GRANT AS REMEMBERED BY HIS FATHER *** Three articles In the New York Ledger in March, 1868, presented in the form of six letters addressed by Jesse R. Grant, father of Ulysses S. Grant, to Robert Bonner, editor of the Ledger, attracted great public attention. “The Early Life of Gen. Grant” was a subject with wide popular appeal to Americans who had followed his career for six years, since his first notable Civil War victories, and were soon to elect him President. Grant’s own reticence and dislike of publicity had virtually hidden his life before the Civil War from the reading public. Biographies of Grant had treated his early life by passing over it quickly, by padding it out with general historical background, or by drawing upon imagination.
For the remainder of Grant’s own life the account by his father stood as the major source of information about these years. Even after it was displaced by Grants own Memoirs, biographers continued to draw upon Jesse Grant for points not covered by his son. Because Jesse Grant’s account has been so influential in forming a picture of his son, it deserves reprinting.
This time some words of warning are in order. As soon as he learned of the impending publication of his father’s articles, Grant telegraphed to Robert Bonner: “PLEASE NOT PUBLISH THE ARTICLE ANNOUNCED FOR FEBRUARY TWENTY FOURTH.
[pg. 2] TILL YOU SEE ME. I WILL BE IN NEW YORK SATURDAY.”1 Instead of waiting for Grant’s visit, Bonner replied by letter.
My dear General,
I have just received your telegram. I should have acquainted you before of my intention to publish the sketches, but I wished to be able to say with absolute truth that you knew nothing about them until you saw the announcement in the newspapers. They are excellent, & will add to your previously great popularity immensely. The most sagacious counsellor that Abraham Lincoln had in in this city says that it is impossible to conceive of anything else so well calculated to promote your election.
The letters are all written with great ability; & Henry Ward Beecher was so impressed with them that he told me–I quote his exact words: “the old man must be a splendid old fellow.” I send you an advance copy of which a large edition is already printed. Our edition is so large that we consume over a week in the printing.
The letters, as you will see, are very judiciously written. There is not a line in them which the most cautious friend of yours could want omitted or altered, or I should not have printed them. They make a most favorable impression in regard to you & also in regard to your father. His very portrait shows to everybody that he is a superior man.
I shall be glad to see you on Saturday, & shall, if you desire it, be happy to show you the rest of the letters, though perhaps you will prefer to be able to say of them all, as you can of the first, that you never saw them until they were in print.
Yours very truly, ROBERT BONNER.
N. B. If Edward Everett, overcautious as everybody knows him to have been, could say to me, as you will find by the enclosed extract, “I feel as if I could think aloud to you,” you may feel safe in trusting to my judgmt about these articles.
An even greater threat to the proposed publication came to Bonner in the form of a letter by the supposed author, Jesse Grant.
Covington Feb 22nd 68
Mr Bonner, of the N. Y Ledger
When Mr Bartlett was here looking after incidents in the life of Gen Grant; I furnished him freely with such as I thought would interest the public–But at that time I had no thought of the matter being published over my name–And when Mr Bartlet read the letters to me for my approval & signature, I felt, & expressed misgivings about the propriety of leting them appear before the public over my name. Mr B. however quieted my misgivings to some extent, & I signed them.
As I feared other papers & writers have […..] upon your notice of the publication and are trying to make some capital out of them, last
[pg. 3] evening I recd a letter from the Gen, asking me to have the publication stoped–Also a letter from a Gentleman in N Y to a member of his staff, suggesting the same thing–I would therefore respectfully ask that the letters be withheld from publication. If however you wish to publish the facts you can do so, by so changing the language as to be written by Mr B. or by Annonimas, & so entire withhold my name–
You know the Gen is rather modest, and does not wish it infered that he is seeking the Presidency; for really he would rather decline it, if he were to consult his own personal interest and feelings–If he consent to run, it will be through a sense of duty to the country, & not through any personal ambition–
My respects to Mr Bartlett & believe me your most
Truly J. R. GRANT3
Bonner replied to Jesse Grant in much the same flattering tone he had used with his son.
NEW YORK, Feb. 26 1868.
J. R. Grant, Esq.
I rec.d your letter of the 22nd inst. this mning. Your letters in the Ledger are very much praised by people & by the newpapers, & are doing Genl Grant a great deal of good. I have seen but one exception & that is the Cin. Com. a mean contemptible Chase paper, which lies in saying that I ever applied to Genl Grant himself to write.
