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Ulysses S. Grant Soldier & President
By Geoffrey Perret
Modern Library Copyright © 1998 Geoffrey Perret
All right reserved.
"I WON'T GO"
When Ulysses Grant came mewling and spluttering into the world on April 27, 1822, in the remote settlement of Point Pleasant, Ohio, the American West was broad and green--the color of hope, of spring, of youth. The line of permanent settlements ran from the Wisconsin dells down to New Orleans. The nation had few decent roads, and its highways were the big rivers--the Hudson and the Susquehanna, the Delaware, the Ohio and the mighty Mississippi. The spring thaw each year unleashed a swiftly gathering stream of flatboats onto the Ohio River, carrying settlers from the East to claim a piece of the western future.
Life on the frontier was vigorous, the pace of change rapid. The hand of government was light upon the land and its people. Nowhere on Earth were people so free to move around, to speak their minds, to make money, or just make a new start as they were in the West. But this frontier was no earthly paradise. The western lands were driven by impatience, their privations made tolerable to many only by the heavy consumption of corn licker and vinegary wines wrung from indifferent grapes, from gulping down coarse beers stinking of yeast and roughapplejack that brought a few fleeting hours of oblivion, followed by a headache that was slow to clear. Frontier life was cruelly hard on women, who fought never-ending battles against dirt, poverty and disease, a struggle that made many look and feel old at forty--if they managed to survive that long. Families were large, but death reaped a terrifying harvest among infants and small children. To preserve a family's name and make some provision for old age, there was safety only in numbers.
The land they farmed, fished and hunted on had been wrested from the original inhabitants only since the Revolution. Many an early dwelling was a blockhouse, half buried in the ground and fortified against Indian attack. The War of 1812 had ended with the crushing defeat of Indian tribes from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico. Their abandonment by the British broke forever the power of Native Americans to resist the white man's advance to the Mississippi.
Massacres were the stepping-stones on the advance over the Alleghenies and into the dark green forests that cloaked the reverse slopes with huge oaks, sycamores and black walnut trees. The West was haunted in its winning. By the standards of the long-settled East, with its Indian wars now behind it, the western frontier when Grant was born was peopled by savages of every description. The veneer of civilization that separated the white man from the red was so thin that when conflict erupted it took an act of faith, or denial, to believe it even existed.
The settlers were almost without exception simple people, boasting little education or refinement. When they fell ill, they treated themselves with "sheeps'-turd tea" or potions that included human urine. As with farmers and artisans everywhere, theirs was a society where the hand that shook yours was almost certain to be strong and horny, with fingernails broken and black. The familiar elements of daily existence--the tick-infested bearskin coat hanging from a nail behind the door, the powder horn grubby with frequent handling on the bench next to the long Kentucky rifle, the jar of bear grease that men rubbed into their long, lank hair in a doomed pursuit of elegance, the feeble tallow candles and the whale-oil lamps with rags floating in them for wicks that filled the tightly closed, poorly ventilated small log houses with a smell of smoked fish, the itchy, louse-harboring homespun garments--were the fulfillment of nothing. They simply made a rude existence possible.
The hardships and privation of frontier life were there to be transcended, not embraced, the first muddy rungs on the ascent to a better life. Ulysses Grant was fortunate in having a father, Jesse Root Grant, who had already left the lowest rungs behind by the time his first child was born and was rapidly scaling the middle section of the social and economic scale. By 1822 Jesse was well on his way to putting the harshness and squalor of the typical frontier existence behind him. Jesse was a frontier success story, one of the handful who had made it. He had not risen to prosperity from nothing, but from less than nothing--from being the abandoned child of a drunken wastrel of a father who had squandered a substantial inheritance on rotgut whiskey.
The Grants had been established in America early. Jesse's ancestors, Matthew and Priscilla Grant, landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts, one day in the summer of 1630 aboard the John and Mary. They were country people from Dorset, one of the most picturesque counties in southwest England. By the time of the Revolution, descendants of Matthew and Priscilla formed the core of a moderately prominent family in Connecticut. Jesse's father, Noah Grant, claimed to have fought more than six years for American independence, beginning as a minuteman standing on Lexington Green when the first shots were fired and ending the war as a captain in the Continental Army. But neither the Revolutionary War records of Connecticut nor those in the National Archives contain any confirmation of his claim.
