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Ulysses S. Grant

In my leisure reading these days I have been very focused on the life and history of Ulysses S. Grant, the man who more than any single person made it possible for the north to win the Civil War in the 1860s..

More importantly, Grant’s unwavering offensive strategy in war, to never retreat, to always take the battle to the enemy, to always demand, as he wrote after winning his first major battle at Donelson, “complete and unconditional surrender,” and to always follow up that victory with grace and mercy, became the central tenet of American military and political strategy for the next eighty years, through the end of World War II. It is for this reason Grant in many ways could be considered among the four or five most influential individuals in American history.

In this leisured effort I have read a number of classic histories, including Shelby Foote’s three volume The Civil War: a Narrative and Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox. I also, as I always do when I am trying to learn something about history, read the original sources, and for this Grant’s own memoirs came next. (Historians such as I might try to get things right, but for any non-historian it behooves you to read some original sources as well. This will help you distinguish between the historians who succeed in getting it right, and those who don’t.)

I then followed most recently with Jean Edward Smith’s 2001 biography, Grant. The previous writing had focused only on the Civil War. This book gave me the story before and after.

Grant is a remarkable figure. He appears to have been an astonishngly honest and straightforward man, coldly rational about war and what must be done to win. He also was amazingly unambitious, even as he strove hard to succeed. It was his belief never to aim for a promotion, because he believed that effort would warp his judgment. Instead, he tried to do the best he could at any moment, and hoped that by his good works he would rise.

One story I think not only epitomized the character of Grant, but of the America of his time. After the war and the completion of his two terms as president, he went on a world tour, where he was greeted everywhere with honors and adulation. Upon his arrival in Berlin Chancellor Bismarck immediately invited Grant to come and visit.

[Grant] immediately returned the courtesy and a meeting was arranged for four o’clock that afternoon. Shortly before four, Grant left his apartment at the Kaiserhof, walked out the front door of his hotel, lit a cigar, and like any ordinary tourist, strolled a few blocks down Friedrichstrasse to the Radziwill Palace, taking in the sights as he went. Promptly at four he sauntered nonchalantly into the courtyard, tossed his half-smoked cigar away, and walked toward the front door as if he were going to knock to see if anyone was home. Startled sentries quickly came to present arms, Grant returned the salute, and two liveried servants threw open the palace’s massive door to welcome him. Immediately, Grant’s visit became the talk of Berlin. The ex-president of the United States had quietly walked over to see the chancellor of Germany. No coach. No team of prancing horses. No outriders, bodyguards, or military escort. It was all very un-European.

One quote by Grant might also teach us something about the worst sorts that unfortunately dominate today’s politics. Near the end of his presidency he was repeatedly forced to replace cabinet appointees due to corruption or incompetence, a sign of his own times. As he later said of this time,

The most troublesome men in public life are those over-righteous people who see no motives in other people’s actions but evil motives, who believe all public life is corrupt, and nothing is well done unless they do it themselves. They are narrow-headed men, their two eyes so close together that they can look out of the same gimlet hole without winking.

For any American, or anyone for that matter, who wishes to understand the best of this country, reading about Grant is probably one of the first places you should go. He was honest, forthright, courageous, and rational, even as he was also sometimes incredibly naive about others.

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  • Shaun Karry

    Good post Bob.

  • Col Beausabre

    ” Grant’s unwavering offensive strategy in war, to never retreat, to always take the battle to the enemy”


    Seize, retain, and exploit the initiative.

    Offensive action is the most effective and decisive way to attain a clearly defined common objective. Offensive operations are the means by which a military force seizes and holds the initiative while maintaining freedom of action and achieving decisive results. This is fundamentally true across all levels of war. ”

    US Army Field Manual 100-5 Operations

    This is the Army’s “Capstone” Manual and forms the core of the curriculum at the Command and General Staff College


    Offense is one of the Nine Principles of War, memorized by generations of cadets as MOSS MOUSE

    1) Maneuver
    2) Offense
    3) Surprise
    4) Simplicity
    5) Mass
    6) Objective
    7) Unity of Command
    8) Security
    9) Economy of Force

  • Col Beausabre: This all came out of Grant. Prior to him, the strategies pushed by American military experts were quite different, often focused not on offensive actions but on holding territory.

  • Bob, look at how Winfield Scott took México City. I love your website but think you’re wrong here,

  • Richard Easton: Point taken, but Scott might have been the exception rather than the rule. Note that the man who was Grant’s superior for the early part of the war, Henry Halleck, wrote Elements of Military Art and Science, which was then considered one of the major sources of military strategy by American military experts. In it, Halleck “emphasized fortifications, interior lines of operations, a strong supply base, and the occupation of territory (a war of position) rather than the destruction of enemy armies.” [From Smith’s Grant, p. 102n]. Halleck followed that approach, which is why he neutered Grant after his first big victory at Donalson. Nor was Halleck alone. His strategy was followed by the endless stream of generals that Lincoln struggled with, none of whom would bring the battle to the south.

