Ulysses is greeted by troops along the march in this sketch.
“Ulysses was a Soldier’s General”
Ulysses S. Grant inspired the respect of his Union troops. As Col. Horace Porter stated: “His soldiers always knew that he was ready to rough it with them and share their hardships on the march. He wore no better clothes than they, and often ate no better food.” Instead of a handsome general’s uniform, Grant wore the plain uniform of a private, only with three stars on his shoulder. His generals dismissed his modesty as one of his eccentricities. They laughed about his breakfasts of coffee and a cucumber sliced in vinegar—and having his meat cooked to a crisp because any bloody meat reminded him of his father’s tannery.
Grant constantly gave his troops the credit they deserved. At Shiloh he understandingly forgave the Union troops who had panicked while their commanders fled to save themselves. In the battle for Vicksburg, some of the Union defenders were
African-American regiments. Fighting valiantly, they repelled an assault from the Confederates, which Grant proudly reported to Lincoln.
Cheers for Grant were cheers for his men’s own triumph over misfortune. Those who fought and died for Grant believed they shared a part of his glory, a glint of his success, when they gave up their lives.
A Confederate prisoner captured after days of desperate fighting on the slopes and ridges of Chattanooga in November of 1863 saw Grant at an altogether different moment. As this man and his fellow prisoners were being herded to the rear, all of them wretched condition and some limping from wounds, his group was halted beside a road to make way for several Union generals and their staffs who
were crossing a bridge on horseback. “When General Grant reached the line of ragged, bloody, starveling, despairing prisoners strung out on each side of the bridge,” the Confederate later wrote, “he lifted his hat and held it over his head until he passed the last man of that living funeral cortege. He was the only officer…who recognized us as being on the face of the earth.”
Stymied in the shadow of Vicksburg, Grant had critics aplenty although the troops he commanded were not among them. A reporter for the New York World wrote that despite the repeated setbacks, “General Grant still retains his hold upon the affections of his men.” They admire “his energy and disposition to do something.” There are “no Napoleonic displays, no ostentation, no speed, no superfluous flummery. “ An Illinois private put it best when he said the army trusted Grant. “Everything that Grant directs is right. His soldiers believe in him. In private talk among ourselves I have never heard a single soldier speak in doubt of Grant.” Above all, the troops appreciated Grant’s unassuming manner. Most generals went about attended by an entourage of immaculately tailored staff officers. Grant usually rode alone, except for an orderly or two to carry messages if the need arose. Another soldier said the men looked on Grant “as a friendly partner, not an arbitrary commander.” Instead of cheering as he rode by, they would “greet him as they would address one of their neighbors at home. ‘Good morning, General,’ ‘Pleasant day, General’…There was no nonsense, no sentiment; only a plain businessman of the republic, there for the one single purpose of getting that command over the river in the shortest time possible.”
In early May of 1864, when he had risen to command the entire army, his men of the Army of the Potomac suffered the ghastly total of 17,000 casualties during their first two days of fighting Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the Battle of the Wilderness. When they marched away from those sixty-four square miles—thousands of its acres now a tangle of bloody bodies and burning trees—they thought that their commander was, like all his predecessors, leading the Union’s Army of the Potomac back to the north to reorganize and recover from its severe wounds. They dispiritedly trudged up to the crossroads where they were certain they would turn left to retreat across the Rapidan River. Instead the troops saw that their long columns were turning to the right---south, toward the enemy, toward Lee, toward the Confederate capital of Richmond. Grant was not giving an inch; he was taking them south. “Our spirits rose,” a soldier from Pennsylvania said. “We marched free, and men began to sing.” Regimental bands that had been carrying their instruments broke them out and started to play rousing tunes. As darkness fell, Ulysses S. Grant came up the road beside the marching columns, mounted on his big bay horse, Cincinnati, passing regiment after regiment as he headed right for the front with a calm, intent expression on his face.
Grant’s aide Horace Porter described the scene. “Wild cheers echoed through the forest. Men swung their hats, tossed up their arms [muskets], and pressed forward to within touch of their chief, clapping their hands, and speaking to him with the familiarity of comrades. Pine-knots and leaves were set on fire, and lighted the scene
with their weird flickering glare. The night march had become a triumphal
An enlisted man noted that Grant knew every regiment; and in fact every cannon. He will ride along the long line of the army, apparently an indifferent observer, yet he sees and notices everything.”
“That’s Grant,” a sergeant in Gen. Wright’s 6th Corps told a comrade, pointing him out. “I hate to see that old cuss around. When that old cuss is around there’s sure to be a big fight on hand.” Another Union Soldier, upon observing an unflinching Grant writing orders while shells were exploding a few yards from him said, “Ulysses don’t scare worth a damn.”
In the 1936 movie, “Mr. Deeds goes to Town,” Jean Arthur as Louise Bennett and Gary Cooper as Longfellow Deeds stand outside Grant’s Tomb. She asks, “What do you see” and Cooper replies, “I see a small Ohio farm boy becoming a great soldier. I see thousands of marching men. I see General Lee with a broken heart, surrendering, and I can see the beginning of a new nation, like Abraham Lincoln said. And I can see that Ohio boy being inaugurated as President. Things like that can only happen in a country like America.”