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Ulysses S. Grant
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Ulysses S. Grant
The early life and career of Ulysses S. Grant (born Hiram Ulysses Grant; April 27, 1822 – July 23, 1885) tells the story of the future general's ancestry, birth, and early career in and out of the United States army from 1822 to 1861. Grant was born in Ohio in 1822. Growing up in his father's tanneries, he sought a different career in the military. After four years at West Point, he was stationed in Missouri, where he met his future wife, Julia Dent. In 1846, Grant served in the Mexican—American War, where he was brevetted for bravery. After the war, he was assigned to posts in New York and Michigan before travelling West to a posting at Fort Humboldt in present-day northern California. After accusations of drunkenness, Grant was compelled to resign, and returned to Missouri and his family. Six years of civilian life were difficult for Grant, as he had little aptitude for business or farming. In 1859, the family moved again, to Galena, Illinois, where Grant had a job as a clerk in his father's leather shop. He worked there until 1861, when the American Civil War began.
Hiram Ulysses Grant was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio on April 27, 1822. His father Jesse Root Grant (1794–1873) was a self-reliant tanner and businessman, and his mother was Hannah (Simpson) Grant (1798–1883). Both were natives of Pennsylvania. In the fall of 1823, the family moved to the village of Georgetown in Brown County, Ohio. Grant was of English and Scottish ancestry; his immigrant ancestor Mathew Grant arrived with Puritans from England in the 1630s. Raised in a Methodist family devoid of religious pretentiousness, Grant prayed privately and was not an official member of the church. Unlike his younger siblings, Grant was neither disciplined, baptized, nor forced to attend church by his parents. One of his biographers suggests that Grant inherited a degree of introversion from his reserved, even "uncommonly detached" mother (she never took occasion to visit the White House during her son's presidency). Grant assumed the duties expected of him as a young man at home, which primarily included maintaining the firewood supply; he thereby developed a noteworthy ability to work with, and control, horses in his charge, and used this in providing transportation as a vocation in his youth.
At the age of 17, with the help of his father, Grant was nominated by Congressman Thomas L. Hamer for a position at the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point, New York. Hamer mistakenly nominated him as "Ulysses S. Grant of Ohio." At West Point, he adopted this name with a middle initial only. His nickname became "Sam" among army colleagues at the academy, since the initials "U.S." also stood for "Uncle Sam". The "S", according to Grant, did not stand for anything, though Hamer had used it to abbreviate his mother's maiden name. The influence of Grant's family brought about the appointment to West Point, while Grant himself later recalled "a military life had no charms for me". Grant, stood 5 feet 1 inches and weighed 117 lbs, when he entered West Point. Grant later said that he was lax in his studies, but he achieved above average grades in mathematics and geology. Although Grant had a quiet nature, but he established a few intimate friends at West Point, including Frederick Tracy Dent and Rufus Ingalls. He joined a fraternity group known as the Twelve in One, and was highly esteemed by his classmates. While not excelling scholastically, Grant studied under Romantic artist Robert Walter Weir and produced nine surviving artworks. He also established a reputation as a fearless and expert horseman, setting an equestrian high-jump record that stood almost 25 years. He graduated in 1843, ranking 21st in a class of 39. Grant later recalled that his departure from West Point was of the happiest of his times, and that he had intended to resign his commission after serving the minimum term of obligated duty. Despite his excellent horsemanship, he was not assigned to the cavalry, as assignments were determined by class rank, not aptitude. Grant was instead assigned as a regimental quartermaster, managing supplies and equipment in the 4th Infantry Regiment, with the rank of brevet second lieutenant.
Grant's first assignment after graduation took him to the Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis, Missouri. After recuperating from an illness that left him thin and weak, Grant reported there in September 1843. It was the nation's largest military bastion in the West, commanded by Colonel Stephen W. Kearny. Grant was happy with his new commander, but still looked forward to the end of his military service and a possible teaching career. Grant spent some of his time in Missouri visiting the family of his West Point classmate, Frederick Dent, and getting to know Dent's sister, Julia; the two became secretly engaged in 1844.
Rising tensions with Mexico saw Grant's unit shifted to Louisiana that year as a part of the Army of Observation under Major General Zachary Taylor. When the Mexican–American War broke out in 1846, the Army entered Mexico. Not content with his responsibilities as a quartermaster, Grant made his way to the front lines to engage in the battle, and participated as a de facto cavalryman at the Battle of Resaca de la Palma. The army continued its advance into Mexico. At Monterrey, Grant demonstrated his equestrian ability, carrying a dispatch through sniper-lined streets on horseback while mounted in one stirrup. President James K. Polk, wary of Taylor's growing popularity, divided his army, sending some troops (including Grant's unit) to form a new army under Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott. Scott's army landed at Veracruz and advanced toward Mexico City. The army met the Mexican forces at battles of Molino del Rey and Chapultepec outside Mexico City. At the latter battle, Grant dragged a howitzer into a church steeple to bombard nearby Mexican troops. Scott's army was soon into the city, and the Mexicans agreed to peace not long after.
In his memoirs, indicating he had learned extensively by closely observing the decisions and actions of his commanding officers, particularly admiring Taylor's methods, and in retrospect identified himself with Taylor's style. At the time he felt that the war was a wrongful one and believed that territorial gains were designed to spread slavery throughout the nation; writing in 1883, Grant said "I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day, regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation." He also opined that the later Civil War was inflicted on the nation as punishment for its aggression in Mexico.
