His name was actually Hiram Ulysses Grant, but that’s what happens when you’re born in 1822 and someone spells your name wrong on a military school application. You suddenly get an “S” stuck in there. Forever. Grant put up with it, but made it clear that it never stood for anything other than “S”. He had a lot more on his mind than middle names anyway.
Grant was and is to this day America’s greatest general (Eisenhower being a very close contender for the title). He is also an icon to the late bloomers of the world, those of us still hoping that some day our talents will align with history in such a way that we’ll be propelled to greatness. Indeed when the Civil War broke out Grant was considered by many — especially his immediate family and in-laws — to be a has-been. A sometimes drunk and hopeless businessman, he’d been reduced to working in his father’s tannery shop, tying up packages because he was too socially awkward for sales. He was 39 years old.
Grant had already been a soldier of course. He’d gone to West Point and had fought in the Mexican-American War. There he had distinguished himself in battle, a somber and unusually determined and courageous officer. An intelligent and sensitive sort also, he remarked on several occasions that he both liked the Mexicans and regretted U.S. provocations of them. Yet if there was one thing that defined Grant above all else was his dedication to duty. He pressed on unflinchingly.
It was this trait that Lincoln valued so much twenty years later. Not a year out from his dad’s leather goods store, Grant was promoted to general after his performance at Fort Donelson. There Grant and his Union army squared off against 12,000 fortified Confederates under the command of Grant’s former infantry buddy, Simon Buckner. Grant quickly surrounded the fort, ending the fight after just a few days. Buckner surrendered with the expectation of generous terms because, well, Grant owed him money. Their correspondence went like this:
In consideration of all the circumstances governing the present situation of affairs at this station I propose to the commanding officers of the Federal forces the appointment of commissioners to agree upon terms of capitulation of the forces and post under my command, and in that view suggest an armistice until 12 o’clock to-day.
Yours of this date, proposing armistice and appointment of commissioners to settle terms of capitulation, is just received. No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.
The distribution of the forces under my command incident to an unexpected change of commanders and the overwhelming force under your command compel me, notwithstanding the brilliant success of the Confederate arms yesterday, to accept the ungenerous and unchivalrous terms which you propose.
Buckner was clearly ticked. Yet just as clearly he had underestimated his old chum’s seriousness in obtaining his objective. Lincoln loved it of course, and so did the press. “U.S.” Grant became known as “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, and he was promoted to Major General.
Grant would show this sort of iron determination all throughout the war. Where other Civil War generals on both sides jockeyed, played for time and generally tried to outwit or outlast the other, Grant pressed forward. Thoughtfully, but with resolve. Indeed Grant saw more clearly than others just how bloody the Civil War was about to become. He perceived that unlike earlier conflicts waged by kings with hired armies, the American Civil War would be fought in the total war style that Napoleon had invented half a century earlier: with entire societies pitted against one another in an ideological grudge match. As Churchill would later say in anticipation of World War I “the wars of peoples will be more terrible than the wars of kings.” Battles would be personal and vengeful and body counts would be high. It’s certainly because Grant expected horrific casualties at sites like Shiloh that he kept going in spite of them, though not without the sadness that is evident in virtually every picture ever taken of him.
Grant’s grit served him well right up to his epic face off with Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee was a man of great charisma but also of staggering imagination and ingenuity. Also a natural engineer, Lee excelled at creating earthworks and entrenchments that confounded his opponents. On paper he was a superior general, yet he was unprepared for Grant’s stripped down, no-nonsense style of fighting. Once Grant had engaged the Army of Northern Virginia, he wouldn’t disengage. Like a pit bull latched to Lee’s ankle, he took huge punishment, yet he succeeded in dragging Lee further and further from his home territory and his base of supply. Lee’s army eventually starved. And that, as they say, was that. All the genius in the world is useless if your troops have no ammo or anything to eat.
Later in a small farmhouse in Appomattox, during the signing of the articles of surrender, the Confederate top brass could only shake their heads at the simplistic strategy that defeated their hero general. Many did so at Grant himself, who they remembered from the Mexican campaign twenty years earlier. Not so much for his fighting ability has for his terrible portrayal of Desdemona, the female lead in Othello, a play that Grant’s company put on during one of their many long waits. James Longstreet, a Confederate General who was present at Appomattox, had been part of the cast and had personally complained about Grant’s awful acting. At the time he’d insisted that the company go to the extreme of bringing an actual woman over from New Orleans to play the part, all to no avail. One can only imagine what Longstreet was thinking watching the surrender ceremony. The last time I saw this guy he was in drag. Now I’m surrendering to him. Lord, life is crazy.
I tell you all this because now, knowing what you know about Ulysses Grant, you’ll understand why his favorite dessert was a dish as plain as rice pudding. It was one of the only two foods he ever got excited about, the other being roasted turkey. Not sexy either. But that was Grant: what you saw was pretty much what you got.