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“a man with fire”
Ulysses S. Grant never understood how to handle money. That was not true of his father, Jesse, who understood it so well that he became a successful and affluent businessman. A tanner by trade, Jesse Grant came to the Ohio country and opened a business in Point Pleasant, a small trading town on the Ohio River. Tanning is a dirty and bloody business, but it’s honorable and ancient: The apostle Paul was a tanner, a fact undoubtedly pointed out repeatedly by Jesse’s devout and dour Methodist wife, Hannah. Hannah Simpson was a strong-willed Pennsylvania woman who believed that work could save souls and who told people (apparently with some repetition) that she wanted to live “unspotted from the world.” People noted that she meant what she said. Hannah worked from sunrise to sunset, like her husband, Jesse, whose face was pockmarked by tannic acid but whose biceps were as hard as iron cannon—the result of throwing ungainly pickled hides out to dry.
Ulysses was Jesse and Hannah’s first child, born with the name Hiram Ulysses Grant in a single-room clapboard shack at Point Pleasant on April 27, 1822. Jesse worked hard for his new family, and eight months later the shack was replaced by a two-room house at Georgetown, twenty-five miles to the east. The move reflected Jesse Grant’s rising status and unerring business sense. Georgetown was not only on a major highway leading from Pittsburgh west into the rich farmlands of Illinois and Wisconsin, it was also in the middle of one of Ohio’s most expansive oak forests; oak bark, when mixed with water, makes tannic acid, the potion that produces tanned hides. Within five years, Jesse Grant had transformed his business from a small one-man operation into a burgeoning enterprise employing five workers and dozens of returning satisfied customers. With his profits Jesse acquired fifty acres of prime forest land, two small farms, and a two-story brick house. The house was sparsely furnished, as Hannah insisted, and over the next years she gave birth to five more children, two boys and three girls: Simpson, Clara, Virginia, Orvil, and Mary.
Just five years after coming to Ohio, Jesse Grant was a success. He not only owned a profitable tanning business, he was one of Georgetown’s most important citizens. He ran for office (as an abolitionist), participated in town meetings, and was a regular and outspoken contributor to the town newspaper, the Castigator. He designed and built the town jail and even started another business, opening a carriage service to western Ohio and points south. But Jesse was not well liked: He argued heatedly with Georgetown’s pro-southern elite (who were enriched by the region’s slave-dependent tobacco-trading industry), became a “Clay man” (and voted repeatedly for Henry Clay, that most eloquent of voices for the Union), shouted down his opponents at town meetings, and regularly and vocally proselytized for the Whig Party. As his employees were busy slinging hides, Jesse Grant stood in front of his store and argued about slavery. Jesse hated slavery: Before he came to Ohio, he was an apprentice tanner in Kentucky but left the state because, as he said proudly, it was poisoned by “the slavocracy.” It was his obsession with slavery and his sour personality that made Jesse disliked: His first son once commented that in that part of Ohio, antiabolitionist sentiment was so strong that Jefferson Davis might have been elected president.
That Jesse Grant could see the coming conflict was certain. He was ahead of his time. Though the nation was not yet divided by the slave question, the first cracks in the foundation of the Union were beginning to show. In the year that Ulysses S. Grant was born, Denmark Vesey was put on trial and executed in Charleston for plotting a slave uprising. Two years before, Henry Clay—then a rising young politician from the same Kentucky that Jesse abhorred—authored the Missouri Compromise, which saved the Union. The debate over slavery deepened in 1828, when Ulysses was just six, when John Quincy Adams signed the “Tariff of Abominations,” which favored the business interests of the North and the West over those of the South. South Carolina threatened secession. Two years later, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina debated the question of slavery on the Senate floor. The compromises and debates of the 1820s carried over into the next decade. In 1831, Nat Turner launched a bloody and unsuccessful slave rebellion in Virginia. In the years that followed, new “slave laws” were enacted throughout the South, and the trickle of African Americans that traversed the underground railroad, many of them through Ohio, became a torrent.
