[pg. 19] THREE DOUBTFUL GRANT LETTERS *** Early letters of Ulysses S. Grant are rarely found because nobody realized their historical importance before Grant became a general in the Civil War. The earliest known letter from Grant to his father dates from 1856, and no letter to his mother is known. Virtually all of Grant’s existing personal letters prior to the Civil War are addressed to his fiancee and wife, Julia Dent Grant. Three purported Grant letters to his parents, however, are printed in The Tanner-Boy: A Life of General U. S. Grant by Major Penniman, published in 1864 in Boston.
“Major Penniman” was the pseudonym of Charles Wheeler Denison (1809-1881), a newspaperman and clergyman born in New London, Connecticut. He was the editor of the Emancipator, an antislavery journal published in New York. During the Civil War he spoke for the North to the mill workers of Lancashire, England, and spent the last two years of the war as post chaplain at Winchester, Virginia, and hospital chaplain in Washington.
Denison published a volume of poetry in 1845, and for the rest of his life was a prolific writer of uplifting novels and biography. During the Civil War he wrote juvenile biographies of General Grant (The Tanner-Boy), General Nathaniel P. Banks (The Bobbin Boy), and General Winfield Scott Hancock (Winfield, the Lawyer’s Son), as well as an adult biography of General Sheridan. “Major Penniman” was the name he used for children’s books. His wife, Mary Andrews Denison, who served as a hospital nurse [pg. 20] while her husband was a chaplain, wrote approximately sixty novels, mostly of the Sunday School variety. Almost forgotten today, the Denisons were once extremely popular writers, with Mrs. Denison generously represented in the dime novel series published by Beadle.
The Tanner-Boy was apparently successful, for the publishers reprinted it as late as 1896 with “Tenth Thousand” on the title-page. The early Grant letters were printed in The National Republican on November 5, 1879, and used by William Ralston Balch in a biography of Grant published in 1885. They were quoted by Hamlin Garland in an 1898 Grant biography and by Lloyd Lewis in 1950 in Captain Sam Grant. Below are the letters as they appeared in The Tanner-Boy.
My dear Mother,–I have occasionally been called to be separated from you; but never did I feel the full force and effect of this separation as I do now. I seem alone in the world, without my mother. There have been so many ways in which you have advised me, when, in the quiet of home, I have been pursuing my studies, that you cannot tell how much I miss you. When I was busy with father in the tannery and on the farm, we were both more or less surrounded by others, who took up our attention, and occupied our time. But I was so often alone with you, and you spoke to me so frequently in private, that the solitude of my situation here at the academy, among my silent books and in my lonely room, is all the more striking: it reminds me all the more forcibly of home, and most of all, my dear mother, of you. But, in the midst of all this, your kind instructions and admonitions are ever present with me. I trust they may never be absent from me, as long as I live. How often I think of them! and how well do they strengthen me in every good word and work!My dear mother, should I progress well with my studies at West Point, and become a soldier for my country, I am looking forward with hope to have you spared to share with me in any advancement I may make. I see now, in looking over the records here, how much American soldiers of the right stamp are indebted to good American mothers. When they go to the field, what prayers go with them! what tender testimonials of maternal affection and counsel are in their knapsacks! I am struck, in looking over the history of the noble struggle of our fathers for national independence, at the evidence of the good influence exerted upon them by the women of the Revolution. Ah! my beloved friend, how can the present generation ever repay the debt it owes the patriots of the past for the sacrifices they have so freely and richly made for us? We may well ask, Would our country be what it is note, if it had not been for the greatness of our patriotic ancestors?
Let me hear from you by letter as often as convenient, and send me such books as you think will help me. They can be forwarded through the courtesy of our member of Congress.
Faithfully and most lovingly your son,
U. S. West-Point Military Academy,
June 4, 1839.
