The American Civil War 150th Anniversary: The Grant Family

This week, Grant’s 12-year-old son Fred is wounded at the Big Black River in Mississippi.

Fred Grant (circled) was big for his age.  Source is 11, below.

Fred Grant (circled) was big for his age. Source: Under Siege: Three Children at the Civil War Battle for Vicksburg by Andrea Warren, #11 below. Image is undated; Grant is on Fred’s left, standing and wearing a hat.

In his excellent book Born to Battle: Grant and Forrest: Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga: The Campaigns That Doomed the Confederacy (source 11, below), Jack Hurst notes that Grant kept the news of Fred’s wounding from his wife Julia at the time, only telling her in June, when there was some time to write, that “Fred has enjoyed his campaign very much.”

Hurst says, “What Julia did not know could not hurt her,” but after learning a bit more about this remarkable woman and her decisions, I think it more likely Grant didn’t mention it because he knew she would understand, as it didn’t put Fred out of action. He rode with his father and General Sherman to reconnoiter Vicksburg the next day.

Today, Child Protective Services would be all over Ulysses and Julia Grant. Times have changed, for the better, in many ways.

Ulysses S. Grant was a man for his times, however, and Julia Dent Grant – one tough lady even for the 19th century – had his back.

Back on April 16th, she had interpreted her role to mean taking her children with her to her husband’s side in a war zone, loading everybody up in a gunboat to run the Vicksburg batteries and taking their chances with the rest of the troops as the Confederate cannon fired over 525 artillery shots at them during this all important but high-risk maneuver.

Grant in 1865 (Library of Congress)

Grant in 1865 (Library of Congress)

The name of courage

In the early spring of 1863, Ulysses S. Grant was under more pressure than any person in command on either side, including an immediately post-Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln (because Lincoln could always shift the blame if things didn’t work out – not so Grant).

Having a past to live down; beset with political enemies as well as a strong military foe; and under national pressure to capture Vicksburg: it was a very difficult position for “an uncommon fellow – the most modest, the most disinterested, and the most honest man … not an original or brilliant man, but sincere, thoughtful, deep, and gifted with courage that never faltered,” as Charles Dana, sent by Lincoln and Halleck to spy on Grant, described him.

General Grant had some sort of a drinking problem, though nothing like what his enemies made it out to be. And oddly enough, he seems to have been a very sensitive man. Hard-core pols and other schemers should have eaten him alive before he ever set eyes on Vicksburg.

Why didn’t the drinking ruin him? How could he keep making new plans when the old ones didn’t work out, until finally one succeeded?

Perhaps it was because his “courage that never faltered” had a name – Julia – and she made sure his source of strength was right beside him when he needed them most. When it was time for her man to hit the road, she and the family withdrew a safe distance but left him Fred (Julia was also in favor of Fred’s training, likening it to that given to Alexander the Great [11]).

Something to think about in this week soon after Mother’s Day. It’s a fascinating family. I wonder if anyone has explored it in depth.

Julia Grant.  Library of Congress.

Julia Grant. Library of Congress.

A woman’s touch

And yet, let’s not get all warm and fuzzy. Julia helped her husband go out and bring a new, awful kind of war to America – total war.

Contrast Grant’s approach with that of George McClellan, the quintessential “difficult person” who, by the way, gave General Halleck permission to arrest Grant in 1862 (Halleck didn’t act on it).

McClellan’s approach, according to James McPherson, could have ended the war in 1862, with minimal destruction to the South, though with slavery continuing in modified form for a while, if he had taken Richmond in 1862.

Lincoln preferred Grant because he fought, and we like the man today because he won.

But that’s too easy.

One thing that never occurred to me before doing this timeline is that, in a civil war, hesitation to attack one’s former countrymen is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if they’re spoiling for a fight. The eagerness of Lincoln and Grant to fight was not necessarily the best thing that could have happened.

Clearing out of town (as Joe Johnston does this week and tells Pemberton to do in Vicksburg) is not cowardly, if by doing so the town is spared (Grant didn’t spare Jackson, Mississippi, though – he burned it).

Too, this week, some 10,000 soldiers will fall between Jackson and Vicksburg (a distance I have driven on I-20 in something over an hour).

All that terrible stuff, as well as the more pleasant things we prefer to remember and celebrate, happened in 1863 because Grant persevered.

Let’s also contrast Julia’s likening her son to Alexander the Great and listening to the cannon blasts with her family on the Mississippi River with General Lee’s comment at Fredericksburg the preceding winter: “It is good that war is so terrible, or we would come to love it.”

A woman’s touch is not always a healing one.

But that’s war for you – nothing is simple, and there’s seemingly no end to the complexities. It is to be avoided at all costs.

Current sources for the Civil War anniversary post series:

(1)  The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

(2)  Morgan’s Raiders and The L&N Railroad in the Civil War, by Dan Lee (2011).

(3)  Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson (2003 – see side bar for link).

(4) The Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. N.B. Forrest, and of Forrest’s Cavalry by Thomas Jordan, J. P. Pryor (1868).

(5) The Lincoln Log timeline.

(6) Blue and Gray Timeline.

(7)  Grant Chronology, Mississippi State University.

(8)”The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” (Vol. II), Jefferson Davis.

(9)   The Memoirs of Colonel John S. Mosby.

(10)  Conquest of the Lower Mississippi.  BrownWaterNavy.org.

(11) Under Siege: Three Children at the Civil War Battle for Vicksburg, Andrea Warren (2009)

(12) Civil War Interactive.

(13) Inside the Army of the Potomac, the Civil War Experience of Captain Francis Adams Donaldson, edited by J. Gregory Acken (1998).

(14) Mosby Heritage Area Association: Chronology of Mosby’s Life.

(15)  Battle of Vicksburg. Civil War Home.

(16) Born to Battle: Grant and Forrest: Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga: The Campaigns That Doomed the Confederacy, Jack Hurst (2012).

(17) Life of Lieutenant-General Nathan Bedford Forrest, by John A. Wyeth (1908/2011).

(18) Captain Raphael Semmes and the CSS Alabama, US Naval Historical Center.

(19) A. Lincoln, A Biography, Ronald C. White, Jr. (2009)

(20) Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, Volume 6, Abner Doubleday (1882).

(21) The Vicksburg Campaign (Wikipedia)

(22) Civil War Raids and Skirmishes in 1863.

(23) Grant’s Vicksburg Supply Line.



Categories: American Civil War

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2 replies

  1. That is not Frederick Dent Grant in that picture. Email me for an explanation.

    • Thanks, Marie! I found it on page 75 of Warren’s book. The highlighting is in the original picture there, and the caption reads “Fred (shown here fourth on the left ) was liked and accepted by his father’s officers. Grant (standing in the middle of the photo) is wearing a hat.”

      That he is. I *thought* “Fred” looked big for his age. I can see by your email address that you’re an expert on this. I would love to know more about it but wonder – would you share it with everybody here, too? Thanks in advance.

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