What is not in dispute is that Noah married during the Revolutionary War and his wife bore him two sons, but toward the end of the struggle, she died. What steadiness marriage and a settled family life might have provided was gone. Over the next five or six years he drank steadily, possibly heavily, and used up the inheritance that five generations of Grants had thriftily accumulated. His property and money gone, Noah did what countless Americans have done since--headed west to make a fresh start. He dumped his elder son, Solomon, on his parents-in-law and, taking his younger son, Peter, for companionship, lit out for western Pennsylvania. He wound up in a hamlet called Greensburg, a desolate spot twenty miles southeast of Pittsburgh, which was not yet a town, merely a remote frontier village of five hundred inhabitants.
To many, Greensburg might seem a better place to escape from than to, but for Noah Grant it was a kind of boozy Nirvana deep in the forest. Greensburg was located in Westmoreland County, whose role in the frontier economy consisted largely of brewing cider, beer and whiskey and shipping them downriver to Ohio and Kentucky. Here was a place where a hard-drinking man could pass for a (wobbly) pillar of the community. Noah scraped together a living of sorts as a trader in animal skins and married a young widow of these parts, Rachel Kelly. She bore him seven children and stoically shared his poverty. Rachel's fourth child was Jesse Root Grant, born in January 1794, just as the frontier burst into flames.
Shortly before Noah Grant's marriage, the Federal government imposed an excise tax on liquor to pay off debts from the Revolutionary War. Tempers were inflamed across the West, and in the summer of 1794 local militiamen burned down the home of the tax collector for western Pennsylvania. The Whiskey Rebellion brought the power of the new national government down hard on the stupefied malcontents. George Washington led an army over the mountains to impose Federal authority on the hard-drinking, tax-evading inhabitants of the West. Thirteen thousand soldiers with money in their breeches and energy to burn descended on Westmoreland County and Pittsburgh.
Everything that was edible, drinkable or fornicatory brought a high price. Many of the Whiskey Rebellion soldiers never went back to their old homes, having discovered a new world where land was cheap and the soil fertile. Within five years the village of Pittsburgh had been transformed into a thriving industrial town and forges pounded heavy metal on the outer rim of the civilized world.
It was time, Noah Grant decided, to move on. The man had a drifter's soul. No place could hold him long. He loaded his wife, his children, his two cows and his horse aboard a flatboat and floated down the Ohio during the 1799 emigration season, coming to a halt in Fawcettstown, Ohio.
Three years later Noah set off again, eventually settling in a village in south-central Ohio called Deerfield. Shortly after arriving there, Rachel bore her seventh child; less than two years later she died, at the age of thirty-eight. At this point, Noah abandoned all pretense of bearing up under the responsibilities of fatherhood, scattered his children like chaff, and decamped to the home of his son Peter, who had started a tannery in Maysville, Kentucky.
Jesse, just turned eleven, was left to make his own way in the world. For three years he struggled as an undersize, underage hired hand on local farms until, twenty miles from Deerfield, he went to work for George Tod, a judge on the Ohio Supreme Court. Before he met the Tods, Jesse had not attended school for a single day, yet he was beginning to itch with a desire for learning. Mrs. Tod taught him to read, made sure his wages were sufficient to buy some decent clothes, and paid for him to go to school for six months.
The Tods introduced him to a better life than any he had glimpsed or even dreamed of in Noah's wayward care. The Tod household possessed the epitome of culture to a rough-hewn western youth--silver spoons, not wooden dippers, and china bowls, not dull, gray hammered pewter, heavy in the hand and with a taste of tin and lead. Real china! Something deliberately made fragile and pleasant to the touch. What refinement. For the first time in his young life he had collided with the world beyond a rough frontier existence. Jesse yearned with all the intensity of an adolescent's white-hot spirit to acquire silver spoons and china bowls of his own. A man who raised a silver spoon to his lips and supped from a china bowl commanded respect.
Jesse's strategy for rising in the world could not have been simpler or more charged with emotion. It consisted mainly of being as unlike his father as possible. He intended to marry at twenty-five--but only if he could afford to support a wife. He would accumulate enough wealth to retire at sixty, unlike his father, who had forced himself in old age on one of his sons and eked out his last years as a useless lump that soaked up money and whiskey. Jesse would be sober, hardworking, reliable, and successful in life, a burden on no one, least of all his children. And whatever children he had, they would be cherished and supported, not starved of affection and thrown away when the going got tough.
Literate by now but far from educated, Jesse knew only two lines of work--tilling the soil and the business of animal skins. Farming was unlikely to provide him with anything more than food on the table, but tanning was an enterprise that looked likely to prosper. As western towns grew--and they were growing rapidly now--the demand for leather was rising with them. People needed boots and aprons for themselves; harnesses, saddles and traces for their livestock. The creak of leather was as much the sound of westward expansion as the concussive popping of gunfire on the prairie.
Tanning was not a trade that had much appeal to able people. However bright its prospects, like most work involving dead animals, it put a man virtually at the bottom of the social ladder, because it depended on some of the dirtiest work around. The hides were treated in a lime solution before the hair or fur could be scraped laboriously from the outer side of skins that stank of dried blood. Rotting scraps of flesh had to be scraped from the inner side. The skins were then steeped in malodorous vats of sulfuric acid, to get rid of the lime, before being dumped into tubs filled with a kind of sludge made from ground oak bark. After several months of being "cured" in the bark, the hides were washed, scrubbed, and finally rubbed with tallow and fish oil until supple enough for use.
There was nothing remotely pleasant, glamorous or mentally stimulating in a tan yard. The smells--of decay, of blood, of the lime, of the acid vats, and of the oak-bark sludge--lingered on a man's skin and saturated his hair. But roses grow on dunghills and Jesse was the kind of hard-driving man who would swim an ocean of feculence if it promised to bring him out rich on the other side.
At sixteen he left the Tods and returned to Deerfield, where he apprenticed himself to a tanner and scraped skins from dawn to nightfall. Two years later he went off to Maysville, Kentucky, to learn advanced tanning under his half-brother Peter Grant. Shortly after he went to work in Maysville, the War of 1812 ignited martial passions all along the western frontier. The West was the only region of the United States that was clamoring for war, and no place was more bellicose than Kentucky.
Jesse's surrogate father, Judge Tod, went off to war as a colonel of militia, but young Jesse let militancy--against the Indians, against the British who armed them and invaded the United States--pass him by. He stayed close to the tannic acid vats of Maysville, scraping skins and dubbing strips of leather with tallow. His father, Noah, claimed to have spent six years in the Continental Army, and what did military life leave him with other than a fund of war stories and a weakness for whiskey? Eighteen-year-old Jesse Grant, five feet, ten inches tall, strong in body and clear in mind, was a fine specimen for carrying a musket, but here was one frontiersman immune to the militia-recruiting sergeant's eloquence. Jesse avoided military service as sedulously as any pacifist. Ulysses Grant could not have found a father more resolutely deaf to the bugle's scalp-tingling call.
After the war ended, slavery spread rapidly into Kentucky, and Jesse claimed he found that intolerable. "I would not own slaves," he said, "and I would not live where there were slaves." He moved back to Ohio and became a partner in a small tannery in a village romantically called Ravenna.
In January 1819, the day he turned twenty-five, Jesse was ready for marriage. He was worth $1,500 and the tan yard was doing well. He could afford to take a wife and begin a family. Hardly had his bride-hunting begun before malaria put him, shivering and sweating, flat on his back for nearly a year. His savings seemed to evaporate with each morning's dew. When he was strong enough to work again, Jesse found employment at a new tannery that had opened in Point Pleasant. With his experience as his stake, he soon gained a partnership in the business.
As his health and fortunes revived, so did his determination to find a wife. Jesse's hide-buying journeys took him to a six-hundred-acre farm in western Pennsylvania owned by a family named Simpson. The household included a daughter named Hannah, who was not particularly pretty but was, like Jesse, unusually bright. She was a devout Methodist, remarkably quiet, invariably self-possessed, and with her twenty-third birthday not far off, she was at risk of becoming an "old maid."
