- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2006

Even in his own day, Ulysses S. Grant was sometimes likened to the Sphinx. Inscrutable and inarticulate, he had little of the charisma associated with great soldiers. He had few friends, and they generally were Army colleagues such as William Tecumseh Sherman and John Rawlins. His life before the Civil War had brought one business failure after another, doubtless with some damage to his self-esteem.

The most recent author to attempt to decipher the “silent soldier” is Edward Longacre, a prominent Civil War historian whose earlier works include biographies of Gens. John Buford and Wade Hampton. Mr. Longacre has not provided a full biography of his subject but covers him just until the end of the war. He seeks to tell us what made Grant tick.

The general did not have a happy childhood. Although he had a fairly good relationship with his father, his mother, Hannah, was remote and cold. Even when Grant became the hero of the nation, he could elicit no praise from his mother, and she never found time to visit Washington during her son’s eight years in the White House. Mr. Longacre lays all this out for the reader without descending into psychobabble.

Pressed by his father, Grant sought and received an appointment to West Point. There he failed to distinguish himself but was widely regarded as the best rider at the academy. He graduated in 1843 but took an early dislike to garrison life. He had a way with horses, not with people.

Although out of sympathy with the Mexican War, he served in Mexico with some distinction. By then he was engaged to Julia Dent, a dumpy St. Louis girl whose father took a dim view of Grant as a prospective son-in-law.

“Sam” Grant and Julia were married in 1848, however, and enjoyed several happy years until Grant was transferred to a remote California post. Lonely for his wife and children, he began to drink. Warned by his commanding officer to shape up, Grant chose to resign from the Army in 1853.

This was the beginning of a dark period for Grant, who was unsuccessful as a farmer and shopkeeper. The outbreak of the Civil War found him a clerk in his brother’s tannery in Galena, Ill., and his initial application for military duty went unanswered in Washington.

Then his luck turned. After being appointed to command a regiment in June 1861, Grant was promoted quickly to brigadier general and given command of a military district with headquarters at Cairo, Ill. There he proposed to his superior, Gen. Henry W. Halleck, that he attempt to capture two Confederate river posts, Forts Henry and Donelson, which he perceived as vulnerable.

Fort Henry fell quickly, and Grant invested nearby Fort Donelson. To a Confederate request for an armistice, Grant replied, “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” Donelson fell, and “Unconditional Surrender” Grant became a hero in the North.

Grant moved south, and the Confederates, led by Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, gathered around Corinth, Miss., to meet him. Fully aware that he was near a large enemy force, Grant set up no defense line and ordered no patrols. When Johnston attacked on April 6, 1862, he achieved total surprise and fell just short of driving Grant’s army into the Mississippi. The arrival of Federal reinforcements, however, brought victory the following day.

Federal casualties at “bloody Shiloh” took some of the luster from Grant’s name, but in Washington he enjoyed the reputation of a fighter. In the fall of 1862, Grant turned his attention to the key Confederate fortress at Vicksburg. After several setbacks, he abandoned his supply lines, crossed the river south of Vicksburg and proceeded to besiege the fortress from the east.

On July 4, 1863, Vicksburg fell.

Throughout this period, there were rumors of Grant’s drinking. Mr. Longacre is at his best in dealing with this controversial subject, for Grant was not your typical drunk. He could go for months without a drink and then would go on a destructive rampage. His staff and friendly newsmen conspired to keep his lapses out of the press.

In April 1864, Grant was ordered east to take on his greatest challenge, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. To a staff officer he snapped that he was tired of hearing dire warnings of what Lee might do; he, Grant, would set the tone of the campaign.

The result was a six-month campaign in which Grant lost more men than Lee had in his entire army, but the Federals succeeded in besieging Richmond and Petersburg. On April 3, 1865, the Federal Army entered Richmond, and six days later, Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

Although Grant would be dismissed as a “butcher” by some, one of his aides was impressed by how Grant was “visibly affected by his proximity to the wounded, and especially by the sight of blood. … He felt most keenly the painful spectacle presented by the field of battle.” He and Lee shared an abhorrence of cruelty to animals, an attitude that once led Grant to strike a teamster who was abusing his team.

Mr. Longacre does not find Grant to have been a military genius, but a man of extraordinary persistence. “One quality more than any other, which he had acquired at an early age, had brought him [to Appomattox] — a determination to forge ahead, once he had set a course, and never turn back, no matter how many swollen, angry rivers barred his path.”

Mr. Longacre may not have solved the riddle of the Sphinx, but he has brought us closer to the real U.S. Grant, and done so in graceful prose.

John M. Taylor lives in McLean. His Civil War books include “Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E. Lee and His Critics.”

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