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7 Reasons Ulysses S. Grant Was One of America’s Most Brilliant Military Leaders

May 13, 2020 in History

By Elizabeth D. Samet

What he lacked in knowledge of military art and science, he made up for with tenacity and grit.

In March 1864, Ulysses S. Grant went to Washington, D.C., to receive his commission from Abraham Lincoln as lieutenant general in command of all the Union armies. After several years of frustration with a parade of unsuitable commanders, the president had finally found the man who would defeat Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and thus effectively end the Civil War. The choice was surprising to many who had known Grant in former days. Ten years before, in April 1854, Captain Grant had submitted his resignation under a cloud.

In one of history’s unexpected developments, the military profession Grant “had always disliked,” in the words of his biographer Bruce Catton, ultimately “turned out to be the calling made for him.” How did an ambivalent soldier who had been away from the army for several years—and who had drifted during that interval from one civilian occupation to another in search of elusive success—end up leading a vast force to victory and saving the Union?

Grant’s predecessors in command of the Union Army were far more accomplished in military art and science. Winfield Scott, whose experience dated back to the War of 1812, had led the army since 1841. George B. McClellan, who replaced the aging Scott early in the Civil War, was an able administrator who organized the Army of the Potomac. In the 1850s, McClellan had studied the Crimean War at first hand as a member of an official delegation of American observers. Henry W. Halleck, the author of Elements of Military Art & Science, was regarded as a master theoretician.

READ MORE: The Key Way West Point Prepared Ulysses S. Grant for the Civil War

Yet McClellan and Halleck both proved reluctant to take decisive action in the field. After the Battle of Shiloh, it took the latter almost a month to advance 20 miles south to attack the vital Confederate railroad junction at Corinth, Mississippi. Lincoln grew so frustrated with McClellan’s inaction that he responded to the general’s October 1862 request for more horses with an exasperated telegram: “I have just read your despatch about sore tongued and fatiegued [sic] horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?”

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Smallpox Inoculations in 1770s Were Risky, But Helped George Washington Win the War

May 13, 2020 in History

By Dave Roos

As commander of the Continental Army, Washington faced dual enemies: the British and smallpox. So he made a risky call.

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Washington also knew that his American-born soldiers were far more susceptible to the disease than the European enemy. That’s because smallpox was endemic in England, meaning that a high percentage of British troops had already contracted the disease as children and now carried lifelong immunity.

In contrast, relatively few New Englanders and Southerners had ever been exposed to the virus. For example, only 23 percent of North Carolina soldiers who enlisted in 1777 had ever had smallpox.

Armed only with a primitive understanding of contagion and immunity, Washington had to decide between several anti-smallpox schemes, each with its own significant risks.

“It comes down to herd immunity,” says Fenn. “You either have to let people be exposed to the disease and naturally acquire immunity, which could be devastating for his troops and have devastating consequences for the war. Or somehow quarantine your troops, which means they’re not going to be able to fight. Or immunize them.”

READ MORE: Full Pandemics Coverage

Immunization in 1770s Was Crude and Risky

An illustration of the hand Edward Jenner used as a source for his smallpox vaccine that was developed in 1796.

But immunization in the 1770s was not what it’s like today with a single injection and a low risk of mild symptoms. Edward Jenner didn’t even develop his revolutionary cowpox-based vaccine for smallpox until 1796. The best inoculation technique at Washington’s disposal during the Revolutionary War was a nasty and sometimes fatal method called “variolation.”

“An inoculation doctor would cut an incision in the flesh of the person being inoculated and implant a thread laced with live pustular matter into the wound,” explains Fenn. “The hope and intent was for the person to come down with smallpox. When smallpox was conveyed in that fashion, it was usually a milder case than it was when it was contracted in the natural way.”

Variolization still had a case fatality rate of 5 to 10 percent. And even if all went well, inoculated patients still needed a month to recover. The procedure was not only risky for the individual patient, but for the surrounding population. An inoculee with a mild case might feel well enough to walk around town, infecting countless others with potentially more serious infections.

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