As a rule, frontier girls married young. Hannah was in danger of being left on the shelf when Jesse--no great looker himself, but obviously able and ambitious--came along. She may well have had her own plans for marriage, and the up-and-coming Jesse Grant could as well have suited her designs as Hannah Simpson suited his. At all events, in June 1821 they got married, following a brief engagement. During their honeymoon Jesse, more determined than ever to prove himself--and married now to a woman who had grown up in a family where book reading was taken for granted--attended classes in English grammar.
He had the zeal for learning characteristic of people who discover the world of books and ideas comparatively late in life. Jesse also had the lack of intellectual confidence that goes with self-education and tried to compensate by showing off to his neighbors and friends. He wrote vehemently outspoken political articles for local newspapers and penned yards of jokey doggerel on any subject that struck his fancy. This was as close as he ever got to poetry. His autodidact's need to be seen as a highly cultivated man made his humble origins as plain as if he had never sweated over past participles or pondered the correct usage of the gerund.
Exactly ten months after becoming a husband, Jesse became a father. The Grants' first child, a son, was born in a small frame house covering barely three hundred square feet, divided into just two rooms. There was no porch, no verandah. In the front room, Hannah did the cooking at a large fireplace that provided warmth as well as hot food. The second, larger room, at the back, was taken up with a four-poster bed and some rough-hewn chests for the family's clothing. Cramped, cold in winter, stuffy in summer, it was nevertheless a cut above a log cabin.
The child was named Hiram Ulysses Grant--Hiram because Hannah's father, John Simpson, thought it "a handsome name," Ulysses because Jesse had recently read a biography of the Greek hero Ulysses, the enterprising warrior who had brought the downfall of the Trojans by means of a wooden horse. Jesse invariably referred to his son as Ulysses, never as Hiram. No point in having a heroic name and not using it.
Jesse adored his infant son. "My Ulysses," he declared, "is a most beautiful child." With his russet hair, blue eyes and pink complexion, Ulysses Grant looked in childhood like a glowing miniature of his robust, energetic father.
* * *
There are vintage years for people as there are for wine, and for any young man with a spark of ambition to push him and the light of intelligence to guide him, 1822 was one of the best. Ulysses Grant was going to grow up able to participate, while in the full vigor of young manhood, in the great adventures shaping the destiny of the United States. Born in 1822, he was young enough to fight in two major wars yet old enough--if only barely--to be a credible candidate for the White House at the end of the second one. The great struggles ahead--over slavery, over expansion beyond the Mississippi, over Indian relations, over the survival of the Union--would test his character to the limit and provide him with a life's work.
For someone who would spend twenty-three years as a soldier, Ulysses Grant came usefully equipped with a remarkable imperviousness to the sound of gunfire. When he was less than two years old, a neighbor thought it would be interesting to frighten the child by firing a pistol close to him. Jesse challenged him to just go ahead and try it, confident his son would not so much as flinch. Simple amusements. The pistol was fired close to his head, but far from screaming out in terror or bursting into tears, the child was enthralled. Clamoring, "Fick it again! Fick it again!" the infant Ulysses reached out for the weapon with pink baby hands.
It was at about this time that Jesse moved from Point Pleasant to Georgetown, twenty-five miles away. Although set in Brown County, a region whose principal crop was tobacco, Georgetown was surrounded by dense oak forests. There were vistas of tanbark from horizon to horizon. Wherever he looked, Jesse gazed on a wonder that lifted his spirits--money growing on trees.
Georgetown stood seven miles back from the Ohio River, near the center of Brown County. At the time the Grants arrived, Georgetown was a mere hamlet, inhabited by only a dozen or so families. Brown County, however, was developing rapidly. Home to one of the two important grape-growing areas of Ohio, it was reputedly the most bibulous region in the whole state. People as sober as Jesse Grant were unusual in these parts. At the very least, men were expected to celebrate national holidays by getting rip-roaring drunk. The man who didn't, said a contemporary chronicler, "could hardly maintain his standing in the community, or in the local churches."
