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Ulysses Grant lives an industrious boyhood, reluctantly attends West Point, fights courageously in the Mexican War, leaves the Army, and struggles in civilian life.
Hiram Ulysses Grant was born in the Ohio River town of Point Pleasant, Ohio, on April 27, 1822. The family of Ulysses' father, Jesse Root Grant, had moved from Connecticut to Pennsylvania and then to Ohio; the family of his mother, Hannah Simpson Grant, made a similar move from Pennsylvania to Ohio. The year after Ulysses' birth, his father established a tannery east of Point Pleasant in Georgetown, Ohio, and the family moved there.
Young "Ulysses," as he was called, loved working with horses but detested the tannery. By the age of nine or ten, he was earning respectable sums of money breaking horses and driving passengers all over Ohio. Beginning in 1827 or 1828, he attended a series of subscription schools and supplemented them with a year of study at the Maysville Seminary in Maysville, Kentucky (1836-7), and another at the Presbyterian Academy in Ripley, Ohio (1838-9).
In his memoirs, Grant described his childhood as a pleasant one, "I did not like to work; but I did as much of it, while young, as grown men can be hired to do in these days, and attended school at the same time. I had as many privileges as any boy in the village, and probably more than most of them. I have no recollection of ever having been punished at home, either by scolding or by the rod."
Unbeknownst to Ulysses, his father had arranged with an old friend and local congressman, Thomas L. Hamer, for an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. Rather than looking forward to this opportunity, Ulysses was apprehensive about the appointment. Although four local appointees had succeeded there, Ulysses had heard the story of a fifth who, after being twice dismissed from the academy, had been forbidden to return home by his father. Hamer succeeded in securing Ulysses an appointment, and submitted Grant's name to the Academy as Ulysses Simpson (his mother's maiden name) Grant. Although Grant signed some Academy documents as "U. H. Grant," he signed his eight-year enlistment oath as "U. S. Grant" and was on his way to being known to history as Ulysses S. (or U. S.) Grant. William Sherman, a cadet three years ahead of Grant at West Point, remembered "U. S. Grant" appearing on a list of new cadets and that several cadets made up names to fit the initials-"United States" and "Uncle Sam"-and finally settling on the moniker "Sam," which became Grant's nickname for life.
A few months after arriving at the Academy, Grant wrote that he was adjusting well, "On the whole, I like the place very much, so much that I would not go away on any account. The fact is that if a man graduates here he safe fer life, let him go where he will. There is much to dislike but more to like. I mean to study hard and stay if it be possible, if I cannot-very well-the world is wide. [sic]"
At West Point between 1839 and 1843, Grant made many lifelong friends, including James Longstreet, who would later command the First Corps in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, and Rufus Ingalls, who would serve as Quartermaster of the Army of the Potomac. He knew all of the cadets in the classes that graduated between 1840 and 1846; those classes included over fifty men who were generals in the Civil War. Grant's great horse riding, middling grades, and below-average conduct marks resulted in his graduating twenty-first in his 1843 class of thirty-nine. Perhaps the highlight of his West Point years was his graduation ceremony, during which he rode a large, unmanageable horse and jumped a bar higher than a man's head. Grant was the only cadet who could ride that horse well, and the jump astounded the crowd at the ceremony.
Grant took his post-graduation leave of absence in Ohio, where he was twice mocked for his new military uniform. These incidents, in Grant's own words, "gave me a distaste for military uniform that I never recovered from." Thereafter, he never wore a sword unless ordered to do so. During the Civil War Grant was notorious for his rumpled, informal, and plain uniforms. He generally wore a private's blouse with the indicia of his rank stitched on the shoulder.
As a junior officer, Grant was assigned to Jefferson Barracks outside St. Louis with the Fourth U.S. Infantry. While there, he visited the nearby home of an Academy roommate, Frederick T. Dent. Dent's younger sister, Julia Boggy Dent, quickly caught the eye of the recently graduated Ulysses, and he began courting her. Grant's attentions toward Julia took up much of his time, and sometimes caused him to be late for dinner at the officers' mess. Each time he was late, Robert C. Buchanan, the strict presiding officer of the mess, made Grant pay for a bottle of wine. This dispute started a long feud between the two officers that was only temporarily halted by the Mexican War.
