Essays & Reviews

Ulysses S. Grant’s Civil War Memoir and Strategy

It might be said that Ulysses S. Grant’s memoir killed him. The Civil War General and former President of the United States had no intention of writing a memoir. In a life so full of personal and professional crises, one final personal crisis compelled Grant to break his silence. A twenty nine-year-old charlatan, Ferdinand Ward, had defrauded Grant and many of his family and friends in a Ponzi scheme. They lost a significant amount of their life savings, Grant included. Grant embarked on writing his memoir only as a final recourse to save his family from financial ruin. One editor offered Grant a rather paltry sum for his memoir, which so appalled his eventual editor, Samuel Clemens—better known as Mark Twain—that he offered Grant a handsomer sum. Grant accepted. As ill luck would have it, Grant’s financial crisis was followed by a health crisis. He was diagnosed with cancer of the throat. He wrote much of his memoir in an overstuffed chair, often in excruciating pain. Having completed the memoir, Grant died a week later.[1] It was as if Grant’s life ebbed away with every page he wrote. The result of Grant’s final herculean efforts was one final triumph for a man whose life was full of improbable comebacks. When it was completed, Twain said of the memoir: “There is no higher literature than these modest, simple memoirs […]. Their style is flawless […].” [2]

As great as the literary merits of Grant’s memoir may be, the focus in this essay is on appreciating the book as a work of strategy. For the purposes of this essay, I define strategy as the use of military forces to achieve the aim of a war. The political object of the war sets that aim. In this way strategy straddles the worlds of military operations and politics. The strategist cannot ignore operational and tactical concerns, but must place them in their proper context. The political object of the war provides that context. Reading Grant’s Civil War memoir as a study in strategy is especially interesting: We tend to associate strategy with those commanders who deftly outmaneuver their adversaries, whereas Grant’s popular reputation as Lincoln’s fighting general, who used the overwhelming material power of the Union to overpower the Confederacy, hardly looks like strategy. However, I argue that a close reading of the memoir reveals a Grant who is much more the strategist than some might think. Grant’s reputation as a “butcher” of men and as the uncompromising “Unconditional Surrender Grant” does not do the actual Grant justice. Grant was aware of these caricatures, and he works to dispel them in a number of key places in his memoir.

I must say a word first about the various editions: I drew on two different editions of the memoirs, one edited by E. B. Long, the other by Elizabeth Samet. Both editions are valuable and their footnotes help place Grant’s words in their broader Civil War context. The main difference between the two is that Long is far more concerned with the historical accuracy of Grant’s recollections, while Samet seeks to place the memoir in a much broader historical, intellectual, and literary context. For instance, Samet draws parallels between Grant’s accounts of certain battles and those of other classics of war literature like the Iliad. Samet’s introduction also contains a fascinating treatment of perspectives in the Civil War through the Battle of Shilo. For those interested in the memoir as a document on strategy, Samet’s edition is superior because it provides more insight into Grant as a person and as a strategic thinker. Samet includes many footnotes on the assessment of Grant’s leadership abilities by other observers. Precisely because this essay examines Grant as a strategist and not a stylist, however, the reader must know as accurately as possible what happened historically, even if Grant’s memory occasionally fails him. For this reason it is helpful in addition to consult the Long edition. These editions complement each other well, and those who are serious about engaging the text should avail themselves of both. That being said, the vast majority of the references below are to the Samet edition. I also supplemented the reading of the memoir with some very helpful online resources, especially the animated battlefield maps of the American Battlefield Trust. Many of the movements and engagements in the Civil War are highly complex. These maps help clarify Grant’s accounts of campaigns and battles.

We begin with a brief discussion of Grant’s early years. Grant does not spend much time discussing his youth and maturation, and this brevity suits the memoir. For those interested in more personal details, especially about Grant’s struggles with alcohol and personal dealings, I recommend the biographies of Grant by Ron Chernow and by Jean Edward Smith. I’ve relied on both biographies to fill in important details. But this essay is not intended as a chronological summary of the strategy of the Civil War as understood by Grant. Rather, it deals with Grant and strategy thematically. The Vicksburg campaign is used to show Grant’s understanding of the relationship between strategy, military operations, and tactics, and his prudent management of these relationships to suit particular circumstances. My argument further explores an underappreciated element of strategy: the relationship between strategy and the character of individuals.  Throughout the memoir Grant shows himself to be an astute observer of the characters of his subordinates, superiors, and adversaries. His character assessments play a key role in some of his most important operational and strategic decisions. At the same time, the narrative gives us important glimpses into Grant’s own character and how his own traits contributed to his success.  Accordingly, I also discuss how Grant dealt with uncertainty in war, especially that generated by incomplete information. I also address Grant’s penchant for insubordination throughout his career: His willingness to sidestep his superiors would prove essential in the final struggle to defeat the Confederacy. I conclude by dealing with the popular view of Grant as a butcher of men and a disciple of mass over maneuver in warfare. A close reading of the memoir shows that Grant employed maneuver when necessary, sometimes brilliantly, as at Vicksburg, but that he used mass as well, especially when the strategic context demanded this bloodier and, for Grant, tragic approach.


Grant’s Early Life


Grant spends little time in his memoir discussing his earliest years. He was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio in 1822. Grant’s father, Jesse, was a tanner. Grant speaks of his personal love of horses and how even when he was too small for manual labor, he would drive carts for the tannery. Despite his youth, his parents would often let him travel long distances by himself. Jesse Grant even allowed his son to engage in horse-trading. Grant makes special note of his extremely limited education. He was largely self-educated, reading one math textbook repeatedly, for instance. Rereading books was a practice he learned from his father, who had so few books that he read those he had repeatedly, almost committing them to memory. His lack of education was a great worry to Grant when he went to West Point. Grant accepted the position at West Point in obedience to his father, and as his only path to higher education. “A military life had no charms for me, and I had not the faintest idea of staying in the army even if I should be graduated, which I did not expect.”[3]

At West Point, Grant was not a star pupil. He points out his deficiencies repeatedly: He passed his courses but was not engrossed; what free time he had he spent reading novels. “Much of the time, I am sorry to say, was devoted to novels, but not those of the trashy sort. I read all of Bulwer’s then published, Cooper’s, Marryat’s, Scott’s, Washington Irving’s works, Lever’s, and many others that I do not now remember.”[4] Horsemanship was the one course of study at which Grant excelled. Grant graduated from West Point in 1843.

Grant had begun his service with the intention of leaving the army as soon as possible, likely to teach mathematics.[5] Before the end of his term, however, the United States went to war with Mexico over disputes involving Texan independence.[6] Although he fought and distinguished himself in the war, Grant considered the Mexican War “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”[7] He thought that the war “was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”<[8] Grant even opined that the Civil War might have been divine retribution against the U.S. for the Mexican war, writing that “nations like individuals pay for their transgressions.”[9] As Grant notes, there was a link between this war and the rebellion that would soon divide the United States. “The occupation, separation and annexation [of Texas] were, from the inception of the movement to its final consummation, a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union.”[10] A number of other Americans, including Abraham Lincoln, shared Grant’s assessment.[11] His opinion of the justice or injustice of the first war in which he served, however, did not lead Grant to shirk his duty as an officer in the U.S. Army.

