Jesse Grant exemplified what America was all about. A man of restless ambition striving to make his own way in the world, he was not shy about sharing his dreams, his hopes, and his accomplishments with anyone who would listen. Behind his drive was an understanding of what it meant to fail. Descended from good colonial stock, Jesse had watched his father, Noah Grant, fall short of the family standard. Noah's claims to military glory as a captain during the American Revolution find no support in existing records; he was overly fond of alcohol and frittered away opportunities and money. He had two sons by a first wife before she died; with his second wife, Rachel, whom he married in 1792, he had seven more children, including Jesse, born in 1794. Ten years later Rachel died in a cabin in Deerfield, Ohio. Noah was unable to hold things together, and before long the family broke up. The two youngest children went with their father to Maysville, Kentucky, where Peter Grant, Noah's son by his first marriage, was operating a tannery. The three middle children were parceled out to other families. Jesse, who was eleven, and his older sister Susan were set loose on their own.
The boy knew it would take a lot of work to make his way up in the world, but he was dead set on doing just that. For three years he scrambled to stay afloat. At fourteen he gained a job working on the farm of Judge George Tod, a member of the Ohio Supreme Court. He learned something about what might lie ahead for a hardworking lad when he saw the china bowls and silver spoons that the Tods used. Mrs. Tod did what she could to build theboy's ambition and talents, lending him books to read and urging him to find a calling at which he could prosper.
1 Jesse took the advice to heart and at sixteen decided to learn the tanner's trade. He apprenticed with his half-brother Peter, then worked at several tanneries in Ohio, including one owned by Owen Brown, whose son, John, openly denounced the "peculiar institution" of slavery. Jesse agreed with John's sentiments, explaining later that he had left Kentucky because "I would not own slaves and I would not live where there were slaves and not own them." In 1820 he moved to Point Pleasant, on the banks of the Ohio River, some twenty miles upriver from Cincinnati, and commenced working at Thomas Page's tannery in order to accumulate enough capital to open his own business. He also wanted a wife. Page pointed him in the direction of Bantam, ten miles to the north, where John Simpson and his family, migrants from Pennsylvania, had settled on land purchased from Page. Jesse was soon courting Hannah Simpson, "a plain unpretending girl, handsome but not vain," as her suitor remembered in later years. Moreover, she was quiet, allowing the voluble Jesse to hold forth uncontested. Although John Simpson was not too sure about Jesse's prospects, his wife, Sarah, loved to discuss books with the young man; having ingratiated himself with his prospective mother-in-law, Jesse found it easier to achieve his objective of matrimony. As Jesse's savings grew, John Simpson's reservations faded, and on June 24, 1821, Jesse Grant wed Hannah Simpson. The newlyweds returned to Point Pleasant, where Jesse had rented a simple white frame house next to the tannery.
2 When he was not scraping or tanning hides, Jesse Grant spent his hours reading and writing. Always willing to share his opinions with others - and never doubting his own wisdom - he liked to set down his thoughts on politics for the local paper. Hannah quietly kept house, attended the local Methodist church (bringing Jesse with her), and before long discovered that she would soon have new responsibilities. In the early hours of April 27, 1822, she gave birth to a boy, weighing ten and three-quarters pounds, with rich red-brown hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. For nearly a month the newborn went nameless: when Hannah was well enough to travel, Jesse drove his family up to Bantam, where several Simpsons had gathered to help select a name. Hannah wanted to name the boy Albert, after Pennsylvania's Albert Gallatin, who had played a prominent role in Jeffersonian politics as a diplomat and secretary of the treasury. One sister seconded the choice; another preferred Theodore. John Simpson spoke up, offering "Hiram, because it is such a handsome name." When Sarah Simpson, fresh from reading Fénelon's Telemachus and thrilled by its dramatic description of Greek heroes, opted for Ulysses, Jesse, seeing yet another opportunity to please his mother-in-law, endorsed the suggestion (perhaps he had a hand in making it, for he had lent the book to Sarah). Aware of the growing political nature of the discussion, however, and determined to offend no one, he decided to leave the choice to chance. Anne Simpson, Hannah's youngest sister, drew a slip from a hat bearing the name Ulysses. Looking to swing one more deal, Jesse then declared that the boy's name would be Hiram Ulysses - a decision designed to delight both in-laws. Fate eventually triumphed over politics: the boy would always be known as Ulysses - or, as his father would put it, "my Ulysses."
