As Americans fight to preserve religious liberty and freedom of speech, it’s important to review the costs of maintaining these United States of America as one Union. This week’s Weekly Standard has a feature article by Geoffrey Norman about General U.S. Grant of Civil War fame. The seven-page article looks in-depth at the decisions, unlikely leaders, in-fighting among military personnel, and other factors behind the successful war to preserve the Union.
It’s been 150 years since Grant was appointed head of the Union Army by President Abraham Lincoln, who declared Grant to be the best general and leader to preserve the Union. Grant was an unlikely general. Though he had won battles in Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, he was not “typical of Union generals” who engaged in “political ambitions” and “lusted after military glory.”
One political critic, Joseph Hooker, wrote to Lincoln to say that Grant would “never be successful.” He was rumored at one time to drink too much; early in his career he had left the Army under a cloud of controversy, and he had failed at some business endeavors. Some critics campaigned to keep him from such a responsible position. Lincoln had sized up Grant, however, and replied, “I can’t spare this man; he fights.”
Norman describes the “audacity” and “direct approach” of Grant’s brutal victory at Fort Donelson. When the Southern forces were defeated, the Confederate officer, a former classmate of Grant’s from West Point, asked about the terms of surrender. Grant sent a terse message, “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” Thereafter, Norman reported, Grant’s initials “U.S.” were said to stand for “Unconditional Surrender.” After Shiloh, Grant said, “I gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest.”
Even with significant victories behind him, Grant had not convinced his critics that he “had what it took” to save the Union. Before the victory over General Robert E. Lee, there were “six attempts to break Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia” and each attempt “had produced six complete failures.” Norman describes — in picturesque language — the failures of the six leaders who failed and then: “Now came Grant, who lacked the bluster, the vanity, and the political skills and ambitions of his predecessors.” But Lincoln “had not time for vanities” and declared Grant to be “the first general I’ve had.”
With Lincoln’s vote of confidence, Grant met with the former commander, George Meade (who had graduated West Point eight years before Grant). Instead of arrogance, Meade greeted Grant with humility and Grant made the decision on the spot to keep Meade in command of the Army of the Potomac, and he made his headquarters close to Meade there in Virginia. Grant worked with other strong men, like William Tecumseh Sherman, to defeat Robert E. Lee. They stuck with Grant’s plan of total conquest, determined that there would be no retreat, only unconditional surrender.
An estimated 851,000 men lost their lives in the Civil War — generally recognized as the nation’s “bloodiest conflict.” No subsequent war — even with airplanes and weapons of mass destruction — has equaled the casualties of the Civil War. The significance of the war was summarized by the Encyclopedia Britannica, “The events of the war left a rich heritage for future generations, and that legacy was summed up by the martyred Lincoln as showing that the reunited sections of the United States constituted ‘the last best hope of earth.’”
Editor’s Note: The preceding article was a review of “Grant Takes Charge,” by Geoffrey Norman, The Weekly Standard, March 31/April 7, 2014.