Civil War Profiles — Recognizing the deeds of ‘Unconditional Surrender’ Grant

Date Published: 
Nov. 10, 2017

George Washington is honored as the father of the United States of America, and Abraham Lincoln is eulogized for having preserved the Union of states that became a true nation. Although not depicted on Mount Rushmore, nor considered a member of the American pantheon, Ulysses S. Grant provided the military leadership required to win the Civil War and bring the rebellious states back in the fold.


Countless books have extolled the virtues of both Washington and Lincoln over the years. Although not on the same scale in sheer volume, there are a considerable number of biographies that describe the life and times of “Sam” Grant, as his West Point classmates knew him.

A recent article, “The metamorphosis of Ulysses S. Grant” (Coastal Point, September 29, 2017), included two biographies: “Grant” by Jean Edward Smith, and “U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth” by Joan Waugh. It also mentioned the great general’s classic 600-page wartime account, “The Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant,” edited by E. B. Long — completed shortly before his death 1885.

These studies were just the tip of the iceberg. Take, for example, the fact that General Grant was a pioneer in the organization and application of intelligence systems and operations. This story is related in “Grant’s Secret Service: The Intelligence War from Belmont to Appomattox” by William B. Feis. The author, a history professor at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, analyzes Grant’s collection and use of military intelligence during his campaigns throughout the Civil War.

Arizona State University historian Brooks D. Simpson’s biography, “Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865,” focuses on the resurrection of Grant’s reputation from a tarnished general who bumbled into bloody battles, to that of a relentless warrior who understood the political implications of the war.

In the highly recommended “The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant,” former British general and noted military historian, J. F. C. Fuller, analyses Grant’s abilities as a military commander, and applies lessons learned from his own personal military experiences to strategy and tactics applied during the Civil War in general, and by Ulysses S. Grant in particular.

The men universally acknowledged as the two greatest Civil War commanders are examined in Gene Smith’s “Lee and Grant: A Dual Biography.” This description compares Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant from the standpoint of their personal characteristics and military proficiency. The two generals discover that neither one had previously faced as formidable an opponent.

An up close and personal view of the general is seen in “Campaigning with Grant” by Horace Porter, who served on Grant’s staff. He describes Grant’s actions as commander of the Union army, and sets the scene at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865 in the sitting room of Wilmer McLean’s home when Gen. Robert E. Lee arrived to surrender his army.

In “Grant, Lincoln, and Unconditional Surrender,” John Y. Simon discusses the various aspects of the relationship between President Lincoln and General Grant. In this chapter of the book “Lincoln’s Generals,” edited by Gabor S. Boritt, Simon demonstrates that Lincoln gave Grant considerable latitude as the Union army commander, but also made it clear that political decisions should be left to him, especially with regard to surrender terms that would be presented to the Confederates.

In another book that examines the relationship between the presidency and the military,” Lincoln and His Generals,” T. Harry Williams discusses Lincoln’s search for a competent general to lead the Union army; and, in the interim, Lincoln frequently acted as his own General-in-Chief. Although Grant did not enjoy enthusiastic support among politicians and military decision makers in Washington, Lincoln believed that Grant’s tenacity in fighting battles was the quality necessary for an army commander.

While there are many other studies and biographies about Grant, such as Bruce Catton’s “Grant Moves South;” Adam Badeau’s three-volume “Military History of Ulysses S. Grant, from April, 1861 to April, 1865;” William S. McFeely’s, “Grant: A Biography;” and W. E. Woodward’s “Meet General Grant,” to name a few, learning about the woman behind the success of this man is mandatory.

Start with “The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant” edited by John Y. Simon, and follow that with “The General’s Wife: The Life of Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant,” by Ishbel Ross. You will soon learn that the man who became known as “Unconditional Surrender” Grant owed most of his success in life and in the military to the steadfastness and influence of his beloved Julia — who, ironically, was a Southern woman from a slave-owning family.

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books, and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.