In May 1844, just as the Mexican War was beginning to erupt, Ulysses and Julia became engaged, though her father gave only his conditional approval to the match. After proposing to Julia, Ulysses left almost immediately for Louisiana and four years of separation to assist in the growing dispute and ultimate war with Mexico. Grant was soon awash in the politics that were leading his country down the path to war. Later, he would write in his memoirs that he had no romantic illusions about the nature of his country's conduct that led to the annexation of Texas and war with Mexico:
For myself, I was bitterly opposed to [the annexation of Texas], and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.... Even if the annexation itself could be justified, the manner in which the subsequent war was forced upon Mexico cannot. The fact is, annexationists wanted more territory than they could possibly lay any claim to.... The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.
During the Mexican War, Grant served under both Winfield Scott and Zachary ("Old Rough-and-Ready") Taylor. He clearly preferred Taylor. Historians McWhiney and Jamieson concluded that Grant and Taylor shared several characteristics: opposition to plundering, willingness to work with available resources, informality of uniform, attention to detail on the battlefield, reticence in conversation, ability to quickly compose clear and concise written orders, and calmness in the face of danger and responsibility. Grant put that feeling in his own words when he retrospectively praised the quality of Taylor's army: "A more efficient army for its number and armament, I do not believe ever fought a battle than the one commanded by General Taylor in his first two engagements on Mexican-or Texan soil."
Perhaps in part because of a famous incident in which Grant rode a wild horse for three hours and thereby tamed it, Taylor selected Grant as the Fourth Infantry Regiment's quartermaster and commissary officer. Grant protested the appointment because he feared it would remove him from combat. However, the military logistics experience he gained as a result of the position proved invaluable. Historian Jean Edward Smith concurred: "During the Civil War Grant's armies might occasionally have straggled, discipline might sometimes have been lax, but food and ammunition trains were always expertly handled. [Grant's victories] depended in no small measure on his skill as a quartermaster."
Serving with Taylor's high-quality army in 1846 gave Grant an opportunity to demonstrate his skills, as in the case of the battles at Palo Alto and Resaca de Palma, and even to act heroically, as when, with his support, the Americans captured the Mexican city of Monterrey. In the battle at Monterrey, Grant volunteered to ride through the city streets, under fire, to carry a vital message requesting a resupply of ammunition. All told, Grant was elated about his successes. It was clear that his time at West Point had prepared him not only for the logistics of waging war, but had instilled in him a capacity for exhilaration as a participant as well. After the first two battles, he wrote to Julia, "There is no great sport in having bullets flying about one in every direction but I find they have less horror when among them than when in anticipation."
In his memoirs, Grant described his admiration for Zachary Taylor in words that may just as well have applied to Grant himself:
General Taylor was not an officer to trouble the administration much with his demands, but was inclined to do the best he could with the means given him. He felt his responsibility as going no further. If he had thought that he was sent to perform an impossibility with the means given him, he would probably have informed the authorities of his opinion and left them to determine what should be done. If the judgment was against him he would have gone on and done the best he could with the means at hand without parading his grievance before the public. No soldier could face either danger or responsibility more calmly than he. These are qualities more rarely found than genius or physical courage. General Taylor never made any great show or parade, either of uniform or retinue. In dress he was possibly too plain ...; but he was known to every soldier in his army, and was respected by all.
General Taylor's no-frills leadership garnered him much respect, and his successes were bringing some at the highest levels of government to worry about this ever-growing public sentiment. For his part, President James K. Polk feared that General Taylor would capitalize on battlefield victories to win the presidency as a Whig candidate in the upcoming 1848 presidential election. For this reason, Polk spread out the laurels by shifting most of Taylor's force, including Grant's regiment, to another Whig general, Major General Winfield Scott.
Early in 1847, therefore, Grant's regiment joined Scott's famous campaign from Vera Cruz, on the coast, to Mexico City. After Vera Cruz surrendered, Grant fought in the major campaign battles of Cerro Gordo, Churubusco, Molino del Rey, Chapultepec, and Mexico City. Just outside Mexico City, Grant outflanked Mexican artillery with a small detachment, hauled a mountain howitzer to the top of a church belfry, and enfiladed the Mexican position. His heroism, about which he wrote nothing in his correspondence to Julia, earned him two brevet (temporary) promotions. Grant learned several military lessons from his experiences in the Mexican War, a war in which the United States (like the Union in the Civil War) was obliged to go on the offensive, and these lessons would shape his entire philosophy on war strategy.
