Skip to main content


February 25, 2013

Lincoln, General Grant, and the Civil War

How Unconventional Thinking Turned the Tide

A visit to West Point will uncover very little about one of it’s most famous alumni; no statues, plaques or commemorative busts. It’s an indifference that Ulysses S. Grant redirected back at his alma mater, says Todd Brewster, Professor of History and Director of the Center for Oral History at the United States Military Academy at West Point during the talk, Lincoln, General Grant and the Civil War, on February 25.

The event, which also featured noted Abraham Lincoln historian Eric Foner, Professor of History at Columbia University, was moderated by St. Francis Scholar in Residence Fred Siegel.

Brewster said that Grant hated his time at West Point, in part because he disagreed with the theories of war being taught. During that time, warfare followed the principles laid out by Frenchman Henri Jomini and called for a consolidation of forces and patience leading up to a major battle.

During the start of the Civil War, the North, fighting under General George McClellan, followed Jomini’s theory and according to Brewster this tactic lessened the North’s advantage in strength and numbers. It was only when President Lincoln replaced McClellan with Grant and proposed a new strategy that the tide of the war began to turn. Under Grant, attacks on the South were more frequent and took advantage of the element of surprise. Without giving the South time to prepare for major assaults, the North was able to make significant gains and tilt the war in its favor, said Brewster.

This new tactic also resulted in heavy casualties for the North, however, and played a large role in the political calculations of President Lincoln. Professor Foner added that as the war dragged on and the death toll rose, so too did the stakes for Lincoln. His main mission in fighting the war became larger than just reuniting the country; it became a mission to end slavery.

The Emancipation Proclamation was the key to this new direction, but Foner pointed out that the Proclamation was at the core, a military act, and not one of social conscience. It was also practically, very limited, because it only applied to the states that had succeeded and was unenforceable. Emotionally though, Foner says it had a huge impact. The Proclamation swayed support in the North for what now became a moral war. It stopped foreign intervention by European countries, which were leaning to the South and it symbolized a shift from what had been a ‘Gentlemans War’ to a hard war.

Foner said the changes in how the North fought led to the mass destruction of civilian property in Sherman’s March and laid the groundwork for what became rules of war outlined in the Geneva Convention decades later.

Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, is one of this country's most prominent historians. He has written a number of books on U.S. history, most recently The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. Foner received his doctoral degree at Columbia under the supervision of Richard Hofstadter. He is only the second person to serve as president of the three major professional organizations: the Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association, and Society of American Historians.

Todd Brewster is the Don E. Ackerman Professor of History and Director of the Center for Oral History at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He is also the Director of the Peter Jennings Project for Journalists and the Constitution. For more than twenty years, he has covered national and international politics, working for both Time, Inc. and ABC News, where he was a senior producer of award-winning documentaries. He co-authored two bestselling books with the ABC anchorman Peter Jennings, The Century, and In Search of America. He is presently at work on a book on Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Rules of War. The book will be published by Scribner's in 2014.

Fred Siegel, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life, has been instrumental in bringing a number of timely and provocative events to the College. Past forums hosted by St. Francis College include The Tension Between Catholic Schools & Charter Schools, Freedom Summer Revisted, Can You be Both a Business Success and Ethically Noble? and Young Voters and the 2012 Election.

Lincoln, General Grant and the Civil War is part of the Honors Program series "Civil War: Past and Present." On April 11, the College will host a double screening of the new motion picture, Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg. The showings, at 2:00pm and 6:00pm in St. Francis College’s Founders Hall, are free and open to the public.

St. Francis College, founded in 1859 by the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn, is located in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y. Since its founding, the College has pursued its Franciscan mission to provide an affordable, high-quality education to students from New York City’s five boroughs and beyond.


St. Francis College, 180 Remsen Street, Brooklyn Heights, NY 11201

This site uses cookies

We use cookies to improve user experience and analyze website traffic. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies.