Things History Got Wrong About Ulysses S. Grant

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A Brief History

On November 24, 1863, Union forces under the command of future President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant captured Lookout Mountain as part of the campaign to relieve the siege of Chattanooga, Tennessee by Confederate General Braxton Bragg.  Grant is known as the most successful Union general of the Civil War, and as the man most responsible for winning that war.  This much is true, but many of the other things we think we “know” about Grant are not so true.

Digging Deeper

For starters, Grant was not a drunkard.  As a young officer, he had a reputation for not being able to hold his liquor, but it was not because he drank so much.  It was apparently because he got affected more quickly and completely by alcohol than the other officers.  During the war, he was never, not even once, known to be drunk during any sort of action at all, even during surprise attacks by the Confederates.  One or two drinks would make him tipsy and he was careful not to exceed that.  Rumors of him not being able to handle liquor were spread by his rivals, both northern and southern, as they sought to discredit him.  

Grant is often said to have fought the war so brutally because of his abhorrence of slavery.  Well, he might have opposed slavery somewhat, but the fact is he is the last U.S. president to have owned a slave.  While trying his hand at farming in Missouri, Grant owned 1 slave.  When the farm failed, he freed that man.  Interestingly, Grant earned the ire of the neighboring slave owners by choosing to work his own farm right alongside his slave.

For his penchant for persistent attacks that got his men slaughtered, winning battles through sheer mass of numbers, Grant is also frequently referred to as a “butcher.”  Again, this image is the product of his enemies.  The Confederates, like almost all sides who have been beaten in a war, created the myth that their forces were superior soldiers who fought for a noble cause but lost the war through no fault of their own but as a result of simply being overwhelmed by the mass numbers of the North.  In reality, Grant was a gifted commander and tactician who cared about his men.  The Civil War just happened to be particularly bloody because rather than round balls, revolvers, repeating rifles and exploding cannon shells, rifled muskets that used more deadly and accurate “Minie ball” bullets that were quicker and easier to load were used instead.  Napoleonic tactics were used by both sides through much of the war, but with superior weapons, even more casualties than usual resulted. 

In contrast to General Lee who is portrayed by history as the consummate gentleman, Grant is painted to be an uncultured oaf.  In fact, although Lee came from a privileged background and had good manners, Grant came from much humbler beginnings but was still a compassionate and gracious victor who showed Lee and the defeated Confederate forces as much respect as possible.  Whereas Lee was born into wealth, Grant was much more of the “everyman” working class type who through hard work managed to get to and through West Point, and it was fate that placed him in his element in the Civil War.

In general, Grant enjoyed a good reputation and good public opinion in the 1800s and during his presidency.  It was during the 1900s that his reputation changed for the worse and remained so until scholars took the time to reevaluate his military career and presidency.  What do you think of Ulysses S. Grant?

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Historical Evidence

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.