On August 22, 1848, after a four-year engagement, Grant and Julia were married. He and Julia would go on to have four children: Frederick Dent Grant; Ulysses S. "Buck" Grant, Jr.; Ellen Wrenshall "Nellie" Grant; and Jesse Root Grant. The couple corresponded during his service in Mexico; in one letter Julia shared with him a very pleasurable dream she had of him in a beard, which he was then sporting upon his return after the war.
Lieutenant Grant was assigned to several different posts over the ensuing six years. His first post war assignments took him and Julia to Detroit and Sackets Harbor, New York, the location that made them the happiest. In the spring of 1852, he traveled in to Washington, D.C. in a failed attempt to prevail upon the Congress to rescind an order that he, in his capacity as quartermaster, reimburse the military $1000 in losses incurred on his watch, for which he bore no personal guilt. He was sent west to Fort Vancouver in the Oregon Territory in 1852, initially landing in San Francisco during the height of the California Gold Rush. Julia could not accompany him as she was eight months pregnant with their second child; further, a lieutenant's salary would not support a family on the frontier. The journey proved to be an ordeal due to transportation disruptions and an outbreak of cholera within the entourage while traveling overland through Panama. Grant made use of his organizational skills, arranging makeshift transportation and hospital facilities to take care of the sick. There were 150 4th Infantry fatalities including Grant's long-time friend John H. Gore. After Grant arrived in San Francisco he traveled to Fort Vancouver, continuing his service as quartermaster.
While on assignment out west and in an effort to supplement a military salary inadequate to support his family, Grant, assuming his work as quartermaster so equipped him, attempted but failed at several business ventures. The business failures in the West confirmed Jesse Grant's belief that his son had no head for business, creating frustration for both father and son. In at least one case Grant had even naively allowed himself to be swindled by a partner. These failures, along with the separation from his family, made for quite an unhappy soldier, husband and son. Rumors began to circulate that Grant was drinking in excess.
In the summer of 1853, Grant was promoted to captain, one of only fifty on active duty, and assigned to command Company F, 4th Infantry, at Fort Humboldt, on the northwest California coast. Without explanation, he shortly thereafter resigned from the army on July 31, 1854. The commanding officer at Fort Humboldt, brevet Lieutenant Colonel Robert C. Buchanan, a strict disciplinarian, had reports that Grant was intoxicated off duty while seated at the pay officer's table. Buchanan had previously warned Grant several times to stop his drinking. In lieu of a court-martial, Buchanan gave Grant an ultimatum to sign a drafted resignation letter. Grant resigned; the War Department stated on his record, "Nothing stands against his good name." Rumors, however, persisted in the regular army of Grant's intemperance. According to biographer McFeely, historians overwhelmingly agree that his intemperance at the time was a fact, though there are no eyewitness reports extant. Two of Grant's lieutenants corroborated this story and Buchanan confirmed it to another officer in a conversation during the Civil War.  Years later, Grant told John Eaton, "the vice of intemperance had not a little to do with my decision to resign." Grant's father, again believing his son's only potential for success to be in the military, tried to get the Secretary of War to rescind the resignation, to no avail.
At age 32, with no civilian vocation, Grant began to struggle through seven financially lean years. His father, Jesse, initially offered Grant a position in the Galena, Illinois branch of the tannery business, on condition that Julia and the children, for economic reasons, stay with her parents in Missouri, or the Grants in Kentucky. Ulysses and Julia were adamantly opposed to another separation, and declined the offer. In 1854, Grant farmed on his brother-in-law's property near St. Louis, using slaves owned by Julia's father, but it did not succeed. Two years later, Grant and family moved to a section of his father-in-law's farm; to give his family a home, built a house he called "Hardscrabble". Julia hated the rustic house, which she described as an "unattractive cabin". During this time, Grant also acquired a slave from Julia's father, a thirty-five-year-old man named William Jones. Having met with no success farming, the Grants left the farm when their fourth and final child was born in 1858. Grant freed his slave in 1859 instead of selling him, at a time when slaves commanded a high price and Grant needed money badly. For the next year, the family took a small house in St. Louis where he worked, again without success, with Julia's cousin Harry Boggs, as a bill collector. In 1860 Jesse offered him the job in his tannery in Galena, Illinois, without condition, which Ulysses accepted. The leather shop, "Grant & Perkins", sold harnesses, saddles, and other leather goods and purchased hides from farmers in the prosperous Galena area. He moved his family to Galena before that year.
Although unopposed to slavery at the time, Grant kept his political opinions private and never endorsed any candidate running for public office before the Civil War. His father-in-law was a prominent Democrat in Missouri, a factor that helped derail Grant's bid to become county engineer in 1859, while his own father was an outspoken Republican in Galena. In the 1856 election, Grants cast his first presidential vote for the Democratic candidate James Buchanan, saying he was really voting against Fremont, the Republican candidate. In 1860, he favored the Democratic presidential candidate Stephen A. Douglas over Abraham Lincoln, and Lincoln over the alternate Democratic candidate, John C. Breckinridge. Lacking the residency requirements in Illinois at the time, he could not vote. By August 1863, during the Civil War, after the fall of Vicksburg, Grant's political sympathies fully coincided with the Radical Republicans' aggressive prosecution of the war and for the abolition of slavery.