Letters to the Skirmisher
Vol. 1 - Leadership

Ulysses S. Grant is nicknamed "The Butcher."  Did his soldiers not look at him as a hero because of this? - Morgan, GA

Grant’s reputation as a “butcher” came from the Overland Campaign of 1864-5.  Earlier in the war, when Grant commanded men in Tennessee and Mississippi, he proved to be a capable and artful general—not very “butcher”-like.  The 1863 Vicksburg Campaign is a prime example of this.

twin rivers
Even before Vicksburg, Grant's victories in the Twin Rivers Campaign of 1862 sustained Union hopes despite a string of defeats elsewhere in the country. (Library of Congress)

When he came east, the Union soldiers there were already used to bloody defeat (see: Bull Run, The Shenandoah Valley Campaign, The Seven Days, Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, etc.).  They were also used to commanders who evinced heroic qualities (George McClellan’s impeccable taste for military theater, John Pope’s braggadocio, Joe Hooker’s arrogance, etc.) but who still lost battles and retreated often.

Grant’s arrival did not necessarily inspire the men—he was not physically impressive, he was not a talented orator (his favorite speech as President: “I rise only to say that I intend to say nothing at all.”), and many soldiers considered the western theater of war to be “easy mode” compared to the hellish experience of fighting Robert E. Lee in Virginia. 

Grant’s first battle in command of the eastern armies was the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-6, 1864).  It was extraordinarily bloody, it ended in a stalemate, and it took a toll on Grant.  It is said that he smoked more than 20 cigars on the first day, whittled sticks until his gloves fell apart, and wept in his tent that night. 

But Grant won the respect of his men with his decision to keep moving south, to keep attacking, even after suffering a significant setback.  When the men realized which way they were going,

“word was passed rapidly along that the chief who had led them through the mazes of the Wilderness was again moving forward with his horse's head turned toward Richmond. Troops know but little about what is going on in a large army, except the occurrences which take place in their immediate vicinity; but this night ride of the general-in-chief told plainly the story of success, and gave each man to understand that the cry was to be 'On to Richmond!' Soldiers weary and sleepy after their long battle, with stiffened limbs and smarting wounds, now sprang to their feet, forgetful of their pains, and rushed forward to the roadside. Wild cheers echoed through the forest, and glad shouts of triumph rent the air. Men swung their hats, tossed up their arms, and pressed forward to within touch of their chief, clapping their hands, and speaking to him with the familiarity of comrades.…The night march had become a triumphal procession for the new commander.”

(that’s a quote from Horace Porter, Grant’s aide-de-camp)

Grant turns south
Soldiers cheer as Grant turns south after the Battle of the Wilderness. (National Park Service)

The common soldiers were used to bloodshed—that was an inevitable part of war—and they would certainly support a commander who could lead them through the bloodshed to victory.

What advice do you have for kids learning about the Civil War? - Nick, NY

The Civil War is an epic story, like The Lord of the Rings or The Hunger Games, full of heroes and villains and triumphs and tragedies and more, and, as a bonus, it’s all true. 

Like any great story, the Civil War’s power comes from the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual connections that you forge with the tale.  If you really open yourself up to the story, allowing yourself to be swept up in the drama, rather than focusing on the parts that don’t interest you in the first place, you will find countless parables and life lessons that will really make you think about who you are when it’s all on the line.  You will think and feel more deeply about all things.

Send your questions to theskirmisher@civilwar.org!

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