General Grant’s Greatest Lesson

Fear is a natural reaction in the face of danger, or stress or the unknown. Or all of it.

USG: Reinstatement

The quintessential General Grant

The surrender of Fort Sumter in April 1861 changed everything for West Point trained Ulysses S. Grant. President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers. Galena, Illinois, where the Grant family was living, was firmly committed to the Union. But while scores of volunteers came forward, there was only one townsman qualified to train them: ex-Captain Grant – the only one in Galena with any military training and experience.

Congressman Elihu Washburne was one of Grant’s earliest mentors.

Illinois Congressman Elihu Washburne, a good friend of President Lincoln, took an interest in his 39-year old constituent, and sponsored his rise. Grant was reinstated into the U.S. Army, promoted to Colonel, and assigned to the State House in Springfield, to assist with the overwhelming paperwork and procedures. His prior experience as a quartermaster stood him in good stead.

But the Union Army was in dire need of experienced military leadership, not merely clerks. In early summer, Colonel Grant was assigned to the District of Southeast Missouri, under the command of General John C. Fremont. Missouri, a deeply divided border state, was the birthplace of Grant’s wife Julia Dent. Grant himself had lived in Missouri for several years. Maintaining control of Missouri, and thus the Missouri/Mississippi River was crucial to the North. Grant, who credited much of his military skill to the ability to “read a map” knew this.

The Army was still in a state of general confusion; nevertheless Grant was in charge of nearly 20,000 troops, young, raw and untested. While Grant experienced battle first hand as a young Lieutenant during the Mexican-American War some fifteen years earlier, this would be the first time he actually commanded troops – troops he would have to send into battle.

The Salt River Incident

Brigadier General Grant. His wife made him trim the beard.

Grant was always a man who loathed idleness, and itched for action. Having been assigned to assist in the military effort to keep Missouri in the Union, he discovered a Confederate encampment near the Salt River, under the command of Colonel Thomas Harris. He planned accordingly.

According to Grant’s Personal Memoirs, written nearly a quarter century later, he recalled vividly:

“As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we could see Harris’ camp, and possibly find his men ready formed to meet us, my heart was in my throat. I would have given anything then to have been back in Galena, but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on.”

Meanwhile, as they approached the crest where he could see the plains below, he found the Confederates had evacuated the camp. “My heart resumed its place. It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him… a view I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterwards.”

He added that while he was always generally anxious when confronting the enemy, he never experienced that kind of trepidation again.

“I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his. This lesson was valuable.”

Within weeks, Grant received notification that he had been promoted to Brigadier General.

Three Years Later

By spring, 1864, Grant was not only a General, but had become the General. His victories at Fts. Henry and Donelson, Shiloh and Vicksburg cemented his reputation as a general who could – and would – fight.

President Abraham Lincoln had little luck with his generals – until Grant.

President Lincoln, who had had little luck with his long string of failed eastern Generals, brought the “western” General Grant forward to take complete command of the Army. One of his first decisions was to make his headquarters with General Meade’s Army, rather than at the War Department in Washington, subject to politicking and infighting and all the distractions that had beset his predecessors. In the field, he believed he would be where he could best serve.

The Army of the Potomac was more than 100,000 strong. The soldiers and officers had heard of General Grant, the Victor of Vicksburg, of course, and undoubtedly respected him. But they did not know him. It would take a little time. But despite Grant’s obvious successes in the west, the rank-and-file soldiers of the eastern army were battle tested by General Robert E. Lee, and time and again, had been “whupped.”

The general consensus in the camps was, “Yeah, but he hasn’t come up against Bobby Lee, yet.”

Grant respected Robert E. Lee, but he did not believe he was invincible.

Grant had met Robert E. Lee briefly in Mexico. Lee was more than a dozen years his senior, with a distinguished reputation, that Grant knew and respected. But Grant also knew that while Lee was undoubtedly a fine commander, he was not a superman or a genie out of a bottle.

He finally had enough of the pervasive fear of the supposedly invincible “Bobby Lee” and quietly, but firmly advised his Lee-shy soldiers that they should stop worrying about what Lee would do to them, and let Lee worry about what Grant was going to do to him.

He had learned the lesson of the Salt River Non-Encounter.

Even Later

Grant’s Personal Memoirs are considered some of the finest war memorials ever written.

That non-encounter at the Salt River was remembered for all times when a dying General Grant wrote his memoirs in 1884-5.

It is perhaps part of Grant’s greatness as a commander that like Abraham Lincoln, he could learn valuable lessons from all sources, and apply it where needed.

The quotes about his enemy being as frightened of him as he was of them have been repeated widely for the last 150 years. They will likely continue to be repeated. The truth of the concept holds.


Grant, Ulysses S. – Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant – World Publishing (reprinted) 1952

McFeely, William S. – Grant: A Biography – W.W. Norton, 1981





About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
This entry was posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, American Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to General Grant’s Greatest Lesson

  1. energywriter says:

    Another wonderful story about Grant. And, a good lesson to remember. My dad used to tell me, “he’s as afraid of you as you are of him” whenever I was afraid to encounter a person or animal that intimidated me. Now, I know from where that quote came. Thank you.

  2. M.B. Henry says:

    What a great write up! I really enjoyed it. Have you read Ron Chernow’s “Grant”? It’s fantastic.

  3. sheafferhistorian says:

    Reblogged this on Practically Historical.

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