3 By the following year Jesse had accumulated enough money to strike out on his own. He moved his family inland to Georgetown, the county seat, set up his own tannery a block east of the town square, and soon settled with Hannah and their son in a new brick two-story home. The structure was an impressive sight among the log cabins and plaster walls of other residences in the small town known for the propensity of its residents to drink - no surprise in light of the two dozen distilleries in Brown County. No matter, thought Jesse - he was now set up to make a living in an area that provided a ready supply of tanning bark. He befriended the justice of the peace, Thomas L. Hamer, who shared his political preferences for Andrew Jackson and a more democratic polity, and commenced working and writing to make a name for himself. But at times his offspring stole center stage from his father. Just as Ulysses neared his second birthday, a small circus came to town. The toddler, adorned in petticoats, was fascinated by a trained pony; when the ringmaster invited members of the audience to ride the animal, Ulysses begged and implored his father until he got his way. Lifted onto the horse's back and held in place by an adult, he circled the ring several times, "manifesting more glee than he had ever shown before." Several months later, a neighbor with an odd sense of curiosity wanted to see how the child would respond to the noise of a pistol shot. As Jesse held Ulysses, the boy tugged at the trigger. Finally the weapon went off: delighted, Ulysses demanded, "Fick it again! Fick it again!" The next year, however, when the toddler heard the local physician prescribe powder to remedy an ailment, he cried out, "No, no, no! I can't take powder; it will blow me up!" Family members retold the story for years to come.
4 By the time he was three, Ulysses was joined by a brother, Samuel; later came several more brothers and sisters, until by 1839 the Grants had three boys and three girls. Jesse added to the house as he added to the family: he bought books, read newspapers, and continued to make money and broadcast his opinions. As the eldest child, Ulysses got his own room on the second floor - but just about all he could see from his bedroom window was the tannery. He did not enjoy the view. The process of tanning hides as well as the stench that resulted turned his stomach. He hated doing chores. Whenever he could, he preferred to be with living animals, especially horses, for whom he soon developed a passion. As a small boy he liked to go out in the stable and sit beside his four-legged friends. Aware of the damage an errant hoof might cause, a neighbor shared her alarm with Hannah Grant. Calmly, Hannah smiled: "Horses seem to understand Ulysses."
5 And Ulysses seemed to understand horses. He was only five years old when he learned how to stand on the back of a trotting horse, using the reins to keep his balance. At six he harnessed horses to haul brush, much to his father's surprise; when Jesse opened a small livery business, it was Ulysses who often drove passengers or carted wood. At nine he had saved up enough money to buy his first horse; local townsfolk brought him horses to break and train, and marveled as he raced through town or hugged the neck of an uncooperative colt as it bucked, kicked, and reared up on its hind hooves. When a horse had distemper, its owner would bring it to Ulysses to ride, for the best way to cure the ailment was by running the horse at a gallop to burn out the disease. Other boys tried to imitate him, sometimes prodded on by Ulysses, who teased them that their horses were too slow: one unfortunate youth was crushed to death when his mount suddenly shied and fell on him. Although Ulysses's reaction to the boy's death went unrecorded, thereafter he drew closer to the boy's mother, Mrs. Bailey, who lived just up the street. In turn she thought he was "exceedingly kind and amiable."
6 Two stories about the boy and horses suggested something deeper about the character of Jesse Grant's eldest son. Ulysses was eleven when another circus visited Georgetown. Once more the ringmaster brought out a trained pony; once more Ulysses mounted it. This time, however, the ringmaster barked orders for the pony to throw its rider while galloping at full speed around the ring. Ulysses simply dug in his heels. Undeterred, the ringmaster brought out a monkey: it scrambled on board, grabbed Ulysses by the hair, and stared down at the boy's face. People laughed; then they grew astonished when they saw that Ulysses stayed on. There was no quit in this boy. In a similar episode young Grant earned five dollars for hanging on to a particularly slick mount.
