enlarged to include emancipation. Grant successfully set up a refugee camp in Grand Junction, Miss., intending it to serve as a prototype for a humane transition from slavery to freedom. The Emancipation Proclamation brought Northern resources and manpower to bear in the destruction of the South’s economy and society, and contained within it a provision for the recruitment and arming of black soldiers in the U.S. Army. Now, black men, mostly ex-slaves, would wear the blue Union uniform, and the Union Army would become the instrument of liberation for millions of black people. Emancipation was unpopular among Northern Democrats and contributed to the rise of a strident antiwar opposition; it was detested by Southern whites of all backgrounds, complicating greatly the conduct of the war and its aftermath.

Thus, the Federal army was placed in a position of responsibility for carrying out the political as well as military aims of the war. Military leaders were expected to recruit, train and lead largely volunteer forces; win on the battlefield; establish the rule of law over occupied areas; work to restore loyalty to the Union; and devise and implement an economic and social plan for the huge number of ex-slaves occupying contraband camps. The government made the voluntary enlistment of black soldiers in the U.S. Colored Troops a primary objective, and, writing through Henry Halleck, Grant assured the president of his support in this endeavor: “You may rely upon it I will give him all the aid in my power. I would do all this whether the arming of the Negro seemed to be a wise policy or not, because it is an order that I am bound to obey and I do not feel that in my position I have a right to question any policy of the Government.” Grant recognized that black freedom would give the Union Army a huge advantage. He knew that neither the Southern home front nor the army could operate without slave labor. Moreover, the formation of regiments filled with former slaves would provide a double blow to the Confederate cause. Despite the advantages of enrolling black soldiers, substantial opposition arose in the North, both on the home front and in the Army, among officers and ordinary soldiers alike. Grant brushed aside objections and initiated an energetic and efficient recruiting effort in the Western theater.

For the remainder of the war, Grant consistently voiced his support for African-American troops. After hearing Confederates had committed atrocities against black soldiers captured at the Battle of Milliken’s Bend, Grant wrote Confederate General Richard Taylor stating the Union’s policy: “I can assure you that these colored troops are regularly mustered into the service of the United States. The Government and all Officers under the Government are bound to give the same protection to these troops that they do to any other troops.” Later, The New York Times quoted Grant as saying he was determined “to protect all persons received into the army of the United States, regardless of color or nationality.”

Grant Secures Lincoln’s Presidency

In 1864 Lincoln turned to Grant to defeat the Confederate rebellion. An early historian of the War, James Ford Rhodes, wrote that Grant at this time “was now without question the most popular man in the United States. Both parties and all factions vied with one another in his praise…It happens to but few men of action to receive during their lifetime such plaudits as Gran received in the winter and early spring of 1864.” On March 3, Grant was ordered to Washington; on March 9, he received his commission as lieutenant general; and on March 10 he went to work. He had roughly two months—until May 4, when he crossed the Rapidan River, commencing the Overland Campaign—to analyze and master the political and military situation in the East; to concentrate a large number of scattered troops; to organize those troops into fighting forces and place them according to his strategic vision; and to formulate his “winning plan” for all Union military forces. He had to do all this under the scrutiny of Northern politicians, the press and the public, who expected, indeed demanded, a quick end to the war. A Republican senator expressed the typical sentiment: “He has organized victory from the beginning, and I want him in a position where he can organize final victory and bring it to our armies and put an end to the rebellion.”

As 1863 turned into 1864, the North celebrated the New Year with the expectation that the war could now be won quickly. Actually a careful observer would note that there were both hopeful and worrisome signs for the United States. Bitterness over the defeats suffered in the preceding winter and spring at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville to Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia was replaced with hope after a morale-lifting summer and fall victories—surely, the end of the rebellion was near. The Union controlled the Mississippi River; U.S. armies held Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia north of the Rapidan River and most of Louisiana; Federals occupied the majority of the coastal forts along the Atlantic and the Gulf. The situation invited optimism. Yet, large parts of Southern territory remained undisturbed. While the Confederate goal of independence could be achieved waging limited warfare, fulfillment of the Union cause required unconditional military victory, which meant not only winning battles, but also occupying Southern land and controlling the South’s people, a daunting task. Confederate citizens endured privations that would have been unthinkable in 1861, and morale remained high—as long as Lee’s army won battles.