Jesse Grant was proud of his son Ulysses and showed him off to anyone who came into his store. The boy was strong and smart and understood more about horses than anyone Jesse knew. Horses came to Ulysses like money to Jesse. Throughout his life, Grant had an affinity for horses and could gentle the wildest in any herd. His gift with horses was obvious from an early age. When his mother was warned that her three-year-old son was crawling in the yard beneath horses’ hooves, she dismissed the danger. He will take care of himself, she said, and went back to her washing. Ulysses Grant found in horses a silent trust and compassion that was nonexistent at home. His mother never kissed or hugged him (“Well, Ulysses, you’ve become quite a great man, haven’t you,” she said coldly after his return from the war—and then went back to her work), and his father, while bragging about his son’s strength and spirit, rarely showed any affection. Jesse was self-made, pugnacious, outspoken, and hardworking, and he expected his son to be the same, so he demanded that Ulysses help in the shop at a very early age. Ulysses abhorred the backbreaking work and the animal blood, but he did it. At the age of fifteen, after his father suggested that he might follow him in the business, Ulysses told him he never would. “I’ll work at it though, if you wish me to, until I am twenty-one. But you may depend on it, I’ll never work a day longer at it after that,” he said.
Grant’s personality was formed in opposition to his father. Where Jesse was outgoing and outspoken, Ulysses was shy and contained. He grew up to be a man of few words, though those few, when spoken, were well chosen. His beliefs were held deeply, like his father’s, but his aversion to argument was developed at a very young age. While he served two terms as president, he was arguably the least political of any of our presidents, and while he enjoyed those most common of pleasures, smoking cigars and reading, he was nearly an ascetic. He bore the casual hooting and indiscreet bullyings of childhood, most of them the result of his father’s outspoken (and often obnoxious) personality, without complaint, as he would later bear the privations of soldiering. He was as fearless in battle as he was beneath the hooves of those horses in his mother’s yard, and several times during the Civil War he would look up, surprised, to see his staff scattering before the onslaught of an artillery barrage.
All of this might have come from his mother, Hannah Simpson, except that unlike her, he was never devout and viewed religion as he might have looked at cannonballs—a curious nuisance that caused more fear than harm and simply had to be tolerated. That he was intelligent was never in doubt, but he lacked scholarly brilliance. He mastered mathematics, as a child, simply by working at it. He worked diligently, but without remarkable insight. That perhaps was Grant’s most sterling quality. While not the tallest, or strongest, or brightest, or even the most insightful of men or generals, Grant brought a singular concentration to everything he did. When he failed, he would pick himself up and start again. As a child and later as a soldier, he was undeterred, unfazed, and unafraid. This might well have come from working in his father’s business, with older and stronger men, or perhaps from those he met on the road—as he drove his father’s hides to Cincinnati or farther south or west. His only truly unique and eccentric quality was his inability to turn back, to literally retrace his steps. If lost, he plunged on rather than retrace where he had been, and he sometimes went miles out of his way rather than return along a well-worn road. He commented on this himself, often, and admitted that it was an obsessive quirk that he simply could not correct. That oddity defined his life: He would set out to do something and would not stop until he got it done—and he would go someplace and get there.
If Jesse and Hannah were unaffectionate, they still placed great hope in their oldest son. His mother insisted that he receive a better education than his playmates, and while Ulysses was in his teens, Jesse told him that he would be expected to go to college, a privilege reserved for only the most well-educated, and affluent, children. Jesse made enough money to enroll his son in a number of private schools, including a “village school” run by Thomas White, a strict disciplinarian who gave his students a book, a desk, and little else. White expected his pupils to teach themselves, emphasizing the point by keeping at hand a switch made of hard cane bundled together. At the insistence of his parents, Grant next attended a private school in Maysville, Kentucky. He left home for Maysville at the age of thirteen and lived there with an aunt. He attended school during the day and studied at night. One year later, he was enrolled by his father at a private academy in Ripley, on the Ohio River, where the academic work was more difficult than any he had ever had. “They taught me that a noun was the name of a person, place or thing so often that I came to believe it,” he later said.