7 And yet the boy's love of horses could also lead to embarrassment. He was only eight years old when he set his heart on buying a colt owned by Robert Ralston, a farmer who lived just west of town. Jesse, needing to expand his stable, entrusted his son to make the purchase, but only after instructing him in the fine art of negotiating, for he did not want to pay Ralston's asking price of twenty-five dollars. Accounts differ in the details of what happened next, but all agree that when Ralston asked the boy what his father would pay, Ulysses blurted out, "Papa says I may offer you twenty dollars for the colt, but if you won't take that, I am to offer twenty-two and a half, and if you won't take that, to give you twenty-five." As he later dryly remarked, "It would not require a Connecticut man to guess the price finally agreed upon."
8 This tale soon made the rounds of Georgetown. Fathers and sons alike guffawed and laughed at the business acumen of "my Ulysses"; for once Jesse was forced to listen. Ulysses Grant later recalled that the story "caused me great heart-burning . . . and it was a long time before I heard the last of it."
Biographers looking to find the man in the boy have read much into the incident. It was an early sign of his naivete in business; it illustrated his determination to gain his objective; it epitomized his guilelessness and gullibility. But Grant put his own stamp on the story. "I certainly showed very plainly that I had come for the colt and meant to have him," he recounted: Jesse's desire to cut a deal would not deter his son from what he wanted. Additional information about the aftermath tended to place the incident in a better light. Nearly four years later, the horse now nearly blind, Ulysses sold him for twenty dollars - not a bad price; two years after that, he spotted the Ralston horse "working on the tread-wheel of the ferry-boat." Nevertheless, he never forgot the teasing: "Boys enjoy the misery of their companions, at least village boys in that day did, and in later life I have found that all adults are not free from the peculiarity."
9 Horses were more honest than people, or so Ulysses seemed to believe, for he gave himself to them as he never did to his friends. He trusted them, and they responded to him. Nor was his compassion limited to horses. He showed little interest in hunting; as for his father's tanning trade, he frankly "detested it," preferring to work his father's fifty-acre farm on the outskirts of town or do anything else involving horses. He hauled and plowed; he transported passengers, sometimes as far as Cincinnati and once to Toledo, some 250 miles away; he often paid other boys to do his work at the tannery, then hired out his services as a horseman to people in the community, pocketing the difference. For fun he fished in the summer and skated in the winter, played ball with the boys, and took the girls on sleigh rides. He enjoyed swimming in White Oak Creek, which ran just west of the town, although once he nearly lost his life when he fell off a log into the creek, then flooded as a result of recent rains, and found himself being dragged away by the current; only the alert actions of his chum, Dan Ammen, rescued him from drowning. At school he was well behaved, usually escaping the schoolmaster's switch; his schoolmates found him quiet, a bit shy, and not particularly studious. "He was a real nice boy," one of the girls later remembered, "who never had anything to say and when he said anything, he always said it short." Another playmate noted that while Ulysses "was up to any lark with us," he "went about everything in such a peculiarly businesslike way. . . . I don't remember that I ever saw him excited." Perhaps he was a quiet boy because as Jesse's son he did not want to call more attention to himself - except when he mounted a horse, when he mixed flair with an occasional willingness to show off. Had it not been for this skill (and the burdens that came with being Jesse Grant's son), Ulysses would have led an unremarkable childhood.
10 By the 1830s Georgetown was well on the way toward shedding its frontier origins. In 1827 a Methodist church opened across the street from the Grant residence; two years later the children started attending school in a newly opened brick building, the successor to the subscription school just a few dozen yards from the Grant house. Other homes appeared, including several that reflected the influences of the Greek Revival movement, complete with columns. What was once little more than a clearing was now beginning to look worthy of the name of county seat. Jesse gained prominence in Georgetown's political affairs. His early preference for Andrew Jackson eroded in the 1830s, and he became a staunch advocate of the rising Whig party, with its plans for integrated national growth and development. Jesse never espoused an opinion halfheartedly, however, and one casualty of his new political loyalty was Thomas Hamer, who now represented Georgetown in Congress as a Democrat. Jesse's blunt editorials and poetry in the columns of the appropriately named Castigator placed him on the front lines of political controversy. He won his reward in 1837 when, in the aftermath of economic distress for which voters held Democrats accountable, he was elected mayor of Georgetown.