Davis’ and Lee’s national strategy was to inflict huge casualties on the North, wearing down the will to fight. It almost worked. Lee laid out the scenario in a letter written in 1863, predicting that there “will be a great change in public opinion at the North. The Republicans will be destroyed & I think the friends of peace will become so strong as that the next administration will go on that basis. We have only therefore to resist manfully.” Virginia’s bountiful and strategically critical Shenandoah Valley remained in Confederate hands, and two experienced armies—Lee’s in Virginia and Joe Johnston’s in northwestern Georgia—were preparing for battle. Smaller Confederate armies in the trans-Mississippi posed a threat to Union security. Finally, five Union commanders in the Eastern Theater had failed to defeat the Confederates. Major General George Gordon Meade, the sixth, vanquished Lee at Gettysburg, although not decisively. The contending forces were encamped about 50 miles southwest of their 1861 positions, locked in stalemate, a situation that favored the Confederacy. Grant summarized the situation aptly: “In the East the opposing forces stood in substantially the same relations towards each other as three years before.…They were both between the Federal and Confederate capitals.” Lincoln’s previous field commanders had not taken the fight to the enemy. With the presidential election looming, this state of affairs had to be changed, and Lincoln bet his presidency that Grant was the man to do it.

Grant’s Legacy as a General

On the afternoon of March 8th, 1864, 41-year-old Ulysses S. Grant came into the Willard Hotel in Washington D.C., shaking off the rain that soaked the city’s streets that day. The desk clerk, unimpressed by this rather modest-looking man who asked for lodging, offered him one of the smaller rooms at the top of the establishment. Grant, lacking the retinue of many top officers and with his tired 14-year-old son, Fred, at his side, accepted the room and then signed in simply as “U.S. Grant and son, Galena, Ill.” The clerk, immediately aware of his mistake in treating the conquering hero of the Western theater like any ordinary general, recovered and offered him another room, “Parlor #6,” one of the finest suites in the hotel. From that time on, crowds gathered everywhere Grant went, making even the simple act of dining in the hotel an ordeal. Later that evening, Grant made an appearance at one of the Lincolns’ regular receptions. The reception was heavily attended, as everybody wanted a chance to view the man whom the president had called upon to command all the armies of the United States, and to direct Union victory. This occasion marked the first time Lincoln and Grant met. Lincoln recognized Grant right away and with his usual warm manner made the general feel welcome by saying, “Why, here is General Grant! Well, this is a great pleasure.” Grant ended the evening in the midst of a cheering throng in the East Room, where he stood on a sofa so that he could see and be seen by prominent Washingtonians. So far, Grant had made an excellent impression.

The commission was officially bestowed the next morning, March 9, in a ceremony at the White House. Lincoln underscored the immense importance of the occasion: “With this high honor devolves upon you also, a corresponding responsibility. As the country herein trusts you, so, under God, it will sustain you.”

Grant’s response was simple and heartfelt: “With the aid of the noble armies that have fought on so many fields for our common country, it will be my earnest endeavor not to disappoint your expectations. I feel the full weight of the responsibilities now devolving on me and know that if they are met it will be due to those armies, and above all to the favor of that Providence which leads both Nations and men.” Lincoln’s phrase is telling, “As the country herein trusts you, so, under God, it will sustain you.” The country trusted Grant to bring the war to its conclusion. Would it sustain him enough if he encountered difficulties? Lincoln and Grant met after the ceremony for some plain talk. Lincoln said he had never wanted to interfere with his commanding generals, but their reluctance to fight, coupled with congressional pressure, pushed him into the position of military commander. As Grant later related, “All he wanted or had ever wanted was someone who would take the responsibility and act, and call on him for all of the assistance needed.” Grant took this opportunity to assure him “I would do the best I could with the means at hand, and avoid as far as possible annoying him or the War Department.” Lincoln said Grant “doesn’t worry and bother me. He isn’t shrieking for reinforcements all the time. He takes what troops we can safely give him…and does the best he can with what he has got.” With that, Lincoln revealed an important element of Grant’s military success.

Adapted from U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth by Joan Waugh (University of North Carolina Press, November 2009)