Humble Beginnings of an Odyssey
“These volumes are dedicated to the American Soldier and Sailor”
- Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant
Presidents hold a unique place in the American consciousness. George Washington is revered as the leader of the American Revolution; Lincoln’s name is synonymous with emancipation; and Franklin Roosevelt has been memorialized as the unwavering paladin who stood against The Great Depression and the Axis powers. These are all incredible simplifications, but they are all rooted in these figures’ respective achievements.
When Ulysses S. Grant’s name is evoked, several images usually materialize, most of them unflattering: a brutish general who won the American Civil War only because he had more troops than Robert E. Lee; a drunkard and a political neophyte; and a president whose presidency was a carnival of corruption. These claims range from misleading to wildly inaccurate. Grant was beloved, heralded as one of the greatest generals of his time, and an ardent defender of African Americans during the tumultuous aftermath of the Civil War. This series will examine Grant's life, mainly focusing on his work as general during the American Civil War, but also mentioning his momentous role in the Reconstruction.
Grant was born in April 1822 in the modest town of Point Pleasant, Ohio. His overbearing father, Jesse, worked as a tanner and his reticent mother was a devout methodist. What this oil-and-water pair had in common was a passionate disdain for slavery (Chernow 4, 6, 8 - 9); (Grant Ch.1). Grant’s view on the matter was more ambiguous and would remain so until the eve of the Civil War (Sacco 411).
Jesse Grant pushed for the formal education he was never afforded to his children, and so, aided by some of his political friendships (obtained through his venture into local politics), he managed to secure an appointment at the West Point military academy for the young Grant in the winter of 1838. Grant himself was incredibly reluctant, having neither the confidence in his military abilities nor any interest in the seemingly bleak world of the army. He, however, had little choice and arrived in May of 1839 at West Point, where he spent most of his time reading popular literature instead of focusing on his studies. When Congress contemplated halting funds to the school in December of that year, Grant followed the news keenly, only to be disappointed when the motion did not pass (Grant Ch.2).
Shortly after graduation, Grant was thrust into action when the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846. Serving as a quartermaster of the 4th U.S. Infantry, Grant managed the logistics of the division and thus held a legitimate excuse to avoid combat. However, he still fought, and those around him noticed a peculiar quirk about Grant that would aid him well in his future battles. Grant seemed to have little fear in the line of fire. While those around him panicked, Grant stood focused, with his seemingly unremarkable self suddenly transformed, his mind working at a rapid, focused pace (Chernow 44).
With the conclusion of the war in 1848, Grant soon married Julia Dent, a southern belle hailing from a slave-holding household. While a perfect marriage for the two, the differing political views of their respective families led to an ever-lasting inter-family feud which put Grant in the crossfire. However, in 1852, the two would be torn apart as Grant was ordered along with the rest of the Fourth Infantry to move to an outpost in the Oregon territory (Chernow 62, 63 - 4, 76).
Alone, bored, and far from his beloved, Grant slipped into a depression characterized by heavy drinking. Historians have long debated the extent to Grant’s drinking (although it has been usually magnified), but it is relatively clear that Grant was a binge drinker who found solace in alcohol usually when he was away from his wife and there was little going on. Grant certainly understood his addiction, and he would take painstaking measures to address it. Here, however, far away at the frontier, this culminated in great suffering from Grant. His misfortunes were magnified by unscrupulous schemers who took advantage of his naivete, causing him to lose much of his earnings - a pattern that would repeat itself throughout his life. Grant’s alcoholism would force him to resign and return home in 1853, yet the stories of his drinking had tainted his image forever (Chernow, 67, 69, 77, 79, 81); (Cashman and Timon 106).
The rest of Grant’s antebellum years were equally unspectacular. Grant’s farming ventures collapsed, and, faced with poverty, he begrudgingly returned to work at his father’s leather goods store. Grant’s views on the burning issue of the time – slavery – seemed opaque. When his father-in-law gifted the slave William Jones to Grant, Grant swiftly set Jones free, despite the potential money he could have received from selling Jones. Grant, however, claimed in 1860 that had the South contained slavery, he saw no reason to interefere with it (Chernow 98, 101, 108, 106, 114, 120). This is still a point of debate amongst historians of Grant.
Grant’s peaceful life in Illinois contrasted the volatile landscape of the nation leading up to the 1860 election. Although abolition is associated with the Republican party’s founding, perhaps to not alienate moderate voters, Republicans made Democratic corruption the focus of their campaign. Their effort was how the moniker “Honest Abe” attached itself to Lincoln’s image, as they sought to utilize Lincoln's relative lack of experience as a sign of his incorruptibility. The Democrats and the Constitutional Union Party bickered against each other, and the Douglas Democrats faction was similarly painted as unscrupulous politicians by Republicans (Meers 119, 124, 129). Underneath all of this venom, Southern expansion of slavery lay, and with Lincoln’s election, Southern states quickly began to secede.
President James Buchanan, under whom the infamous Dred Scott case was decided, unsurprisingly sat inert as his proSouthern cabinet prepared for the oncoming war. For example, Secretary of War John B. Floyd moved cannons and guns from the North to the southern forts in preparation for war. After Lincoln took office on the 4th of March, 1861, he called 75,000 militia volunteers for a 90 day service (Grant Ch. 16, 17). This call would be the catalyst that transformed the unassuming Grant into a national figure.
Cashman, Emma Catherine, and Conrad Timon. "Otolaryngology and the American Presidency: A Medical Legacy." ORL : Journal for Oto - Rhino - Laryngology and Its Related Specialties 73.2 (2011): 105-9. ProQuest. 20 Feb. 2022 .
Chernow, Ron. Grant. New York, Penguin Books, 2017.
Grant, Ulysses S., PERSONAL MEMOIRS OF U. S. GRANT, New York, Charles L. Webster & Company, 1885.
Meerse, “Buchanan, Corruption and the Election of 1860.” Civil War History, vol. 12, no. 2, Kent State University Press, 966, pp. 116-131.
Sacco, Nicholas W. “‘I Never Was an Abolitionist’: Ulysses S. Grant and Slavery, 1854–1863.” Journal of the Civil War Era, vol. 9, no. 3, University of North Carolina Press, 2019, pp. 410–37.