Jesse Grant built a new house, this time of brick. Owning a brick house so far out west made a man "an aristocrat" in the eyes of the vast majority of settlers, who still lived in dank dwellings crafted from logs and planks. To Hannah, the important thing was that they now had room for more children. When Ulysses was three, his mother gave birth to another son, this one named Samuel Simpson Grant. In time there would follow four more children--Clara, Virginia, Orvil and Mary.
Although the proud papa of six children, there was no mistaking Jesse's feelings. The firstborn remained his favorite child. Jesse never ceased to extol Ulysses as a prodigy. By implication, the other children of Point Pleasant were nothing much, little rustics his son would easily surpass. Jesse was not popular among his neighbors. They much preferred his silent wife. And not only silent: Hannah would walk out of a room rather than remain there and hear someone praise her son.
As Jesse knew from his own haphazard upbringing, reading is the straightest road to knowledge. Sometime around his fifth birthday, Ulysses was enrolled in Georgetown's one-room school, a venture supported by the town's parents, who paid an annual subscription to keep it in business. The education on offer was rudimentary. The school's textbooks were basic readers and grammars. There were books on arithmetic, but not one on algebra or geometry. Instruction consisted of little more than rote learning, and everyone present, from children like Ulysses Grant to brawny youths pushing twenty-one, learned the same things, at the same pace, while seated side by side on hard benches.
The subject he seemed to like best was mental arithmetic, and he shamed the older boys by calling out the answers before they had even digested the question. One of his teachers, Isaac Lynch, was impressed by how carefully Ulysses studied any book he got his hands on.
Ulysses attended school only thirteen weeks a year, during the winter. The rest of the time his education was in the hands of his parents. It was Jesse, not the schoolteacher, who taught his eldest son to read. By the age of six, Ulysses could read unaided books written for adults--there was almost no literature for children in the early nineteenth century. He was by far the most intellectually able student the little school possessed. But to the other children of Georgetown, there was nothing unusual about him. If anything, they were inclined to misread his long silences as a sign that he was mentally slow.
Ulysses Grant rarely hunted with the other boys, and he simply refused to kill anything when he did so. Throughout his life he would not even touch red meat if there was the least trace of bloodiness about it. He was different, too, in his choice of firearms. The other boys carried shotguns, but he became an expert with handguns and won a Fourth of July shooting competition as proof of his marksmanship.
When he joined in games with other lads he was neither a leader nor a follower. Grant always seemed ready to belong to a group, yet remained slightly outside at the same time. He chose his friends from among boys who were about three years older than himself, but probably preferred the company of adults best of all.
While other boys his age expressed themselves by being competitive and aggressive, he went his own way, managing to avoid all but a few fights and rarely getting involved in disputes or rivalries. Ulysses Grant's taciturnity and composure reflected a temperament shaped more by his mother's example than his father's. He himself told people that his intelligence--"such as I possess"--was an inheritance from his mother.
His withdrawn and watchful nature made him stand out in a place as small as this. At least one neighbor noticed there was something different about the Grant boy: When other lads of his age were playing in the street or whooping and splashing around in the creek, he was instead standing slightly apart, deep in thought.
Behind the silence he had all the normal yearning for self-expression as other boys, but he had found a way to do so in a language that his friends did not understand--and horses did. Grant was born with what seems suspiciously like a gene for horse-handling. If such a thing actually exists within human DNA, Grant had it.
A traveling menagerie passed through Point Pleasant when Grant was about five years old. The show's promoter brought out a pony and asked if any child there wanted to ride it. The first boy who tried it ended up sprawled in the sawdust. Little Ulysses Grant, still in petticoats, begged to be hoisted aboard. When the pony tried to shake him off, almost instinctively he threw his arms forward, got a firm hold of the pony's mane, and held on tight until the pony calmed down and submitted to being ridden. He was lifted off chortling with delight at his adventure. A love of horses stayed with him the rest of his life.
By the age of eight, he was earning money hauling wood with a horse and cart. At nine, he had saved enough to buy his own horse, a colt, owned by a farmer called Ralston. His father tried to negotiate on his behalf and offered $20, but Ralston rejected it.
Ulysses had his heart set on the colt, so his father told him to offer $20, because that was all the horse was worth. If Ralston rejected that price again, he should offer $22.50. And if even that wasn't enough, he should go up to $25.
