Ulysses S. Grant was an unknown quantity coming into the civil war. He’d been drubbed out of the service in the 1850s for being overly fond of drink, had failed at every civilian occupation he tried, and back in the army—his reputation as a drunkard followed him.
When the war broke out, he presented himself to Governor Richard Yates of Illinois. Yates didn’t know what to make of him. He said Grant’s “appearance at first is not striking…He was plain, very plain.” That’s what everyone would say throughout the war. Grant stood a little better than five foot nothing, weighed a hundred and thirty pounds, and tended to blend in with the scenery. On his first official visit to Washington, Lincoln asked Grant to stand on a sofa so people could get a better look at him.
In September 1861, after a little prodding from Congressman Elihu Washburne, Lincoln appointed Grant, a brigadier general of volunteers headquartered in Cairo, Illinois.
From there, the legend grew.
Six days after arriving at Cairo, Grant loaded his men on the Steamer Mound City and set off to capture Paducah, Kentucky. After that, he made a somewhat disastrous attack on Belmont, Missouri. Then, starting in February 1862, Grant launched a miraculous string of victories. His army captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in Tennessee, which led Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston to pull his troops out of Tennessee. No shots were fired as General William “Bull” Nelson marched his forces into Nashville, following close on the heels of the retreating rebels.
General Ulysses S. Grant waited outside of Pittsburg Landing, poised to take Shiloh, Corinth, Richmond, then the Confederacy.