Grant was born in the Ohio River valley to a stern and pecuniary father who managed to get him a (free) education at West Point, where Grant proved to be no more than a middling student, piling up demerits and being graduated in the lower half of his class. He saw combat in the ill-advised Mexican American War. Thereafter, he was posted around the Midwest. He married Julia Dent, a not particularly attractive daughter of a rich Missourio slaveholder. The senior Grant, an abolitionist, strongly opposed the marriage and there was a waiting period. They seem to have been devoted to one another. Grant always wrote Julia letters, wherever he was stationed. A post in the Pacific northwest separated them. Grant couldn't raise the money to bring her with him. And then began the ur-legend of Grant's drinking, caused, it's said, by loneliness and depression. He eventually resigned as a captain and took up various trades. He failed at all of them.
I should mention that there are multiple quotes from Grant's writing, so we see things mainly through the prism of his memoirs, written while he was dying of throat cancer in the Adirondacks. The job was done for financial reasons. Grant was always on the cusp of bankruptcy. He was no writer himself so he employed Mark Twain as his editor. I hold Twain responsible for such claims as, "In school I was told so often than a noun was a thing that I began to believe it." The film doesn't mention this but it's worth recording. Oh, hell, while I'm at it let me add that there was a hotel register available for public scrutiny in a tiny hotel in Monterey, California -- right out in the open. There can be found signatures of Grant, Sam Houston, other famous figures of the time, and one Phil Green, who listed his home as Dublin, Ireland, and whose signature and glosses ramble drunkenly all over the page and some of the other signatures. I imagine the register has been destroyed by souvenir hunters by now.
At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Grant reenlisted and was posted to Illinois, where he whipped his Midwestern farm boys into something resembling a regiment. . He'd had some trouble getting a commission because rumors of his drinking had spread. As for his politics: Grant was a unionist but not very political. He didn't vote very often. Lincoln needed generals and appointed Grant a brigadier.
In Cairo, Illinois, Grant realized that control of the nation's rivers meant control of the supply lines. Blockade the ports and conquer the Mississippi and you strangle the South. It was originally proposed by the ancient General Winfield Scott and called "the boa constrictor plan." Grant moved south, taking two forts along the river and became a hero. The victories convinced him that the South was ready to collapse. The Confederate Army taught him otherwise when it subjected him and his troops to a blistering attack at Shiloh.
Shiloh caught Grant with his pants down and after the battle his reputation took a dip before he began accumulating victories again. The film leaves out some amusing details. Grant visited Washington to be promoted to four-star general, an honor accorded no one since George Washington. The film says "Grant stayed at Willard's Hotel, the epicenter of Washington." True enough, but the fact is that when Grant first entered the hotel and tried to register, he was almost turned away. He wore his usual sloppy uniform with a private's overcoat and no one recognized the hero.
I'll keep this short for fear of running out of space. Grant set General Sherman marching through the South, an army all on its own, foraging, destroying what they couldn't use, "making Georgia howl", until they took Savannah, and then they turned north towards Richmond, the Confederate capital. Grant, on the other hand, attacked from the north.
He was not the strategist that Robert E. Lee was. He used Napoleonic tactics, lines of men charging entrenched positions. It was obsolete and deadly for the attackers. At the battle for Cold Harbor, the Union Army suffered six thousand casualties in just a few hours. It was a blunder and Grant confessed his guilt. But he charged like a slow and massive bull, losing men by the thousands but almost always pushing Lee's shrinking army back towards Richmond, which Grant's troops finally took and which effectively ended the war.
The film is made up of mostly still photographs with an accompanying narration and occasion comments by expert historians. It's quite well done.
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