Fighting alongside him in the Mexican War were many of his West Point classmates and other army officers. He would encounter a number of these same officers as adversaries in the coming Civil War. More than fifty officers who attended West Point at some point while Grant was there—seven classes in total—served as general officers during the Civil War.[12] Among these were Robert E. Lee, Joseph E. Johnston, John B. Hood, Gideon J. Pillow, and Simon B. Buckner. Grant recognized that being acquainted with these officers played a vital role in his success in the Civil War. “The acquaintance thus formed was of immense service to me in the war of the rebellion—I mean what I learned of the characters of those to whom I was afterwards opposed.”[13]

In the Mexican War Grant had his first experience of combat. He also came to grips with the awesome responsibility of command. At one point Grant observed troops moving into the line for battle. “As I looked down that long line of about three thousand armed men, advancing towards a larger force also armed, I thought what a fearful responsibility General Taylor must feel, commanding such a host and so far away from friends.”[14] It is clear from the memoir that Grant admired Zachary Taylor and thought Taylor possessed rare qualities. “No soldier could face either danger or responsibility more calmly than he.” Reflecting on these qualities of Taylor after years of experience in high command, Grant notes: “These are qualities more rarely found than genius or physical courage.”[15]

A constant theme in Grant’s memoir is the moral courage required for command. Upon becoming a colonel in the Union Army, Grant experienced the terrible anxiety of responsibility first-hand and noted that his combat experience in the Mexican War had not prepared him for its terrible weight.[16] Often in the popular imagination we focus on the physical courage of the soldier and the genius of the commander. We fail, however, to appreciate the almost unbearable fear and psychological strain of the commander who devises the plans that will risk the lives of others in their execution. Grant did not know then that his own moral courage would be sorely tested later in a much larger conflict, in which those who fought together in Mexico would find themselves on opposite sides.

Grant adopted numerous elements of General Taylor’s style of command. Taylor was famous for his dislike of military formality, a trait for which Grant became well known.[17] Taylor was also clear and laconic in his writing of orders to subordinates. Grant said of Taylor’s writing style:  “He knew how to express what he wanted to say in the fewest well-chosen words, and would not sacrifice meaning to the construction of high-sounding sentences.”[18] Grant’s orders had exactly the same quality of precision and brevity as Taylor’s. The similarities between Taylor and Grant’s style were very striking. In a letter to his wife, General Meade remarked on the uncanny parallels: “[Grant] puts me in the mind of old Taylor, and sometimes I fancy he models himself on old Zack.”[19] Meade was right.

Grant also appreciated Taylor’s way of dealing with civilian superiors in Washington. He points out that General Taylor was not one to complain about having inadequate means. If he thought the means were inadequate he would inform his superiors. However, if no increase were forthcoming, Taylor would do his best with the forces at his disposal, “without parading his grievance before the public.”[20] Grant too would have to navigate these treacherous politico-military waters.

There is a significant gap in Grant’s memoir between the end of the Mexican War and the beginning of the Civil War. He dedicates only three brief chapters to this period, which end with his resignation from the army. Grant makes no mention of the fact that he was likely forced to resign because of his drinking. In letters home to his wife Julia, Grant described the desolation and boredom of peacetime military life.[21] Perhaps Grant found peacetime, with its monotonous routine and lack of action, surprisingly more difficult to endure than the burden of command.


Grant on Strategy


Some have opined that amateurs talk strategy while professionals talk logistics.[22] Grant indeed became increasingly concerned with the problems of logistics and supply as he rose in rank. Threats to his lines of supply and his base of supply were a constant concern. Moreover, threatening the lines and base of supply of his adversary was a maneuver that Grant employed continuously to elicit a specific, advantageous reaction. Under certain circumstances, however, Grant would place strategic objectives above concerns for supply and logistics. Grant’s decision to move his Army of the Tennessee towards Vicksburg, despite the logistical difficulties, bears out his appreciation for the primacy of strategy.

To reiterate, strategy is defined here as the use of military forces to achieve the aim of the war.  The political object of the war sets that aim. In this way strategy occupies the area between politics and military operations. Strategists cannot ignore logistical, operational, and tactical considerations, but they must place these considerations in the proper context: the political object of the war. In the American Civil War the political object of the North was the restoration of the Union by bringing the secessionist states back into it through force of arms.

Up to the Battle of Shiloh, Grant thought the Union could realize this object with a major victory over one of the Confederate armies. Grant thought he had already secured such victories for the Union before Shiloh, at Forts Henry and Donelson. Shiloh showed otherwise. As Grant relates, “when Confederate armies were collected which not only attempted to hold a line further south […] but assumed the offensive and made such a gallant effort to regain what had been lost, then, indeed, I gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest.”[23] Grant became convinced that victory would require the total military defeat of the armies of the Confederacy and the capturing of its territory.[24] This purpose would have to guide all subsequent military operations. The Union could achieve its political object only with the full mobilization of its material resources and the political will to use them. Obviously, this new strategic reality had consequences for Union commanders. Commanders should not countenance military moves that undermined the political will of the Union, no matter how well justified those moves might be on grounds of logistics. Such strategic considerations led to Grant’s decision to move his forces south, towards Vicksburg, Mississippi, in the winter of 1862-3.[25]

After the surrender of Forts Henry and Donelson, Grant knew that Vicksburg had to be his next target. With the fall of Vicksburg the Union would be one step closer to commanding the whole course of the Mississippi River. With the Mississippi under its control the Union would cut an essential Confederate line of communication and a lifeline between the South and its international sources of supply. However, Vicksburg presented daunting logistical challenges for Grant’s Army of the Tennessee, especially in the winter of 1862. Grant knew that the principles of supply dictated that in the face of these challenges he should move his army back to Memphis to secure his base and resume his campaign in the spring.[26] Such a maneuver, however, would entail moving his army north, rather than south and toward the Confederates, a move the political climate in the North did not recommend.

In 1862, Grant knew that the political will to continue the war was waning in the North. The elections of 1862 had gone against supporters of the war and voluntary enlistments had stopped, requiring the imposition of the draft.[27] Those who sought victory at all costs were not in the ascendancy and public enthusiasm for the war was increasingly difficult to sustain. Indeed, preserving public support for the war was a constant battle in the North, even after some of its greatest battlefield successes. In July of 1863, the same month as the victory at Gettysburg and the surrender of Vicksburg, there were draft riots in New York.[28] Grant was aware of this waning public support already in 1862. “It was my judgement at the time,” Grant wrote in his memoir, “that to make a backward movement as long as that from Vicksburg to Memphis, would be interpreted, by many of those yet full of hope for the preservation of the Union, as a defeat,” and further undermine their willingness to pursue the war to its conclusion.[29] Grant accordingly decided against moving his army back towards Memphis and instead proceeded north toward Vicksburg. Grant’s assessment of the political climate in the North lead him to overrule conventional military principles of supply in favor of a greater strategic imperative.

Grant’s most trusted subordinate, Sherman, opposed Grant’s decision and recommended that he return to Memphis. Grant disagreed, writing to Sherman: “the country was already disheartened over the lack of success on the part of our armies […]. The problem for us was to move forward to a decisive victory, or our cause was lost. No progress was being made in any other field, and we had to go on.”[30] As Grant put it in his memoir: “There was nothing left to be done but to go forward to a decisive victory.”[31] Without political support for the forces of the Union, the war could not be brought to a successful conclusion.

