Episode 38 – Ulysses S. Grant versus Mehmed the Conqueror

Today, we head on over to the Military bracket. In all honesty, these two men could have been in the Leaders bracket as well, but I felt that they were better suited as military men. The first was the general who would lead the North during the American Civil War to victory, Ulysses S. Grant. The other one is the great-grandfather of last episodes winner, Suleyman. He is the man who ended the Roman Empire, or Byzantium, Mehmed II also known as, Mehmed the Conqueror.

Before we start, I wanted to share my sources for the two men we will be meeting today. For the US general, I begin with Josiah Bunting III’s work, Ulysses S. Grant, along with The Complete Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, a classic autobiography. As for Mehmed II, I started with Osman’s Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire by Caroline Finkel, The Ottoman Empire:1300-1600 Halil Inalcik and Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes.

Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant

The first contestant is a man born in Point Pleasant, Ohio on April 27, 1822, to Jesse Root Grant and Hannah Simpson Grant. His father was a tanner, a profession that his first-born son Ulysses was to shun. His ancestors came to North America in 1630 aboard the ship the Mary and John. Ulysses’ great-grandfather fought in the French and Indian War and his grandfather in the American Revolution. The future general’s father was a follower of the Whig Party, and they were strong abolitionists. Grant’s birth name was Hiram Ulysses Grant, which was changed due to a mix up I will soon describe.  

Growing up, it was apparent that young Ulysses was a bright boy and was very gifted with horses, both riding and taking care of. His family, while Methodists, did not force religion on their son which would carry on throughout the rest of his life. While acknowledging a belief in God, he was not a churchgoer and never joined any specific denomination.

In 1839, Grant entered the West Point Military Academy, where his name was misspelled. Congressman Thomas Hamer wrote to the Academy asking them to admit the young man, but he mistakenly said his name was U.S. Grant. This caused his classmates to call him Sam, as in Uncle Sam. Grant would use this version of his name for the rest of his life.

Grant was not enamored with his stay at West Point, stating in his autobiography that the two happiest days of his life were the day he left the Presidency and the day he left the academy. His first assignment was in Missouri at Jefferson Barracks, the largest military outpost west of the Mississippi at the time.

In 1844, he would meet and get engaged to Julia Dent who he would marry four years later. The marriage convinced Grant to remain in the Army despite vowing to leave it within four years of leaving the Academy. What followed was his assignment to follow General’s Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott in the Mexican-American War of 1846-47. Here he fought bravely in the Battle of Resaca de la Palma, and the Battle of Monterrey. Grant’s star was in ascendancy, but with his subsequent assignments in Panama, California and the Oregon Territory, he became disenchanted. 

Grant tried and failed at a number of business ventures before the Civil War which was something his critical father predicted. It was also a time when Ulysses began to drink heavily, saddened in part because of his forced separation from his wife and family. In 1654, he handed in his resignation from the Army, which was accepted by then President Buchannan. 

For the next seven years, the Grant’s suffered through lean financial times. It was a period though that Ulysses would prove his moral standing when he freed a slave, William Jones, instead of selling him for $1,500, something the family desperately could have used.

After volunteering for the Union Army after the attack on Fort Sumpter by the Confederates on April 12, 1861, Grant was denied posts with General’s McClellan and Nathaniel Lyon. He eventually made it to the staff of General John C. Fremont, who ordered him not to attack any Southern army units, but to instead to “make demonstrations” against them. When President Lincoln fired Fremont in November, Grant was freed to launch attacks. His actions in the Western theatre did not go unnoticed in Washington, with Lincoln noting Grant’s willingness to fight unlike many of his contemporaries on the Union side.

One of the earlier battles led by Grant, one that solidified his reputation as a fighting and no-nonsense general was the Battle of Fort Donelson. Fought from February 11 to February 16, 1862, this overwhelming win for the Union, opened the Cumberland River to the victors, improving the way to invade the Confederates territory from the west. The Union had 24,000 troops to the Confederates having 16,000. Fort Donelson was well guarded, but Brigadier General Grant along with his superior officer, Major General Henry W. Halleck had them surrounded and, by the end of the siege, desperate. 