[pg. 21] I find much here that makes me love my dear native land more than ever I am happy in the fact that this stronghold of nature is safely in the hands of the United States. Do you know, father, that it is called the Gibraltar of America? I think that is a very proper name for it. The hills are so different from thaw we have in our part of Ohio! They come down steep to the water’s edge; and the points of land shut in so close from one bank of the river to the other, that, when you are below, you can hardly see the way up; and, when you are above it is hard to see the way down. The cliffs rise one above another to towering heights, all scarred with ragged rocks, and crowned on their wild summits with lofty trees. It seems as if the foot of man could never get to the tops, the paths are so full of masses of shattered precipices that lie strewn about in chaotic confusion. I have found my way to the highest peak, however; and was well repaid for my struggle by the view of the noble Hudson beneath my feet, and the distant Catskill Mountains above my head. The highlands here are splendid to behold; and the opening prospects of the east and west shores of the river, with their shady groves, their smiling farms and dotted towns, are beautiful indeed. The steamers and vessels are seen busily passing to and fro in the majestic stream; and, close down by the shore, the pennon of the railway train is fluttering in the breeze. I catch a far-off glimpse of the hills in Connecticut and Massachusetts, resting, like battle-smoked war-shields, against the sky. The rich pastures of Orange County, New York, skirted with herds of cattle, spread out like a pictured carpet before me; and over all bend the arching heavens, where the rifted clouds march on like the squadrons of an army.
As I return from my walk, refreshed by the exercise, inspirited by the grand and varied scenery, and better prepared for my studies, I pass by the cemetery of the academy, where some of our cherished dead repose. Here is the monument erected by our grateful country to the brave hero, Kosciusko, who fell on the field of battle, on American soil, fighting for the liberties of mankind. You remember, father, the line that is recorded of him,–
‘And Freedom shrieked when Koscuisko fell.’
I am rendered serious by the impressions that crowd upon me here at West Point. My thoughts are frequently occupied with the hatred I am made to feel toward traitors to my country, as I look around me on the memorials that remain of the black-hearted treason of Arnold. I am full of a conviction of scorn and contempt, which my young and inexperienced pen is unable to write in this letter, toward the conduct of any man, who, at any time, could strike at the liberties of such a nation as ours. If ever men should be found in our Union base enough to make the attempt to do this; if, like Arnold, they should secretly seek to sell our national inheritance for the mess of pottage of wealth, or’ power, or section,–West Point sternly reminds me what you, my father, would have your son do. As I stand here in this national fort, a student of arms under our country’s flag, I know full well how you would have me act in such an emergency. I trust my future conduct, in such an hour, would prove worthy the patriotic instructions you have given.
Ulysses Sidney Grant.
In Camp, en route to Mexico,
May 10, 1847.
My dear Parents,–We are progressing steadily toward the Mexican capital Since I last wrote you my position has been rendered more responsible and [pg. 22] laborious. You may learn the progress of the old Fourth by the paper; and I do not mean you shall ever hear of my shirking my duty in battle. My new post of quartermaster is considered to afford an officer an opportunity to be relieved from fighting; but I do not and cannot see it in that light. You have always taught me that the post of danger is the post of duty. That is the way Warren looked at it, you remember, when he asked Gen. Putnam where he would send him, in the battle of Bunker Hill. “I shall send you, Mr. President,” replied Putnam (for you recollect that Warren was the President of the Continental Congress at that time), “to a place of safety.”–“No, General,” said Warren quickly: “send me where the fight may be the hottest; for there I can do the most good to my country.”
So I feel in my position as quartermaster. I do not intend it shall keep me from fighting for our dear old flag, when the hour of battle comes.
But I must not talk all the time about war. I shall try to give you a few descriptions of what I see in this country. It has in it many wonderful things, you are aware, so different from Ohio, West Point, and the Indian territories of Missouri.
Mexico is in many parts very mountainous. Its hillsides are crowned with tall palms, whose waving leaves at a height of fifty or sixty feet from the ground present a splendid appearance. They toss to and fro in the winds like plumes in a helmet; their deep green glistening in the sunshine, or glittering in the moonbeams, in the most beautiful manner. The table-land is high and pleasant, interspersed with many verdant valleys. Some of the mountains, near the coast of the Pacific Ocean, are very lofty, and volcanic in their character. One of these, on the extreme northern border, is over ten thousand feet high above the plain; and the plain is supposed to be eight thousand feet above the level of the sea.
