The Early Life of Gen. Grant*
By his Father.
COVINGTON, KY., Jan. 20th, 1868.
ROBERT BONNER–Dear Sir: Perhaps it was my son’s taste for horses, and the great pleasure which he took in riding and driving, of which I gave you some account in my last letter, that prevented his ever becoming addicted, so much as most boys, to other amusements. I do not know that he ever cared for any others at all, except playing marbles; of that he was extremely fond. I believe he never danced until he went to West Point.
John Marshall, a cousin and schoolmate of his, now a prominent lawyer in Georgetown, relates the following anecdote of him:
Ulysses came to him, one day, and offered to bet a half-a-dozen marbles that he could jump twenty-five feet, at a single jump, he to select his own jumping-ground. Marshall took him up, and they made the bet. Near by the tannery was a high, perpendicular bluff. Ulysses went to the top of this and jumped off, sinking up to his middle in the soft mud where he struck; but he won the wager.
He never seemed inclined to put himself forward at all; and was modest, retiring, and reticent, as he is now. But he never appeared to have any distrust of himself, or any misgiving about his ability to do anything which could be expected of a boy of his size and age.
Self-possession was always one of his leading characteristics. An example of it occurred when he was about twelve years of age. He drove a pair of horses to Augusta, Ky., twelve miles from Georgetown, and was persuaded to remain over night, in order to bring back two young ladies, who would not be ready to leave until the next morning. The route lay across White Oak Creek. The Ohio river had been rising in the night, and the back water in the Creek was so high, when they came to cross it in returning, that the first thing they knew the horses were swimming and the water wee up to their own waists. The ladies were terribly frightened, and began to scream. In the midst of the excitement, Ulysses, who was on a forward seat, looked back to the ladies, and with an air perfectly undisturbed, merely said: “Don’t speak–I will take you through safe.” With
[pg. 12] whatever class of boys he associated he was always held and regarded among them as a leader; but his natural disposition was, without ever putting himself forward, to seek the company of men instead of boys, and of boys older than himself rather than those of his own age. This quality, I think, he took from his mother; for her stepmother, by whom she was brought up, used often to say that at seven years of age she had as much the deportment of a woman as most girls at twenty.
The first book he ever read was the Life of George Washington. He was then six or seven years of age. He was fond of school, but particularly so of the study of mathematics. His first teacher was an old gentleman, named Barney–a graduate of an Eastern college, and a man of excellent education, but of no stamina. Ulysses was then about four years old. I do not remember that he ever went to school to a woman.
When Ulysses was about twelve years old, the first phrenologist who ever made his appearance in that part of the country came to our neighborhood. He awakened a good deal of interest in the science, and was prevailed upon to remain there some time. One Dr. Buckner, who was rather inclined to be officious on most occasions, in order to test the accuracy of the phrenologist, asked him if he would be blindfolded, and then examine a head. This was at one of his public lectures. The phrenologist replied that he would. So they blindfolded him, and then brought Ulysses forward to have his head examined. He felt it over for some time, saying scarcely anything more than to mutter to himself, “It is no very common head. It is an extraordinary head.” At length Dr. Buckner broke in with the inquiry whether the boy would be likely to distinguish himself in mathematics? “Yes,” said the phrenologist, “in mathematics or anything else; it would not be strange if we should see him President of the United States.”
Ulysses had a very peaceable, equable disposition, and had no inclination to quarrel, but he would not be imposed upon. On one occasion, when he was quite small, he rescued an inoffensive boy, who worked for us, from a trick which a large number of his companions were about to perpetrate upon him. The whole crowd then made for Ulysses, and he came home for a gun to defend himself. But he was never known to pick a quarrel with any one. Neither was he in the habit of swearing. Indeed–notwithstanding he has served so long in the army–I never knew or heard of his using a profane word.
He was always industrious, and he came honestly by the disposition to be so, for he inherited it from both sides. In respect to looks he was a most beautiful child; but I thought he did not grow up as handsome as our other boys.
