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Ulysses S. Grant: Leading the Campaign to Take the Mississippi River

This report seeks to address the causes, figures, and events of the Civil war. There are historical figures whose decisions affected the wars outcome. From a broader perspective such decision making will be analyzed based on its identified impact on both the war and history.

Appomattox Courthouse

Symbolically the American civil war was forever changed during the Appomattox Courthouse battle that occurred April 9, 1865. This historic event had been preceded by a ten month battle of Petersburg. The two generals were Ulysses S Grant (Union Army) and Robert E Lee (Confederate Army). The result was the eventual surrender of more than 27,000 Confederate soldiers to the hands of the Union Army. The result appeared almost inevitable as the number of engaged soldiers from the Union Army (120,000) compared to the Confederate Army (30,000) was a four-to-one ratio (Holzer, Boritt, Neely, 2006).

On April 7th, General Lee had a critical decision to make during this historic battle following engagement with Union troops. That evening he rejected overtures by General Grant to end the mounting bloodshed and surrender. It appears that pride and not the well-being of his soldiers led him to push them to the outskirts of Appomattox Courthouse. Although he was severely outnumbered and the Army of Northern Virginia was fatigued and possibly demoralized, he refused surrender. Subsequently his decision to extend the battle despite dire conditions, led to casualties of 260 Union soldiers and 440 Confederate soldiers (Holzer, Boritt, Neely, 2006).

According to reports Lee also miscalculated the vast number of soldiers of the opposition. For example he mistakenly assumed that Major General Philip H Sheridan only had a Calvary and there were no infantry forces. If this was true and Lee’s Army could simultaneously engage the infantry and move towards Lynchburg, then perhaps the tone of the war could change. However, to his credit General Grant had spent the last seven days in pursuit of Lee during the Appomattox battle. As part of his strategy he essentially surrounded General Lee by having Major George G Meade’s soldiers pursue Lee from the North while General Sheridan’s Calvary pursued him from the west and south. Ironically, General Lee did reveal his doubts of success by advising his men to inform him if there were infantry as he knew this essentially meant surrender was the only option (Holzer, Boritt, Neely, 2006).

The Battle of Petersburg

Prior to the surrender by General Lee at Appomattox Court house it is important to note a critical turning point. The Battle of Petersburg took place in the cities of Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia from approximately June 9th 1864 through March 25, 1865. It is important to note the date is approximate as other articles provide a slightly different time frame. General Grant had initially been unsuccessful in overtaking General Lee in the city of Petersburg. As such General Grant made an executive decision to utilize trench warfare in defeating the enemy. This ultimately led to the evacuation of Petersburg by General Lee (Weider History, 2014).

The reason why Grant’s decision to utilize trench warfare was so pivotal is because of what Petersburg represented for Lee. Petersburg was essentially a critical supply hub necessary for the confederate army’s continued operation. Therefore by driving Lee out of Petersburg General Grant forced Lee and his men to give up a position of strength. This essentially became a shift that resulted in the Union Army having the upper hand (Weider History, 2014).

According to another report, the Battle of Petersburg took place from June 15th 1864 to April 2, 1865. There are ten significant facts both from the perspective of critical decision making and also their impact on the wars outcome. The first fact is in 1860 Petersburg was one of the largest cities in Virgina and subsequently within the Confederacy. In relation to the Appomattox River it was located on the south bank. Therefore, it provided soldiers with necessary supplies like water and possibly fish and other wildlife for food. Also since tobacco, cotton, and iron were staple industries soldiers had access to such vital material (Council on Foreign Relations, 2014).

The second fact is that Petersburg was a strategic focal point for General Grant, due to the five railroads connecting Petersburg with Richmond. Grant understood that in order to capture Richmond he needed to move expeditiously across the James River and ultimately isolate General Lee (Council on Foreign Relations, 2014).

The third fact was that the Petersburg Campaign was almost an entire year of intense fighting and trench warfare. It could have been a short campaign had it not been for the strategy and courage by Confederate General Beauregard. This enabled Beauregard and his men to sustain Petersburg from Union capture from June 15-17, 1864. One such strategy included the creation by Beauregard of a third defensive line near high ground giving Confederate soldiers positional advantage. Positional advantage in the high grounds was important as they were significantly outnumbered by Union troops (Council on Foreign Relations, 2014).

General Beauregard bought enough time to ensure that on June 18th 1864 General Lee and his army were able to provide critical fortification. Although General Grant could have gotten discouraged at the sight of short-term setbacks he opted to focus the next nine months on incremental strategic gains. His specific strategy included eliminating critical wagon and rail connections between the south and west, adversely impacting Lee’s supply lines. Over the next nine months there were four pivotal offensives by Grant that resulted in incremental progress. By the end of 1864 Lee could only communicate with the south using the Boydton Plank Road and South Side Railroad (Council on Foreign Relations, 2014).

The fourth fact was due to apparent miscommunication and subsequent execution of confederate attach. When Marine Heavy artillery advanced across a cornfield towards the opposition they did not have the support of other units. Without the appropriate protection at the flank, they were mercilessly fired upon from multiple directions. The tragic result was failure to reach enemy lines, combined with 632 casualties within minutes of the poorly executed advance (Council on Foreign Relations, 2014).

The fifth fact was the botched opportunity by Union forces at the Battle of the Crater on July 30th, 1864. The engagement took place just outside of Petersburg Virgina where union forces had not been successful in breaking the Confederate blockade. The IV Corps came up with a way to overcome the barrier by digging a tunnel approximately five hundred and eleven feet long right under the blockade. The plan was to breach the barrier and subsequently send the Union infantry through the gap towards the high ground of Petersburg (Slotkin, 2014).