The Confederates, of course, appreciated this reality. No strategy can discount the strategy of one’s opponent. The Confederacy hoped to protract the war and thereby break the will of the North to resist secession and the political recognition of the Confederate States of America. As Grant wrote later in his memoir, the difference in regime type between the South and the North also played a key role in their strategies. If the South could “protract the war,” this “was all that was necessary to enable them to gain recognition in the end.” A strategy of protraction was not open to the North, Grant argued. “The North was already growing weary, as the South evidently was also, but with this difference. In the North the people governed, and could stop hostilities whenever they chose to stop supplies.” In contrast, Grant continues, “[t]he South was a military  camp, controlled absolutely by the government with soldiers to back it, and the war could have  been protracted, no matter to what extent the discontent reached, up to the point of open mutiny  of the soldiers themselves.”[32] Rule of the people and by the people in the North curtailed strategic options. Any movement of forces that threatened the maintenance and expansion of the political will in the North to continue the war, no matter how well justified by military axioms, threatened the success of the whole enterprise. Therefore, no matter how difficult the military situation, it could not override the strategic imperative of preserving the will to fight among the Northern electorate. Grant moved his force toward Vicksburg and towards a “decisive” victory for reasons that were strategic in the highest sense, rather than adhere to the military conventions of the time about bases of supply and logistics.

However, Grant had no intention of throwing away his forces in a desperate frontal assault on Vicksburg. In the winter of 1862-63 that part of the Mississippi River saw continuous rainfall.[33] This meant that dry land on which to put troops in sufficient numbers to take Vicksburg was in short supply. Because a frontal assault was out of the question, Grant had to find a way to get into the rear of the stronghold. The Army of the Tennessee spent the whole winter attempting to find ways around the back and flank of Vicksburg, with little success. Grant notes in his memoirs that he had little hope in these efforts. Their chief purpose was to keep his troops from sitting idle, their morale ebbing away with the inaction forced on them by the season. Grant knew firsthand the kind of despair and disillusionment that inaction could produce in individual soldiers and officers, as his letters to Julia before his resignation attest.

The strategist—who straddles the military and political spheres—must judge when one must give way to the other. Grant moved his Army of the Tennessee towards Vicksburg for strategic reasons, but he did not then lose control of his logistical senses. He bided his time until the material conditions made it possible to launch his campaign against Vicksburg. The result was an unrivaled piece of operational art that is often overlooked because of Grant’s reputation as a disciple of attrition warfare.[34]

This is not to say that Grant dogmatically adhered to the dictates of the political over the military. Grant demonstrated prudence in his application of specific policies emanating from Washington D.C. in specific strategic and operational circumstances. Here again the Vicksburg campaign provides an illustrative example. I am not using prudence in the popular sense, as simply a synonym for caution. Here I draw on Aristotle and Aquinas’s definition of prudence as the application of universal principles to particular circumstances.[35] The following illustration helps clarify the meaning. It is a universal principle that we ought to return something we have borrowed to the lender. What if, however, we have borrowed a gun from a friend? Our friend returns to us in a rage after having a heated argument with someone and demands we return the gun. Prudence dictates that we not apply the principle at this time because of the extenuating circumstances. Prudence, also called practical wisdom, is a virtue that the strategist cannot do without.

Grant’s memoir provides a good example of prudence in action. After the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863, Grant would initially settle for nothing less than “unconditional surrender” from General Pemberton, the commander of Confederate forces in Vicksburg. (Some quip that the “U.S.” in U.S. Grant stood for “Unconditional Surrender.”) Famously, these were the only terms he had offered to the defenders of Fort Donelson.[36] In many ways this was the dictate of the policy adopted by the Lincoln administration, which called for the total defeat of the Confederate forces in the field.

At Vicksburg, negotiations with Pemberton stretched over a few days. The night before Grant submitted his final terms to Pemberton, the commander of the Army of the Tennessee called together a council of his senior officers to discuss whether he would pursue unconditional surrender.[37] The debate in the council, which Grant unfortunately does not describe in the memoir, hinged on whether the Confederate forces in Vicksburg should be taken prisoner and ferried north following their unconditional surrender, or be paroled.[38]

According to Ron Chernow, Grant was initially in favor of unconditional surrender, but allowed his generals to change his mind.[39] There was much to recommend paroling over imprisoning. By imprisoning the garrison in Vicksburg, Grant’s forces would saddle themselves with managing 30,000 rebel prisoners and dedicating their transports to ferrying them north.[40] By instead paroling them, Grant’s forces would be free to engage in offensive action. Maintaining freedom of action was especially important for Grant because Johnston’s forces were still nearby. In fact, as Grant relates in the memoir, while the negotiations were ongoing he told Sherman to prepare for offensive action against Johnston to drive him from the state. Grant knew that Lee was reinforcing Johnston and that himself should move against this nearby Confederate force before it grew and forced a test of arms at a time and place of its choosing. Moreover, as Grant notes in a number of places, his Army of the Tennessee was operating in the midst of an unfriendly population. This hostile environment meant that Grant’s forces had to provide additional security for their lines of supply and communication. This necessity made the guarding and transport of prisoners an even more burdensome prospect. Finally, Grant anticipated that many of the Confederate soldiers would return to their homes instead of rejoining the ranks.[41] Ultimately, he paroled the garrison instead of taking it prisoner.

When Grant reported the surrender and the paroling of the prisoners to his commander, General Halleck, he justified the paroling as a means of preserving freedom of action.[42] Halleck criticized the decision on the basis of general policy, arguing that the Union would have to fight these paroled forces again in the future. Grant’s military position nevertheless impressed on him the facts that a fresh enemy was near at hand, his own forces were in hostile territory, and that to drain his limited resources to cope with tens of thousands of prisoners would endanger the survival of his army. The destruction of the Army of the Tennessee would have dealt a more severe blow to the prospects of Union victory than the paroling of the Vicksburg garrison. In this way Grant prudently weighed military, strategic, and political considerations and decided not to apply policy strictly under the circumstances. Such prudence is essential to sound strategy.

It should be noted here that Grant does not always have perfect recollection in his memoir. After his “council of war,” Grant appears to argue that the council did not persuade him to parole the prisoner, but that he went against its recommendation. Grant says that he sent the terms to Pemberton “[a]gainst the general, and almost unanimous judgment of the council.”[43] Chernow notes that in later years Grant appears to forget that he had once favored harsher terms.[44] Moreover, as I explicate below, Grant had a consistent willingness to be persuaded by subordinates—a fact that lends additional weight to Chernow’s account of the war council at Vicksburg. But some errors of memory are understandable for Grant, given the rapidity with which he wrote his memoirs, while simultaneously dying of cancer.


Grant on Character and Command


A central insight provided by Grant’s memoir, whether the author appreciated it or not, is the importance of individual character in leadership and strategy. Over and over again, Grant refers to the character traits that motivate commanders and that affect their decisions, for good or for ill. His assessments of the character of opposing commanders often guided his operations against them. Grant, therefore, was not only a good strategist but a very good judge of character.

On a number of occasions during the Civil War Grant used his knowledge of commander’s characters, having known many of them before the war, to his advantage. For instance, Grant attributes part of his success in taking Fort Donelson to his knowledge of those commanding enemy forces there. Technically, General Floyd was in command of the Fort, but Grant knew that he “was no soldier.” Instead Floyd would defer to “the pretensions” of his subordinate, General Pillow, alongside whom Grant fought in the Mexican War.[45] Grant notes that Pillow  “was conceited, and prided himself much on his service in the Mexican War.” In Battle Cry of Freedom, McPherson, finding nothing in the historical record to contradict Grant’s assessment, calls Pillow a “self-important Tennessee politician.”[46] There too McPherson relates how the breakout attack ordered by Floyd, on the advice of Pillow and Buckner, failed because Pillow was disconcerted by the disorder and casualties suffered by his victorious troops. Pillow advised Floyd, “over Buckner’s agonized protest,” to call off the breakout and return the troops to their trenches.[47] Floyd deferred to Pillow, as Grant expected, and abandoned the breakout. Floyd and Pillow escaped Fort Donelson when it was clear that the fort was lost. General Buckner accepted the command. He wrote to Grant proposing terms on February 16th, 1862. Grant famously replied: “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.”[48] With this note “Unconditional Surrender Grant” was born; Buckner surrendered Fort Donelson the same day.