I rec.d a telegram from Genl Grant a week ago yesterday at the same time be wrote to you, & I enclose you a copy of the letter I sent to him in reply. This letter I have no doubt convinced him that the articles would do him good, as, after he rec.d it he made no further objection to their publication. I suppose the trouble at Washington confines the Genl there, as he telegraphed me he would be here last Saturday. He is in the habit of calling upon me when he visits the city; & I should like to have him stop in just now, & see the files of newspapers from different parts of the country which I have, containing favorable notices of your account of his early life. The letters are all printed but two, as you will see from the enclosed advance copy; & if we did not print the last two, it wd be an injury to the Genl. The letters would not have done him a hundredth part of the good they do, if they had been published anonymously, even though dictated as they are by you. They are very satisfactory to the public, & being genuine they put an end to the silly & injurious trash which wd otherwise be printed & circulated about him. They are not liable to objection on the ground of writing him up as a Presidential candidate, for you made no reference to politics whatever, & no one could tell from your letters to which party he belongs.
The press is all in our favor, & the spiteful envious Com. even if there were a dozen such, wd amount to no more than a drop in the bucket.
Yours truly ROBERT BONNER
[pg. 4] N. B. On the opposite page, I place a few of the notices. You will see that one of the literary papers–the Evening Mail–compares your history of the Genl’s early life to Queen Victorias interesting account of her going [cancelled] journey through the Highlands, which she has recently published;–a number of people have said that your articles are the best of the two.
Though Bonner had previously shown skill as an enterprising and resourceful publisher, just how Bonner managed to remove the remaining objections of the Grants is unknown. Born in Ireland, he had come to the United States at the age of fifteen to learn the trade of printer, eventually acquired a print shop of his own, then purchased an unprofitable weekly called the Merchant’s Ledger and Statistical Record. Bonner changed the name to New York Ledger, and improved his own ledger by dropping the business news in favor of fashionable genteel fiction supplemented with autobiographies by notables of the time. Bonner built a large circulation through judicious advertising and was, alas, a pioneer in advertising irritants: sometimes he purchased full newspaper pages on which he ran one sentence in small print repeated thousands of times; or he printed a chapter from one of his serials, ended it at a suspenseful moment, and told readers to read the remainder in the Ledger. A goodly portion of the publishing profits were invested in horseflesh, for Bonner had a passion for fine racehorses. Grant, who shared Bonner’s interest in horses, remained friendly after the publication of the articles by his father.
In publishing “The Early Life of Gen. Grant,” Bonner executed a coup much admired and envied by his rivals. The account appeared to have more authority than it really possessed. The correspondence between Banner and the Grants does not clarify whether the letters represent verbatim
[pg. 5] transcriptions of Jesse Grant’s words or a reporter’s presentation of his reminiscences, though the latter is more likely. Unaware that the articles were anything other than letters written in full by Jesse Grant, biographers have combed them for information on his son’s life. In them originate stories so often repeated since that they have become virtually inseparable from Grant’s biography.
The Early Life of Gen. Grant By his Father.
Written expressly for the Ledger.
COVINGTON, KY., Jan. 17, 1868.
ROBERT BONNER, Esq.–Dear Sir: You inform me that you wish to publish some articles about General Grant; and, in order that they may be perfectly correct and reliable, you request me to furnish them. I have no objection to doing so, except the difficulty which I labor under, at present, of committing them to paper. Having acquired, when very young, some facility in the use of the pen, I was, for many years, made secretary of almost every public meeting which I attended where clerical services were required; and through life I have been in the habit of doing a great deal of writing; but, lately, I have written so much that it has affected the nerves and muscles of my right arm so as to partially disable it temporarily, and make the use of it, for much length of time, inconvenient.
You inform me that you wish me to tell you something about General Grant’s ancestors, and of my own history.
The General comes of a good fighting stock. His great-grandfather, Captain Noah Grant, a native of Windsor, now Tolland, Connecticut, was killed in the battle at White Plains, in 1756; his great-grandfather’s brother, Lieutenant Solomon Grant, was killed in the same battle. I have in my possession an original muster-roll made out by Captain Noah Grant, in 1755–the year before his death. His own name heads it as captain; the names, dates of service, and “quality” of the men are duly entered in separate columns; and, as illustrative of the sentiments of those early days, one hundred and twelve years ago, on the military aspect of color, I may quote the following designations of some of the privates: “Prince, negro.” “Jupiter, negro.”
