Ulysses S. Grant: Clausewitz’s Military Genius

ECW welcomes back guest author Nathan Provost

This depiction of Grant outlines his prestigious military career in nine drawings. (Library of Congress)

The term “military genius” is often a label for an officer with high intelligence or the successful application of military theory in warfare. All too often, academic and public historians cite Grant as an unimaginative general that got lucky. He did not possess any traits of a military genius. General Carl von Clausewitz wrote a short essay that outlines the qualities of a military genius in his book, On War, published in 1832. He found that there are several traits that make-up a military genius, and it was less about a general’s intelligence and aesthetically pleasing maneuvers. Clausewitz’s six principles are written below. The examples come from Grant’s military career which illustrate how he possessed each of those traits.

  1. Courage- “Courage is of two kinds: courage in the face of personal danger, and courage to accept responsibility, either before the tribunal of some outside power or before the court of one’s own conscience.”[1] S.H. Byers, a soldier of the Fifth Iowa, observed Grant at Champion’s Hill:

He was mounted on a beautiful bay mare, and followed by several of his staff. For some reason he dismounted…..here was Grant under fire. He stood leaning against his horse, smoking the stump of a cigar. His was the only horse near the line, and must naturally have attracted the enemy fire….what if Grant should be killed? I am sure that everyone who saw him wished him away, but there he was and there he remained, clear, calm, and immovable, with no sign of inward movement upon his features.[2]

  1. Presence of Mind- “We admire presence of mind in an apt repartee, as we admire quick thinking in the face of danger. Neither needs to be exceptional, so long as it meets the situation.”[3] Grant discovered the enemy broke through one of General McClernand’s divisions at the Battle of Fort Donelson. The Confederates now held the road to Charlotte. Grant’s response was simple and decisive as Lew Wallace recounts:

And everybody was asking, “What Next?” Just then General Grant rode up to where General McClernand and I were in conversation. He was then informed of the mishap to the first division, and that the road to Charlotte was open to the enemy. With a sudden grip, he crushed the papers in his hand. In his ordinary quiet voice, he said “Gentlemen, the position on the right must be retaken. With that he turned and galloped off.[4]

  1. Strength of Will- “According to circumstance, reporters and historians of war use such terms as energy, firmness, staunchness, emotional balance, and strength of character.”[5] After the first taxing day at Shiloh, Grant stood outside discussing the day’s events with Sherman. Despite the high casualties, he remained confident in victory:

A heavy rain has started to fall.  As I stood beneath a tree, smoking a cigar and trying to stay dry, I was visited by Gen. Sherman.  “Well, Grant,” he said, “we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” I replied, “Yes. Yes. Lick ’em tomorrow though.[6]

  1. Strong Character “The counterweight we mean is simply the sense of human dignity, the noblest pride and deepest need of all: the urge to act rationally at all times. Therefore, we would argue that it is one that will not be unbalanced by the most powerful emotions.”[7] At the Battle of the Wilderness, rumors of Federal collapse caused concern among some of the Federal soldiers. One officer accosted Grant stating the army needed to retreat. Grant reprimanded the soldier:

Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.[8]

  1. Grasping the Topography (coup d’oeil) “It is the faculty of quickly and accurately determining any area which enables a man to find his way about at any time. Obviously, this is an act of the imagination. Things are perceived, of course, partly by the naked eye and partly by the mind, which fills the gaps with guesswork based on learning and experience, and thus constructs a whole out of the fragments that the eye can see; but if the whole is to be vividly present to the mind, imprinted like a picture, like a map, upon the brain, without fading or blurring in detail, it can only be achieved by the mental gift that we call imagination.”[9] After Grant’s promotion to general-in-chief he campaigned with Meade in the Overland Campaign. While unfamiliar with the terrain, he managed to remember the maps of Virginia quite well. He could pinpoint the future location of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as noted by Horace Porter:

“I can certainly drive Lee back into his works, but I shall not assault him there; he would have all the advantage in such a fight. If he falls back and in trenches, my notion is to move promptly toward the left. This will, in all probability, compel him to try and throw himself between us and Richmond, and in such a movement I hope to be able to attack him in a more open country, and outside of his breastworks.” This was the second time only that he had looked at the maps since crossing the Rapidan, and it was always noticeable in a campaign how seldom he consulted them, compared with the constant examination of them by most other prominent commanders. The explanation of it is that he had an extraordinary memory as to anything that was presented to him graphically. After looking critically at a map of a locality, it seemed to become photographed indelibly upon his brain, and he could follow its features without referring to it again. Besides, he possessed an almost intuitive knowledge of topography, and never became confused as to the points of the compass.[10]

  1. Statesman “To bring a war or one of its campaigns to a successful close requires a thorough grasp of national policy. On that level strategy and policy coalesce: the commander is simultaneously a statesman.”[11] Grant recognized the need to enlist African American soldiers in the army. Their voice and authority over the war influenced Grant’s military policy:

By arming the negro, we have added a powerful ally. They will make good soldiers and taking them from the enemy weakens him in the same proportion they strengthen us.  I am therefore most decidedly in favor of pushing this policy to the enlistment of a force sufficient to hold all the South falls into our hands and to aid in capturing more.[12]

There are many more examples of Grant’s character that fall under each of these categories. These examples reference events over the course of his career; they illustrate that he showed these qualities of a military genius over a period of time. The public might perceive these characteristics as common sense, but in the fog of war, it is challenging to assess chaotic situations calmly. General Grant reconnoitered enemy lines because he was not afraid of the present danger. His will and character gave him the authority to see past the fog war that blinded so many others. Grant’s presence of mind brought him back from setback after setback; he always moved forward no matter the circumstance. He managed to successfully postulate where enemy weaknesses lie through his keen sense of topography. Finally, Ulysses Grant never diverged from the political objective. He worked with the resources given to him and aligned political goals with military objectives. If Clausewitz studied Grant, there is no doubt he would label Grant as a military genius.

Nathan Provost is a US History Teacher at Crossroads Preparatory Academy in Missouri. Currently, he is working towards a doctorate in history through Liberty University. Before that he received a Masters in Teaching from the University of Central Missouri and worked as an Assistant Instructor in the Fort Leavenworth School District.

Nathan has always had a passion for military history and education because his grandfather was a Korean War veteran and professor. He first discovered his interest in the Civil War when he visited Grant’s headquarters in Florida, Missouri.

Since then, Nathan has travelled to various battlefields across the United States. Nonetheless, his focus lies in the eastern theatre because he plans on writing more about the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns.

[1] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984), 101.

[2] Hamlin Garland, Ulysses S. Grant-His Life and Character, (New York: Doubleday & McClure, 1898), 230.

[3] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed by Michael Howard and Peter Paret,103.

[4] Benton Patterson, The Mississippi River Campaign, 1861-1863, (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2010), 57.

[5] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, 104.

[6]J. E. Smith, Grant, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 200-201.

[7] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed by Michael Howard and Peter Paret), 106.

[8] Gordon Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5–6, 1864, (Louisiana: LSU Press, 2004), 421-422.

[9] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed by Michael Howard and Peter Paret), 109.

[10] Horace Porter, Campaigning with Grant, (New York: The Century Company, 1897), 66.

[11] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, 111.

[12] Ulysses Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, (New York: The Library of America, 1990), 1031.

5 Responses to Ulysses S. Grant: Clausewitz’s Military Genius

  1. Agree about Grant and genius. That is why my Master’s Thesis is titled “ULYSSES S. GRANT’S REAL GENIUS FOR WAR: UNDERSTANDING TERRAIN”

  2. Nate:

    Great post.

    As you say in your essay, there are many more examples of Grant possessing each of the qualities Clausewitz listed.

    Grant’s reputation suffered for decades because of an historically flawed propaganda campaign by Lost Causers. Glad to see his reputation is being rehabilitated by scores of modern historians, including yourself.

    1. Thank you. I think what is equally important is that we view men and women in their own time. Establishing context is crucial to interpreting history. There is no doubt in my mind that many in the United States would have claimed Grant to be such.

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