When the boy arrived at Ralston's house, the first thing the farmer asked him was, "How much did your father tell you to pay?"
"Papa says I may offer you $20 for the colt, but if you won't take that, I am to offer $22.50. And if you won't take that, to give you $25."
Ralston told him that what with one thing and another, he couldn't accept a penny less than $25. Ulysses handed over the money without further ado and took the colt home.
The story soon spread around Georgetown, and the other boys made fun of him for being so simple, so stupid. What a fool! What a perfect idiot! Being a good horse trader was the mark of a western man. Blurting out your best right off! Only a simpleton would do something like that. One of Grant's nicknames was "Useless," and was it any wonder? The lash of small-town scorn cut deep. Even as Grant lay dying a painful death from cancer more than fifty years later, it still hurt.
But now he had the colt, paid for with his own money, and a first horse is special, like a first love. Ulysses trained and rode his colt for four years, until the animal went blind. He caught his last glimpse of it some years later when he boarded a ferryboat. There was his former colt plodding sightless into nowhere--working the treadwheel that turned the boat's paddle.
There wasn't a horse in that part of southwestern Ohio that Ulysses Grant couldn't handle. Small for his age and clinging on for dear life, he broke some of the most unruly horses in the area for farmers who had despaired of ever subduing them. Sometimes he could be seen standing in the tan yard holding the reins of horses while his father negotiated business with their owners. Ulysses seemed content to stand there for hours, gazing into the large, lustrous brown eyes of horses. Not surprisingly, he grew up with hands much bigger and stronger than most young men his size and weight.
At times he rode a spirited horse at breakneck speed through the town using nothing but a bridle. Even more spectacularly, he taught himself to ride standing on one foot on a sheepskin tied to a horse's back, and he galloped down Georgetown's main street that way as if it were the most natural thing in the world. "Horses seem to understand Ulysses," said his mother. It was the nearest she ever came to bragging about her son.
Skill with horses brought the opportunity to travel. Equipped with a two-horse carriage, Ulysses provided a kind of frontier limousine service, taking people as far as Chillicothe, sixty miles away, and returning alone. That was quite a distance for a youngster barely in his teens. Like his grandfather Noah, who had died shortly before he was born, Ulysses Grant was driven by an intense curiosity to see the wider world. From childhood he was eager to discover what lay beyond Georgetown, and his horses took him there.
Adults seemed to take his abilities for granted. They climbed into the carriage he drove without hesitation, trusted him with their lives, and had him haul their property, deliver their mail, and fetch their wood. Before he was even in his teens he regularly took people to Cincinnati, fifty miles away, checked himself into a hotel when he got there, and scoured the growing burg the next morning for people seeking transportation down to Brown County.
Children worked hard on the frontier. It took many hands, including small ones, to tame the wilderness. Grant was able from an early age to earn a living, and while the other boys chortled at his ineptitude as a horse trader, it may have been partly from jealousy that he, at the age of nine, had already earned enough money to buy and keep a horse of his own.
Grant found any kind of work that involved horses agreeable. As soon as he had enough strength to control a team, he went to work plowing his father's land. Jesse owned fifty acres on the edge of Georgetown. The farm put food on the table and money in the bank. Jesse's eldest son plowed, harvested, milked the cows and sawed the wood. Ulysses Grant found there was something agreeable about farming. It wasn't just the horses--a farm offered a lifetime of peaceful and productive work and allowed a man to stand on his own feet. Equally important, though, was the fact that every hour spent farming or handling horses was an hour he did not have to spend in the tan yard, a place he detested.
Grant survived the common illnesses of youth and the typical risks of a boyhood spent largely outdoors. He nearly drowned once, when he fell off a log into a swollen creek, but was pulled out of the water by one of his playmates. On another occasion, he saw one of his friends perish. The other youth was riding a horse behind him and trying to keep up with the fast-riding Ulysses when he lost control. The animal reared up, threw its rider, then fell on him. Grant himself narrowly escaped serious injury or death when, on a long drive far from home, an unbroken horse nearly pulled him and his carriage over a steep, high embankment.
He remained calm in a crisis and never seemed to lack confidence. Once when he was transporting two young women in a buggy across a swollen river, white water came above the wheels. As he drove on, the water continued to rise, reaching the buggy's seats. The women cried out in alarm. Grant turned around. "Don't speak. I shall take you through safe." And he did.