11 Jesse's antislavery proclivities were becoming more pronounced as well, reflecting the rising intensity of the debate over slavery in the United States. However, his commitment paled beside that of the Reverend John Rankin, who lived by the Ohio River in Ripley. More than rumor had it that the reverend's house sheltered fugitive slaves, including a family of three who had made their way across the river by navigating floating pieces of ice. Although Jesse could claim no such fame, he was visible enough in business and political affairs, and it was this, to say nothing of his bragging about Ulysses, that sometimes led others to focus on the son in retaliation against the father. One of the reasons two brothers, Carr and Chilton White, had spread the Ralston horse story with such glee was that their father, the local schoolmaster, was a Democrat. Hannah Grant went about her chores and responsibilities quietly, so much so that one must search carefully for her traces. Dan Ammen recalled that she was "a cheerful woman, always kind and gracious to children." But affection - or at least open displays of it - were rare in the Grant household. Ulysses told Ammen that he never saw his mother cry. Nor did Hannah brag as was her husband's custom: she was modest, retiring, and restrained. Unlike Jesse, she "thought nothing you could do would entitle you to praise," as one observer recalled; indeed, "you ought to praise the Lord for giving you an opportunity to do it." Such a demeanor obscured that Hannah was fairly well educated, something that inspired Jesse to learn as much as he could about reading and writing. The house contained a small library of several dozen books, perhaps the largest such collection in the town.
12 The Grants loved their children and took great pride in their accomplishments. In turn Ulysses loved and respected his parents, although signs of friction with his father remained evident, and he said little about his mother, who remains something of an enigmatic presence. Yet the extremes of a boastful father and a reserved mother offered lessons for later life: as a parent Ulysses would never leave his children starved for affection. As the Grant household continued to grow, so did the extended family. Eventually Ulysses could count thirty-nine cousins: thirteen in Ohio and twenty-six more in the slave states of Kentucky and Virginia. Jesse once remarked of the latter "that they had depended too much on slave labor to be trained in self-reliance, whereas his children had to wait upon themselves even so far as to black their own shoes." Responsibility led to prosperity in Jesse's mind, and he was in earnest about giving his children the right tools and character to succeed. He prized education and hard work, and his boys got a good helping of both. Ulysses may have been embarrassed by his father's boasting and uneasy about his drive to succeed in business; however, he appreciated the opportunities that his father's success made possible, and respected his commitment to educate his children as well as prepare them for life. But he would never follow his father into the tanning business. Nor was he exactly enthusiastic about his father's preference to call him Ulysses. Boys liked to taunt him with "Useless," an especially humiliating label in light of his father's principles: the boy inscribed his books "Hiram U. Grant." Ulysses was not especially athletic, nor even healthy, despite his skill as a horseman. At times he suffered from ague and fever. More threatening was the cholera outbreak that swept across the region in 1833. Jesse Grant traveled to Kentucky to purchase a remedy. He brought back two jugs. One contained a supposed cure; the other was filled with blackberry cordial, to stop the diarrhea that came with cholera. One Sunday morning, with his parents at church, Ulysses and his playmates, heated after some strenuous activities and convinced that a stomachache was the first sign of the dreaded cholera, hustled down to the basement to cure themselves with generous portions of medicine - and the cordial. The boys liked what they tasted and, believing that an ounce of prevention was always in order, often returned, as one recalled, "to have a pull at the cholera medicine. I don't know whether we took it right or not, but certain it is that we did not take the cholera."
13 Fortunately, this story did not make the rounds of the town. Jesse, however, never missed an opportunity to recount tales of his eldest boy's determination, calmness under pressure, and resourcefulness. One time, Ulysses was taking two young ladies to Georgetown when his buggy encountered a flooded ford. He plunged straight ahead. The water rose: when it reached the waists of his passengers, they began to scream. Ulysses turned around. "Don't speak!" he shouted. "I will take you through safe." And so he did. His hauling exploits became legendary. Once he devised a method to load logs onto his wagon, aided only by his horse, by wrapping them in a chain and dragging them up a half-felled tree that served as a ready-made incline to the wagon bed. And for years to come townspeople would marvel at how Ulysses, then fifteen, hauled a massive stone from the banks of White Oak Creek up a steep and winding road for a doctor who wanted it placed at the front door of his new house.14 Jesse wore the stories out in the retelling, never letting listeners forget that he was speaking about "my Ulysses." At last a few townsfolk saw another chance to get even. A traveling phrenologist arrived at Georgetown, boasting of his ability to predict a person's future by feeling and assessing the shape of his or her head. At a public lecture the phrenologist offered to conduct a reading blindfolded: Ulysses, no doubt red-faced, was ushered to the stage. As the phrenologist's fingers played over Ulysses's head, the analyst exclaimed, "It is no common head! It is an extraordinary head!" People in the audience smirked and giggled. Jesse watched intently. At last the phrenologist reached the climax of the performance, declaring, "It would not be strange if we should see him President of the United States." It was a standard routine often used to mock a parent's pride in a child; once again, Ulysses had to suffer the consequences of his father's bragging.
15 This uneasiness between father and son became more apparent as Ulysses entered adolescence. He continued to show no interest in entering the family business. Tannery practices repelled him so much that he could not stomach seeing any blood on his plate, preferring his meat to be cooked until it was nearly burnt. To some observers he seemed "more like a grown person than a boy," as quiet and serious as his mother. Aside from horses, however, he possessed few marketable skills or visible interests. He was ambivalent about entering any kind of business. Although he had shown some shrewdness in earning money and doubtless wanted to prove that he could be self-sufficient, his father's way of doing things was too sharp and brash for Ulysses. Surely there was a better way to be prosperous. In school he cared little for writing and even less for reciting: one of his teachers recalled that Ulysses found public speaking "unbearable," seldom spoke, and did so only "by the greatest exertion." Only in mathematics did he display any real talent. Solving problems had always been one of his most apparent skills, and the logic of mathematics came as second nature to him. But where this ability could lead remained elusive. Two pursuits that had crossed the boy's mind - becoming a farmer or a river trader - were unacceptable to his father, who suspected such occupations would cultivate habits of laziness, even shiftlessness. Lacking alternatives, and always looking for a good deal, Jesse investigated the possibility of sending Ulysses to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
16 In considering West Point, Jesse did not necessarily envision a military career for his son. The Academy was the nation's leading engineering school: mathematics would prove useful in that field. Other boys from Georgetown had attended West Point, including Jacob Ammen, Dan's older brother. And, with the arrival of more children - and a hint of an economic chill in the air - money was an issue: West Point was free. So in 1836 Jesse sent Ulysses to a prep school in Maysville to bone up for admittance exams (he stayed with Uncle Peter's family). There the boy joined a local debating club, where he espoused the impracticality of immediate abolition and supported the proposition that intemperance was a greater evil than war. The following year the boy attended a local subscription school, followed by a year at a school in Ripley headed by the Reverend Rankin. Local rumor had it that Jesse redoubled his efforts to get his son into West Point when he heard that a neighbor's boy, Bartlett Bailey (brother of the boy killed while trying to emulate Ulysses's horsemanship) had just secured an appointment to the Academy. The Baileys lived up the street from the Grants, in a house with columns that more than rivaled Jesse's own sturdy but simple brick structure; in this case up the street also meant uphill, figuratively as well as literally. Jesse looked on Dr. George Bailey as competition, and he was determined not to lose.
