Ulysses S. Grant didn't want to go to West Point. His dad made him go. Grant was 16 years old, 5'1" and 117 pounds. He graduated, and despite being a quartermaster--a position not usually associated with combat--he managed to get into the thick of things in the Southwest when the US was fighting against Mexico; what is more, he proved cool-headed and even heroic under fire. But he was also truly appalled by the bloodshed he experienced and from the start was squeamish at the sight of it.
By the age of 32, after having served a dispiriting assignment in California under a commander he loathed, he'd resigned from the Army with a reputation as a drunk. In truth, it was not that he drank a lot, but that he drank regularly enough and got drunk very easily.
He became afterwards a bookkeeper working for his brother.
He did not vote regularly.
In April 1861, the American Civil War began. Grant wanted to return to the military, but had a very difficult time finding a commission. He finally was put in charge of training volunteers. On June 14, 1861 he was given command of the ill-regarded 21st Illinois volunteer regiment.
Bit by bit, he pressed forward--training, winning engagements. And as a Midwesterner (or Westerners as they were referred to then), he seemed to grasp intuitively the importance of the western portion of the Union's overall strategy, the Mississippi River strategy, which was crafted in 1861 by General Winfield Scott and is now known to history popularly as the Anaconda Plan. Despite Grant's overall professional progress, he had many setbacks along the way and was even demoted after the Battle of Shiloh. But he persisted. And he was needed. By late 1863, President Abraham Lincoln had given Grant a promotion and put him in charge of all of the Union armies. It came with a $12,000 salary for life.
More setbacks...but more victories, too. President Lincoln sent a spy to check on Grant and to find out if he was drinking. During the Vicksburg campaign, he might have been on a binge at one point. But, as would be the case until the war's end, his direct, blunt, simple, and dogged style of command proved too valuable.
In 1864, Lincoln named Grant Commanding General of the United States Army, which required Grant to be most directly in charge of the Union's Eastern campaign, in Virgina. He advanced his forces even after battles that would have made previous Union commanders in the Eastern campaign fall back. He was accused by detractors, including privately First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, of being a butcher of his troops, feeding men into battle like flesh into a meat grinder. At one point, at the Battle of Cold Harbor, 6,000 Union soldiers were killed in one hour during a series of assaults against Confederate positions, and Grant admitted to it being an awful blunder. But he saw the overall military situation clearly: the larger size of his army and Union reserves compared to Robert E. Lee's army and the very limited Southern reserves were cheif among the Union's greatest strategic advantages. The greater number of men was a fact that needed to be effectively exploited.
Despite the massive casualties on battlefields in the South, in the North the morale kept rising because Grant the butcher was overseeing a more determinedly winning army--one reflecting its relentless and determined commander--in contrast to the more reticent Union army of the war's earlier years. Progress, bloodily, continued in Virginia while in the deep South, Gen. Sherman, according to Grant's larger military strategy, secured victories in Georgia...which thereby secured President Lincoln's re-election; something that in the grand scope of the war a greater, a more necessary strategic victory than any battlefield triumph. Without the well-timed victories in Georgia, Lincoln's opponent in the election of 1864, the former army general McClellan who ran on the Democratic Party's platform that called for a negotiated end to the war, would likely have won the election and, upon becoming President, ceased much or all aggressive action by Union forces.
By spring 1865, the Confederacy's rebellion was put down; Gen. Lee surrendered to Grant; the Confederate States of America ceased to exist. Grant was a hero in the North, and within three years became the 18th President of the United States. It had been the right time for the likes of a particular squeamish, understated, pint-sized, weak-livered pencil-pusher and former seemingly mediocre soldier on the fringes of the republic to be made by grand events and help make them, too.
See: U.S. Grant: Warrior.
Letter to "His Excellency A. Lincoln, President of the United States" from "Your obt. Svt., U. S. Grant, Maj. Gn.," August 23, 1863, Cairo, Illinois:
In this particular instance there is no objection however to my expressing an honest conviction. That is, by arming the negro we have added a powerful ally. They will make good soldiers and taking them from the enemy weaken 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 falling into our hands and to aid in capturing more.