    Smith notes that Grant was strongly influenced by the strategies used by both Scott and Zachary Taylor in Mexico. In this sense Grant had joined that side in the debate about how to win wars. After Grant, the debate about these strategies ended. Grant’s approach was accepted wholesale, for decades. He might not have invented this approach, but his use of it was what convinced the American military to adopt it.

  • Lee S

    I was not aware of Ulysses Grant ( I am a “Limey” after all! ), But the quote
    “Grant’s unwavering offensive strategy in war, to never retreat, to always take the battle to the enemy, to always demand, as he wrote after winning his first major battle at Donelson, “complete and unconditional surrender,” and to always follow up that victory with grace and mercy” reminds me very much of possibly the greatest military mind of all time, Alexander the Great.
    Their reasons for war were very different, and over 2300 years apart, but his attitude to the mechanics of battle seem very similar.
    I wonder if Grant was a student of ancient history?

  • Lee S: Grant had a typical education for the 1800s, which means he would be a valedictorian in today’s schools. That education almost always included a strong review of the ancient history of the Greeks and Romans.

    However, as an 1800s student, Grant was very mediocre, finishing from the middle to bottom half of his class in West Point, depending on subject.

    That you had never heard of him speaks volumes about your education. I assume then you never heard of Robert E. Lee either?

    Understand that my thumbnail description of his approach to warfare was not merely a tactical approach, applied in battle. He applied it strategically, across whole armies. When he was finally given full command of the Union army in the Civil War, he applied it across the entire theater, demanding that all his generals use it. And those who could not he replaced.

  • Cotour

    Question for the historians: Was Grant, or anyone else in the 1800’s in America, at all aware of Sun Tzu and “The Art Of War” and its principles?

    This counter balancing / wait and strike where and when not expected, more intelligent and nuanced philosophy related to warfare seems counter to Grants developed offensive power philosophy.

    I think benevolence after defeating the enemy, especially related to the American civil war is key to somehow moving into the future in a positive manner. Strong leadership combined with a strong benevolence model goes a long way to attempt to heal deep wounds, when applicable.

  • Lee S

    @ Bob… Your comment “That you had never heard of him speaks volumes about your education.” Speaks volumes about the American centric mentality ..
    I chose ancient history as my area of choice in history studies….
    We can’t be experts in all areas, and to be honest, the civil war over there did not interest me… We have had interesting stuff going on here over the pond for millennia longer than the US’S history…
    Disagree with me, argue with me, point out when I am wrong…. But please don’t belittle me.
    I was only pointing out a similarity, not even trying to make a point.
    It is getting quite boring that I get jumped upon and criticized for every comment I make here… No matter how innocent or inocuious.

  • Cotour

    Lee S: Point.

  • Lee S: I had no intention of belittling you and I apologize if that is how it came out. I was commenting instead on those who educated you, since it strikes me as astonishing that someone raised in Great Britain would not have heard of Grant. This is not your fault, in the slightest.

  • Lee S

    Ok, now I am back home… I meant “innocuous” rather than inocuious…
    To further my point, are you familiar with the battle between Bodicia, who United the Celtic tribes of England against the Romans ? ( She was of the Icini tribe ), do you know anything about the battle of Hastings?
    We all have our areas of knowledge… I admire yours regarding Space related stuff… But have you read the papers written by Ralph Lorenz regarding tidal actions on liquid bodies on Titan by Saturn? I can forward them should you wish…. I mailed him directly with my questions, and he shared.
    The same goes for my questions regarding extrapolating the ages of galaxies by the red shift in the Hubble deep space pictures.. ( Martin Rees), my questions regarding SETI ,( Seth Shostak).
    That which interests me, and I do not know, I ask and I learn.
    To insult me regarding my education is childish, insulting, and most of all wrong.

  • Lee S

    Sorry Bob… I missed your reply… I’ve had not the best day at work and am feeling a bit grumpy…. ;-)
    Feel free to delete this and my last comment.
    As I have said before… We might disagree, but I love the fact you keep me mentally limber!

  • Lee S. I repeat: I was not intending to insult you. Please accept my apology.

    As for your questions about my knowledge of past ancient history: Yes, yes, yes, though I guarantee my knowledge is not as in depth as yours.

  • Col Beausabre

    The curriculum at the US Military Academy after the Thayer reforms of 1817-1833 included detailed study of the history of war to include the ancients. There was particular study devoted to the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars as the most recent example of major operations. Dennis Hart Mahan (father of Alfred Thayer Mahan), an Academy graduate, was Professor of Engineering and Military Science 1827-1871 and founded the Napoleon Seminar among the cadets which promoted extra curricular study of the period and that of Frederick the Great and met weekly to read and discuss commentators such as Jomini (Clausewitz was apparently unknown)

    “Prior to the American Civil War, the translated writings of Jomini were the only works on military strategy that were taught at the United States Military Academy at West Point. His ideas, as taught by professor Dennis Hart Mahan permeated the Academy and shaped the basic military thinking of its graduates.”