Jesse Grant’s son had big ideas. From the moment he began to lead his father’s buckboards out of Georgetown, Grant dreamed of becoming a river trader. He admired the well-dressed men striding onto the steamboats of Cincinnati, bound for those exotic river towns of St. Louis, Natchez, and New Orleans. He also thought of becoming a farmer, though this was far less romantic. But farming was a thing he could do, and it didn’t involve dipping his hands in animal blood. And that was good enough for him. It was not good enough for Jesse, however, or for Hannah, who had definite opinions about what their son could become. Downriver traders, Jesse thought, were thoroughly disreputable. Being one would not likely bring honor to the Grant family, and as for being a farmer, well, anyone could be a farmer—and most people were. The Grants, as Jesse would say, were not most people. In 1838, Jesse wrote to Ohio senator Thomas Morris about Ulysses, asking that Morris appoint his son to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Morris replied that he did not then have an appointment to give, but that Congressman Thomas Hamer did, if Jesse was willing to write to him.
It was an audacious request. Jesse had not thought of sending his son to West Point until his wife had suggested it, and she did so only after hearing that a neighbor’s son had failed the entrance examination. More important, Hamer and Jesse Grant were political enemies. While Jesse had campaigned for Hamer when Hamer ran for a seat in Ohio’s legislature, the two had had a bitter argument over President Andrew Jackson’s fiscal policies and had not spoken since. But Jesse swallowed his pride and wrote to Hamer, hoping that his former friend would remember how close they had once been. Hamer received Jesse’s letter on the last day of his term and immediately filled out the application for Grant’s admission. The application was to have lifelong ramifications for Grant: Struggling to remember the boy’s full name, Hamer appointed him to West Point as Ulysses S. Grant, using his mother’s maiden name as his middle initial. He then wrote to Jesse, burying the bitter feud: “I received your letter and have asked for the appointment of your son which will doubtless be made. Why didn’t you apply to me sooner?”
But being appointed to West Point was one thing, passing the entrance examination was another. The people of Georgetown, many of them offended by Jesse Grant’s presumption, believed that his son would never attend. “I’m astonished Hamer did not appoint someone with intellect enough to do credit to our district,” one of the townsmen told Jesse. Ulysses knew none of this and protested the appointment when he heard of it. He told his father that he thought he would not go. But, as he later recounted, “My father said he thought I would, and I thought so too, if he did.” Grant passed the entrance exam and, vowing secretly that he would never like West Point and that he would never be a soldier (no matter what his father thought), left for New York on May 15, 1839. He arrived, a little more than one week later, on the bluffs above the Hudson, to see his name posted with those of the others of the class of 1843.
It was then, and still is, a tradition at West Point that en- tering plebes receive a nickname. The West Point of Grant’s era is famous for such names. William Tecumseh Sherman (one class ahead of Grant) became “Cump,” while William Rosecrans (a devoted Catholic, gifted mathematician, and average general) became “Rosie.” Winfield Scott Hancock (who was named for the old general, and who repelled Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg) became “Win.” All of that is predictable, but how do you explain James Longstreet, who was known ever after as “Pete,” or George Pickett (a Virginian appointed by a then little-known congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln), who was so dandified that he had no nickname at all (and who graduated dead last in his class), or Lewis Armistead, who became “Lo”—for “Lothario”—and who died in the charge that Pickett commanded? As Hiram Ulysses Grant became Ulysses Simpson Grant, so Ulysses Simpson Grant now became U. S. Grant or, more simply, “Sam.” No protests that he (Hiram, or Ulysses, or even U. S. Grant) would ever issue would change that name. Among his closest friends, from his plebe year forward, Ulysses S. Grant was “Sam” Grant, and so he would forever remain.
