G Is For Ulysses S Grant

Ulysses S. Grant (April 27, 1822-July 23, 1885) was born Hiram Ulysses Grant at Point Pleasant, Ohio to Jesse Root Grant and Hannah Simpson.

Hundreds if not thousands of books and stories have been written about Grant the general and the president. Every detail of his actions during the war has been examined. I’m sure there are hundreds of plaques somewhere about “Grant drank a bottle of whiskey here on this day” because heaven knows there were enough people who wanted to keep that in the news.

What intrigues me most about Grant is…the man. Of all his battles, his final battle was the one he fought most courageously and that’s the one I will focus on, but first a bit about Ulysses.

Ulysses was born with a knack for horses it seems. Ulysses’ father moved his tanning business to Georgetown, Ohio where Ulysses grew up. The boy detested working around the tannery and vowed he would never work in the stinking place as an adult. He “earned his keep” by doing his share of work on the family farm and freighting. By age ten, Ulysses drove a pair of horses from Georgetown to Cincinnati, a forty-mile trip, bringing home passengers. His father entrusted him to do the work on the farm such as plowing and harvesting with the team which he could handle by himself at eleven. Ulysses had access to the team and was expected to stay busy when he wasn’t in school. He did. At age twelve, he was sent into the woods to get a load of timber, which wasn’t unusual. This time, however, no one was at the logging camp when he arrived, so he devised a way to load the wagon with the horses by himself rather than return with no load. Once loaded, he tied it down, hitched the horses back up and returned home. Even his father, who expected a lot from his son, was amazed at this. Ulysses once commented about the amount of work that was expected of him as a boy, but in exchange for doing it without complaint he was never scolded nor punished.

Ulysses wasn’t lazy, he simply despised the carcasses and stinking hides of his father’s tanning business. He was determined there was another way to make a living.

He developed considerable skill with horses early on and took in hard-to-handle horses to gentle for neighbors as his reputation spread. This wasn’t some magical ability. He was simply a superb horseman and he “read” horses. He understood them. This love of horses would last until the end of his days.

Jesse Grant recognized his son had no head for business and really had little faith in him, secured an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point so he would have an education and future. Ulysses had no interest in the military, but he accepted the appointment realizing that was his only opportunity for further education. Grant reversed his given name and enrolled as Ulysses H. Grant (supposedly to avoid having the acronym HUG on his clothing). The Congressman who sponsored him misread it and sent him in as Ulysses S. Grant thinking the middle initial was for his mother’s maiden name, a common practice at the time. He got to West Point and found no Ulysses Grant, but he did find a U.S. Grant and changed his name telling them the “S” stood for nothing. He became known as U.S. Grant. His classmates dubbed him “Uncle Sam” and called him Sam from then on.

Ulysses did not excel at West Point in many areas. French was his worst subject. He did well enough in math that he thought about becoming a math instructor at the academy later. He was top of his class in horsemanship. The academy had a large, unrideable horse named York they were about to sell for slaughter, but Grant said he would take him. In typical fashion, he soon had the horse gentle and going well. As part of the graduating exercises of June 1843, the cadets convened in the riding hall for riding exercises before Superintendent Richard Delafield invited guests. The master of horsemanship, Henry Hershberger, raised the high jump another foot. He then called out Cadet Grant who was riding York. The bar was now over a man’s head and impossible. Grant rode up to the jump to gauge it, cantered back, and then galloped to the jump and sailed over it easily. Hershberger cried out, “Very well done, sir.” The hall erupted in applause. Grant had set a new record that stood for twenty-five years. Fellow classmate and friend, James Longstreet (Later CSA Gen Longstreet) once said of him, “In horsemanship, he was noted as the most proficient in the Academy. In fact, rider and horse held together like the fabled centaur. He was the most daring horseman in the Academy.”

Grant also liked literature and was president of the Literature club at the Academy. Surprisingly, he was also a gifted artist. His drawings and watercolors might have appeared in galleries. This visual ability stood him well later in the war. He had the ability to look at a map and save it in his mind as if photographed.   

Watercolor Grant did when he was eighteen.

Fred Dent, a roommate of his at West Point, wrote home to his sister Julia about Ulysses, “I want you to know him, he is pure gold.” After graduation, he was stationed in St. Louis, Missouri where Ulysses and other Dent friends began visiting the Dent family who lived in the area. On one such visit, Julia’s pet canary died, and Ulysses crafted a small coffin for the bird, then asked eight fellow officers to form a funeral service for the fallen pet. (Way to win a girl’s heart, Mr. Grant.) Julia was an expert horsewoman and a voracious novel reader making her an ideal match for Grant. He apparently thought so also and was smitten.

