[pg. 17] GRANT’S EARLY YEARS *** The most reliable source of information about Ulysses Grant’s life before he entered West Point at the age of seventeen is what Grant himself recalled when he wrote his Memoirs. A series of articles about Grant’s boyhood which appeared in the New York Ledger in 1868 under the name of his father were actually written by a reporter for the Ledger who drew on Jesse Grant’s recollections. Almost all other information about Grant’s early life comes from reminiscences of acquaintances collected long after the events had taken place and are frequently tinged by an understandable eagerness to discern seeds of greatness in the young boy.
Of these reminiscences, one of the most engaging appeared in the New York Times on July 30, 1885. It has a ring of reliability in that the assessment of Grant is in accord with available facts and the general view is in harmony with Grant’s Memoirs, which were not yet available. Little is known of James N. Sanderson beyond what is available in this newspaper account; his comments to the Times reporter, however, seem sufficient to identify him as a truthful and discerning witness.
James H. Sanderson has for two years made his home at the residence of his daughter and son-in-law in the town of Gorham, in Ontario County. He was born in Georgetown, Ohio, and lived there until he was 18 years old, and has an unusually clear recollection of the early life of Gen. Grant in that place. Mr. Sanderson is 66 years of age–three years older than the General. He has been a resident of Cincinnati the greater part of his life. He was paralyzed six years ago. His residence is seven miles from the nearest village. To a correspondent of The Times, who called upon him to-day, he talked quite freely of his old friend.[pg. 18] “My memory of Gen. Grant as a boy,” said Mr. Sanderson, “has been kept particularly keen because I realized as long ago as 1847 that he was destined to become one of the famous men in the United States. I have recalled from time to time, little by little, thousands of incidents in the General’ s boyhood days in which I think myself fortunate to have been a participant. I have related his early life over and over again to my children. The earliest recollection I have of Grant was about 1830. He was then 8 years old. His father and mother had moved to Georgetown several years before, I believe. Grant and I went to the same country school in Georgetown. He was a little short, fat fellow, and I was unusually tall and lank for my age. He usually went with boys older than himself because he passed for a boy three or four years older than be really was. He had such a quiet, sedate way that made him liked by the school teachers. I do not remember much about him in his classes at school except that he was good in arithmetic. I remember that he especially liked problems in mental arithmetic. The teacher used to give us a lot of than, one after another, every other day during the term. Most of us hated than and would mike all kinds of excuses to get out of the exercise, while young Grant was anxious to have the teacher fire them at him. His mind seemed exactly fitted for solving such problems on a moment’s notice. While the majority of us pupils would be just getting the problem settled in our minds Ulysses would shout an answer. That would make the older pupils feel ashamed that such a little fellow was smarter than they were.
“My uncle, Thomas Upham, was teacher at that school for two Winters while Grant attended there. My uncle told me 20 years ago, after the General became so famous, that his former pupil’s standing in arithmetic was unusually good, but that he had no taste for grammar, geography, and spelling, although he was not noticeably dull in any of those studies. The teacher once introduced essay writing in the school, but it was not a success. Young Grant would do almost anything to avoid writing an essay, although he wrote two or three of merit for a boy of 11 or 12 years. They were very brief, and each did not consist of more than 150 words. Then an attempt was made to have the boys declaim every two weeks. This, my uncle said, was unbearable to young Grant. He spoke only once or twice, and then by the greatest exertion. He could not bear to get up and face a whole room full of boys and girls. Once, my uncle said, he spoke a selection from Washington’s Farewell Address, but he made fearful work of it, and after school said he would ‘never speak there again, no matter what happened.’ The proudest day my uncle ever experienced was when he voted for his former pupil for President of the United States in 1868. He wrote a letter to the General at Galena the same day, and in reply received an invitation to visit the General’s family. How he longed to accept the invitation! but he was too poor to make a trip from where he was in Ohio to Illinois. He died two months before President Grant was inaugurated in 1869. He fully intended to witness the inauguration, and had saved quite a sum of money for the trip South. A few days before he died he said he considered his life a successful one because he had helped educate a President of the United States and the foremost man in America.