Captain Noah Grant’s son, Noah Grant, also a native of Connecticut, was my father; and, if he did not get killed in battle like his worthy sire, it was not because be did not perseveringly take all the chances of such a death, for he fought in the Revolutionary war, from beginning to end–over seven years. He was a lieutenant of militia at the battle of
[pg. 6] Lexington. This long period of soldiering spoilt him for all financial business. My mother–who was his second wife–was an excellent manager; and, while she lived, the family were always in comfortable circumstances; but after her death–in April, 1805–we had to separate, and that impressed upon the minds of all of us a lesson which we never forgot. She left seven children–the oldest only twelve. Every one of them subsequently became wealthy. My father was born rich, and was a man of education; but he died poor. His children were born poor, but all acquired a comfortable competency.
I was born in Westmoreland county, Pennsylvania, January 23, 1794. When I was five years of age, I was taken by my father, who emigrated with his family, to that part of the northwestern territory which is now Columbiana county, Ohio. When I was ten years of age, we moved to Portage county, in the Western Reserve. At sixteen, I was regularly apprenticed to my half-brother, to learn the tanning business, at Maysville, Kentucky. I faithfully served out my apprenticeship; and, soon after I became of age, set up business for myself, at Ravenna, Portage county, Ohio.
Here I suffered a severe and protracted illness from fever and ague, which finally compelled me to relinquish business. The savings of four years were consumed by the expenses of this sickness. In 1820, I settled temporarily at a small place called Point Pleasant, situated directly on the Ohio river, twenty-five miles above Cincinnati; and, in June 1820, I was married to Miss Hannah Simpson, and commenced housekeeping at that place.
Here, on the 27th day of April, 1822, our first child, Ulysses S. Grant, was born. The house in which this event occurred is still standing.
Five other children–three daughters, and two sons–were subsequently added to our family–one son and one daughter, both grown and both single, died of consumption, during the late war.
Industry, frugality, and perseverance made me fortunate in business and enabled me to accumulate a competency for myself and my family. In 1854, at the age of sixty, I measurably retired; that is, I withdrew from the direct personal supervision of my business.
My sons, Simpson Grant–since deceased–and Orvil L. Grant–now of Chicago–continued the business for twelve years, in my name, and made more than twice as much money as we had ever made before. We always had the reputation of making the very best of leather–we tanned with nothing but oak, and that made it superior.
About two years ago, I had made up my mind that I should enjoy more seeing the principal part of my property in the possession of my children than I should keeping it in my own. General Grant said he had done nothing towards making it, and he did not want any of it. The Government had provided for him so well that I acquiesced in his view. My son Orvil, who is in business in Chicago, received the larger share; and my daughters got about twenty-five thousand dollars apiece. I kept enough for myself.
My early opportunities for education were extremely limited. I never went to school but about five months in my life, though I took lessons in English grammar for four weeks after I was married.
I have taken a pretty active interest, generally, in the political questions of the day; though not to the neglect of my private affairs. I
[pg. 7] wrote the Platform which was adopted at the last Whig State convention that ever assembled at Columbus, and played a part in the first election of Salmon P. Chase as Governor of Ohio.
I was never what was technically known as an Abolitionist; but I never held a slave. I made up my mind, when I was a young man, that I would never have slaves. This was the reason that I left Kentucky and went to Ohio. I would not own slaves, and I would not live where there were slaves and not own them.
I voted for General Jackson for President every time he was a candidate–that is, three times.
In replying to your request for my photograph, I will adopt the response which I recently made to a similar application from a lady in Washington, who asked for my own and Mrs. Grant’s:
“Miss G.–My kind, good friend:
As you request, I herewith send
A neatly-taken photograph
Of Mistress Grant, my better-half.
The picture’s good, the likeness true,
Which I now present to you.
I also send you one of mine,
Though that, indeed, is not so fine:
This was taken four years ago,
Before I let my whiskers grow,
And to you may now look wrong,
But right to those who’ve known me long.
My best respects I herewith send
To you and to your room-mate friend.
And say to both, for what you want,
Just send your card to J. R. Grant.”
A copy of the photograph referred to, of Mrs. Grant, I will inclose in my next letter.
