Military History Ulysses S. Grant
Brooks D. Simpson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0061


Ulysses S. Grant’s reputation as both a general and as a president has experienced its ups and downs. During his lifetime, the savior of the Union came under heavy criticism as an unimaginative battlefield tactician and mediocre strategist who owed his victory to superior resources that he mindlessly applied to wear down his opponent, at a great cost in lives. Others, however, praised him for his determination, perseverance, and skill, but it would not be until the 20th century that military historians began to reemphasize his brilliance as a strategist and operational planner. More recently, studies have expanded their treatment to offer positive views of Grant’s handling of civil-military relations, his understanding of war aims, and his grasp of the relationship between military means and policy ends, making him the classic Clausewitizan warrior. At the same time, more detailed studies have called into question the image of a plodding butcher, pointing out that much of that impression rests upon a rather selective, incomplete, and uninformed assessment of the Overland Campaign of 1864. Although Grant still has his critics, most military historians today acknowledge his skill and intelligence, ranking him as one of the very best commanders in American history. Grant’s reputation as president took longer to recover after it dipped deeply at the beginning of the 20th century. Portrayed as naïve, bumbling, and gullible, Grant came under particularly heavy criticism for his support of Reconstruction at a time when mainstream scholars had dismissed that process as corrupt and fundamentally flawed in its aspirations to preserve and protect black civil and political rights. Eventually, historians came to understand Reconstruction in a new light, as a gallant if flawed effort to realize the promise of a new birth of freedom. Unfortunately, this let to Grant being criticized for not doing enough to achieve that goal. Only when historians began to realize the limits of the possible, due to institutional and political constraints as well as the persistence of racism throughout the postwar United States, did Grant’s presidency come under a more fundamental reassessment. Scholars now show more appreciation for his political skills and suggest that the portrayal of his two terms as riddled by corruption is overblown and misleading. They are more inclined to offer a sympathetic assessment of his presidency, credit his good intentions, and stress that there was only so much he could have achieved under the circumstances, with a few scholars pressing for an even more upward reassessment that might strike others as overcompensation for previous unjust evaluations.

Primary Sources

Grant’s autobiography, published in two volumes in 1885 and 1886 (see Grant 1885–1886), remains essential reading for anyone who wants to understand his career. Hailed as a literary masterpiece, it offers Grant’s view of the war, including some interpretations that sparked controversy at the time and remain contested terrain for Civil War scholars. At times, careful research in primary sources causes one to reassess the accuracy of Grant’s account. Julia Grant’s memoirs, which were not published until 1975 (see Grant 1975), complement her husband’s observations and offer a more intimate understanding of the couple’s relationship, but at times her memory betrays her as well. John Simon’s thirty-one volumes of Grant’s papers (which will someday be augmented), cited under Simon 1967–2009, are essential for understanding Grant’s military career, but are somewhat less successful in covering his presidency. Porter 1897 is the most oft-quoted memoir of Grant’s generalship; it was penned by a staff officer who observed Grant from the fall of 1863 through the end of the conflict. Cadwallader 1955 offers a more controversial and contested account, largely due to Cadwallader’s interest in sensationalizing stories of Grant’s drinking and a desire to promote the reputation of Grant’s staff officer and friend, John A. Rawlins. Underutilized but tremendously revealing are the interviews given by Grant to the newspaper reporter John Russell Young (see Young 1879).

  • Cadwallader, Sylvanus. Three Years with Grant. Edited by Benjamin P. Thomas. New York: Knopf, 1955.

    A controversial account because of the emphasis Cadwallader paid to Grant’s drinking and the role of Grant’s staff officer John A. Rawlins. The most famous tale concerning Grant’s drinking during the Vicksburg campaign was discredited in Brooks D. Simpson’s introduction to a 1996 reprint of this work (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press). These questionable tales detract from the value of Cadwallader’s accounts of Grant in the field.

  • Grant, Julia Dent. The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant. Edited by John Y. Simon. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1975.

    A chatty, warm, spirited look at the Grants, revealing Julia Grant’s rather romanticized view of slavery.

  • Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant. 2 vols. New York: Charles L. Webster, 1885–1886.

    Often praised for its literary quality and judged to be the best memoir produced by an American president, Grant’s account of his life through 1865 nevertheless must be understood as his version of events. Reprinted multiple times, with the edition prepared by The Library of America (New York, 1990) including selected letters from Grant.

  • Porter, Horace. Campaigning with Grant. New York: Century, 1897.

    Originally a series of articles penned in anticipation of the dedication of Grant’s Tomb in New York City in 1897, Porter’s recollections offer a favorable view of their subject, concentrating on the last year of military operations. Reprinted by the University of Nebraska Press in 2000.

  • Simon, John Y., eds. The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant. 31 vols. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967–2009.

    Aside from a few small books, most of Grant’s public and private papers were scattered in archives and repositories across the nation. Simon and his team of editors brought together Grant’s papers in a fine example of the art and science of documentary editing, providing an essential resource for anyone conducting research on Grant and his times.

  • Young, John Russell. Around the World with General Grant. 2 vols. New York: American News, 1879.

    These volumes are part travelogue and part oral history, but this is an essential source for anyone who wants to know Grant’s candid reflections on a number of issues in his military and political career. An abridged edition, edited by Michael Fellman, was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2002.

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