“I first became intimately acquainted with young Grant by borrowing some books from his father’s library. There were about 35 books in it altogether, and that seemed like a mighty big book collection in those [pg. 19] days in Ohio. Ulysses said he guessed his father would let me borrow some of them, and that he himself did not care to read books, and he gained his father’s consent to loan me the books and would bring than to me one at a time, and when read would carry them back to the house. I remember that one of the books was a cheap edition of Irving’s ‘Sketch Book.’ It must have lain about the Grant house for some time, but had evidently not been read until I had it. On the fly leaf were some of the boy scrawls of Ulysses, who had written ‘Hiram U. Grant’ there in several places. Another book was a collection of articles about Methodism in America. I did not read that book very much, and I remember Grant laughed a little when I opened the book and showed how dry it was.
“In those early days the boy took a fancy to horses and delighted in getting astride one of them. In return for the books he had loaned me I several times allowed him to ride a 4-year-old colt which my father had in a lot near Georgetown village. His eyes fairly stood out with delight when I told him one day, after I had found that my father had gone several miles away from home, that he could put a bridle on the favorite animal and ride him up and down the road for half an hour. He always rode bare[-]back, except that once in a while he put a blanket across his own father’s horse for a ride. He seemed perfectly fearless of horses, and would sometimes ride at a breakneck speed, with only a bridle on the horse’s head. I can see him now, in my mind’s eye, dashing through the village at a speed that frightened nearly every female old and young in the place. Several times he begged me to allow him to let my father’s colt jump fences with him, but I feared an accident to father’s animal, and refused.
“Ulysses Grant was one of the quietest boys I ever knew, and yet he was liked by every boy in Georgetown who knew him, and that is saying a good deal, because we Western boys used to be as noisy and rollicking a lot of fellows as there ever was. There was something about Ulysses that made the boys respect him. He always seemed to be thinking and to take things that excited us to the highest pitch so easy. I don’t remember that I ever once saw him excited, and I knew him so well. Even on Fourth of July celebrations, when we were always excited all day long, he was as cool as a cucumber, although he joined in our fun as much as any one. He always had some kind of a firearm for shooting on those days. A pistol was his favorite, while we had shotguns. He was up to any lark with us, but went about everything in such a peculiarly businesslike way. He never cared much for hunting, and that was strange because there was scarcely a boy in all that region that did not love to hunt, some of them for whole days at a time. I remember he joined a party of ten of us once to go out for a three days’ hunting in the woods. We had grand success from the first hour, but he did not enter into the sport, and early on the morning of the second day he and my cousin started back to Georgetown, already tired of the excursion. I don’t remember that he ever joined us in another long hunt. He loved ‘to shoot at the mark,’ and when about 15 years of age was a good marksman. I think he won a badge for the best shooting among the boys of his age at a Fourth of July celebration.
“In swimming he was quite an expert, and many a time outswam boys larger and stronger than he, but as an athlete, in which nearly all Western boys of my day particularly prided themselves, he was not up to the average except in horsemanship, in which he, of course, was the best anywhere in our locality.
[pg. 20] “After Ulysses became 13 years old he began to work about his father’s tannery in Georgetown. When be was a little boy he used to hold the horses of men who drove up to the little tannery to transact business with his father, and would take more pleasure in that than in playing with the boys. In Summer vacations, he worked in the tannery, and worked hard, too. Many a time we had been there to get him to go for some fun with us, and he would refuse in that quiet way of his that would make us like him all the more for sticking to work. I don’t remember what particular work he ever did about the tannery. I have seen him doing a good many things–changing the hides from one vat to another, unloading tanbark from the wagons, and scraping hair from the hides before placing than, in the liquor. He seemed to be used as a general boy for all work. Of his going to West Point I have a distinct recollection. How we boys envied him when he heard that old Gen. Hamer had appointed him to the Military Academy, although I was older than Ulysses. The lad did not say much about the appointment himself until a few days before be started for the East. We all thought him about the biggest boy we had ever seen. His father, I am sure, was very sorry to lose Ulysses from home, but saw that he would never make much of a tanner. It was too much drudgery for such a young fellow as Ulysses. A short time after Ulysses went to West Point his folks moved away from Georgetown and I went to Cincinnati a little later. I did not hear anything more about Grant until about 1848, when I vent to Georgetown on a visit, and learned that he had been made a Lieutenant in the army and had done finely in the Mexican war. Some of the boys from Georgetown told me a year later that Grant had been married and was fighting Indians out West. I lost track of him until 1861, when I read that he was commanding an Illinois regiment. Of course, I have watched his wonderful career ever since.
