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Commentary: U.S. Grant and the Battle of Vicksburg

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 20, 2013 - As a boy, Ulysses Simpson Grant was humble and quiet. His classmates took this for a lack of intelligence and gave Ulysses the nickname “Useless.”

But as a young man he was accepted into West Point. Grant graduated in 1843, but planned to leave military service as soon as possible. His first assignment was in Jefferson Barracks, south of St. Louis, where he met Julia Dent, the sister of his West Point roommate. He fell madly in love and married her in 1848 after returning from the War with Mexico.

Life was happy for Lt. Grant and his bride until 1852 when he was ordered to the West Coast. Julia could not make the move because she was expecting. While on the Pacific Coast, Grant failed at several business ventures (his father often said Ulysses had no business sense) and he desperately missed his wife.

He became lonely and depressed and began to drink, which wasn’t uncommon among military officers on the frontier. But Grant couldn’t hold his booze and rumors were soon circulating that Grant was a drunk. Innuendos about trouble with alcohol would haunt him for much of his military career. In July 1854 Grant resigned from the military perhaps to avoid a court-martial for his drinking. He told a friend, “Whoever hears from me in 10 years, will hear of a well-to-do old Missouri farmer.”

Grant did become a Missouri farmer but not a successful one. For six years, Grant tried many occupations but failed at everything. Things were so bad that in December 1857 Grant pawned his gold watch to buy Christmas presents for his family. Finally, in 1860, Grant moved his family from St. Louis and to work as a clerk in his younger brother’s leather store.

When the Civil War broke out, Grant rejoined the military. In June 1861 he was promoted to colonel and put in charge of an Illinois volunteer regiment. He was back doing what he was good at: fighting.

In February 1862 Grant captured two Confederate fortresses, Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. When the leader of the rebel troops at Fort Donelson asked what the terms of the surrender would be, Grant relied, “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.”

Grant had his swagger back. He was no longer “Useless” Grant. He was “Unconditional Surrender” Grant and he was soon promoted to major general of volunteers.

Grant’s philosophy on war was, “Find where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as possible. Strike him as hard as you can and keep moving.” He forgot that sometimes the enemy strikes first, which happened at Shiloh in April 1862. Although the battle was a draw, Grant was highly criticized and whispers of his drinking resurfaced.

Gen. Grant’s next challenge was the battle for Vicksburg, Miss., which began 150 years ago yesterday. It would determine whether Grant would be considered a great general or a footnote.

Vicksburg, on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, was a Confederate stronghold. Union forces wanted to capture the city to control the river and cut the Confederacy in half.

Grant planned to move his army south of Vicksburg and to the east side of the Mississippi to attack the city from the rear. For nine weeks, Grant marched his army south along the western bank of the river, which was tough going through swampy condition.

But Grant had more problems than the rebel army and swampy terrain. Some claimed the army was wandering aimlessly and that Grant was not up to the job. President Lincoln was growing impatient with the lack of progress against Vicksburg, and the press was heavily attacking Grant.

One newspaper editor wrote to the Secretary of State saying Grant was “most of the time more than half drunk, and much of the time idiotically drunk.” Some subordinates were plotting to get Grant removed from command using stories of drinking. Other newspapers reported that Grant’s army was disease-ridden and had lost confidence in the general. Some papers were even reporting his troop movements.

Lincoln, however, continued to support him. When told by a group of congressmen that Grant sometimes drank too much the president allegedly asked if they knew which whisky he drank because he would like to distribute it to his other generals. Lincoln knew that at least Grant had the spirit to fight. In actuality, the general’s drinking was apparently under control throughout the Civil War.

Eventually Grant landed his troops south of Vicksburg and won several battles before trapping Confederate Gen. John Pemberton’s army in Vicksburg. The rebel general had been told to sacrifice the city to save his army but Pemberton, a Pennsylvanian, refused to abandon Vicksburg for fear he would be considered a traitor.

On May 19, 1863, Grant attacked the city’s fortifications but was repulsed. Two days later he was again beaten back with heavy casualties. After that, the battle became a siege that lasted 45 days with soldiers and civilians in the city reduced to eating rats and boiled shoe leather. Pemberton finally surrendered his nearly 32,000 troops on July 4.

Vicksburg was the greatest Union victory to date and, coming one day after the Northern triumph at Gettysburg, it virtually sealed the fate of the Confederacy. Five days later Port Hudson, just south of Vicksburg, also fell to Federal forces. Now the Union controlled the Mississippi River and Lincoln was able to proclaim, “The father of waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”

Shortly after his victory at Vicksburg, “Useless Grant” was promoted to major general in the regular army. He later led the Army of the Potomac, defeating the Confederate Army of Virginia in April 1865 and ending the Civil War.

There was talk of running him for president in 1864 but he said that would perhaps be “highly unfortunate for myself if not for the county.” In 1868, he was elected our 18th president and that statement proved correct.

John C. Wade, Wildwood, is a chief financial officer, amateur historian and self-proclaimed expert on the U.S. presidents. Wade is on a number of not-for-profit boards in St Louis including the World Affairs Council and Meds & Foods for Kids. He is a Churchill Fellow and on the board of governors of the National Churchill Museum.

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