17 There was only one problem. Members of Congress selected candidates for examination for admission to the Academy. At first, Jesse thought that a fellow Whig, Senator Thomas Morris, could provide the nomination. But Morris had bartered it away to another congressman. That left Jesse's congressman - Thomas Hamer. It was not an auspicious alternative. For several years the once-close friends had been at odds over politics, and Jesse's mouth and pen had often gotten the better of him, aggravating the disagreement. Hamer fought to protect slaveowners' rights; Jesse supported Morris's efforts to end slavery and had sent Ulysses to the Reverend Rankin's academy. A slot was open. Despite two tries at making it through the first year, Bart Bailey had failed his exams, news his father had tried to keep under wraps. However, Mrs. Bailey had shared the story with Ulysses when the boy, home from Ripley during Christmas break, walked up the street to get a quart of milk. Bart's resignation in the fall of 1838 was Ulysses's - or Jesse's - opportunity. When Jesse, brandishing a letter from Morris, broached his plan to Ulysses, the boy was not pleased. "But I won't go!" he protested. As he later recalled, his father "said he thought I would, and I thought so, too, if he did." But it would not be so easy. Officials flatly rejected Jesse's attempt to bypass Hamer by applying directly to the War Department for a nomination. So, on February 19, 1839, Jesse sat down, swallowed his pride (no doubt with some difficulty), and wrote to Tom Hamer to ask him to nominate Ulysses to West Point. Rumor had it that Hannah Grant visited Hamer's wife in an attempt to patch things up. The letter reached Hamer on the last day of his term as a congressman: he had decided to quit the House to attend to his private affairs. Hurriedly Hamer made out the request, although for a moment he was stumped trying to remember the boy's precise name. The deed done, he responded to Jesse's request: "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?" The mails being what they were, Hamer actually arrived in Georgetown ahead of the letter and wondered when Jesse would show his gratitude. In due time the letter arrived, and all was well once more between Jesse Grant and Tom Hamer.
18 Several townspeople looked askance at Ulysses's appointment. There was nothing exceptional about the lad - except for his way with horses. One disgruntled fellow, still smarting from the time Ulysses had named a horse after him, grumbled, "I'm astonished that Hamer did not appoint someone with intellect enough to do credit to the district."
19 So Ulysses prepared to travel to the school on the Hudson River. "I really had no objection to going to West Point," he recalled years later, "except that I had a very exalted idea of the acquirements necessary to get through. I did not believe that I possessed them, and could not bear the idea of failing." He had seen what happened to Bart Bailey - and he could well imagine what would happen to Jesse Grant's son if he returned home in disgrace. He made the rounds of relatives and friends, did some last-minute studying, and packed his belongings. To identify his trunk, he and his cousins hammered in his initials, but it took only a moment to see that "H. U. G." would not do: Ulysses was not going to be the butt of any more jokes if he could help it. From now on he would be Ulysses Hiram Grant. On May 15, 1839, he bade farewell to his parents and four siblings (with a fifth on the way). As he passed the Baileys' house, Mrs. Bailey came out, crying, and kissed him. In light of all that had happened, the young man was both startled and grateful. "Why, Mrs. Bailey," he responded. "They didn't cry at our house."
20 Up by steamboat to Pittsburgh, then by ferryboat to Harrisburg, and finally by train to Philadelphia, Ulysses Hiram Grant made his way east. He spent five days in Philadelphia - the first truly large city he had ever visited - staying with his mother's cousins, the Hare family. One of them described the newcomer as "a rather awkward country lad, wearing plain clothes and large, coarse shoes as broad at the toes as at the widest part of the soles." Then it was on to New York, where he encountered another Academy aspirant, Fred Dent of Missouri. Together the two westerners traveled up the Hudson River to West Point, some eighty miles north of New York City. Grant was not eager to reach his destination; he would have been perfectly content had an accident en route or some other misfortune forced him to return to Ohio, honor intact. But it was not to be, and so, as he later put it, "I had to face the music" (an especially pointed turn of phrase, for music made him cringe). Arriving on May 29, he secured a room at a local hotel, then presented himself at the adjutant's office, where he signed the register "Ulysses Hiram Grant." The adjutant firmly informed him that there was no appointment waiting for such a person. Two Grants were scheduled to arrive: Elihu Grant from New York and Ulysses S. Grant from Ohio.