In mid-February of 1862, during the Civil War, Union forces were besieging Fort Donelson, a Confederate stronghold on the Cumberland River near the Tennessee-Kentucky border.
Union naval vessels blockaded the fort from the river and Union troops sealed off the site on the land side. The defenders made an attempt to break out, but were repulsed by Union soldiers, including men from the 2nd Iowa Infantry.
Finally acknowledging the reality of the situation, Simon Boliver Buckner, the Confederate officer left in charge of the fort, sent a message to the commander of the Union army. Buckner asked what the conditions would be for capitulation.
The Union commander, Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, replied that there were no terms “except an immediate and unconditional surrender.”
“That’s when they started calling me ‘Unconditional Surrender Grant’,” said Peter Grady during a portrayal of Grant that he presented at the Lied Public Library in Clarinda Tuesday, Nov. 19.
After the battle of Fort Donelson, Grant was elevated in rank to major general, and he eventually was promoted to lieutenant general in recognition for his success in different theaters of the war
The triumphs, in places like Shiloh, Vicksburg, Cold Harbor and the Wilderness, came at great cost in terms of lives lost.
“At Shiloh, there was a meadow between two tree lines,” Grady said in character. “After the battle, you could walk across that meadow on top of bodies, without ever touching the ground.”
More men were killed at Shiloh than in all of the previous American wars combined up to that point, and the casualty rate for some Iowa companies involved was between 70 and 80 percent. At Cold Harbor, casualty estimates were from 9,000 to 13,000 men.
The war ended in April of 1865 when Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.
In character, Grady said: “There were newspaper articles about how elegantly dressed Lee was, how wonderful he looked with his shiny boots and gleaming sword, and how General Grant arrived that morning. He had mud on his plants. He grabbed a private’s overshirt and pulled it over just so all you could see were his epaulets. Yes, he was not dressed very well. But you may also recall it was the well dressed general who surrendered to the not so well dressed general.”
As Grant, Grady noted that “it’s not brass buttons, gold braids or starched white shirts that make a soldier. It’s grit. It’s determination. It’s loyalty to a cause, loyalty to friends and fellow warriors.”
For the strategic decisions he made and the tactics he employed during the war, Grant achieved a considerable amount of fame. But Grady, in character, offered an insight into Grant’s feelings about the matter: “Of all the means of settling disputes, war is always the least desirable alternative. I’ve always been a military man, but I’ve not developed a fondness for war.”
Yet Grant was proud of those who had served in the Civil War. “The brave men of the United States Army and the United States Navy, together we were able to save the Union and free the slaves,” Brady said in character. “I’ve always contended that had there been nobody left but the soldiers, we could have had peace in a year.”
Grant graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where, because of some confusion related to his appointment, his actual first name, Hiram, was replaced by his middle name, Ulysses. His mother’s family name, Simpson, then became his middle name.
The Civil War was not the first conflict in which Grant took part. His initial combat experience was in the Mexican War, promoted by President James Polk as a means for the United States to fulfill what was then called its “Manifest Destiny.”
“This should never have been fought,” Grady said as Grant. “It was an attempt to take land from a neighbor.”
The war has a special connection for Iowa since several of the state’s counties were named after American military officers who participated in the conflict.
That includes Capt. John Page, a member of the 4th U.S. Infantry who was severely wounded in the Battle of Palo Alto in May of 1846. Page County was named in honor of him.
As Grant, Grady said: “He was struck by enemy fire, in my sight.” Page died two months later
Three years after the Civil War ended, Grant was elected president of the United States in 1868, then re-elected in 1872. His terms in office were marked by several scandals and charges of corruption within his administration.
Grady, in character, mentioned how “railroad tycoons would give bribes” to elected officials as a way to obtain “government contracts and be awarded free land on which they could build rail lines. This had been happening in previous administrations, but it was discovered during my watch, so I received the ‘credit’.”
After financier Jay Gould attempted to gain a monopoly on the gold supply in the United States, Grant order his secretary of the treasury to sell government gold supplies in an attempt to bring down the price of the commodity.
“It brought down the price of gold,” Grady said in character. “But it brought down other prices, too, and the result was something called a ‘crash’.”
Aside from the negative events associated with his presidency, Grant did record some accomplishments.
He supported legislation that sought to curtail the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist organization that had emerged after the Civil War.
“I obtained indictments and convictions of Klansmen throughout the South,” Grady said as Grant. “I also fought for passage of, and signed, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees voting to newly freed [male] slaves. I placed military governments and federal troops throughout the South to protect newly freed slaves so they could vote without fear. And they did vote, electing members of local government and state legislatures, members of Congress and even members of the United States Senate.”
Alarmed at the enfranchisement of African Americans, Grady continued in character, the KKK and other racist groups “instituted a plan of organized terror throughout the South. Brave soldiers stood up to them. They had been placed in the South for that purpose.”
But Grant’s successor as president, Rutherford B. Hayes, removed the federal troops as soon as he took office.
“This left the newly freed slaves at the ‘mercy’ of the terrorists,” Grady said as Grant. Hayes’s action also set the stage for decades of mistreatment and discrimination aimed at African Americans in the South
Toward the end of his life, Grant wrote an autobiography in hopes that money from sales of the book could support his family. He died in 1885.
In character, Grady offered a reflection from the man he portrayed: “I know that we all must face that final unconditional surrender. We all surrender to that which lies before us.”
Grady, who lives in Marshalltown, is a member of the speakers’ bureau of Humanities Iowa, which provided financial support for his appearance at the Lied Library.