Julia had a disturbing dream about him prior to his deployment to Mexico. When the dream unfolded just as she had seen she apparently took it as a sign and accepted his unusual marriage proposal a few days later. While out on a carriage ride, he started across a bridge partially submerged by rapidly rising flood waters. She was afraid the water was too deep, but he assured her they were safe. She grasped his arm in fear and said, “I’m going to cling to you no matter what happens.” When they had safely crossed, he smiled at her and asked, “How would you like to cling to me for the rest of your life?” As romantic as that was, they didn’t ask her father immediately as he had nothing to offer a wealthy planter’s daughter, but they did marry four years later on August 22, 1848.

Some accounts say they had a daughter a year later who only lived one day. It’s certain they had their first son, Frederick on May 30, 1850. Two more sons and a daughter followed: Ulysses, Ellen, and Jesse. Though he was often separated from his family due to military duty, he was a devoted husband and father.

He left the military due to these separations and tried his hand at various vocations unsuccessfully before Julia’s father gave them 80 acres. Grant named the farm “Hardscrabble” which lived up to its name. He bought one slave to help with the work, but even with the help was barely able to put food on the table. Finally, broke and failing, he took his slave to town and paid for manumission. His father offered him a job in the family leather goods shop in Illinois where he would be a junior clerk under his two younger brothers for $600 a year. There he remained until the war broke out when he rejoined the military.

Grant’s exploits during the war are well-known and bear little repeating here. He came out on the other end a hero. He was elected president in 1869 and served two scandal-ridden terms. Grant had good intentions, but he was surrounded by snakes and, as his father had said years earlier, he had no head for business.

Julia was born with strabismus, commonly known as crossed eyes. A well-known surgeon offered to correct the defect when she was young, but she was afraid of the surgery and refused. However, after Grant was elected president, she became self-conscious of her looks and reconsidered. She felt it detracted from his image. Small wonder with Washington social columnists making comments like: “She’s fat, fair, and forty.” Another particularly vicious writer for Godey’s Lady’s Book wrote, “She ain’t half as good lookin’ as the pictures we see of her.” She even went on to insult Julia’s eyes and the Grant’s teenage daughter who was a beautiful young woman. The woman was relentless in her personal attacks on Julia’s appearance. Thus she always tried to have portraits made from the side.

Grant replied to Julia who decided to get surgery to shut down some of the gossips, “Did I not see you and fall in love with you with these same eyes? I like them just as they are, and now, remember, you are not to interfere with them. They are mine and let me tell you, Mrs. Grant, you had better not make any experiments, as I might not like you half so well with any other eyes.”

Julia Dent Grant

Julia, who loved the social life of Washington, was devastated when she learned Grant had turned down an opportunity to run for a third term, but he vowed he would perish if he had to endure another four years in Washington. He desperately needed a vacation. The Grants went on a two-and-a-half-year tour of Europe, Africa, and the Middle and Far East after Grant happily left office. His presidency had been riddled with scandal mostly because he was not a politician and as his father had said years previously, he did not have a head for business. They returned renewed and he invested heavily in his son’s new business, Grant and Ward, an investment firm. He had failed previously at some other businesses, but felt sure this one would succeed, and the Grant family invested all in it. In 1881, things seemed to be going right for Ulysses and Julia. Wealthy friends bought them a new brownstone in New York City. They were comfortable. He was ready to relax and enjoy his children, grandchildren, and horses.

He still had Jeff Davis the pony or small horse that had been “liberated” from a plantation during the war. Though the pony kicked and bit any groom who came near it, Grant only had to speak to it and hold his hand out to it to get him to calm and come to him. The pony was particularly prized for his smooth gate and steady way of going mile after mile when Grant was suffering from a carbuncle that plagued him. During the war, a man named S.S. Grant had sent him a cryptic note while he was visiting Cincinnati and asked him to come to see him in his hotel room. Grant’s curiosity was piqued as it was the same name as a dead uncle. S.S. said he believed he owned the finest horse in the world. The horse was a son of Lexington, the greatest Thoroughbred in America at the time and the elderly man loved him very much. He was too old and sick to ride anymore, but he would like to give the horse to Grant if he promised never to ill-treat him or fall into the hands of anyone who would mistreat him. Grant so promised and named the horse Cincinnati. He became Grant’s favorite horse and only President Lincoln and Admiral Ammen were allowed to ride him. Someone offered Grant $10,000 gold for the horse after the war, but he turned it down. Instead, he gave him to Admiral Ammen to retire to pasture in Maryland where the great horse died of old age in 1878.