Very respectfully, yours, J. R. GRANT.
COVINGTON, KY., Jan. 18th, 1868.
ROBERT BONNER, Esq.–Dear Sir: It is said that every man thinks his wife is the best woman in the world; and if all men think as I do, the saying is correct.
Mrs. Grant was the second daughter of Mr. John Simpson, of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. She was born and brought up in that county, about twenty miles from Philadelphia. When in her nineteenth year she removed with her father to Clermont County, Ohio. The family were very highly respected; people of veracity and integrity; but not of any particular ambition beyond that of living independent farmers.
Mrs. Grant’s father was worth some property; but it was all in land, and he kept it until he died.
It was nearly three years after their removal to Clermont that we were married. A few of the neighbors expressed their surprise that one of Mr. Simpson’s daughters should marry a young man hardly yet established in business.
[pg. 8] But this did me no harm; and as soon as it was seen how I was getting along, I heard nothing more of it. I suppose there could hardly be a marriage at which somebody would not be surprised. I was not worth a dollar when I married; but I did not stay that way long; and as soon as I was known to be prosperous the neighbors seemed to think the match was exactly the thing–just what I had thought from the beginning.
At the time of our marriage, Mrs. Grant was an unpretending country girl; handsome, but not vain. She had previously joined the Methodist church; and I can truthfully say that it has never had a more devoted and consistent member. Her steadiness, firmness and strength of character have been the stay of the family through life. She was always careful, and most watchful over her children; but never austere, and not opposed to their free participation in innocent amusements. The leading passion of Ulysses, almost from the time he could go alone, was for horses. The first time he ever drove a horse alone, he was about seven and a half years old. I had gone away from home, to Ripley, twelve miles off. I went in the morning, and did not get back until night. I owned at the time a three-year old colt, which had been ridden under the saddle to carry the mail, but had never had a collar on. While I was gone, Ulysses got the colt and put a collar and the harness on him, and hitched him up to a sled. Then he put a single line on to him and drove off, and loaded up the sled with brush and came back again. He kept at it, hauling successive loads, all day, and when I came home at night, he had a pile of brush as big as a cabin.
He used to harness horses when he had to get up in the manger to put the bridle and collar on, and then turn the half-bushel over and stand on that to throw the harness on.
At eight and a half years of age he had become a regular driver, and used to work my team all day, day after day, hauling wood. There would be a man in the woods to load, and another at the house to unload, but Ulysses would drive the team.
At about ten years of age he used to drive a pair of horses alone, from Georgetown, where we lived, forty miles, to Cincinnati, and bring back a load of passengers.
When Ulysses was a boy, if a circus or any show came along, in which there was a call for somebody to come forward and ride a pony, he was always the one to present himself, and whatever he undertook to ride he rode. This practice he kept up, until he got to be so large that he was ashamed to ride a pony.
Once, when he was a boy, a show came along in which there was a mischievous pony, trained to go round the ring like lightning, and he was expected to throw any boy that attempted to ride him.
“Will any boy come forward and ride this pony?” shouted the ring-master.
Ulysses stepped forward, and mounted the pony. The performance began. Round and round and round the ring went the pony, faster and faster, making the greatest effort to dismount the rider. But Ulysses sat as steady as if he had grown to the pony’s back. Presently out came a large monkey and sprang up behind Ulysses. The people set up a great shout of laughter, and on the pony ran; but it all produced no effect on the rider. Then the ring-master made the monkey jump up on to Ulysses’ shoulders, standing with his
[pg. 9] feet on his shoulders, and with his hands holding on to his hair. At this there was another and a still louder shout, but not a muscle of Ulysses’ face moved. There was not a tremor of his nerves. A few more rounds and the ring-master gave it up; he had come across a boy that the pony and the monkey both could not dismount.
Ulysses had the habit of riding our horses, to water, standing up on their bare backs. He began this practice when about five years old. At eight or nine he would ride them at the top of their speed, he standing upon one foot and balancing himself by the bridle reins. The ground over which he used to make these performances was a little descending towards the river; a near neighbor’s boy who undertook to rival him in speed, although without standing up, was unfortunately thrown from his horse and killed.
He always broke his own horses. I never knew a horse to balk with him. He used to get one colt perfectly broken, and then put another in by the side of him. He had a most wonderful faculty for breaking horses to pace; it became known in the neighborhood, and people used to apply to him to break their horses to pace; but he had an idea that it was degrading and would never undertake it.