From both Taylor and Scott, he learned that aggressiveness on the offensive led to victory. According to Jean Edward Smith, Grant "saw how time and again Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott moved against a numerically superior foe occupying a fortified position, and how important it was to maintain the momentum of the attack." From Taylor in particular, Grant learned that speed and the ability to maneuver were real assets. From both, he learned the value of being cunning and deceptive about planned offensives. From Scott's abandoning his supply line midway through his march on Mexico City, Grant learned that an army could live off the countryside-a lesson that he aptly applied during his 1863 Vicksburg Campaign.
Grant also came to terms with the fact that death was a normal occurrence among soldiers at war; in fact, death was all around him. 13,283 (16.8 percent) of the 78,718 American soldiers engaged in the Mexican War perished-the highest percentage of any war the United States Army has fought (including the Civil War and both World Wars). However, he may have noted that most deaths came from causes other than battle-only 1,721 of the Americans who died in the Mexican War were killed in action. His personal experience with death was quite real-only four of the twenty-one officers originally assigned to his regiment survived the war.
The Mexican War experience was also teaching Grant how to manage life without many of the comforts of home. During the war and his duty in Texas, Grant was compelled to live outdoors for a couple of years, a way of life that he credits with saving his life and restoring his health.
But Grant never forgot Julia, at home in Missouri. His extensive correspondence with Julia between 1845 and 1847 is filled with almost desperate pleas for her father to approve their marriage. Finally, in the midst of the Mexico City campaign, Grant learned that Julia's father had at last given his consent. The happiness that this news must have given Grant on his journey back home was somewhat tempered by an event that created a black mark on Grant's military record. During the Fourth Infantry's return to the United States, someone stole $1,000 in quartermaster's funds from the trunk of a friend of Grant's. As quartermaster, Grant was held accountable. Although a board of inquiry convened at his request cleared Grant, he was still legally required to reimburse the government for the loss-a requirement that would prove difficult to meet. Grant would spend the next several years trying to get that debt invalidated.
When the war was at last over, Ulysses Grant married Julia Dent on August 22, 1848, with James Longstreet as his best man. Soon after, Grant and his new wife visited his family in Ohio and then moved on to his stations in Sackets Harbor, New York (on Lake Ontario) and Detroit, Michigan. It was in these early years of marriage that Grant first realized he had a drinking problem. Stationed at Sackets Harbor, Grant decided to battle his problem by joining the Sons of Temperance, which apparently provided him with support until he was transferred. The drinking problems may have returned after he moved to Detroit. That at least was the impression generated when he fell on an icy sidewalk in January 1851 and sued the merchant who owned the sidewalk. The merchant said of Grant, "If you soldiers would keep sober, perhaps you would not fall on people's pavement and hurt your legs." Grant won the case but came under suspicion in the military community.
The togetherness that Ulysses and Julia shared ended when Grant received orders to go to the Pacific Northwest; Grant decided against taking his pregnant wife and infant son on the dangerous journey to frontier country.
Before sailing west from New York in July 1852, Grant attempted to clear up the quartermaster funds issue.
Excerpted from A VICTOR, NOT A BUTCHER by Edward H. Bonekemper III Copyright © 2004 by Edward H. Bonekemper III. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 17, 2010
My interest in Grant was keen and my prior reading on him limited, so I looked forward to this book. While the story itself proved compelling and the author supported his theme quite adequately, his writing style made this book far longer and much less satisfying than its content warranted.
Rather than let the facts speak for themselves, the author sermonized, repeated the same platitudes ad nauseum, and worked the defenseless word "butcher" to death.
The author seemed compelled, too, to bash the ultimately conquered Robert E. Lee. The only reputation to suffer would be the author's, not Lee's; all Civil War leaders had foibles, and this book's treatment of Lee seemed petty, defensive, and unnecessary to the author's aggrandizement of Grant. Lee deserved high respect, but not sainthood; the author would do well to recognize that the same goes for Unconditional Surrender Grant.
I now look forward to reading more on Grant, but nothing else from Mr. Bonekemper. In fairness, the editor undoubtedly shares responsibility for the ultimate ponderousness of this treatment. This book is worthy of careful abridgement.