Unlike his father, Ulysses grew up with what children need and want most--total emotional security. His parents never scolded him or made him do anything he disliked. They simply loved him and made that as plain as they could. The boy grew up in an atmosphere of neatness, self-restraint and mutual devotion. Mrs. Grant was reputed to keep her home in immaculate order, and Jesse's home library, with its thirty-five books, was considered a marvel. But while Jesse was turning his home into a temple of hard work and ambition, Mrs. Grant was turning it into a shrine to silence. She was not a demonstrative person, and her grip on her emotions seemed unshakable. "I never saw my mother cry," Grant told a friend.
The Grant home banned alcohol, swearing, blasphemy, gambling, whippings and dancing. The only exception to the injunction against alcohol was a jug of blackberry cordial kept in the cellar. Infused with various herbs, it was claimed to prevent cholera. When Grant was eleven or twelve, he and several friends drank it all, unbeknownst to his parents, over several weeks. One of the survivors of this adventure later reported, "I don't know whether we took it right or not, but certain it is that we did not take the cholera."
Grant was, in the combination of his abilities, probably the most remarkable youngster in and around Georgetown. He claimed not to be a book reader, but in all likelihood he was the best-read boy in town. It seems a safe bet that he read his way through his father's private library, the biggest collection of serious reading for miles around.
He had an avid curiosity but was easily bored. He was, that is, the stereotypical intellectually able child stuck in a backward school and surrounded by friends he had already left behind. They couldn't figure him out, simply because it did not occur to them--and it would probably be too painful for them to acknowledge--that he wasn't like them at all. Chances are that had there been intelligence tests available at the time, Grant would have scored close to the top of the scale, while they--with only two exceptions--were clustered somewhere around average. The exceptions were Daniel Ammen, who eventually became an admiral, and Absalom Markland, who was a major figure in the early history of the U.S. Postal Service. Grant had Markland assigned to his headquarters through the Civil War and Ammen dined at the White House regularly during Grant's presidency.
* * *
There is probably no greater complexity in the universe than the human personality, and every age cooks up some modish nonsense that pretends to explain it. Nineteenth-century man was bamboozled into slack-jawed credulity by a practice known as phrenology. This consisted of getting a pompous, self-important authority figure--"the phrenologist"--to run his money-itching fingers over the subject's head and feel the bumps. These, much like tea leaves or sheep's entrails, were claimed to reveal the inner man and, within that psychic space, the phrenologist could chart the ley lines of individual destiny.
Frontier bump-readers were like snake-oil salesmen, "wise women" and seventh sons--there was no escape from them. Inevitably, a wandering phrenologist showed up in Georgetown one day when Grant was twelve or thirteen to feel bumps and separate the gullible from their ready cash. Jesse was ripe for the plucking--the richest man in town, and by his own lights a shrewd one, but besotted with his eldest son and forever bragging that his Ulysses was going to be a great man. The phrenologist who hit Georgetown that day struck lucky.
When Ulysses Grant was presented to him, the phrenologist reached out his hands, fingered the little scalp, and declared, "It is no very common head! It is an extraordinary head!" Groping some more, he pronounced, "It would not be strange if we should see him President of the United States!" Jesse could not have been more delighted, and it seems safe to assume that the phrenologist, who probably found future Presidents among the sons of prosperous (and grateful) fathers all over the West, was suitably rewarded for his prophetic insight.
In 1836, when Ulysses was fourteen, his father sent him to Maysville, Kentucky, for the winter. There, he attended a school run by a pair of male teachers, Richeson and Rand. Ulysses had extracted as much education from the small Georgetown school as it had to offer. To his disappointment, Richeson and Rand, who were reputed to provide a demanding curriculum, did not teach him anything he didn't already know. He grew bored all over again, chanting the same formulas that passed for education in Georgetown, including such half-baked gems as "A noun is the name of a thing."
The tedium was relieved when he enrolled in the local Philamathean Debating Society, where he expressed himself forcefully on the issues of the day--the annexation of Texas and the abolition of slavery--and on eternal questions with obvious answers, such as whether the written word is more important than the spoken.