One day a neighbor came to me and said: “Ulysses has a remarkable faculty to teach a horse to pace; I have a fine young horse: now how can I get Ulysses to teach him to pace?”
Said I: “You mustn’t say a word to him about it; but send him on a mission to some place, and get him, while he is gone, to teach the horse to pace.”
Said he: “I will do it.” So he came over again and said to Ulysses: “I want to send a letter, in a hurry, thirteen miles, to Decatur, and I will give you two dollars to get on my horse and carry it.”
Ulysses was then nine or ten years old. He was fond of making money, and fond of that kind of business, and he answered: “I will go.”
Just as he was starting off the owner of the horse cried out after him: “I want you to teach that horse to pace.”
The horse had never paced a step before. But Ulysses accomplished the task. He returned the horse at night a perfect pacer. The letter was all a sham; Ulysses found out the trick, and nobody after that could ever get him to break a horse to pace.
When Ulysses was in his twelfth year he was very small for his age. At that time I had taken the contract to build the jail in Brown County. The prison part was to be of logs hewn a foot square and fourteen feet long. These had to be hauled about two miles from the woods, where they were cut to the site of the jail. I, generally worked small or rather medium sized horses; but I happened to have one very large one. A neighbor had another about the same size, and Ulysses was so anxious that I should buy him that he said to me one day: “Father, if you will buy that horse I will drive team until all the logs are hauled.” I agreed to do it, but without any idea that he could possibly hold out to work the team over a week–he was such a little bit of a fellow. I even hired another man to work the team and told him to go along with Ulysses; but not to let him know, until the boy was tired out, what he was hired for. The man accompanied him for a
[pg. 10] number of days, when he came to me and said: “There is no use in my going with that boy any longer; he understands the team and can manage it as well as I can, and better too. There’s no use in my following him round.”
One day, after hauling a load, Ulysses took the team out, and said to me:
“The men are not in the woods, hewing, today, and there is no need of my going back this afternoon, as I can keep up with their hewing tomorrow; and there is nobody there to help load.”
“Nobody there to help load?” said I. “Why, how did you load this morning?”
“Oh, Dave and I loaded,” he answered.
Dave was the name of the big horse I had bought.
“You and Dave loaded! What do you mean?” said I, for I considered it absolutely impossible that a child of his size should have got such immense logs into the wagon without help.
“Yes,” said he, “Dave and I loaded. I took a chain and hitched on to the end of the logs, and we managed to get them in.”
He then explained how it was done. A large sugar tree had been felled, so that it lay aslant, one end resting on the ground and the other elevated. He had hitched the horse, Dave, to the end of a hewn log, and hauled it up on to this sugar tree, the end projecting over far enough to back the wagon under it. Three made a load; and when he had got three hauled up in this way, he backed the hind end of the wagon up under them, and hitching the powerful horse in front by means of a long chain which extended over the whole length of the wagon-body, he pulled them, one at a time, into the wagon. This was much talked of in the neighborhood, as it was considered a great achievement for a boy of his size. He worked the whole seven months and until the job was finished, hauling these logs, and other material for the building, with the exception of a single week. That week I sent him to Louisville. It was necessary for me to have a deposition taken there, to be used in a law suit in which I was engaged in the State of Connecticut. I had written more than once about it to my lawyers, but could not get the business done. “I can do it,” said Ulysses. So I sent him on the errand alone. Before he started I gave him an open letter that he might show the captain of the boat, or any one else, if he should have occasion, stating that he was my son and was going to Louisville on my business. Going down he happened to meet a neighbor with whom he was acquainted; so he had no occasion to use the letter. But when he came on board a boat to return the captain asked him who he was. He told him; but the captain answered: “I cannot take you. You may be running away.” Ulysses then produced my letter, which put everything right; and the captain not only treated him with great kindness, but took so much interest in him as to invite him to go as far as Maysville with him, where he had relatives living, free of expense. He brought back the deposition with him, and that enabled me to succeed in making a satisfactory adjustment of my suit.
Yours, very respectfully, J. R. GRANT.
1. Feb. 19, 1868, Grant Papers, Library of Congress.
2. Undated copy, ibid.
3. Feb. 22, 1868, ibid.
4. Feb. 26, 1868, ibid.