Generals Grant and Buckner met within Fort Donelson the day of the surrender. Grant knew Buckner even better than Pillow, having served three years with him at West Point and subsequently in the army. Grant recounts their exchange:

In the course of our conversation, which was very friendly, he said to me that if he had been in command I would not have got up to Donelson as easily as I did. I told him that if he had been in command I should not have tried in the way I did: I had invested their lines with a smaller force than they had to defend them, and at the same time had sent a brigade full 5,000 strong, around by water; I had relied very much upon their commander [Pillow] to allow me to come safely up to the outside of their works.[49]

In short, Grant thought Pillow would not act aggressively and take risks. Indeed, Grant trusted so much in his assessment of General Pillow’s “pretensions” that he disposed his forces in a manner dangerous to them should his assessment be mistaken. At crucial junctures during the Civil War, Grant relied on his ability to read the character of other commanders to make key decisions.

Grant also assessed the character and abilities of General Robert E. Lee in his memoir. Grant writes early in the memoir that there is a tendency among people “to clothe a commander of a large army whom they do not know, with almost superhuman abilities.”[50] Grant knew that many in the Union army and the press saw General Lee as just such a superhuman specimen. Every engagement that the press reported on, “the number of his forces was always lowered and that of the National forces exaggerated.”[51] Grant thought this frequent admiration of confederate generals was in marked contrast to the condemnation of Union generals. “The Southern generals were models of chivalry and valor,” Grant remarked bitterly to the New York Herald in 1878, “our generals were venal, incompetent, coarse […]. Everything that our opponents did was perfect. Lee was a demigod, Jackson was a demigod, while our generals were brutal butchers.”[52] Grant notes that even a number of Union officers thought he was no match for Lee. Whenever anyone praised Grant’s successes they would warn: “Well, Grant has never met Bobby Lee yet.”[53]

These officers, Grant would argue, had an overly high opinion of Lee’s abilities. Grant himself was not in awe of Lee. “I had known [Lee] personally,” Grant explained, “and knew that he was mortal; and it was just as well that I felt this.”[54]In Grant’s estimation Lee was an “austere man, and […] difficult of approach to his subordinates.”[55] This contrasts starkly with Grant’s humble bearing and openness to subordinate input.[56] Grant considered Lee overrated as a general. As Grant explained, again to the New York Herald in 1878, “Lee was of a slow, conservative nature, without imagination or humor, always the same, with grave dignity. I never could see in his achievements what justified his reputation. The illusion that nothing but heavy odds beat him will not stand the ultimate light of history.”[57] Sherman shared Grant’s assessment, arguing that Lee’s approach to war was too direct. Using the analogy of a house, Sherman contended that Lee attacked the front porch, while Grant would attack the kitchen and the bedroom.[58] Grant’s approach to war was more informed by a long-term strategic design than was Lee’s.

In some places in his memoir, though, it might be argued that Grant underestimates Lee’s abilities. Grant argued that his army was able to cross the Rapidan River without being attacked by Lee because Lee was taken by surprise. E.B. Long contests Grant’s assessment. Long writes, “Lee apparently did not intend to attack Grant as he crossed the river, but chose the Wilderness as the battlefield and laid his plans accordingly. He seemed well aware of what Grant was doing […].”[59] While Grant clearly recognized the vital necessity of penetrating the character of his adversaries, his attempts to do so were hardly flawless.

Grant didn’t just assess the characters of his adversaries—he continually used his arts of character perception on his subordinates, and sometimes even his superiors. As with Pillow at Fort Donelson, Grant would place character assessment in the balance with other military considerations, often accepting operational risks because of the weight of character. At the Battle of Shiloh, Grant recognized that the troops under Sherman lacked combat experience. However, the quality of their leader counterbalanced this deficiency, giving Grant confidence that Sherman’s command would perform better than their limited experience might suggest.[60] Later in the war, in sending Sheridan against Early, Grant knew that the forces with Sheridan were only equal to those of Early and that Sheridan was on the offensive, a situation that would typically call for the reinforcing of Sheridan to offset the advantages of defense. However, Grant thought the superiority of Sheridan over Early as a commander made up for such material disadvantage.[61]

Grant did not extend favorable assessment to all of his subordinates. There were some officers that possessed admirable qualities for one level of command, but whom Grant asserted should never have been promoted beyond that level. In the case of Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren we see in detail how Grant saw the role of character and disposition in command. His assessment of Warren is worth quoting in full.

Warren’s difficulty was twofold: when he received an order to do anything, it would at once occur to his mind how all the balance of the army should be engaged so as properly to co-operate with him. His ideas were generally good, but he would forget that the person giving him orders had thought of others at the time he had of him. In like manner, when he did get ready to execute an order, after giving most intelligent instructions to division commanders, he would go in with one division, holding the others in reserve until he could superintend their movements in person also, forgetting that division commanders could execute an order without his presence. His difficulty was constitutional and beyond his control. He was an officer of superior ability, quick perception, and personal courage to accomplish anything that could be done with a small command.[62]

As this passage clearly shows, Grant thought Warren had numerous admirable qualities. He did not think Warren’s character utterly deficient. Rather, Warren’s character was ill suited to higher command because he could not trust his subordinates to follow his orders. Trust entails risk; Warren was unwilling to take the risk to put the operation in the hands of his subordinates to execute.[63] For this reason Grant thought Warren should not have been made a corps commander, even though he was a talented division commander.

Grant understood well the temptation to micromanage subordinates. On numerous occasions he was frustrated with subordinates, and sometimes even with the subordinates of subordinates. However, he rarely interfered with the execution of his orders. He would tell his subordinates what his intention was, but he would not enter into detail about how they ought to execute his intention. He thus preserved the principle of mission command: Those asked to execute the order have the best sense of the situation confronting them. This means that their commander must trust them to take the initiative and to change their plans to achieve their superior’s intention by whatever means necessary. Superiors’ interference in this process does more harm than good. Grant’s memoir shows that effective mission command and good character judgment are inextricably linked.

If a superior refuses to interfere in the execution of their commands by subordinates, then the superior’s main influence on how orders are executed rests in picking the right subordinates for each task. This necessitates an ability not only to judge the character of commanders, but also to what missions their particular qualities are most suited. Warren is a case in point here too. He was exceptional at organizing a stalwart defense, as he demonstrated at Little Round Top.[64] He was ill suited to the command of a corps, and to operations requiring aggression and alacrity in pursuit of the foe.

