Ulysses S. Grant

ULYSSES S. GRANT (1822–1885)

“Whoever hears of me in ten years will hear of a well-to-do old Missouri farmer,” said Capt. Ulysses S. Grant when he resigned from the army in 1854. In ten years, of course, everybody knew Grant as commanding general of the Union army.

Born at Point Pleasant, in Clermont County, Ohio, on April 27, 1822, the son of Jesse R. and Hannah Simpson Grant, the oldest of six children, he was named Hiram Ulysses Grant after a family conference concluded with a name drawn from a hat. Jesse preferred “Ulysses,” insisted on using that name, and in his son’s boyhood “Hiram” was virtually forgotten. An enterprising and thrifty tanner, Jesse soon moved his family to Georgetown, Ohio, where the family lived comfortably but across the street from the noxious tannery. Ulysses had a normal boyhood, preferring farming and activity involving horses to tannery work. He received an education at the Georgetown school, then attended for one year each academies in Maysville, Kentucky, and Ripley, Ohio.

At age seventeen Grant entered the United States Military Academy at West Point. His father had arranged the appointment over Ulysses’s protest. Preparing to leave, he worried that fellow cadets would tease him about the initials “H. U. G.” and decided to reverse his first and middle names. Arriving at West Point he learned that somehow he had received an appointment as Ulysses S. Grant, either through the appointing congressman’s assumption that he bore his mother’s maiden name as a middle name or through confusion with a younger brother named Simpson. Eventually he acquiesced to bureaucracy and retained his army name for the rest of his life, insisting that his middle initial stood for “nothing.” At West Point Grant took to both studies and military life with similar reluctance. He graduated twenty-first in a class of thirty-nine, buoyed by an aptitude for mathematics that led him to consider teaching as a career.

Grant first came to St. Louis in 1843 as a recent graduate of West Point assigned to Jefferson Barracks, then the largest military base in the nation. His West Point roommate, Frederick T. Dent, encouraged him to visit the Dent family at its country home, White Haven, about five miles from the Barracks. Grant found the Dents congenial, and after their seventeen-year-old daughter, Julia, returned from spending the winter social season in St. Louis, he visited more often: in Julia, he had found the love of a lifetime. So had Julia, but the army sent Grant to Louisiana, to Texas, and into the Mexican War. He served under Gen. Zachary Taylor at the Battles of Resaca de la Palma, Molino del Rey, and Monterrey. Assigned as a quartermaster in Gen.Winfield Scott’s advance from Vera Cruz to Mexico City, Grant saw little action until the closing battles but won commendation from all and promotion to brevet captain. Four years passed before Grant married Julia Dent in 1848 in the Dent town house in St. Louis.

Col. Frederick Dent had come to St. Louis as a pioneer merchant. Born in Cumberland, Maryland, he brought southern attitudes to Missouri, reflected in the title “colonel” that was achieved without military service. Tiring of commercial life, he lived at White Haven, a country estate in south St. Louis County where slaves did the work and the master did hardly anything. Involved in land disputes originating in conflict between Spanish and American land grants, his fortunes ebbed but not his pride. He first objected to his daughter’s courtship by a junior officer; after they married he clashed with his “Yankee” son-in-law, whose father was an antislavery Whig.

Again the army sent Grant away, this time with Julia Dent Grant. But she returned to her family home to give birth to their first child, Frederick Dent Grant. Later, in 1852, assigned to the Pacific Coastwhen Julia was again pregnant, Grant went without her, and for two lonely years she waited in Missouri for her husband, who was even lonelier in Oregon and California. Prevented by low pay from bringing his wife and two boys to join him, afflicted with migraines and malaria, assigned to a small and lonely post commanded by a martinet, Grant finally resigned and rejoined Julia in St. Louis.

Grant spent six years in St. Louis, where he first farmed land given to Julia by her father and also managed the Dent family estate. Two more children were born in St. Louis County. Grant, aided by neighbors, built his own log house, named Hardscrabble, in which the family lived for a few months before moving to White Haven to assist Julia’s father after her mother died.

To raise cash Grant cut mining timbers and sold cordwood in St. Louis. Hard times during the depression of 1857 and a recurrence of Grant’s malaria in 1858 drove him off the farm and into St. Louis to look for work. He became an unsuccessful real estate agent and lost an appointment as county engineer when members of the county court rejected him as a Democrat. Unable to locate a good job in St. Louis, he reluctantly moved to Galena to work in his father’s leather goods store. Grant’s St. Louis years were marked by poverty but not unhappiness, and he dreamed of returning to the  farm.

Grant lived in Galena for one year before the Civil War began. He drilled local volunteers, accompanied them to Springfield, and served as an aide and mustering officer to Illinois governor Richard Yates, who remembered him when an unruly regiment drove its colonel into premature retirement.

Grant led the Twenty-first Illinois into Missouri to protect the North Missouri Railroad. He had not yet encountered an enemy when promotion to brigadier general brought him assignments to Ironton, Cape Girardeau, and Cairo, Illinois. He fought his first battle at Belmont, Missouri, on November 7, 1861, after taking his force downriver on transports from Cairo. He overran a Confederate camp, then retreated in some disorder when Confederate reinforcements crossed the Mississippi from Columbus, Kentucky. Both sides claimed victory, but neither deserved credit.