A few of the commanders of the Confederate Army stationed at Fort Donelson had fled the scene leaving command to Simon Bolivar Buckner, an old friend of Ulysses S Grant. Buckner knew that all was lost and asked for terms of surrender. Initially, Brigadier General Charles F. Smith of the Union was against any negotiated surrender, but Grant believed that additional bloodshed was unnecessary. Buckner expected lenient terms, but that was not forthcoming. Grant sent the following, “Sir: Yours of this date proposing Armistice, and appointment of Commissioners, to settle terms of Capitulation is just received. No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.

I propose to move immediately upon your works.

I am Sir: very respectfully

Your obt. sevt.

U.S. Grant

Brig. Gen

This letter earned the general the nickname “Unconditional Surrender Grant.” Buckner’s response was “SIR:—The distribution of the forces under my command, incident to an unexpected change of commanders, and the overwhelming force under your command compel me, notwithstanding the brilliant success of the Confederate arms yesterday, to accept the ungenerous and unchivalrous terms which you propose.”

This was a devastating loss for the Confederates as they had lost 12,000 men, 7,000 who were to become prisoners of war, and countless pieces of artillery, weapons, supplies, and provisions, which the Union forces desperately needed. It also opened the Cumberland River which led to the abandonment of Nashville, Tennessee. This was the first Confederate Army to surrender to Grant, but not the last. The second one was John C. Pemberton’s forces at the Battle of Vicksburg, and the most famous one, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the Appomattox Court House in 1865.

President Lincoln no doubt had heard of this victory and set his sights on Grant as not only had the General won a decisive battle, but he had captured more Confederate soldiers in this one encounter than all of the Union generals had to that point in the war combined. 

Just a couple of months later, on April 6 and 7, 1862, another dominant victory was led by Grant, and that one was the Battle of Shiloh. To that date, it would be the bloodiest battle in the Civil War until it was surpassed by the Battle of Stones River, then Chancellorsville and finally by the Battle of Gettysburg which we will hear more about in episode 70 when it goes up against the Battle of Cynscephalie. 

Shiloh also was known as the Battle of Pittsburgh Landing, was fought in the Western theatre of the US Civil War in southwestern Tennessee. On the Union side, you had around 63,000 men from the Armies of the Tennessee and the Ohio, led by General’s Grant and Buell versus 40,000 men of the Army of Mississippi led by General’s Albert Sydney Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard.

The first day of fighting saw the Confederates push the Union troops steadily much of the day. A lull occurred when one of the US Army’s encampments was overrun, and the Southern soldiers stopped to scrounge for food, something they were severely lacking. Day two though, saw a complete reversal in the Union forces due to the leadership of Grant and Beauregard’s error in judgment thinking he had an equal number of troops to Grant’s.

General Grant, despite the victory, was vilified by the Northern press corps, pointing out the surprise attack by the South on April 6th. They also portrayed Grant as being drunk during the first stages of the battle which was patently false. He was actually injured as on the 4th, his horse threw him and landed on his legs. Other commanders of the Northern troops also contradicted the reports. Grant said this of the Battle of Shiloh in his autobiography, “The battle of Shiloh, or Pittsburg Landing, has been perhaps less understood, or to state the case more accurately, more persistently misunderstood, than any other engagement between National and Confederate troops during the entire rebellion. Correct reports of the battle have been published, notably by Sherman, Badeau and, in a speech before a meeting of veterans, by General Prentiss; but all of these appeared long subsequent to the close of the rebellion and after public opinion had been most erroneously formed.”

In late 1863, Grant was given the job of breaking the siege of Chattanooga by the President where the Army of the Cumberland was trapped. Under the leadership of Grant and General Joseph Hooker not only did they relive the Union troops, but they also routed the Confederate army and gained control of Tennessee and a gateway into the deep Southern state of Georgia.

