The Magazine

Grant Takes Charge

150 years ago—the appointment that won a war

Mar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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He arrived without ceremony. No pomp, no pageantry. It was as far in spirit from Caesar’s entry into Rome as it could possibly have been. He had come to Washington to be made only the third lieutenant general in the nation’s history (George Washington and Winfield Scott were the others) and to assume command of all the Union armies and, consequently, the direction of the war from Texas to Virginia. He was being asked—commanded, actually—by civilian leadership to save the Republic. He was not the first. 


But when he appeared, with his 12-year-old son, in the lobby of Willard’s Hotel, the clerk did not recognize him. The oversight could be forgiven. He was dressed in a worn uniform that was anything but gaudy—no braided epaulets and polished brass, but merely the insignia of a major general, and, God knows, they saw enough of them at Willard’s. In the recollection of someone who had been in the lobby at the time, he seemed a man of “no gait, no station, no manner.” Of “a rather scrubby look withal .  .  . as if he was out of office and on half pay with nothing to do but hang round the entry of Willard’s, cigar in mouth.” And he had “rather the look of a man who did, or once did, take a little too much to drink.”

He asked about a room. The desk clerk sized him up and responded, condescendingly, that he supposed they could manage something. There was something on the top floor, very small. He said that would do, and the desk clerk gave him the register to sign. 

When the clerk read what the new lodger had written—“U.S. Grant & Son; Galena, Illinois”—his attitude changed instantly into one of complete and energetic sycophancy. Boy, fetch those bags! Best room in the house for the general!

Grant was given Parlor 6, the same suite that had been occupied by Abraham Lincoln in the days before the inauguration and where Julia Ward Howe had composed “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” These quarters were not only plush but symbolic to the cause.

Grant accepted the upgrade with equanimity. He wasn’t, as Washington was to learn, a man given to conspicuous displays of emotion. If he had feelings, he kept them to himself. Anyway, one hotel room was as good as another, one imagines him thinking. It was just for sleeping, and, after all, he didn’t plan on being there long. He had other business to attend to, down in Virginia. 

Ulysses S. Grant had come to Washington, in early March 1864, a stranger to its culture and its customs and its intrigues. As regards those things, he was what the observer in Willard’s lobby had him pegged for—a rube. He may have had a reputation, even been something of a legend, and the nation might have placed all its hopes in him, but he was still a Midwesterner—a frontiersman, almost. His reputation had been earned far away, on the other side of the Alleghenies, and not in the theater of war that Washington knew intimately and mostly in the form of defeat at the hands of the Army of Northern Virginia and its commander, Robert E. Lee. 

Still, General Grant had won his battles—Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga. These victories were complete and unequivocal and had, each of them, enhanced his reputation. Fort Donelson had revealed a firmness that bordered on brutality. When the commander of the Confederate forces asked for terms, with his men outnumbered and bottled up, Grant messaged back, “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.”

His initials “U.S.” were thereafter said to stand for “Unconditional Surrender.” The man to whom Grant dictated these terms, Brigadier General Simon Bolivar Buckner, was an old Army friend who had once lent him money when he was desperate. After the surrender, Grant offered to do the same for him. Buckner politely refused the offer. Long after the war, Buckner called on his old friend and adversary, who was then near death, to pay his final respects. No hard feelings. That demand for “unconditional surrender” had just been Grant being Grant.

Shiloh, in April 1862, was the first of the many Civil War battles where the casualty count exceeded that of Waterloo—almost 25,000 men counting both sides. When the battle opened, Grant was not even on the scene, and the forces under his command were surprised and nearly routed. When he arrived on the field, they were huddled in defensive positions with their backs to the Tennessee River and in danger of being driven into it, if not into prisoner of war camps. Demoralization, retreat, and surrender were in the air. But the Confederates had lost their commanding general, Albert Sidney Johnston, and they were spent. The day ended with the Union reinforcing and holding its lines. 

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