The importance of picking the right subordinates for the task was starkly demonstrated during the infamous Battle of the Crater outside of Petersburg. Grant notes that he “approved most heartily” of Meade’s instructions to his corps commanders, who were to assault part of the defensive works around Petersburg after the detonation of a massive subterranean mine. “The only further precaution which he could have taken, and which he could not foresee,” Grant lamented, “would have been to have different men to execute them.”[65] Burnside’s corps was to play the key role in the assault. Meade had instructed his corps commanders to clear the Union defenses in their front, leaving the area as open as possible for the advancing columns. Warren and Ord were to hold the flanks while Burnside assaulted. (Note the use of Warren here to hold instead of assault would have met with Grant’s approval, given his assessment of Warren.) “Burnside,” Grant notes, looking back with frustration, “seems to have paid no attention whatever to the instructions, and left all the obstruction in his own front for his troops to get over in the best way they could.”[66] Burnside selected an inexperienced division to lead the assault, which Meade vetoed. (In his edition of the memoir, E.B. Long notes that Meade’s reason was that the division had seen almost no fighting.[67]) Burnside subsequently selected Ledlie’s division instead, “a worse selection than the first could have been,” Grant contends; no doubt echoing Meade’s assessment of the initially selected division’s combat inexperience.<[68] In a footnote supportive of Grant’s assessment, Samet calls Ledlie “the drunken division commander.”[69] Grant had argued that Potter and Wilcox were the only division commanders in Burnside’s corps who were up to the task.  As this episode shows then, for Grant, errors in the selection of subordinates played a vital role in the “stupendous failure” that followed.[70]

An objection to Grant’s account arises here, however. Samet points out that Grant appears to exonerate himself from any blame in the operation. Continuing with the theme of character,

Samet notes that Grant did not mention the “insuperable friction” between Meade and Burnside, but which he must have known about. Samet notes that even J.F.C. Fuller, usually a champion of Grant, calls the Battle of the Crater “one of the most disgraceful episodes of the war;” and an episode for which “Grant cannot be exonerated from blame.” “[F]or when a novel means of attack is decided upon,” Fuller contends, “it is the duty of a general-in-chief to take a personal interest in it.”[71] I think Fuller is mistaken here. Grant was deliberate in his decision not to interfere in the execution of his orders by his subordinates because he valued the principle of mission command.  He assumed the risk to trust his subordinates to take the initiative and respond to the changing situation that lay before them. To take a “personal interest” in the execution of the operation would have made Grant guilty of that very micromanagement for which he condemned officers like Warren.

Grant’s own character was well suited to high command. In the deliberation over the surrender of Vicksburg Grant demonstrated an important characteristic of a sound strategic leader—he remained open to persuasion. In his “council of war,” (as Grant jokingly refers to it in the memoir), he allowed himself to be persuaded that demanding unconditional surrender was a mistake under the circumstances. Grant did not become so attached to his own plans that he was unwilling to listen to reason. He did not share the military “pretensions” of a General Pillow, for instance.[72] Moreover, the decision about Vicksburg was not an anomaly. On a number of other occasions, even as he rose in rank, Grant took the advice of subordinates and abandoned elements of his own plans. While commanding after the Union victory at Chattanooga, for example, Grant allowed one of his subordinates to persuade him to alter part of his campaign plan. Instead of pushing Longstreet out of East Tennessee, Grant’s original order, he listened to General Foster who believed that Longstreet was just perfect where he was. “I thought the advice was good, and, adopting that view, countermanded the orders for pursuit of Longstreet.”[73] Later, Grant drew a plan of campaign for Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley. When he interviewed Sheridan, however, he saw that the cavalry commander “was so clear and so positive in his views and so confident of success, I said nothing about [my campaign plan] and did not take it out of my pocket.”[74] Samet notes that Sheridan’s own memoir corroborates this account.<[75] Grant’s character did not make him liable to an excessive pride in his own designs, which might have blinded him to reasonable alternatives. In short, Grant was humble, and that humility made him genuinely open-minded.

Grant’s humility comes through in a number of places in the memoir. Perhaps the best example of this is the reticence Grant showed in writing his memoir in the first place. It was only his family’s desperate financial situation and his serious illness that drove the General to put pen to paper. Grant was always reticent to speak in public, a fact of which even President Lincoln was aware. Before Grant’s commissioning ceremony for the assumption of command of all Union forces, Lincoln provided the General with his own prepared remarks so that Grant could write out a reply instead of delivering it extemporaneously.[76]

Grant also admired humility in others. In a number of places he notes that he was not in favor of officers who lobbied for positions and promotion. Upon taking command of all Union forces, Grant had an opportunity to replace General Meade as the head of the Army of the Potomac.  Meade volunteered to step aside in favor of Sherman should Grant so desire. Grant told Meade that Sherman could not be spared in the West. The willingness to step aside of the victorious commander of Union forces at Gettysburg produced a very favorable impression on Grant. “It is men who wait to be selected, and not those who seek, from whom we may always expect the most efficient service.”[77] Meade’s humility endeared him to Grant. Always an important quality of character, it was one that the Commanding General himself possessed.

One gets the powerful impression that Grant was constantly observing others and assessing their characters. War is a human endeavor and, therefore, knowledge of what motivates and energizes others is a key part of warfare. War is also collaborative. For the best plans to surface, commanders must not have so much pride in their own designs that they are blind to better alternatives.


Grant on Military Maxims and Information in War


Grant had little patience for military maxims and doctrines for the conduct of war. Upon his return to the service as a leader of volunteers, Grant was concerned that his knowledge of tactics and doctrine would be found wanting. He quickly discovered that the new doctrines of the time were nothing but “common sense.” “I do not believe,” Grant confessed, “that the officers of the regiment ever discovered that I had never studied the tactics that I used.”[78]

As he rose in rank, Grant continued to base his thinking about war on common sense. He was frustrated when others trotted out military maxims as infallible, especially when these maxims hindered needful actions. After the fall of Vicksburg, Grant wrote Halleck that General Rosecrans should move against Bragg’s rebel forces because they had been depleted by their reinforcement of Vicksburg. Such a move by Rosecrans would either keep Bragg’s forces where they were or leave Chattanooga open to capture. Like so many of Grant’s strategic schemes, this one involved taking advantage of the fact that the enemy could not be in two places at once; a common-sense point indeed. Moreover, either course of action on the part of the enemy furthered the Union’s purposes. In short, Grant confronted his adversary with situations where they were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t (though Grant would not have expressed it this way as he abhorred foul language).[79] Halleck agreed with Grant and ordered Rosecrans to move against Bragg. However, Halleck could not get Rosecrans to carry out the order. Rosecrans had held a council of war and replied to Halleck as follows: “It was a military maxim ‘not to fight two decisive battles at the same time.’”[80] Grant’s preference for common sense over military maxims bubbled to the surface in his criticism of Rosecrans’ maxim:

If true, the maxim was not applicable in this case. It would be bad to be defeated in two decisive battles fought the same day, but it would not be bad to win them. I, however, was fighting no battle, and the siege of Vicksburg had drawn from Rosecrans’ front so many of the enemy that his chances of victory were much greater than they would be if he waited until the siege was over, when these troops could be returned. Rosecrans was ordered to move against the army that was detaching troops to raise the siege. Finally he did move, on the 24th of June, but ten days afterwards Vicksburg surrendered, and the troops sent from Bragg were free to return.[81]

Although Grant was not schooled in the ways of military theory his common sense approach to tactics and strategy produced results. Grant’s favorite subordinate, Sherman, was aware of the deficiencies in Grant’s martial education. Samet’s edition shares Sherman’s assessment of Grant’s military mind. Sherman considered himself smarter than Grant and much more knowledgeable in the areas of “military history, strategy […] grand tactics […] organization, supply, and administration.” (One might wonder what other military knowledge there is.) Nevertheless, Sherman concluded, “I’ll tell you where he beats me and where he beats the world. He don’t care a damn for what the enemy does out of his sight, but it scares me like hell.”[82] Sherman attributed this to the steadiness of Grant’s nerves, in contrast to his own nervousness. Sherman continues:  “[Grant] uses such information as he has according to his best judgment; he issues his orders and does his level best to carry them out without much reference to what is going on about him and, so far, experience seems to have fully justified him.”[83]

Samet points out that Sherman’s assessment of Grant shows that Grant was not prone to chase after that will-o’-the-wisp of war: perfect situational awareness. Grant knew that it was impossible to have perfect information about the strength, whereabouts, and intentions of the enemy. The search for perfect information can paralyze a commander, as it did McClellan, who was always convinced that the forces facing him were greater than his own. As Samet rightly notes, modern technology makes this pursuit even more attractive and engrossing today, but no less impossible to achieve.[84]According to Sherman, Grant had a disposition that freed him from this preoccupation with an unseen enemy.