    Virtually every officer of the Regular Army- to include Grant, Sherman and Lee – who served in the Civil War had taken Mahan’s courses and been influenced by him.

    When I attended The Amphibious Warfare Staff Course (in lieu of Command and General Staff College), one of my electives was on Jomini, so he influences the US military to this day

    And, no, I do not think the over-rated Sun Tzu (I found his maxims in The Art of War to be trite and obvious) was studied by Western military officers of the period.

  • Col Beausabre: According to Smith’s biography of Grant, Jomini was what Halleck based his own work on. Does this jive with your knowledge?

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “the strategies pushed by American military experts were quite different, often focused not on offensive actions but on holding territory.

    These strategies may have been derived from the revolutionary war, in which the heavily outmatched colonials won not through victory but through persistence. They outlasted the vastly superior forces until they gave up and went home.

    After WWII, the United States has been the vastly superior force, and foes have successfully beaten us in the very same way. After winning the Vietnam War, Congress lost the peace by packing up everyone and going home, having grown weary of war. Had we done the same in Europe after WWII, there may have been a renewal of hostilities. Even these days, ISIS won over the U.S. when she abandoned Iraq, and look what is happening to the Kurds in Syria today. What is Trump’s reason for leaving Syria? He is weary of that war.

    Grant had a typical education for the 1800s, which means he would be a valedictorian in today’s schools.

    I went to a middle school graduation a year or so ago, and a third of the one- or two-hundred graduating students were either valedictorians or salutatorians. These once high honors are less honorable, now.

    Lee S. wrote: “are you familiar with the battle between Bodicia, who United the Celtic tribes of England against the Romans ?

    Although I do not recall learning of her in school, it is difficult to study ancient history without coming across her a few times.

    At the time of my schooling, Grant vs. Lee was a major topic of the civil war. I don’t know what drivel the progressives teach American schoolchildren these days.

  • wayne

    “Total War; William T. Sherman, & Atlanta”

    “in one day, the North’s supply-lines replace 200K bullets”

  • wayne: This is a good example of why I think it always a bad idea to try to become educated through modern media. You end up being badly misinformed. This clip is a typically badly done and inaccurate television history piece. In four minutes I spotted a half dozen outright errors, many of which were done to heighten the drama but were completely wrong.

    The most fundamental error was the piece’s attempt to portray Sherman’s campaign as something Lincoln proposed. Wrong. It was Grant and Sherman who worked it out, under Grant’s decision to unify the efforts of all the north’s armies. Grant didn’t even tell Lincoln what he planned on doing, until they were doing it. And Sherman was chosen by Grant to do it because Grant knew Sherman would do it the way Grant wanted.

    The second most ugly error was the claim that Sherman’s armies sacked homes and villages wantonly during his march to the sea. Also wrong. From Shelby Foote’s history (p. 641):

    “The army will forage liberally on the country during the march,”. Sherman directed, though he specified that the foraging was to be done only by authorized personnel; “Soldiers must not enter the dwellings of inhabitants or commit any trespass.”

    Only if the army met resistance would they impose a greater devastation.

    This is not to say that Sherman’s march was gentle. Hardly. Sherman’s goal was to make the south beg for peace. It is a vile lie however to imply that his troops acted like mad barbarians, as this video clip does.

  • wayne

    Mr. Z.,
    Yeah, it is dramatic television and definitely in the History Channel tradition. I never forget however, that it is TV and not a documentary.

    The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies

  • Col Beausabre

    Bob, I wanted to consider my response to your question on whether Henry Halleck’s strategy made him a disciple of Jomini. My reply is a qualified no. Consider this

    “The basic elements of Jominian orthodoxy were that: “Strategy is the key to warfare; That all strategy is controlled by invariable scientific principles; and That these principles prescribe offensive action to mass forces against weaker enemy forces at some defensive point if strategy is to lead to victory.”

    Halleck operated on the defensive, trying not to win, but to avoid loosing. In this he was influenced mu Mahan’s interpretation of Jomini. If asked, Halleck would have replied he was a Jominian, he would have replied that he was, but in my opinion he was a Mahanist.

    So, do we throw him on the ash heap of history? No, for Jomini emphasized the importance of logistics, the art of raising, organizing, training, supplying and transporting armies. During his time in Washington, Halleck proved himself to be a genius at this aspect of war, for which he deserves the thanks of the republic

  • Col Beausabre: Thank you for the more nuanced analysis. It is much appreciated. It does not make Smith’s analysis in his biography of Grant wrong, it adds detail.

  • j s allison

    Reading Sherman’s biography I got the sense that he, Grant, and Lincoln worked well together because they all showed signs of manic depression. This gave them a common frame of reference.

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