Very respectfully, yours, J. R. GRANT.
COVINGTON, KY., Jan. 21st, 1868.
ROBERT BONNER, Esq.–Dear Sir: Work in the tannery was something which Ulysses never fancied. He would avoid it whenever he could by driving the team; or by going to get a load of passengers and hiring a boy to work in his stead.
He would rather do anything else under the sun than work in the tannery. We lived in a sort of hollow, and the village was on the hill. When
[pg. 13] I said to him, “We shall have to go to grinding bark,” he would get right up without saying a word and start straight for the village, and get a load to haul, or passengers to carry, or something or other to do, and hire a boy to come and grind the bark.
One day we were short of hands, and I told him he would have to go into the beam room and help me. He had never worked in the beam room any. The beam room is so called because in it the hides are worked over beams when the flesh and hair are taken off with knives, after they are taken out of the lime-vat. He came along and went to work, remarking, however: “Father, this tanning is not the kind of work I like. I’ll work at it though, if you wish me to, until I am one-and-twenty; but you may depend upon it, I’ll never work a day at it after that.” I said to him: “No, I don’t want you to work at it now, if you don’t like it, and mean to stick to it. I want you to be at work at whatever you like and intend to follow. Now what do you think you would like?” He replied that he would like to be a farmer; a down-the-river trader; or get an education.
I had no farm except the one which my wife inherited, and that was rented out; I had no idea of letting him be a down-the-river trader; I had money, but I required it in my business, for it took capital to carry that on, and I could not withdraw enough to educate him without crippling my business. I thought of West Point; so I said to him, “How would you like West Point? You know the education is free there, and the Government supports the cadets.” “First rate,” said he.1
I immediately wrote to Mr. Morris, one of our Senators in Congress, from Ohio, and asked him if he knew of any vacancy at West Point, the appointment to which he could control. He replied promptly that there was a vacancy from our own Congressional district. This surprised me; for I knew that there had been an appointment to fill that vacancy a year before. It turned out, however, that the young man who had been appointed had failed to pass examination. His father, who was a proud-spirited man, kept it a secret, and did not let his son return to the neighborhood, but placed him at the private military school of Captain Partridge. After spending six months at that school the young man made another attempt to enter West Point; but failed a second time to pass the examination. This young man failed, not from a want of talent, but because he did not apply himself to study. He entered the army as a volunteer after the war broke out, and perished in the war; whether at the hand of the enemy, or by an accident, was never known, his body having been found in a river into which he had fallen from a bridge.2 His mother became and remains a devoted friend of General Grant. She has always watched his career with the deepest interest.
Our Representative in Congress at that time was the Hon. Thomas L. Hamer. I wrote right on to him stating that Senator Morris had informed me that there was a vacancy, and requesting him to appoint Ulysses. My letter reached him on the night of the 3d of March; on the next day, the 4th, his term of office expired. He knew Ulysses, and was glad to have an opportunity to appoint such a boy, after the bad luck which had attended his previous appointee; so he made the appointment at once. A day’s delay in the mail that carried my letter would have made some difference in the
[pg. 14] history of one man, if not of the country. Ulysses was entirely unprepared by any previous study, pursued with special reference to fitting for West Point, but he got through the examination and was admitted. I never saw him while at West Point, except on the occasion of one visit, which he made to his home during the furlough at the end of his second year. It was said of him that while there he was not one who took pains to make himself popular, but that all the boys liked him. I believe he went by the name of “Uncle Sam,” on account of his initials, “U. S.” A superstitious person might almost think there was something Providential about these significant initials being stuck on to him, for they were not given to him at his christening. When the question arose after his birth what he should be called, his mother and one of his aunts proposed Albert, for Albert Gallatin; another aunt proposed Theodore; his grandfather proposed Hiram, because he thought that was a handsome name. His grandmother–grandmother by courtesy–that is his mother’s step-mother–was a great student of history–and had an enthusiastic admiration for the ancient commander, Ulysses; and she urged that the babe should be named Ulysses. I seconded that, and he was christened Hiram Ulysses; but he was always called by the latter name, which he himself preferred, when he got old enough to know about it. But Mr. Hamer, knowing Mrs. Grant’s name was Simpson, and that we had a son named Simpson, somehow got the matter a little mixed in making the nomination, and sent the name in, Ulysses S. Grant, instead of Hiram Ulysses Grant. My son tried in vain, afterwards, to get it set right by the authorities; and I suppose he is now content with his name as it stands.