Grant entered West Point as the smallest cadet in his class. He stood barely five feet one, and he weighed just 117 pounds. He was issued a uniform that, in using language his father would understand, he described as being “as tight to my skin as bark to a tree.” It would have been easy to underestimate Grant. He struggled with his studies, but he rarely broke the academy rules, and he seemed to get along well with the upperclass officers. His class of seventy-seven comprised mostly boys from the South and the Northeast, with only a scattering of midwesterners. Grant endured his plebe year and stood aside when others protested, or openly rebelled, or were expelled for fighting or complaining. In that first year he never once received a demerit for disobedience or disrespect, a rarity among cadets in any age. He was well liked, but years later (when it would have been in people’s interest to regale listeners with stories of the famous cadet Ulysses S. “Sam” Grant), he was not well remembered. Pickett, Rosecrans, Longstreet, Sherman, and even future Confederate general Jubal Early (called “my bad old man” during the war by Robert E. Lee were legends at West Point. Grant was a plodding enigma.
Grant finished his first year near the bottom of his class, but he had come further than anyone dared imagine. While the people of Georgetown, Kentucky, might well have protested Grant’s appointment, no one could argue with his ability to concentrate, to apply himself single-mindedly to his weaknesses and master them. All the while, amid the sometimes vicious physical hazing and challenges of West Point mathematics, Grant read the newspapers, carefully following the congressional bill aimed at closing the academy. The legislation was authored by those who thought the military academy an institution for the education of the effete and unmanly, a “breeding ground for snobbery and a waste of money.” This would have shocked those who saw Grant, a slightly bow-legged rustic from the backcountry of Ohio with a shy streak. Grant hoped the bill would pass and that West Point would be closed. All he wanted to do his first year, as he later remembered, was go back to Ohio to become a farmer or, better yet, one of those worldly traders on a Mississippi steamboat.
This fantasy aside, by the end of his first year as a cadet, Grant was beginning to like West Point. When General Winfield Scott came to visit, Grant was impressed, writing effusively about the medal-bedecked American hero, and imagined himself in his place, reviewing the Corps of Cadets. While he found the constant drill and discipline “very wearisome and uninteresting,” he discovered that he had a facility for mathematics, which was often the one course most likely to lead cadets to failure. Longstreet struggled with the academy’s mathematics course (the primary reason he graduated so low in his class) and swallowed his considerable pride long enough to agree to after-hours tutoring from William Rosecrans. Grant did not need help (it is unlikely he would have asked for it if he had), and by the end of his first year he was mastering the course and rising through the class ranks. “The subject was so easy to me as to come almost by intuition,” he later remembered. As a result of his strong academic standing, Grant could now and then take some time to reflect on his surround- ings and the history that filled the Hudson Valley, whose river shone from his room. “I do love the place,” he wrote in one letter home. “It seems as though I could live here forever if my friends would only come too.” Ulysses S. Grant was not his father; he was lonely, but he wasn’t shunned. Rather, his natural shyness meant that he had trouble making close friends, so he spent much of his free time reading novels from the academy library—an eclectic mix of James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and Walter Scott.
Grant survived his first year and entered his second year at the midpoint of his class. He excelled at mathematics and he discovered art. His talent in this came as the result of his instruction in technical drafting, a requirement in the engineering-focused academy where cadets were expected to know the minute details of constructing and maintaining battlements. Grant loved drafting and converted that love into drawings and watercolors. He was an adept artist with a keen eye. He struggled in French, but he made it through the course as best he could, knowing that his scores in math would keep him near the middle of his class. By the end of his second year, it was apparent to everyone at West Point that while Grant did not stand out in any single subject, he was a solid cadet with an adept mind. He was also an exceptional horseman; he may well have been the best horseman to have ever graduated from West Point. His talent with horses became apparent his sophomore year, and his reputation grew, so that by the time he was an upperclassman, he would be called on repeatedly to show his skills. He held the West Point high-jumping record for twenty-five years. His classmates would later recall how Grant so mastered horses that it seemed as if “man and beast had been welded together.”
