This week is the 124th anniversary of the death of US President, and Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant. An unlikely force in the Civil War, Grant performed best during the heat of battle. Born to Jesse and Hannah (Simpson) Grant he was was raised in a modest home. Jesse was a tanner and young Hiram Ulysses (Grant’s given first name was Hiram) hated the smell of the family’s tannery. At a very early age, young Hiram was an accomplished rider and would have a life long love of horses. Jesse would secure an appointment for his son to West Point, something Grant would later state was not to his liking. In his written letters, from West Point, he would often state how he disliked drill, tactics and other military curriculum. Grant, in a letter from West Point, stated, “A military life had no charms for me, and I had not the faintest idea of staying in the army even if I should be graduated, which I did not expect.”(i) Grant would maintain his grades and graduate from West Point in 1843.
After graduation, U.S. Grant would be assigned to the 4th Infantry Regiment, at Jefferson Barracks, in Saint Louis, Missouri. As a second lieutenant Grant would become the 4th Infantry’s regimental quartermaster. Through his friend, and West Point classmate, Fred Dent, he would meet Julia Dent. Grant quickly fell in love with Julia, and they would be married in 1848. Julia would bear Grant four children during their long life together.
During the Mexican War, quartermaster Grant would earn accolades for bravery and would often be found near the heaviest action. After the war, Grant would be transferred to the west coast with a rank of first lieutenant. Alone, and many miles from his wife and children, Grant would often fall into a state of melancholy – a period during which he was known to drink heavily. Unable to bear being separate from Julia, then Captain Grant, would resign his commission on March 6, 1854. Returning to Saint Louis, Grant tried to support his family by farming his “Hardscrabble” farm but had trouble growing crops in the rocky soil of Saint Louis County. He would be forced to sell firewood, with trees being the only real crop that grew well on his land. He would take other positions in real estate and bill collection. In early 1860, unable to support his family, Grant would move to Galena and work at his father’s dry goods store.
With the election of Abraham Lincoln, southern states started to secede from the United States. Grant tried to receive an appropriate commission in the U.S. Army, but was unable to receive any response from Washington City. It has been speculated that his history of drinking prevented him from receiving a commission from the Lincoln administration. Volunteering his services to his adopted home state of Illinois, Grant assisted Illinois Governor Richard Yates in recruiting Illinois’ portion of militia, after Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops. Grant would end up being appointed colonel of the 21st Illinois Infantry Regiment – a regiment that was untrained and nearly insubordinate. He would perform well as a colonel and would be promoted brigadier general volunteers after Illinois congressman Elihu Washburne sent his name to Lincoln for promotion to fill Illinois’ portion of general officers. While he was unaware of his name being sent to Lincoln, he would learn of his promotion while in the field at Mexico, Missouri. This promotion allowed Grant’s star to shine, as he won significant battles at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson and Shiloh. After capturing CSA Brigadier General Simon Bolivar Buckner’s army at Fort Donelson, Grant would be promoted major general of volunteers. During the coming years of war, Grant would capture two additional armies at Vicksburg and at Appomattox Court House where on April 9, 1865 he would receive the surrender of CSA General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, essentially ending the Civil War. In March 1864, Grant would be promoted to lieutenant general and supreme commander of all U.S. ground forces. Grant would be the first general since George Washington to receive promotion to this rank – and like George Washington – Grant would later become President of the United States.
While Grant’s presidency was marred with scandal, Grant performed his duties with honesty and honor. His primary fault was that he trusted people who ended up using him to promote their own agendas, often with disastrous results. Grant served two terms as president and was floated as a candidate for a third term. After his presidency, Ulysses and Julia would embark on a world wide tour, and would be received as a celebrity everywhere he went.
After returning to the United States, Grant would allow his name to be used in a financial investment firm that ultimately failed. This would leave Grant destitute and nearly penniless. Fortunately, friends would come to his aid and provide him homes in New York City, and Galena, Illinois.
In the early 1880’s Grant would be diagnosed with throat cancer. Wanting to provide for Julia, and his children, he would start writing his personal memoirs. Writing in a flurry, Grant would finish his memoirs a couple days before dying, on July 23, 1885. Mark Twain published the book providing Julia Grant with over $450,000 in royalties – the largest paid to that date. The memoirs, are still considered one of the best of its type after over a century in print.
U.S. Grant’s funeral is one of the largest in the history of the United States. He and Julia are buried in the largest mausoleum in the United States, overlooking the Hudson River in mid-town Manhattan. While Grant was often maligned by historians, his reputation has been resurrected in recent years with seminal biographies on his life.
Ulysses S. Grant is one of the most interesting historical figures in the history of the United States. During the Civil War, he capture three Confederate armies, more than any other general officer. During his presidency he contributed greatly to the advancement of Native Americans, the ratification of the 15th Amendment providing voting rights for black men and the establishment of the Department of Justice. While there will always be Grant detractors, one thing is for certain – Ulysses S. Grant is a true American HERO.(ii)
(i) Grant, Ulysses S., Grant Memoirs and Selected Letters, published by The Library of America 1990, Pg. 31.
(ii) For additional reading, please read my essay on Ulysses S. Grant. It can be read by clicking here.