Technical brilliance was displayed as Union (Pennsylvania coal miners) created the most significant man-built explosion in history. However, the inability of Grant and his leadership to execute the breach of rebel lines was tragic. Not only did it extend the length of the war unnecessarily it resulted in approximately 4,000 Union casualties. In careful analysis the confederates failure to take advantage of the gap created by four tons of explosives, was attributed to poor planning, communication, and ineffective execution by leadership (Slotkin, 2014).

The sixth fact is critical as it revealed General Grants ability to adapt to previous failure. In response to the botched Battle of the Crater, Generals Grant and Meade established support operations at City Point. The Union Army essentially established what became a city headquarter in what today is Hopewell, Virgina. The seventh fact was the powerful offensives launched by General Grant between September 1864 and April 1865. During that period Grant severely damaged and ultimately eliminated supply lines at Boydton Plank Road and Southside Railroad. The establishment of headquarters at City Point and attack on Confederate supply lines were pivotal to Grant’s success (Council on Foreign Relations, 2014).

The eight fact occurred on April 2nd, 1865 and was essentially the beginning of the end for Lee. This is when the Union sixth Corps finally overcame Confederate defense at the southwest portion of Petersburg. At that point President Jefferson Davis was notified by Lee that evacuation from Richmond and Petersburg would occur immediately. At that point Lee was seeking to reach North Carolina, where he could join General Joseph Johnston’s army for continued battle (Council on Foreign Relations, 2014).

The ninth fact acknowledges the significance of Petersburg but challenges assumptions that this was a siege. Traditional siege warfare involves advancement towards enemy lines whereas Robert Lee could have escaped warfare at any point he deemed necessary (Council on Foreign Relations, 2014).

There are several critical observations in the fact that he did not. The first is that he believed in his cause even with mounting loss of troops. He was willing to hold his ground when he could have surrendered and preserved further bloodshed. The second observation is that his soldiers believed in his leadership so much that they were willing to remain with him until the very end. Some might justifiably assume that loyalty was based on fear or even motivated by personal desires. However, I believe that the reason the soldiers remained with Lee despite growing losses was because they viewed him as a transformative leader. He was able to touch something deep within them and keep them motivated even at the risk of losing their lives.

The tenth fact is the Battle and Siege at Petersburg resulted in approximately sixty thousand fatalities. This was so critical because one of the most difficult challenges was the constant transition of armies. The momentum swings were epic as were the strategies and subsequent levels of engagement. Despite the seesaw nature of the battle the Union army typically maintained a two-to-one advantage throughout the war (Council on Foreign Relations, 2014).

This was significant due to the fact that according to best estimates there were approximately forty-two thousand Union and twenty-eight thousand Confederate casualties. Therefore even though the Union army appears to have experienced more casualties they still ended the battle with more troops and greater momentum. According to best estimates Lee retreated with approximately fifty thousand Confederate soldiers compared to Grant’s one hundred and ten thousand Union soldiers (Council on Foreign Relations, 2014).

Lessons Learned and Conclusion

In order to truly understand critical takeaway’s beyond documented events, analysis of Grant and Lee’s leadership is necessary. Lee had the traditional qualities of leadership including an aristocratic pedigree, and distinguished honors at West Point. As a fifty-four year old initially handpicked to lead the Union Army, he resigned from the US army choosing instead to join Confederate forces. His philosophy was that defense of his native state was the only motivation that would compel him to engage in battle again. He had a background that included twenty-five years of war experience and was also a highly skilled engineer (Cappel, 2012).

In contrast Grant’s life was marked by much more unimpressive traits, in terms of traditional leadership. He did have a military background but was more comfortable with animals especially horses. He was driven in part by fear of failure and had served in the military for approximately six years. However, at thirty-nine he had already experienced failed business ventures, alcoholic abuse, and was released from the military. However, the difference between his successes was his belief in his country. Therefore he viewed it as part of his duty to sustain existent Government, associated laws, and defeat the Traitors (Cappel, 2012).

One of the tactical distinctions between Grant and others including Lee was his ability to think outside the box. This included the careful planning of rations for troops crossing the Mississippi River, while prohibiting unprofessional behavior. As such insulting citizens and abusing power were not allowed. Even when it became necessary for Grant to rely on southern lands as a source of supplies he had a strict code of conduct. He insisted upon his soldiers treating everyone with dignity and respect. Perhaps his success was largely due to the ability to simultaneously respect the opposition, and maintain focus on the principle objective (Cappel, 2012).


"Battle of Petersburg." History Net Where History Comes Alive World US History Online RSS. Weider History, 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 4 Dec. 2014. < http://www.historynet.com/battle-of-petersburg>.

Council on Foreign Relations Council on Foreign Relations. Web. 4 Dec. 2014. < http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/petersburg/10-facts-about-the-petersburg.html>.

Cappel, Sheila. "Lessons In Leadership_Ulysses S. Grant." Http://scholarship.rollins.edu/. 1 May 2012. Web. 4 Dec. 2014. < http://scholarship.rollins.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1029&context=mls>.

Holzer, Harold, Gabor Boritt, and Mark Neely. "Appomattox Courthouse." History Net Where History Comes Alive World US History Online RSS. Civil War Times, 1 Jan. 2006. Web. 3 Dec. 2014. <http://www.historynet.com/appomattox-court-house-battle>.

Slotkin, Richard. "The Battle of the Crater." Opinionator The Battle of the Crater Comments. New York Times, 29 July 2014. Web. 4 Dec. 2014. <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/07/29/the-battle-of-the-crater/>.

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