Ulysses Grant: Dual Personality?

By Dan Zeiser
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2011, All Rights Reserved

I have often thought that Ulysses Grant exhibited far different command skills in the West than he did in the East during the Civil War. Generally, my thoughts were that Grant used maneuver much better in the West than when he was in overall command. Look at the Vicksburg Campaign, which is still used today by the U.S. Army as an excellent example of feint and maneuver to keep the enemy off guard. Once Grant crossed the Mississippi at Bruinsburg, he kept Confederate General John Pemberton guessing as to his next move. This resulted in Confederate paralysis and led to the siege at Vicksburg and inevitable victory. In the East, however, Grant’s movements appear much more predictable and less inspired. He seemed simply to attempt to hammer away at Lee until the latter became exhausted and lost enough troops. Recently, however, I have come to re-examine my conclusions. Was Grant a different commander in the West? Did he come east and become simply the butcher he was decried as being? I think not.

Ulysses S. Grant

First, let me say that I believe Grant was an excellent strategist. His movements during the war show he understood some factors that others did not. A westerner, Grant understood that rivers were key. Roads in the West were not the same as those in the East. There were far fewer large population centers west of the Appalachians and fewer good roads connecting them. Rivers had been the main thoroughfares of commerce for decades and steamboats the movers. The ten largest cities in the U.S. in 1850 were, in descending order, New York, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Brooklyn, St. Louis, Spring Garden (now a suburb of Philadelphia), and Albany. Note that only three were west of the Appalachians and that all the eastern cities were seaports except Albany. However, the Hudson was navigable up to Albany, so it can be considered a seaport. Finally, all three western cities were river cities. (New Orleans can be seen as both a seaport and river city.) Also, all three are in the Mississippi River basin. This is no coincidence.

In 1860, the ten largest cities were New York, Philadelphia (the result of consolidation), Brooklyn, Baltimore, Boston, New Orleans, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago, Buffalo. Again, except for Buffalo, the eastern cities were seaports. Buffalo, of course, is on Lake Erie and is a port city. Four of the cities are western, Chicago growing to number 9. In the 1850 census, it was the 24th largest city. Chicago was the world’s fastest growing city in the 1800s. Chicago’s growth is the result of its unique position. On Lake Michigan, it connected to the East through Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and the Erie Canal. Roughly fifteen miles from Lake Michigan runs the Des Plaines River, a tributary of the Mississippi River. Connecting the two made Chicago the link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. It also made it possible to travel, via water, the cheapest form of travel, from anywhere on the Mississippi to the Great Lakes and, via the Erie Canal, to the east coast, particularly New York City.

Grant understood this. He knew rivers were the best mode of transport in the West. How did he use this understanding? His first campaign was to travel upriver to Forts Henry and Donelson. Situated on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, respectively, Grant knew they were the key to Nashville and the heart of the western Confederacy. Take them and the road, i.e., the rivers, was open. His next move was further upriver on the Tennessee to Shiloh. What was the objective? Corinth. Corinth was the major railroad center of the western Confederacy. The Mobile & Ohio, the major north-south railway, and the Memphis & Charleston, the major east-west axis, crossed at Corinth. Take Corinth and you controlled these arteries. Of course, Grant could have marched overland. But river travel was quicker, easier, and gave him the extra firepower of the brown water Navy.

When he moved East, Grant also understood that his main advantage was man-power and materiel. He knew that the North had a greater population from which to draw soldiers. He could replace losses that Lee could not. Grant also understood that the North could produce more guns, ammunition, cannon, ships, food, and just about everything except cotton than the South. He could fight a war of attrition, Lee could not. And he did just that. While casualties might have been greater in the short run, Grant also understood that casualties now can mean fewer casualties in the future and fewer overall. Rather than fight a battle, regroup, and fight again, which might lead to fewer casualties, he had to fight, fight, and continue fighting. By doing so, he drained Lee of men and supplies that could not be replaced or, if they could, could not be transported to Virginia, given the South’s limited rail capacity. He could shorten the war and cause fewer casualties than fighting several years more would.

As a tactician, however, Grant was flawed. His main tactic was the frontal assault, even in the West. He, like many other Civil War commanders, apparently did not see how the increased firepower of the Civil War defeated almost any frontal assault. Few frontal assault succeeded, especially against entrenched troops. One need only ask Pickett or Hood about their experiences at Gettysburg and Franklin, respectively.

So, in the West, Grant maneuvered. He used the rivers. He kept his enemy guessing. At Vicksburg, rather than move directly to that city, he moved upon Jackson, using several roads that kept his options open. If one were blocked or did not pan out for some reason, he could move elsewhere. Several times, he feinted in one direction only to move in another. In the East, though, Grant appears different. He did not maneuver as well. He went overland rather than via water. Did he keep Lee guessing? Probably not, as Lee probably knew he meant to take Richmond. He did not feint in one direction only to move in another. In short, Grant was a different commander.

Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign

Or so I thought. Recently, though, several conversations have led me to me to reconsider. First, in the West, distances were vast and railroads and good roads were few and far between. In Virginia, however, distances were short. Washington City and Richmond were about 100 miles apart. There simply was not as much room to maneuver as in the West. Railroads and good roads were not short in supply. Virginia had a number of railroads, almost all in the eastern half of the state. Additionally, there were a number of good roads, including turnpikes and planked roads. Overland travel in Virginia was not what it was in the West. There was no particular need to use the rivers. Grant could move overland, using the railways to supply his army, and not have a lengthy supply line. Nor was he ever far from a river and the Navy. Ships could help supply him via the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. At Petersburg, City Point became one of the largest ports in the world.

Second, Richmond was a powerful draw. In the West, Grant could concentrate on military targets, Forts Henry and Donelson, Corinth, Shiloh. He could pick and choose his targets. He could ignore political targets. In Virginia, while Richmond had certain military assets such as the Tredegar Iron Works, its main draw was as the Con-federate capital. There could be no denying that its capture would have great effect on the South’s will to fight. Though its capture was not a necessity, Grant knew that Lee would have to defend Richmond. Therefore, moving on Richmond meant Lee had to fight and keep fighting until Grant was defeated or Richmond fell. In short, Richmond became key to his strategy and handcuffed his movements somewhat. Feinting toward the Shenandoah Valley or Hampton Roads would not have the same effect as feinting toward Vicksburg and moving on Jackson. Lee knew that the Valley or Hampton Roads or any other place was not Grant’s target. Richmond was the target.

So, was Grant different in Virginia? Perhaps not. Grant did maneuver, even though his movements were constrained by geography. After the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Yellow Tavern, North Anna, Cold Harbor, and the others, Grant did not retreat to lick his wounds. He did not simply attack Lee in the same place. He moved south in an effort to outflank Lee and get between him and Richmond, forcing Lee to attack him. After Cold Harbor, especially, he totally perplexed Lee and moved across the James River to Petersburg. This is the Grant of the West. He used movement to keep his enemy guessing. Was Lee fooled? Not really. He knew Grant wanted Richmond. It was only a question of where he would show up next, at least until crossing the James. Here Grant showed he was the same commander as in the West.

Grant’s Overland Campaign

Unfortunately, Grant’s faults as a tactician continued to show. Though he attempted to flank Lee and get around him, when that failed he continued to use the frontal assault, the one tactic that seemed to constitute his arsenal. I will give Grant the benefit of the doubt at the Wilderness. There the terrain prevented movement and coordinating units. It was essentially a series of smaller unit actions. At Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor, particularly, Grant simply assaulted the entrenched Confederates. It was as though he ran out of ideas. While it did force Lee to fight and cause him casualties he could not replace, it cost Grant unnecessarily. He could have attempted flank attacks that would have forced Lee to fight, without the same amount of Union casualties. Grant eventually admitted that his attack at Cold Harbor was a mistake.

Petersburg is another matter and must be the subject of another time. Did Grant admit that his strategy of moving ever to the left to get between Lee and Richmond had failed and he could not bring Lee into the open? Did it mean a change in strategy, from trying to get Lee to fight to political and geographic targets, i.e., Richmond and Petersburg and the Confederate supply lines? Did Grant accept that the campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley and Bermuda Hundred had failed, that only Sherman was still advancing, and shift his focus. Historians do not agree. I think there are arguments to make for all. But it also tied Lee down and forced him to fight. He had to keep extending his lines, requiring more and more resources he did not have. It also kept Lee from taking advantage of his best asset, the light infantry of the Army of Northern Virginia. Movement had always been one of its best attributes. Lee had shown repeatedly that he could move quickly, appear where least expected, and hit hard. At Petersburg this was not possible. Petersburg also allowed Grant to use some of the North’s assets to his advantage. He could reinforce and supply his army from City Point. He had the manpower to continue investing Petersburg and extend his lines toward the various railroads. He could use the Navy and the ability of the North to manufacture artillery, mortars, and other firepower.

Put simply, perhaps Grant was the same commander in the West and the East. Perhaps it was only changes in geography, terrain, distance, and political factors that cause Grant to change is methods. This is certainly the sign of a good, if not great, commander. Though I still have not made up my mind, I find myself returning to the subject, turning it over and over in my thoughts to examine and re-examine it in different lights. Perhaps I will never reach a final conclusion. Perhaps I will see it one way at this time and another at a later time. This is something that makes the Civil War so fascinating for me. You can look at a particular subject in different ways and reach different conclusions. Maybe this is what makes the Civil War so fascinating for so many. I can say some things for certain. It is what brings me back to our monthly meetings, to hear someone else’s ideas. And it is what keeps my bookshelves full.