Grant spent his youth in Georgetown, Ohio, was graduated from West Point in 1843, and served creditably in the Mexican War. He was forced to resign from the army in 1854 because of excessive drinking. Grant failed in attempts at farming and business, and was working as a clerk in the family leather store in Galena, Ill., when the Civil War broke out. He was commissioned colonel of the 21st Illinois Volunteers, and in Aug., 1861, became a brigadier general of volunteers.
Grant assumed command of the district of Cairo, Ill., in Sept. and fought his first battle, an indecisive affair at Belmont, Mo., on Nov. 9. In Feb., 1862, aided by Union gunboats, he captured Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland. This was the first major Union victory, and Lincoln at once made Grant a major general of volunteers. In April at Shiloh (see Shiloh, battle of), however, only the arrival of the army of Gen. Don Carlos Buell may have saved him from defeat.
The Vicksburg campaign (1862–63) was one of Grant's greatest successes. After repeated failures to get at the town, he advanced in cooperation with a fleet and finally took Vicksburg by siege. The victory of Braxton Bragg, the Confederate general, at Chickamauga (see Chattanooga campaign), led to Grant's accession to the supreme command in the West, Oct., 1863. At Chattanooga in November his forces thoroughly defeated Bragg. The President, in Mar., 1864, made Grant commander in chief with the rank of lieutenant general, a grade especially revived by Congress for him.
Grant himself directed George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac against Gen. Robert E. Lee in the Wilderness campaign. His policy of attrition against Lee's forces was effective, though it resulted in slaughter at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. Failing to carry Petersburg by assault in June, 1864, Grant had that city under partial siege until Apr., 1865. Philip H. Sheridan's victory at Five Forks made Petersburg and Richmond no longer tenable. Lee retreated, but was cut off at Appomattox Courthouse (see under Appomattox, where he surrendered, receiving generous terms from Grant, on Apr. 9, 1865.
Grant went about the distasteful business of war realistically and grimly. He was a skilled tactician and at times a brilliant strategist (as at Vicksburg, regarded by many as one of the great battles of history). His courage as a commander of forces and his powers of organization and administration made him the outstanding Northern general. Grant also was notably wise in supporting good commanders, especially Sheridan, William T. Sherman, and George H. Thomas. Made a full general in 1866, he was the first U.S. citizen to hold that rank.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.