Grant rose in his class during his third year, and he finally made some close friends, including future Civil War generals Samuel French (a Mississippian who fought at the Battle of Atlanta), William B. Franklin (who graduated first in Grant’s class and commanded a part of the disastrously bloody federal attack on rebel lines at the Battle of Fredericksburg), Frank Gardner (a New Yorker who married into a Louisiana family; he later commanded the attack on Grant’s lines at the Battle of Shiloh), and Frederick Dent, a Missourian and Grant’s roommate. Grant and Dent became good friends, in spite of their often bitter arguments about slavery, and Dent invited Grant to visit him and his family after they graduated. Grant’s academic standing continued to improve during his junior and senior years, but, surprisingly, his military standing deteriorated. The once shy boy from Ohio began to rebel and at one point was confined to his quarters for two weeks for disrespect. This only deepened his doubts about leading a military life, and he pledged that while he would fulfill his commitment, he would not stay in the military. Now, he said, he would quit the army and return to West Point as a professor of mathematics.
Grant welcomed the end of his time at the academy, and while his class is forever remembered for graduating the greatest leader of the Civil War (and two-time president), Grant himself later commented on the remarkable plebes who came to the academy when he was a senior. The class of 1846, which graduated four years after Grant, included among their num- ber some of the most storied of Union commanders: General George McClellan (who fought the Battle of Antietam), Jesse Reno (who died leading his men at the Battle of South Mountain), Darius Couch (a corps commander in the Union Army), Truman Seymour (taken prisoner by the Confederates during the Battle of the Wilderness), and cavalry commander George Stoneman (who laid waste to large swathes of Alabama and Georgia). The southern contingent was nearly as legendary: George Pickett, John Adams (a brigadier general at the Battle of Franklin, where he died), Dabney Maury (who was dismissed from the army in 1861 for having Confederate sympathies and went on to become the Confederacy’s greatest diplomat), Cadmus Wilcox (a division commander in Lee’s army during the Wilderness Campaign), William Gardner (a Confederate commander at Bull Run, where his leg was shattered), and a lanky Virginian by the name of Thomas Jonathan Jackson, who became “Stonewall” Jackson and nearly destroyed the Union Army at Chancellorsville—where he was fatally wounded.
But all of this was in the future. For now, Grant had to be satisfied with a simple commission in the infantry. While he graduated twenty-first in his class, an extraordinary accomplishment for an undersized and indifferently educated boy from Ohio, Grant did not stand high enough in the class ranks to be able to choose his branch of service. He would have preferred the cavalry and requested that he be assigned as an officer in the dragoons but, in 1843, was ordered to serve as a brevet second lieutenant in the Fourth Infantry, which was commanded by Richard S. Ewell, a future corps commander in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. After a short time at home (Jesse had since moved his family from Georgetown to Bethel, a short distance away), he reported for duty at Jefferson Barracks, a sprawling and dusty military reservation just outside St. Louis. He had his sights set on the future, but it was not the future that the army intended: All through these first years in uniform, he pined for a simpler life—as a professor, or farmer, or river trader.
As Grant suspected, and feared, life as a brevet second lieutenant in the U.S. Army was not appealing; army officers were poorly paid, and Grant’s duties took on a soul-killing routine of drill, paperwork, and more drill. Grant did the best he could to keep his mind focused on his work throughout the autumn of 1843, but he chafed at army regulations. Home seemed far away: The nation was at peace, and even the debate over slavery seemed to abate. If there was any solace in Grant’s assignment, it was that Jefferson Barracks was only six miles away from the home of his former West Point roommate, Frederick Dent. While Dent was then assigned elsewhere, he had told his family about Grant and had urged his former roommate to ride over to the family home, White Haven, for a visit. At first Grant did so out of politeness, but as time went on he felt more and more at home. The large Dent family was led by the imposing, gray-haired, short-tempered, and garrulous “Colonel” Frederick Dent, who had fathered four strapping and hardworking sons and four young and pretty daughters. They welcomed Grant as a member of the family. Soon Grant was visiting Colonel Dent (this was a southern conceit, for Colonel Dent was no more a colonel than, say, Jesse Grant) regularly. He was often accompanied by a friend from West Point, James “Pete” Longstreet, who was a distant relative of the Dent clan.