I would contend, however, that with Grant there is something more intentional at work. It is not simply that Grant had a disposition that made him worry less about the movements of an enemy he could not see. Instead, Grant knew that he had done everything in his power to produce the same worry in the opposing commander. We can trace Grant’s appreciation of this principle to one of his earliest experiences in the Civil War, which he chronicled in his memoir. In July of 1861, Colonel Grant was ordered to move against Colonel Thomas Harris’ rebel forces in Missouri. Proceeding with his troops to the location where he knew Harris to be, he found the camp abandoned. Grant had been extremely anxious about his first encounter with the enemy and was relieved when he saw the camp empty; as he put it, “My heart resumed its place.” This was a formative experience for Grant. “It occurred to me at once,” he relates, “that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterwards.” Grant notes that this experience stayed with him for the duration. “From that event to the close of the war, I never experienced trepidation upon confronting an enemy, though I always felt more or less anxiety. I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his. The lesson was valuable.”[85] Grant had found a way to emulate the calmness in the face of weighty responsibility that he so admired in Zachary Taylor.[86]

In a 2017 interview with James Mattis, reporter John Dickerson asked then Secretary of Defense:  “What keeps you awake at night?” Mattis’ terse response encapsulates Grant’s approach:  “Nothing. I keep other people awake at night.”[87] Grant understood that his actions out of the sight of the enemy were as worrying to the enemy as the enemy’s unseen actions were to him. As McPherson put it, Grant “always thought more about what he planned to do to the enemy than what his enemy might do to him.”[88] Grant did not set much stock in military maxims but had a common-sense approach to military operations and strategy. This straightforward approach served him well. Strategists today would likewise do well to keep it foremost in their minds.


Grant and Insubordination


Grant had a fertile military mind and often saw what needed to be done to serve the broader purpose of an individual campaign or the war. His prescience about needful actions often led him to take the initiative rather than waiting for orders from his superiors. He would send messages saying that he was going to do such-and-such with the forces under his command unless he received orders to the contrary. This insubordination led some superiors to be critical of Grant.

Immediately before the Battle of the Big Black River, General Halleck sent an order to Grant to move his Army of the Tennessee back to Grand Gulf. Grant’s troops had already crossed the Mississippi and commenced the lightning campaign that would end in the surrender of Vicksburg. Grant told the delivering officer that he would not obey the order. The order was out of date, Grant argued, and if Halleck knew Grant’s position now, the commanding general would not have given the order. The messenger disagreed, arguing that Grant should obey the order at once. Grant relates that there was just then a loud cry and a charge. “I immediately mounted my horse and rode in the direction of the charge, and saw no more of the officer who delivered the dispatch.”[89] In this way Grant conveniently escaped from the officer bearing Halleck’s inconvenient order.

 As Grant rose in rank he interacted increasingly more with the military and political authorities in Washington, who often peppered him with dispatches. In October and November of 1863, the authorities in Washington were gravely worried about the tenuous position of General Burnside in Knoxville. The dispatches said that Lincoln was “much concerned.”[90] Grant answered the dispatches as well as he could, but argued that logistical considerations precluded the relief by reinforcement that Washington so desired. “We had not at Chattanooga animals to pull a single piece of artillery,” Grant pointed out, “much less a supply train.” While sending reinforcements to Burnside seemed like an unalloyed good to those in Washington, Grant pointed out that considerations of supply told a different story. “Reinforcements could not help Burnside,” Grant argued, “because he had neither supplies nor ammunition sufficient for them; hardly, indeed, bread and meat for the men he had.”[91] Eventually, Grant relieved Burnside in his own way and in his own time, and did not permit the pressure from Washington to divert his efforts.

Grant’s superiors were not satisfied with just peppering him with dispatches, however. At times they overruled his orders to his subordinates. Secretary of War Stanton insisted that he personally approve all of Grant’s orders. Grant’s directives would languish on Stanton’s desk, sometimes for days, until the Secretary approved them. Grant did his best to stop this practice but notes that any success he had was temporary, and that Stanton would lapse into his old habits not long after. “I remonstrated against this in writing, and the Secretary apologetically restored me to my rightful position of General-in-Chief of the Army. But he soon lapsed again and took control much as before.”[92]

As head of the Union Army Grant experienced intense pressure “to desist from his own plans and pursue others.”93 Sometimes Grant would have to bypass the political authorities in Washington to evade their interference with his orders to his subordinates. Grant had an important and somewhat unlikely ally in these circumventions: the President of the United States. Grant relates in his memoir how their “conspiracy” against the caution of political leaders in Washington contributed to the ultimate success of the campaign in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864.

Grant knew that the Shenandoah Valley “was very important to the Confederates, because it was the principal storehouse they now had for feeding their armies about Richmond.”[93]  Grant, therefore, ever striving to worry his adversary, wanted to chase the enemy from the valley. On August 1, 1864, he sent an order with General Sheridan—along with reinforcements to protect Washington—that he should “put himself south of the enemy and follow him to the death.  Wherever the enemy goes let our troops go also.”[94] President Lincoln saw this dispatch from Grant and approved wholeheartedly. However, Lincoln told Grant to look over the dispatches emanating from Washington, because Grant would find no evidence there that anyone in Washington was contemplating such a pursuit “to the death.” Lincoln informed Grant that no such pursuit would happen unless Grant himself “watch[ed] it every day, and hour, and force[d] it.”[95] If it were to happen, Lincoln assured Grant, the General-in-Chief himself would have to use his authority to head off every attempt to dilute his aggressive plan of pursuit.

Following Lincoln’s advice, Grant visited Sheridan in the field and did not send his orders through Washington. Had he sent his orders through Washington, Grant observes, “they would be stopped there and such orders as Halleck’s caution (and that of the Secretary of War) would suggest would be given instead, and would, no doubt, be contradictory to mine.”[96] This would appear to be blatant insubordination, until one considers that Grant had Lincoln’s blessing. Grant understood that the leaders in Washington were cautious because they wanted to avoid a major military defeat before the elections of 1864, and so hand the election to the Democrats. After all, those gathered for the Democratic convention that year had “declared the war a failure.”[97] Lincoln was not so cautious (or fearful) as the members of his cabinet. Thanks to Lincoln and Grant, despite the trepidation of some political leaders in Washington, Sheridan’s operations resulted in a major victory. As Grant put it, “this decisive victory was the most effective campaign argument in the canvas.”[98]

Despite his occasional insubordinations, Grant understood where his military authority stopped and political authority became supreme. Here too Lincoln was a key figure for Grant. The relationship of Lincoln and Grant was based on mutual respect, even admiration. Grant used his skill for character assessment on Lincoln and found the President extremely admirable. “He always showed a generous and kindly spirit toward the Southern people, and I never heard him abuse an enemy. Some of the cruel things said about President Lincoln, particularly in the North, used to pierce him to the heart; but never in my presence did he evince a revengeful disposition.”[99]“He was a great man,” Grant said of Lincoln, “a very great man. The more I saw of him, the more this impressed me. He was incontestably the greatest man I ever knew.”[100]

Lincoln made it clear to Grant where the boundary of acceptable insubordination lay. As Lincoln confided in Grant, the President did not want to interfere in military matters but the “procrastination on the part of commanders, and pressure from the people at the North and Congress” compelled him to do so on a number of occasions.[101] It was good that Lincoln did not take a firmer hand with his military subordinates because he was not necessarily gifted in the art of war. (At one point Grant relates how Lincoln shared a plan of campaign with him that had serious flaws. Ever tactful, Grant did not point this out to the President at the time.[102] ) While respecting Grant’s authority, Lincoln was careful to show Grant where the boundary was between military and political authority. When Lincoln came to Fort Monroe to meet with the peace commissioners from the South, he would not allow any military officers to participate in the discussions.[103]And when the prospect of a meeting between Lee and Grant materialized near the end of the war, Lincoln warned Grant through Stanton that Grant was “not to decide, discuss, or confer upon any political questions.”[104] Grant received and internalized Lincoln’s admonition.