Grant’s next expedition to Fort Henry on the Tennessee River led to victory when the fort surrendered to gunboats even before troops arrived. He then pursued the fleeing garrison to Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River, besieging the far stronger position. When Fort Donelson surrendered on February 16, Grant had won the first major Union victory of  the Civil War, captured an entire army, and acquired a nickname, “Unconditional Surrender,” taken from his crisp demand to Gen. Simon B. Buckner.

Campaigning on the Tennessee River, Grant was surprised at Shiloh on April 6, and his troops were driven back to the riverbank. Reinforced the next day, Grant counterattacked and was more than redeemed. Late in the year he began an overland campaign against the Confederate citadel of Vicksburg, Mississippi, that turned into a winter of frustration. In the spring he ran transports below the city, crossed the river, turned east to capture the state capital of Jackson, then drove Confederates back to Vicksburg, which surrendered on July 4 after a prolonged siege. Grant had captured a second army. In November he won the Battle of Chattanooga, driving Confederates from Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge.

Promoted to lieutenant general and given command of all U.S. forces in March 1864, Grant accompanied the Army of the Potomac through a bloody spring campaign, including the Battles of  the Wilderness, of Spotsylvania, and of Cold Harbor. At its conclusion Grant besieged Petersburg below Richmond, a siege that lasted until late March 1865, when he launched an offensive that drove Gen. Robert E. Lee from Petersburg and Richmond to surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9.

After the war Grant continued to command the army and to administer Reconstruction. As congressional Republicans quarreled with President Andrew Johnson, Grant stood between them. Johnson tried to use Grant’s enormous popularity to bolster his cause by appointing him secretary of war ad interim to replace radical favorite Edwin M. Stanton. When Congress insisted on Stanton’s reinstatement, Grant resigned and broke with Johnson. In the process Grant strengthened his Republican ties and received their nomination for president in 1868.

Grant entered the White House as the youngest man yet elected and inexperienced in politics. He supported black civil rights and amnesty for Confederate leaders, placed religious leaders in charge of Indian affairs, and backed the  recommendations of the Civil Service Commission. Gradually, however, his support for Reconstruction waned in the face of southern white persistence, his Indian “peace policy” foundered amid religious bickering, and his support for civil service reform fell victim to congressional intransigence. He was more persistent, but equally unsuccessful, in attempting to annex Santo Domingo. Nonetheless, he easily won reelection in 1872 over Horace Greeley and might have received a third nomination had he not adamantly declined to consider the prospect. In retrospect, scandals are the best remembered aspect of the Grant presidency. None touched him personally, though several came close. At the end of his second term he assured Congress that “Failures have been errors of judgment, not of intent.”

After the war grateful countrymen gave Grant houses in Philadelphia,Washington, and Galena. He lived in Galena only during the 1868 presidential campaign when he sought to avoid the public. After he began to receive pay as a general, he reclaimed his Hardscrabble farm and the estate of his wife’s family in St. Louis County, planning to retire there, a place he thought of as home. In 1867 he sent an Ohio relative to manage his property. From Washington he dispatched a steady stream of letters to St. Louis, directing the rebuilding of the farm and the management of the horses at his personal expense. Genuinely fond of horses from his childhood, he aimed ultimately to make his estate a breeding farm.

In the summer of 1875 Grant received disturbing news from a trusted St. Louis friend that local culprits in the Whiskey Rebellion—a scheme to defraud the government of liquor taxes—had attempted to misuse the president’s name and friendship to avoid prosecution. “Let no guilty man escape,” Grant wrote. The prosecution disclosed that many of Grant’s St. Louis friends had participated in fraud. The ring even included one of Grant’s own White House staff. Outraged that friends had abused his trust, he decided to end his long ties to St. Louis. He had his agent dispose of personal property on the Missouri farm, then lease the land.

After leaving the White House, Grant toured the world for more than two years, nearly secured the Republican nomination in 1880, then settled in New York City. He invested heavily in the firm of Grant and Ward in which his son Ulysses Jr. was a partner, and the other partner, Ferdinand Ward, was a swindler. When the firm collapsed in 1884 Grant was impoverished and humiliated. To repair his finances he began to write reminiscences that he soon converted to full-scale memoirs. Despite the onset of throat cancer, he grimly determined to finish his work and did so before he died on July 23, 1885, at Mount McGregor, New York. Posthumously published, The PersonalMemoirs of U. S. Grant, modest and incisive, capped the career of an American hero.

John Y. Simon

Lewis, Lloyd. Captain Sam Grant. Boston: Little, Brown, 1950. 
Little, Kimberly Scott. Ulysses S. Grant’s White Haven. St. Louis: National Park Service, 1993. 
McFeely,William S. Grant: A Biography. NewYork: W. W. Norton, 1981. 
Simon, John Y., ed. The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 
1967– . . The PersonalMemoirs of Julia Dent Grant. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1975. 
Stevens, Walter B. Grant in St. Louis. St. Louis: Franklin Club, 1916.

Excerpted from Dictionary of Missouri Biography edited by Lawrence O. Christensen, William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, published by the University of Missouri Press. To order this book, please call (800) 621-2736 or online at http://press.umsystem.edu/Catalog/ProductSearch.aspx?search=Dictionary+of+Missouri+Biography.