“In 1871 I went to Washington, and sent my card to the President. I wrote ‘Georgetown, Ohio,’ at the bottom of the card. It was only a few minutes before I was called into the President’s private room at the White House. Over 100 people had been waiting for hours to see the President, and I went right in before them. It was the first time I had seen my old companion since he went to West Point. He was very cordial, and begged me to sit down for a chat with him about where I had been and what I had done since we had last met in old Georgetown. He referred to many of the people we used to know there, and remembered nearly all of them unusually well. I was surprised how he remembered even some of the middle names of the folks there and their peculiar characteristics. He recalled a few incidents which I had forgotten. Of course, our conversation was a short one. He had so much business before him that I felt uneasy at detaining him, and excused myself from his presence. He wanted me to come and see him and his family the next evening, but I had to leave Washington the next day. I intended to see him while he was in New-York, but have been such a helpless paralytic that I cannot even go a foot without help. Gen. Grant’s career has been such a wonderful one that I sometimes wonder if he could have been the very same boy I used to know so well in Ohio. Those early days in Georgetown, in the light of the General’s great achievements since 1861, seem to me like a dream.”
[pg. 21] NEWS NOTES *** The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume I: 1837-1861 will be placed on sale by Southern Illinois University Press on April 27, 1967, the 145th anniversary of Grant’s birth. The price is $15, with a ten percent reduction to those who intend to purchase the entire fifteen-volume set as issued. The first volume, edited by John Y. Simon, includes a foreword by Ralph G. Newman, President of the Grant Association; prefaces by Bruce Catton and Allan Nevins, members of the editorial board; and an introduction by the editor. All available Grant correspondence dated before the Civil War is then covered in 428 pages. The bulk of the letters were written to Julia Dent Grant, and those written during their four year engagement, 1844-48, provide a running account of Grant on the Southwestern frontier and in the Mexican War. Another large group of letters cover Grant’s two years on the Pacific Coast, 1852-54, before his resignation. The letters cover matters both great and small. One minor matter, particularly gratifying to the editor, is the conclusive evidence that Grant’s middle name was never Simpson. “Find some name begining with “S” for me Julia,” Grant wrote in 1844, “You know I have an ‘S in my name and dont know what it stand for.” Grant was stationed at Fort Vancouver when he learned that his second child had been named Ulysses S. Grant, Jr. “What does the S stand for in Ulys’s name?” he asked, “in mine you know it does not stand for anything!” While Grant describes many events and encounters of interest in themselves, nothing in these letters surpasses in value what Grant reveals about his own character, something historians have generally considered a mystery. The volume also contains maps, illustrations, and an index. *** The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant has been designed by Bert Clarke of New York and is printed by Clarke and Way. Clarke also designed [pg. 22] and printed General Grant by Matthew Arnold with a Rejoinder by Mark Twain, published last year by Southern Illinois University Press (4.25), which has recently won two design prizes. The book was chosen as a Top Honor Book by the Chicago Book Clinic and as one of the Fifty Books of the Year by the American Institute of Graphic Arts in New York City. *** The February, 1967, issue of In Britain, a magazine published by the British Travel Association, has an article by George McBride, “From Ulster to the White House,” discussing the Ulster ancestry of the Presidents of the United States. McBride states that a house belonging to Ulysses Grant’s maternal ancestors in Dergina, County Tyrone, marked with a commemorative plaque, is now the home of Isobel Simpson who is related to Grant’s mother. *** The Chicago Historical Society, which is well-known to Grant scholars for its important collection of Grant manuscripts, and which regularly exhibits the table on which Lee wrote his surrender at Appomattox, also owns some rather unusual Grant items, including Grant’s crutches, his cellarette, a pen he used in writing his memoirs, and an elaborate wedding certificate of his daughter Nellie (Mrs. Algernon Sartoris). Some of the Society’s lesser known Grant items are currently on exhibit as the April Feature of the Month.