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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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While the soldiers slept on their arms, Grant’s subordinate, General William Tecumseh Sherman, searched the field for his commander and found him, near midnight, in the rain, under a tree, smoking a cigar and using a crutch for support. Grant had been injured in falling from a horse, which was unusual. His one distinction in an otherwise unremarkable four years at West Point had been as a horseman.

“Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Sherman said.

“Yes,” Grant said. “Lick ’em tomorrow, though.”

And he did, and he was hailed, initially, as a hero for the victory. But the news that accumulated in the days after the battle cast a pall over his reputation. There was the business about his troops being surprised, something he would deny for the rest of his life. And then there were the awful casualty rolls that made some wonder if any victory could have been worth the price. Furthermore, there was the business about his not being on the scene, which led to rumors that he had been drinking. A decade earlier, he had left the Army under a cloud. Given the choice between resigning his commission and facing court-martial for being drunk while handing out payroll at a post in California, he had submitted his resignation and returned to a civilian life of disappointment and failure.

Rumors of his drinking would follow him throughout the war, leading to Lincoln’s famous, and perhaps apocryphal, rejoinder: “I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.”

Criticism of Grant’s handling of Shiloh became increasingly intense and vitriolic, to the point where the lieutenant governor of Ohio visited the battlefield and reported back to a newspaper that the feeling in the Army was that Grant (along with one of his subordinates, a general named Prentis who, in fact, may have saved the day for the Union at a place in the line known thereafter as the Hornet’s Nest) “ought to be court-martialed and shot.” 

Grant more or less rolled up in a ball and took it. Sherman, intense in both temper and loyalty to Grant, wrote to his brother, Senator John Sherman: “The American press is a shame and a reproach to a civilized people. When a man is too lazy to work and too cowardly to steal, he becomes an editor and manufactures public opinion.”

While Grant did not fight the enemies at his back, he had learned something from the awful experience at Shiloh of fighting those at his front. This, in short, was a new understanding of the war, one that he and his friend and trusted lieutenant, Sherman, would refine to a principle of total war. After Shiloh, Grant later said, “I gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest.”

He might not have had the opportunity if Lincoln had listened to Grant’s critics, who wanted him relieved. One of them, Alexander McClure, an early supporter and influential friend, visited Lincoln in the White House after Shiloh to make the case against Grant. Lincoln listened, then thought for some time before replying, “I can’t spare this man; he fights.”

 Grant’s next battle—campaign, actually—was his masterpiece. The Confederate fortress on the high bluffs of Vicksburg was its nominal objective, but the larger, strategic goal was control of the Mississippi River, along its entire length, cutting the Confederacy in half. 

The campaign was the antithesis of the great Napoleonic battles where vast armies settled things in a day or two. The Vicksburg campaign lasted months, and its intricacies would take a book full of maps to explain. The effort was characterized by a series of false starts and frustrations so serious that even Sherman advised Grant, at one point, to give up the effort, return to Memphis, and start over. He had tried a direct approach, and he had tried various engineering schemes that would have made navigable some side channels in the river so naval vessels could move troops downstream without coming under Vicksburg’s guns. After these had come to nothing, Grant simply ordered the ships to run the guns.

He was never short of that quality called “audacity.”

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