This victory along with Grant’s reputation as a willing fighter and admired leader caused President Lincoln to make him the overall commander of the Union forces on March 2, 1864. Over the next year, Grant and the Union army fought the South and in particular, General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia until it was nearing its breaking point. Thousands and thousands of Confederate soldiers began to abandon the war causing the eventual collapse of their side and the surrender of Lee at the Appomattox Court House. The Civil War ended on May 9, 1865. 

From here, now General of the Army of the United States, Grant was to look over the Reconstruction period, post-Civil War. He was very much in favor of treating the South with honor yet, firmly as well as wanting to make sure that the freed black slaves have full rights. This got him into trouble with then-President Andrew Johnson. In early 1868, he resigned his post which became a national scandal leading to his decision to run for President in which he was successful. Grant also won again in 1672, but this term was fraught with scandals, none of which was due to any of Ulysses’ actions.

In his years of retirement, Grant’s financial situation worsened until his reluctant decision to write his autobiography. This was to be a financial windfall for his family, but unfortunately, he died just a few months after its completion on July 23, 1885, at the age of 63. Grant’s Tomb on Riverside Drive in New York City, a couple of miles from where I grew up, is the largest mausoleum in the United States. 

Now for our putting it into perspective segment. During his military service, the California Gold Rush occurred, the Opium Wars between Britain and China were fought, the Crimean War was also fought, and the words boyfriend and girlfriend were first used and seen in print.

Mehmed the Conqueror
Mehmed the Conqueror

Our second contestant today is Sultan Mehmed II also known as Mehmed the Conqueror, son of Murad II. His father had to revitalize the Ottoman Empire after the invasion and defeats by Timur, also known as Tamerlane in 1405. We will be meeting this man in episode 68.

Mehmed II was born on March 30, 1432. He became the Sultan and leader of the Ottoman Empire in August of 1444 at the age of 11. Obviously, he was only the leader in name due to his age. When a crisis arose in 1446, he demanded that his father retake the throne from retirement which he did until 1551 when died of a brief illness.

Mehmed, then 19, was now focused on a single target, the city of Constantinople. This now decaying citadel of the collapsing Byzantine Empire was by now completely surrounded and a shell of its former glory as I mentioned in last weeks episodlet. The first job was to fortify the Ottoman Navy, something that was critical in a successful siege.

Starting in 1453, Mehmed began his attack on the city. Despite what many historians claim, it was not a slam dunk that Constantinople would be taken. After so many failures, a victory was always in doubt. On top of that, defeat would have certainly meant the death of Mehmed as he had devoted so much to this siege that anything less would have been viewed as a failure. 

After the 53-day attack, Constantinople fell, and Mehmed was now viewed as the Conqueror of an unconquerable place. Not wanting to rest on his laurels, the Sultan decided to quell the rebellious Serbians which led to campaigns that lasted from 1454 until 1459 when they fell under the thumb of the Ottoman’s.

From 1460 until 1461, Mehmed concentrated on maritime targets like Morea and the coast of the Black Sea. From there, the Sultan’s armies fought against the Venetian’s between 1463 to 1479. The Ottoman’s would eventually win the war ending with the Treaty of Constantinople in 1479.

Other wars that Mehmed and his troops were to engage and eventually win included ones with Moldavia, Albania, and the Genovese Crimeans. This last war, brought the Crimean Tatars under the wing of the Turks, although with a lot of freedoms of self-rule. The War with Moldavia was considered an Ottoman victory, but the long-term of battles was a withdrawal of Turkish troops due to starvation and an outbreak of the plague.

In episode 66, we will become familiar with one of Mehmed’s opponents during his reign, one Vlad Dracul. During his campaign in Wallachia in 1462, the Sultan had to face a former vassal in Vlad Tepes, also known to history as Vlad the Impaler. When Mehmed ordered Vlad to pay tribute, he revolted and had the two emissaries from the Turkish court impaled. This infuriated the Ottoman leader which caused him to launch an invasion of the Wallachian lands. Despite tens of thousands of Turks and Bulgarians losing their lives in the ensuing war, Vlad Tepes was defeated causing him to flee to Hungary where their king, Matthias Corvinus, had him imprisoned. 