Grant and Cincinnati

Oddly, though he favored large, powerful horses, mostly Thoroughbreds, Grant didn’t believe in horse racing. Even so, Grant was ticketed in Washington while president for driving too fast and had his buggy impounded. All in all, life was good. He still had a few horses to enjoy. He had his family. He had invested in his son’s new business and felt so positive about it, he convinced everyone he knew to invest as well.

Unfortunately, Ferdinand Ward was a swindler and had embezzled all in a grand Ponzi scheme. Ward told Grant there were some shortfalls, but it was temporary and if they could just cover them, all would be well. Grant had invested everything they had, $100,000, and Ward was convincing. Ward said later that Grant was a child when it came to business. He probably was. So assured, Grant borrowed $150,000 from his friend William Henry “Billy” Vanderbilt to save his son’s business and his life’s savings, not to mention all the investments of friends he had convinced to invest. Banker James Fish had colluded with Ward to hide records from bank examiners and when several loans came due, the entire business collapsed. Even with the infusion of new money, it was not enough to prevent failure.

Grant told a classmate from West Point, “When I went downtown this morning, I thought I was worth a great deal of money, now I don’t know that I have a dollar.” He had $80 to his name and Julia had $130. Ward had stolen everything and in so doing, triggered the panic of 1884.

Vanderbilt told Grant he would cancel the $150,000 debt, but Grant refused the offer. He sold his house to Vanderbilt, but Vanderbilt allowed them to stay in the house. Then Grant started selling his Civil War mementos, and all their personal possessions which Vanderbilt also bought, saying he was going to donate them to the Federal government. Strangers started sending checks when they heard what happened and though Grant was heartbroken to have to do it, he cashed them out of desperation as they had no money and he felt honor bound to pay his debts.

In the summer of 1884, Grant complained of a sore throat, but he put off seeing a doctor. By October, he had no choice and the doctor told him he had throat cancer. He didn’t tell Julia, but she hounded his doctor until he confessed the truth.

Congress learned of his diagnosis and restored his rank of general which would give him a pension and Julia a widow’s pension. He had to resign his commission when he became president. Grant still worried about how Julia would be taken care of and proposed to sell his memoir to Century Magazine. He had written a series of articles for them regarding battles he’d overseen for a flat fee of $500 previously, so they were familiar with him. His friend Mark Twain said he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when he heard this news. They had offered Grant the standard 10% royalty they would offer to, “Any Comanche no one had ever heard of, and they expected to sell 3,000 copies,” as Twain put it. Twain had been after Grant for years to write his memoirs and he knew how desperate his friend’s financial straits were. Twain was horrified at the prospect and rushed from his home in Connecticut to New York to talk Grant out of the deal. He offered him the unheard-of royalty of 70% and a substantial advance up front for them to live on while Grant wrote the book. Grant had never made a sound business decision in his life. Not one. He had failed at everything he attempted except being a soldier and he almost failed at that.

Even with this remarkable offer, Grant hesitated. Twain had a plan; he was going to sell the memoir on subscription through his own newly formed publishing company. It was the same plan he was going to use for his upcoming book, Huckleberry Finn. Grant wasn’t sure about this unusual plan and even though he’d known Twain for years, he was still stinging from the betrayal of the investment fiasco. He told Twain he’d think about it. Though he hadn’t signed a contract with Century, they had discussed the deal and agreed to terms. He felt it would be dishonorable now to back out. In the end, Grant wasn’t convinced his memoir would sell many copies and Twain was persuasive about his marketing plan. He was going to send salesmen, mostly veterans, door-to-door, to pre-sell the memoir. Twain had some financial problems of his own, but he offered Grant a $25,000 ($750,000 in 2021) advance to live on while he was penning the work. For once, Grant made the right decision and signed the contract with Twain.

Col. Horace Porter, who joined Grant’s staff in 1864 had once remarked about Grant’s paperwork and orders, “It was performed swiftly and uninterruptedly, but without any marked display of nervous energy. His thoughts flowed as freely from his mind as the ink from his pen.” So it was now. At Appomattox, supposedly, Lee had to remind them of their purpose for meeting as Grant was lost in conversation. When so reminded, he confessed later, “I had no idea where to start. I only knew what was in my mind.”

Grant wasn’t sure where to begin the memoirs, but he had told the war stories so many times over the years, they were smooth and polished already. Though he wasn’t a flamboyant man, people often remarked how plain he was in appearance and manner, he was a gifted storyteller. If he could just get the story from his mind to the paper, it would flow like a river.

Grant hired Adam Badeau, an author who had also served as an aide during the war, to help with fact-checking, research, and editing. Though Badeau had agreed to terms before the project started, he decided he needed more money and more credit shortly after they began. He left after a month and spread rumors the book was ghostwritten by Mark Twain. The manuscript is still available, and it is largely in Grant’s own hand. Grant’s son Fred took over the research duties after Badeau left. Badeau later settled with the Grant heirs for $10,000 in the fall of 1888 (equal to $302,000 in 2021). Not bad for a month’s work.