While Grant was closing in on the Army of Northern Virginia, a correspondence began between himself and Lee. During the exchange, whenever Lee strayed into questions of peace terms to end the war rather than the surrender of his army, Grant replied that such political questions were beyond his remit. “I have no authority,” Grant reminded Lee, “to treat on the subject of peace.”[105] While Grant bridled at political interference in military operations, he was clearly aware of and respected the bounds of his authority and his ultimate subordination to political authority. Lincoln helped remind Grant of this fact, even while helping his general circumvent political interference in military operations.

While Grant fought against this political interference in his operations, he appreciated that the opposing general was subject to similar pressures. After the bloody battle of Cold Harbor, Grant decided to make another left flank maneuver in his Virginia campaign. Grant realized that this maneuver was dangerous but necessary. If Lee perceived that Grant was moving and did not follow him, the Confederate general might attack Butler’s army and destroy it before Grant’s army could come to its relief, defeating much of the Union force in detail. However, Grant  “relied upon Lee’s not seeing [Grant’s] danger as [Grant] saw it.”[106] This was because Grant had presented the Confederates with an even greater danger: the security of their capital, Richmond.  Grant relied on his adversaries’ preoccupation with their own danger. Even if Lee discounted this danger, Grant reasoned, “I knew that [Richmond’s] safety would be a matter of the first consideration with the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the so-called Confederate government, if it was not with the military commanders.”[107]

In essence, I would argue, Grant was relying on the political leaders in the South to hinder bold actions by Lee to the same extent that Grant’s political superiors had tried to hinder his operations. This threat to their seat of power threatened their control over the Confederate States, which threatened their protraction of the conflict. By threatening the Confederate capital Grant induced worry, a perception of danger, in his adversaries at the political level such that they would likely interfere with any military operations that might increase the danger. Grant, it would appear, used his knowledge of the conflicts that can arise between the military and the political sphere in strategy to his advantage.

The strategist occupies the nexus between the military arts and the political arts. If war is the continuation of politics with the admixture of other means, as Clausewitz contends, then political authorities should predominate. As Grant’s calculated insubordination shows, however, military leaders occasionally need to press political authorities to follow through with their own stated policy.  At the same time, it is important for political leaders to instruct their military subordinates on the limits of their authority, as Lincoln did with Grant. Finally, an astute strategist who understands what kinds of actions induce political interference in military operations can exploit this tendency of politicians to undermine an adversary’s effective use of military forces.


Grant the Butcher


One of the main charges laid at Grant’s feet during and after the Civil War is that he was a butcher of men; that he was no subtle strategist, but rather a leader who engaged in unnecessarily bloody attrition warfare. No less eminent a figure than the wife of the President, Mary Lincoln, held this popular view, saying, “He is a butcher, and not fit to be at the head of an army.”[108] I hope that the analysis above has helped convince the reader that Grant was in fact a very capable strategist. He understood the nuanced play between the movements of armies and the movement of political communities. In a number of places in his memoir one gets the sense that Grant was well aware of this charge. In part, his memoir was an opportunity to explain why he used the approach he did in leading the armies of the Union.

Before beginning his narrative of the Wilderness Campaign, which would be the bloodiest of the war, Grant details why he thought this campaign was necessary. The two sides in the Civil War were at a “standoff,” he argued. “The two armies had been confronting each other so long,” Grant explained, “without any decisive result, that they hardly knew which could whip.” Grant was well aware that this campaign would be costly. “The campaign now begun was destined to result in heavier losses, to both armies, in a given time, than any previously suffered.”  Nevertheless, this massive exertion would shorten the war and in the end result in fewer casualties than the perpetually indecisive battles that thus far had characterized the war. The Assistant Secretary of War, Charles Dana, agreed with Grant’s assessment, arguing that “Grant in eleven months secured the prize with less loss than his predecessors suffered in failing to win it during a struggle of three years.” Dana calculated that almost 20,000 more soldiers were killed in the inconclusive fighting of the first three years than were killed under Grant in the war’s final year.[109] As Grant himself noted, “the carnage was to be limited to a single year, and to accomplish all that had been anticipated or desired at the beginning in that time.” One can imagine Grant speaking directly to the American people when he wrote: “We had to have hard fighting to achieve this.”[110]

What Grant labors to relate is a counterintuitive reality of war. When one uses all of the forces at one’s disposal rapidly to overwhelm the enemy more soldiers will indeed be killed. However, such action actually saves lives in the long run because it shortens the war. Generations later General Colin Powell would echo this idea: “Use all the force necessary, and do not apologize for going in big if that is what it takes. Decisive force ends wars quickly and in the long run saves lives.”[111]

Grant’s bloody campaign was unpopular, but it was arguably the popular nature of the Union regime that made it necessary. To understand Grant’s rationale we must return to a key passage    where Grant assesses the difference between the Northern and Southern political order and their strategic implications. As Grant appreciated, the South need only “protract the war, which was all that was necessary to enable them to gain recognition in the end.”[112] This was not the situation in the North:

The North was already growing weary, as the South evidently was also, but with this difference. In the North the people governed, and could stop hostilities whenever they chose to stop supplies. The South was a military camp, controlled absolutely by the government with soldiers to back it, and the war could have been protracted, no matter to what extent the discontent reached, up to the point of open mutiny of the soldiers themselves.[113]

Much is made of the advantages that the North had in things like war materiel as compared with the South. But Grant appreciated that all the means in the world did not matter if the will to use them faltered. Grant began the bloody offensive campaign to defeat the Confederacy for the same reason that he took the Army of the Tennessee south in 1862-3. He knew that the essential spring of action in the North was weakening and would only grow weaker with time. The Virginia campaign would bring the war to an end before the will to continue the war in the North gave out. It was not a blind adherence to attritional warfare that guided Grant’s decision to begin what he knew would be the bloodiest campaign of the war. He based that fateful decision on the strategic context in which he found himself.




Grant’s memoir should be ranked among the classics of strategy. It is seemingly inexhaustible, and I do not claim to have wrung out all of its insights here. Grant’s memoir makes it clear that strategy played a key role in his military decision-making. For Grant, strategic concerns sometimes outweighed the more traditional military concerns with supply and logistics. At the same time, Grant knew when a slavish adherence to policy was harmful to the overall strategic aim, as when he paroled the prisoners at Vicksburg. His memoir also makes clear that Grant was exceptionally gifted at reading people and assessing their character for strengths and weakness. He used his assessments of opposing commanders to guide military operations, even disregarding military axioms based on what he knew of leaders’ characters. He carefully assessed the characters of his subordinates also, and gave them assignments suited to their strengths and weaknesses. This was the most effective way to ensure his subordinates executed his orders with dispatch and competence. Grant was loath to interfere with the execution of his orders, preferring to put the right man, in the right place, at the right time, and to allow him to exercise his initiative.