In 1475, Vlad the Impaler was released from captivity and immediately joined the Hungarians in their rebellion against Mehmed and the Ottoman’s. Winning a number of battles against the Turks forced their hand and later in 1476, they invaded with a larger force and by 1477, had destroyed the rebel armies with Tepes dying in battle on January 14, 1477.

In 1680, the Ottoman’s had become a fearsome and powerful opponent which shook the European’s to their core. When he decided to attack Italy, the city of Rome became fearful that it would fall as Constantinople did 37 years earlier. Many Italian city-states along with their allies decided to fight the Ottoman’s to varying degrees of success, but it was only with the death of Mehmed, at the age of 49 on May 3, 1481, that Italy was spared a more massive Ottoman invasion.

All in all, Mehmed led 19 different military campaigns, thirteen on the European continent, six in Asia. While not initially successful in each conflict, the Sultan of the Ottoman’s was ultimately the winner in all but the last one against the Italian’s due to his death. Mehmed was a capable military leader, but much of his success was due to the overwhelming strength and size of his armies. His decision to rebuild and strengthen his navy was brilliant as were many of his other choices of when and where to stage his many campaigns.

There are some who believed that Mehmed was poisoned by his son and heir Bayezid II, but this is in much dispute. We may never know the truth but what is known is that Bayezid was a capable ruler although not quite the military man his father was. 

The legacy of Mehmed the Conqueror has lasted through the centuries because of his siege of Constantinople, but that is only part of what made him a formidable military leader. I could easily have put him into the Leaders bracket, but his multiple victories against a wide variety of opponents led me to the decision to put him here, in the Military bracket.

Now on to the putting it into perspective segment. During his time as the head of the Ottoman Empire, the first black slaves came to Europe, the Blarney Stone is set into Blarney Castle in Ireland, the construction of Machu Pichu began, and the War of the Roses raged on in England.

Now is the time to begin our scoring between these two great military men. The first fifteen points are given out for the length of time in military service. Ulysses S. Grant began his time in the US military when he entered West Point in 1839 until his resignation in 1868 which is 29 years. As for Mehmed II, his real military service began with the start of his second reign as Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1451, ending with his death in 1481 for a total of 30 years. Mehmed gets fifteen, Grant receives fourteen points.

Next up is the twenty points for how they affected the rest of the world in their time. This one leans towards Mehmed as his military campaigns would stretch from Asia into Europe while Grant served in the Mexican-American war and the US Civil War. While Grant’s victories would solidify US standing with the rest of the world, Mehmed wins this part of the scoring handily. Twenty points for the Sultan and 10 for the US General.

Twenty-five points are now up for grabs based on each man’s effect on world history. It can easily be said that Grant’s military prowess was instrumental in keeping the United States of America together instead of split into two had he failed. While you can claim that the north had a vastly superior economy and that the south was eventually going to lose, that was not so sure of when Grant was given full command of the Union army in 1864. 

Mehmed, on the other hand, handed down an Empire to his heirs that was to continue on until 1922, but by the mid-1700’s it was already in a state of decline. It is hard to compare the two men when it came to their lasting effect on world history when their times were so spread apart. I will have to give the maximum number of points to Grant here with Mehmed getting 22 points.

Time now to give out the big points of forty to the military leader who best affected their country for the better. Grant saved the Union, Mehmed, conquered the last major Empire in his region, the Byzantines. After each left the military, Grant, to become President of the United States of America and Mehmed to his premature death at the age of 49, their countries were in better shape than before. The US was to become the preeminent power in the world until the present day, but the Ottoman’s were to retain that spot for about the same amount of time post-Mehmed. For these reasons, both men receive the full forty points.

The final total gives 89 points to the United States Army General Ulysses S. Grant with Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror winning with a grand total of 97. He moves on to the second round to face off against an apropos opponent, William the Conqueror.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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