Twain moved into the Grant house to give advice on editing and continuity, though Grant’s writing style had always been very clean and precise as evidenced by his orders and previously published articles.     

Grant had amassed stacks of orders, maps, documents, and letters for Fred to pore through so he could recreate each event with painstaking detail. The general attacked this new battle the same way he had every other one, straight on. He had often said, “In every battle, there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten, then he who continues the attack wins.” He would keep attacking this one until he won also.

Though he was already feeling the effects of the cancer, he churned out twenty to fifty handwritten pages a day and averaged ten thousand new words a day. At night, he read over what he’d written and made changes, discussing with Twain what might be improved. Twain was smart enough not to change the style or voice of the author and gave Grant his head. It was plain Grant’s years of reading and absorbing literary greats, had their effect on him.

He made a difficult task look effortless, which would be wondrous under the best of circumstances. Grant was in his death throes as he struggled to write. About halfway through what he expected to be the story, Grant suffered a severe hemorrhage in April 1885. Everyone feared he was dying, but by sheer will, he pulled himself out of the grave. With Twain’s and his family’s support, he recovered and resumed writing.

Grant penned the massive manuscript until he grew too feeble in the spring of 1885, whereupon he employed a stenographer. Even speaking was becoming difficult as the tumors grew, and his health deteriorated. Cancer had now spread to his tongue and throughout his body. Following the advice of doctors who felt mountain air would help his symptoms, Grant moved to a resort north of Saratoga Springs at the beginning of June. A friend loaned them his cottage on the slopes of Mount McGregor and Grant embarked on his final campaign.

During these last stages of his illness, and unable to speak, Grant wrote a note to his doctor: “A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; to suffer; I signify all three.”

Each swallow was excruciatingly painful, making it impossible to eat solid food, but he endured it all with great stoicism, accepting his fate and he remained focused on his goal. Morphine was given sparingly to keep a clear mind. His doctors swabbed his throat with cocaine to provide topical pain relief and injected brandy intravenously during his worst coughing fits.

Through it all, Grant persisted in perfecting his work. He edited, added new pages, and studied proofs of the first volume. Each day he sat on the cottage porch, even on the warmest, most humid day cocooned in blankets, a wool cap, and a heavy scarf about his throat covering the tumor that was now as large as two men’s fists. When even the whisper abandoned him, Grant scribbled his thoughts in pencil on small pieces of paper.

Grant working on memoir at the cottage.

Twain came to visit him at the cottage with good news. 100,000 copies of the memoir had already been sold. He had employed an army of door-to-door salesmen, mostly veterans, and put them on an all-out campaign to sell the book with remarkable success. Grant sagged with relief. Taking care of his family was all that mattered at that point. As in so many previous battles, he had been looking for the tide to turn and he now knew it was won.

With his mission done, he laid down his pencil for the last time on July 16, 1885. Remarkably, he had penned 366,000 words in less than a year. Satisfied that Julia and his family would be taken care of, he wrote, “There is nothing more I should do to it now, and therefore I am not likely to be more ready to go than at this moment.” Ulysses Grant’s great heart gave out seven days later surrounded by family at the age of 63.

After private services, an honor guard placed Grant’s casket on a special funeral train that went to West Point and then New York City. Over a quarter of a million people paid respects to him before the official funeral. The casket was drawn by twenty-four black stallions to Riverside Park for interment. Tens of thousands of veterans marched behind as well as Presidents Cleveland, Hayes, and Arthur. The Supreme Court Justices, in a seven-mile-long parade to honor him. His pallbearers were Union Generals Sherman and Sheridan and Confederate Generals Simon Bolivar Buckner and Joseph E. Johnston, Admiral David Dixon Porter, and Senator John A Logan.

Within two years, Julia received $450,000 in royalties (nearly $14,000,000 in 2021). The memoir was hailed as a rousing success and even outsold Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. It is still cited as one of the greatest military memoirs written.

I’m not much for hero worship and so I will not paint Grant as a saint.

In one of his letters to Julia, he asks if his father is finally satisfied with him. That’s a telling statement that he could never do enough for his demanding father. He certainly was a failure in many things and possibly even as a general, but I have to admire anyone who had such a way with horses. That takes a special kind of soul. It can’t be faked. I admire his devotion to Julia, just the way she was, regardless of what the cruel voguellas of Washington thought. As a writer, I am astounded at what he accomplished with his memoir. That would be hard for someone who was in perfect health with no stress crushing them.

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