Ulysses S. Grant’s Letters and Dispatches

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series Northern Diaries, Letters and Memoirs

General Ulysses S. GrantGeneral Ulysses S. Grant wrote his share of correspondence during the Civil War. Much of it was of a military nature including telegrams to his superiors in Washington and in the field. When he became General-in-Chief in early 1864, he chiefly communicated with his army commanders (except George Gordon Meade who he traveled with) by telegraph.

Early in the war Grant sent his most famous communication to the Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner who was then commanding the besieged Fort Donelson. When Grant resigned from the Army in 1854, Buckner had loaned him the money that he needed to travel home.  Buckner had sent Grant a note, asking that a council be convened to negotiate the Confederates’ terms of surrender.

To this, Grant tersely responded that “Sir, Yours of this date proposing Armistice, and appointment of Commissioners, to settle terms of Capitulation is just received. No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.”.  This response led to Grant’s now famous nickname of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. However the surrender was a long, drawn-out affair complicated by other officers in the Union Army and Navy. Here’s an interesting explanation of the whole episode.

Grant was exuberant in a letter to his wife Julia, calling Fort Donelson “the greatest victory of the season” and “the largest capture I believe ever made on the continent.”

In December 1862, Grant got himself into a lot of trouble after he sent the following letter to C. P. Wolcott, Assistant Secretary of War.

I have long since believed that in spite of all the vigilance that can be infused into post commanders, the special regulations of the Treasury Department have been violated, and that mostly by Jews and other unprincipled traders. So well satisfied have I been of this that I instructed the commanding officers at Columbus to refuse all permits to Jews to come South, and I have frequently had them expelled from the department, but they come in with their carpet-sacks in spite of all that can be done to prevent it. The Jews seem to be a privileged class that can travel anywhere. They will land at any woodyard on the river and make their way through the country. If not permitted to buy cotton themselves, they will act as agents for someone else, who will be at military post with a Treasury permit to receive cotton and pay for it in Treasury notes which the Jew will buy up at an agreed rate, paying gold.

This was Grant’s ill-considered issuance of General Orders No. 11 on December 17, 1862. This order expelled Jews, as a class, from Grant’s military district, in reaction to illicit activities of overly aggressive cotton traders in the Union camps, who Grant believed were interfering with military operations. Lincoln demanded the order be revoked, and Grant rescinded it twenty-one days after issuance. Without admitting fault, Grant believed he had only complied with the instructions sent from Washington. (Book Review)

Grant sent the following letter dated June 15, 1863 to his father outlining his position and the general situation during the Siege of Vicksburg.


I have received several letters from Mary and yourself, but as I have to deal with nineteen-twentieths of those received, have neglected to answer them.

All I can say is that I am well. I have the enemy closely hemmed in all round. My position is naturally strong and fortified against an attack from outside. I have been so strongly reinforced that Johnston will have to come with a mighty host to drive me away.–I do not look upon the fall of Vicksburg as in the least doubtful. If, however, I could have carried the place on the 22nd of last month, I could by this time have made a campaign that would have made the State of Mississippi almost safe for a solitary horseman to ride over. As it is, the enemy have a large army in it, and the season has so far advanced that water will be difficult to find for an army marching, besides the dust and heat that must be encountered. The fall of Vicksburg now will only result in the opening of the Mississippi River and demoralization of the enemy. I intended more from it. I did my best, however, and looking back can see no blunder committed.


After his victory at Vicksburg Grant received the following letter from his Commander-in-chief Abraham Lincoln on July 13, 1863. In this remarkable letter Lincoln acknowledged that Grant was right while he was wrong regarding the strategy to take the fortress city.

Major General Grant
My dear General I 
do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgment for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do, what you finally did — march the troops across the neck, run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition, and the like, could succeed. When you got below, and took Port-Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.Yours very truly
A. Lincoln

On the morning of May 11, Grant sent a famous message to the Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that demonstrated his resolve to continue to press Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.

“The result to this time is much in our favor. Our losses have been heavy as well as those of the enemy. … I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”

Grant also ordered Meade, “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Grant understood that the destruction of Lee’s army was their objective. This differed from the earlier approach that was championed by George McClellan: “On to Richmond!” The bloody fight at Spotsylvania Court House produced over 31,000 combined casualties with an inconclusive result. Five general officers were either killed or mortally wounded during the battle.

Perhaps the most famous series of letters are those between Grant and General Robert E. Lee that prefaced their meeting at the McLean House at Appomattox where Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia. We will outline the correspondence in our next post.

Series Navigation<< Elisha Hunt Rhodes’ “All For the Union”Grant and Lee’s Surrender Correspondence >>

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