The more central part of the country, through which we are passing, does not have so many high mountains; but it is very much broken, and some of the cliffs are very steep, and the gorges below very deep. As we pass along from the seaboard to the interior we cannot but be struck with the influence produced on the atmosphere by this mountain air. Mexico, you recollect, is located in the torrid zone, where the weather is supposed to be always warm; but here we find it temperate and healthy to a remarkable degree. The soil abounds with grain, such as wheat and maize, and vegetables, sugar-cane, roots, and fruits of various kinds. With proper cultivation, cotton can be produced in large quantities. The number of plants that yield balsams, gums, resins, and oils, is very great. Below the surface of the earth are to be found gold, silver, copper, lead, iron, tin, zinc, sulphur, alum, vitriol, cinnibar, ochre, quicksilver, and other mineral productions. In some places are to be found diamonds, amethysts, cornelians, and other precious stones. There are in the hills, sometimes, great masses of loadstones, as large as the largest houses; and quarries of jasper, porphyry, and moot beautiful green and golden marble. The manufactures are earthen and stone ware, glass, spirits, sugars, tissues of cotton, paper, woollen and silk fabrics. Very large supplies of medical minerals and herbs are constantly produced from the interior.
All kinds of horned cattle abound in these parts of Mexico. They range over the immense plains in droves, occasionally numbering forty thousand. Their meat is not always the most desirable; but their hides are sent in great quantities to England, France, and the United States. Over ten millions of hides of cattle, and skins of smaller animals, are at times sent away from Mexico in a single year.
I have been much delighted with the Mexican birds. They are found here in immense numbers. There are over two hundred different kinds peculiar to the country. Many of these have a plumage that is superlatively splendid; but the display of their music does not equal that of their colors. The [pg. 23] singing of the Mexican birds, as a general thing, is not as clear nor as nor as varied as that of the birds of the United States. They beat ours in show; but they do not equal them in harmony.
The city of Mexico, to which we are now marching, and which we expect to possess in a few weeks, is, as you know, one of the most beautifully located in the world. It was originally built with great care. The streets are wide; and as the cooling winds come down from the neighboring mountains, sweeping over fields of clover, groves of magnolias, orchards of oranges, and gardens of flowers, they fill the air with a delightful and healthful fragrance. The city is built at right angles, with perfect regularity. In this respect it will compare favorably with any other capital or metropolis in either of the four quarters of the earth.
But I hear the taps as I write, and must be on the move. I have written this letter with my sword fastened on my side, and my pistols within reach; not knowing but that the next moment I may be called into battle again.
With remembrance to all our friends, I remain,
Dear parents, your son,
U. S. Grant.
Mr. Jesse R. Grant, Georgetown, Brown County, O.
If these letters were authentic they presumably were still in existence in 1864, by which time their historical importance would have been appreciated. There is no indication of their history or present existence, although other letters from Grant to his father do exist. One of the printed letters is signed “Ulysses Sidney Grant,” despite the evidence that at the time Grant used the signature “Ulysses. H. Grant” and this version of Grant’s name was a private delusion of Major Penniman. The letter from Mexico is addressed to Jesse Grant at Georgetown, Ohio; Jesse Grant had moved to Bethel some years earlier, something his son knew and Major Penniman did not.
Nowhere in these letters are there references to other members of the family, friends, or anything else of a personal nature. The one known Grant personal letter of West Point days (written to a cousin) is full of such matters. And the authentic letter shows Grant impressed with the patriotic traditions of West Point but by no means enthusiastic over army life. The letters in The Tanner-Boy are insufferably priggish; Grant was not. For stylistic parallels one need look no further than the other pages of The Tanner-Boy; the signature is Grant, but the voice is the [pg. 24] voice of Major Penniman.
A glance at The Tanner-Boy is not likely to inspire confidence in the authenticity of the letters; in fact, the first page of the introduction refers to the hero as Ulysses Sidney Grant. In the early pages are several boyhood conversations of Ulysses in quotation marks, and even some quoted ruminations (“I must make up in wit what I lack in strength.”). The narrative bubbles with inaccuracies but never lacks moral lessons for young readers. In short, this is a familiar type of nineteenth century children’s literature in which a biography is used as a teaching device and the author does not feel bound by conventional canons of historical accuracy. Until such time as the originals of these letters appear, or some other evidence of their validity is uncovered, there is no reason to accept them as authentic.
NEWS NOTES *** The Ulysses S. Grant Association has received a grant of $7500 from the National Historical Publications Commission for the coming fiscal year. *** Copies of the oval table upon which Grant wrote his surrender terms at Appomattox are being sold by Biggs Antique Company, 792 Peachtree Street, N.E., Atlanta 8, Georgia. *** Allan Nevins, chairman of the editorial board of the Grant Association, recently received an honorary degree from Oxford University. Ralph G. Newman and Carl Haverlin, directors of the Grant Association, attended the ceremony.