Grant was awed by White Haven and Colonel Dent. The plantation was set on over 950 acres of prime Missouri farmland, which was worked by a handful of slaves and supervised by the colonel and his growing sons. In the spring, Colonel Dent planted acres of corn and vegetables. Half of the corn was fed to the hogs, which were sold or slaughtered in great droves each year. There was a small herd of cattle and dozens of chickens, enough to feed the Dent family and provide a considerable extra income. When more land was needed for planting, the Dent slaves cleared out the lowlands, sold the lumber, hauled away the stumps, and put in more crops. Colonel Dent was a prodigious worker, but as a descendant of a well-known southern-sympathizing Maryland family, he was given to aristocratic sentiments. The Dents entertained often, holding dinners for their large group of nearby friends (who also owned large farms) and St. Louis merchants. White Haven was the center of a prosperous and growing Missouri community where the staid formalities of class and the customs of family were highly valued.
But Grant’s visits were more than formally polite. While he enjoyed the company of the colonel (and talked politics with him incessantly), a visit to White Haven provided a welcome break from his work at Jefferson Barracks. Grant was well liked by the Dents and he liked them, so much so, in fact, that for a time he was coming to dinner twice each week. His visits were welcome, especially by the colonel’s wife, Ellen Dent, who found favor with Grant’s clear-eyed demeanor and soft but firm political arguments (like his father, he was an abolitionist Whig, Colonel Dent a pro-southern Jacksonian Democrat). Her husband, Ellen Dent believed, had finally met his match. “That young man will be heard from some day,” she remarked. “He has a good deal in him. He’ll make his mark.” But it was soon obvious that while Grant enjoyed the society provided by the Dent family, he was increasingly turning his attention to the colonel’s oldest and favorite daughter, Julia. Julia was intelligent, refined, petite, and pretty (except for the squint in her right eye, the result of a childhood illness). They had much in common: a love of reading, an unwavering sense of personal loyalty, and, perhaps most important, an affinity and love for horses. Julia also loved to dance, which the tone-deaf Grant hated—but he did it just the same, because she wanted him to.
There is a portrait of Grant from this time in Missouri, given to us by the colonel’s youngest daughter, Emmy, who was as enamored of “my beau” as her sister Julia: “His cheeks were warm, and round, and rosy; his hair was fine and brown, very thick and wavy. His eyes were clear blue, and always full of light. His features were regular, pleasingly molded and attractive, and his figure so slender, well formed and graceful that it was like that of a young prince to my eye.” That is what Julia also saw in Grant, and after a season of traditional disinterest (including her rejection of his class ring), she began to show an interest, in spite of her father’s almost open disapproval. “You are too young and the boy is too poor,” he said. “He hasn’t anything to give you.” The two plotted on how to win her father’s confidence, with Grant telling Julia that they simply needed to be patient. Many months went by as Grant leisurely but firmly attempted to ingratiate himself into the colonel’s favor. But it was the news that his unit would be transferred out of Missouri that finally shook him into action. One evening, having been granted a special leave from his commanding officer, Grant rode through the night to White Haven to propose to Julia, fording a dangerously swollen river in the process. Julia, of course, accepted—though depressed by the thought that soon he would be gone. Overjoyed, Grant then took a train south, to Camp Salubrity, in Louisiana, to join his regiment. There was only one thing left to be done. During a furlough the next year, and despite the colonel’s opposition, Grant made his intentions known to him. He expected that he would be denied, but he was prepared to argue his case.
“Colonel Dent, I want to marry your daughter Julia,” he said.
Dent thought about this for a minute before responding: “Mr. Grant, if it were the younger girl, Nelly, you wanted, I’d say ‘yes.’ ”
“But I don’t want Nelly, I want Julia,” Grant said.
“Oh, you do, do you? Well, then, I suppose it will have to be Julia.”