Grant’s focus on character should resonate with strategists today. Assessments of the personalities and character of present and potential adversaries and allies is vital to effective strategy. Policy makers and strategists should constantly reassess the accuracy of leader profiles developed by their intelligence agencies, in order to effectively exploit this important element of strategy.

I also argued that Grant’s own character was a key ingredient to his success. In particular, Grant’s humility made him open to input from his subordinates, which led to more effective campaign plans. Grant did not allow pride in his own designs to blind him to better alternatives.

Grant appears to have had little patience for military maxims. He preferred to apply common sense when formulating operations, always with an eye to their strategic implications. As Sherman pointed out, Grant did not allow the unseen activities of his enemy to perturb him in the execution of his own plans. Grant learned early in the war that his adversaries had as much to fear from his forces as Grant had to fear from theirs. Thus he designed his operations to inspire maximum worry in the opposing commanders and in the political authorities to whom they answered.

The conduct of strategy always involves interactions between military and political leaders.  Grant used the military forces at his disposal to achieve the political aim of the war. However, he had little patience for political interference in his conduct of strategy, especially when that interference, in his view, undermined the very strategy those authorities ordered him to execute.  On a number of occasions Grant circumvented the political authorities in Washington to keep them from diluting his orders to his subordinates. Ironically, his chief ally in this effort was President Lincoln, who disapproved of the political interference with Grant’s efforts. At the same time Lincoln made sure Grant knew where military prerogatives ended and those of politics began. Grant also knew that his adversary was subject to political interference with military operations, which Grant worked to instigate in the opposition.

Grant also uses his memoir to address the public perception of him as a butcher, who engaged in an unnecessarily bloody campaign in the war’s final year. Grant knew that this final campaign would result in hard fighting and heavy casualties. However, this major effort held out the promise of a more rapid conclusion to the war, which would result in fewer casualties. This major offensive campaign was necessary for strategic reasons. The South could afford to protract the war and defeat Union strategy. But the political will in the North could not sustain a protracted war. Therefore, Grant sought victory by the shortest, if bloodiest, possible route as the only means of achieving the Union’s political ends with the military means and political will that were at his disposal.


[1] Ron Chernow, Grant (LONDON: PENGUIN Books, 2018), xviii.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ulysses S. Grant and Elizabeth D. Samet, The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, First edition (New York:  Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, 2019), 32.

[4] Ibid., 35.

[5] Ibid., 53.

[6] Ibid., 56.

[7] Ibid., 55.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 57.

[10] Ibid., 56.

[11] Ibid., 55 footnote 11.

[12] Ibid., 177–78.

[13] Ibid., 178.

[14] Ibid., 93.

[15] Ibid., 102.

[16] Ibid., 230.

[17] Ibid., 103–4.

[18] Ibid., 132.

[19] Jean Edward Smith, Grant (Simon & Schuster, 2001), 40.

[20] Grant and Samet, The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, 103–4.

[21] Ibid., 196. See footnote 1.

[22] “Amateurs talk about strategy and tactics. Professionals talk about logistics and sustainability in warfare.”  Interview with General Robert Hilliard Barrow, United States Marine Corps, San Diego (CA), November 11, 1979. “Q&A: Marines’ (General Robert—ed.) Barrow Backs SALT—And Conventional Rearming,”11 November 1979, San Diego Union.

[23] Grant and Samet, The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, 334–35.

[24] Ibid., 334.

[25] Ibid., 396.

[26] Ibid., 395.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 496 footnote 3.

[29] Ibid., 395.

[30] James M. McPherson, David M. Kennedy, and James Munro McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, New ed., The Oxford History of the United States, David M. Kennedy, general ed.; Vol. 6 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 627.

[31] James M. McPherson, David M. Kennedy, and James Munro McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, New ed., The Oxford History of the United States, David M. Kennedy, general ed.; Vol. 6 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 627.

[32] Ibid., 769.

[33] Ibid., 396.

[34] Mackubin Thomas Owens, “Grant at Vicksburg,” Weekly Standard, July 8, 2013, Dl0oab_inRw57IKQPqsvoH4GQ7UElApKcjtNoscHKM64 .

[35] Michael Cromartie, ed., Might and Right after the Cold War: Can Foreign Policy Be Moral? (Washington, D.C. :  Lanham, MD: Ethics and Public Policy Center; Distributed by National Book Network, 1993).

[36] Grant and Samet, The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, 287.

[37] Ibid., 486.

[38] As explained by McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom: “A parole was an oath by a captured soldier, given in return for release from captivity, not to bear arms again until formally exchanged. A year earlier, in July 1862, the Union and Confederate governments had agreed to a cartel for exchanging prisoners.” Battle Cry, p. 636, footnote 17.

[39] Chernow, Grant, 288.

[40] McPherson, Kennedy, and McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 636.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Grant and Samet, The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, 491.

[43] Ibid., 486.

[44] Chernow, Grant, 288.

[45] Grant and Samet, The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, 275.

[46] McPherson, Kennedy, and McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 400.

[47] Ibid., 401.

[48] Grant and Samet, The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, 287.

[49] Ibid., 288–89.

[50] Ibid., 178.

[51] Ibid., 723.

[52] Chernow, Grant, 516.

[53] Grant and Samet, The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, 723.

[54] Ibid., 178–79.

[55] Ibid., 723.

[56] Chernow, Grant, 517.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ulysses S Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, 2001, 402 footnote 3, 430 footnote 1.

[60] Grant and Samet, The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, 311.

[61] Ibid., 746.

[62] Ibid., 663–64.

[63] Stephen M. R. Covey and Rebecca R. Merrill, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything (New York: Free Press, 2008).

[64] McPherson, Kennedy, and McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 659.

[65] Grant and Samet, The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, 738.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Grant and Samet, The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, 738.

[69] Ibid., 738 footnote 7.

[70] Ibid., 741.

[71] Ibid., 739 footnote 7.

[72] Ibid., 275.

[73] Ibid., 587.

[74] Ibid., 751.

[75] Ibid., 751 footnote 2.

[76] Ibid., 588.

[77] Ibid., 590.

[78] Ibid., 234–35.

[79] Chernow, Grant, 10–11.

[80] Grant and Samet, The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, 511.

[81] Ibid., 511. Emphasis added.

[82] Ibid., 511-512 footnote 3.

[83] Ibid., 512 footnote 3.

[84] Ibid.

[85] Ibid., 231.

[86] Smith, Grant, 47.


[88] McPherson, Kennedy, and McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 400.

[89] Grant and Samet, The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, 454.

[90] Ibid., 537.

[91] Ibid.

[92] Ibid., 581.

[93] Ibid., 589.

[94] Ibid., 743.

[95] Ibid., 745.

[96] Ibid., 750–51.

[97] Ibid., 755.

[98] Ibid., 755–56.

[99] Ibid., 833.

[100] Chernow, Grant, 480.

[101] Grant and Samet, The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, 593.

[102] Ibid., 595.

[103] Chernow, Grant, 467.

[104] Ibid., 474.

[105] Ibid., 503.

[106] Grant and Samet, The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, 715.

[107] Ibid., 716.

[108] Chernow, Grant, 481.

[109] Grant and Samet, The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, 705 footnote 3.

[110] Ibid., 639.

[111] Sam C. Sarkesian, John Allen Williams, and Stephen J. Cimbala, US National Security: Policymakers, Processes, and Politics, 5th ed (Boulder, Colo: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2013), 154–55.

[112] Grant and Samet, The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, 769.

[113] Ibid.