When spring came, he returned to Georgetown. Life continued much as before, but one day in the summer of 1838 his father found himself shorthanded in the tan yard. Ulysses pitched in and his father set him to work in the beam house. This was the shed where hides were stretched across beams and the hair was scraped from one side and the remnants of flesh from the other. It wasn't physically demanding work, but the stench, the dirt, the gilt-edged squalor were too much for his sensitive nature. At the end of the day, he told Jesse frankly, "Father, this tanning is not the kind of work I like. 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 at it after that."
His father replied, "I want you to work at whatever you like and intend to follow. Now, what do you think you would like?"
Ulysses had three possibilities in mind--farming, being a trader on the Mississippi River, or getting a college education. Jesse mulled it over. The fifty acres he possessed did not amount to much of a farm and the land Hannah had inherited was rented out. As for being a trader on the river, that obviously appealed to the boy's craving for travel, and there was money to be made there. It was a common sight along the Mississippi those days to see long flatboats go by carrying more than a thousand barrels of pork to feed the settlers moving into Texas. But however much money a trader might make, life on the river was bad for the morals. Hannah would never approve. Traders drank and gambled and consorted with disreputable women. That left education.
Ulysses Grant always claimed he had not done well in school, and he had had--still has--a reputation for intellectual mediocrity. Yet his father maintained that he was, in fact, a "studious" youth. If Grant truly found learning half as irksome as he always claimed and other people liked to believe, it was pretty remarkable that as a sixteen-year-old who had already shown he could make his way in life without any further education, he nevertheless nurtured a desire to go on to college. This was at a time when barely one person in a hundred did so. A college education automatically made someone a member of America's intellectual elite. It was a distinguished band he was seeking to join, but in his shy and shrewd way, he made it seem he blundered into higher education rather than admit he had gone looking for it.
Any expressed interest in more schooling was certain to win his parents' approval. That winter of 1838 Jesse sent his son to what both of them hoped would be a demanding and rewarding school, the Presbyterian Academy in Ripley, Ohio, ten miles from Georgetown. Disappointed again--"A noun is the name of a thing," etc. Ulysses seemed to have exhausted the wellsprings of knowledge in that part of the United States. In the meantime, though, Jesse had hit on a shrewd idea for getting the boy a college education. If he sent him to West Point, Ulysses would not only obtain it for nothing, but the government would pay him while he was there.
Thomas L. Hamer, the congressman whose district included Georgetown, already had a local young man at the military academy. In fact, it was the boy next door, Bartlett Bailey. The Grants and the Baileys lived side by side and their sons had been playmates together. But young Bart Bailey was failing the challenging West Point course and was due to be dismissed in February 1839. When Ulysses came home from Ripley to spend Christmas 1838 with his family, Jesse told him, "Ulysses, I believe you are going to receive the appointment."
"To West Point. I have applied for it."
"But I won't go!" He had asked for an education, but not one like this--not one wrapped in a gray uniform, punctuated by dram rolls, and enforced by military discipline and bellowed commands! He had a profound and lasting aversion to music, and the sound of military bands would forever be torture to his nerves. The last place on Earth he ever intended to go was West Point; the last career he had ever considered was a soldier's life.
Until now, Jesse had not demanded his favorite child do anything. Hannah was a devout Methodist, but the boy had never been baptized (unlike his siblings) or forced to go to church, possibly because of his strange, tormented physical reaction to the sound of music. Ulysses Grant had enjoyed the freest of boyhoods--had been allowed to go far from home unsupervised, to handle dangerous horses, and to spend his own money, even if he sometimes struck a bad bargain. This time, though, Jesse was adamant. West Point was for the boy's own good, after all. He had asked for an education. Well, he was going to get one. "I think you will go!" said Jesse.
Ulysses had never seen his father behave like this, at least, not toward him. He did not know what to do, what to say. Bowing to a parental pressure he barely knew existed until then, he did not argue. If his father felt that strongly about it, there was nothing for it but to go there and do his best.
Excerpted from Ulysses S. Grant by Geoffrey Perret Copyright © 1998 by Geoffrey Perret. Excerpted by permission.
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