Mr. Hamer, who appointed him, was afterward a general in the Mexican war, and somewhat distinguished himself at Monterey. He was taken sick in Mexico, and Grant, then a lieutenant, took care of him, and finally closed his eyes in death.
As is well known, it is the practice at West Point to get some rig, run, or joke on every new-comer. Ulysses took a letter of introduction to a cadet, who told him all this, and put him on his guard. In the course of the first night, one of the cadets, dressed as an officer, entered the room where Ulysses and his chum were sleeping, and told them that one of the rules of the institution required that a task should be given them, to see how they would get through it–while laboring under the excitement consequent upon their first admission. He, then, producing a book, ordered that, before morning, they should each commit to memory a lesson of twenty pages. “All right, all right, responded Ulysses; and as soon as the pretended officer had withdrawn, he went quietly back to bed, while his companion sat up and studied all night. Of course, the recitation has not yet been called for.
Yours, very respectfully, J. R. GRANT.
COVINGTON, KY., Jan. 22, 1868.
ROBERT BONNER, Esq.–Dear Sir: The class which Grant entered at West Point contained eighty-seven members. Of thirty-nine who graduated he stood the twenty-first. All the others had enjoyed better opportunities than he for preparatory studies; and several were graduates of college
[pg. 15] before they entered West Point. Most of Grant’s demerits were of a trivial character; such as not having his coat buttoned, or his shoes tied right, or something of that kind.
Experience shows how uncertain an indication the rank at the Military Academy affords of the future success and usefulness of the officer. The present General Franklin graduated at the head of Grant’s class; and Grant himself predicted to me, at the beginning of the rebellion, that Franklin would distinguish himself in the war.
Four of his class, French, Roger, Ripley, Holloway, and Gardner, fought on the Confederate side in the rebellion.3
Grant graduated in 1843, and entered the 4th Regiment of United States Infantry as Brevet Second Lieutenant. In the fall of that year he joined his regiment at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. About four miles from the Barracks lived young Dent, a classmate to whom Grant had been very kind at West Point, and who in return invited him to his home.
Dent had two unmarried sisters;4 and to one of them Grant became engaged. But the consummation of this engagement was long postponed by the breaking out of the Mexican war. He served throughout that war, and fought in every battle under General Taylor, except Buena Vista. Before that occurred his regiment had been taken away from Taylor by General Scott.
He was in all Scott’s battles–fourteen in number–in Mexico, and was highly complimented for skill and gallantry, and twice breveted for meritorious services.
Grant participated in the crowning victory, the capture of the city of Mexico, September 13th and 14th, 1847; and Major Francis Lee, commanding the fourth infantry in that battle, in his official report says:
“At the first barrier the enemy was in strong force, which rendered it necessary to advance with caution. This was done; and when the head of the battalion was within short musket range of the barrier, Lieutenant Grant, 4th infantry, and Captain Brooks, 2d artillery, with a few men of their respective regiments, by a handsome movement to the left, turned the right flank of the enemy, and the barrier was carried.” And he mentions Lieutenant Grant as “among the most distinguished for their zeal and activity.”
While he was gone to the Mexican war, he wrote home to us often, until they reached Vera Cruz. Then we did not hear from him again until they returned there. During this time his mother’s hair turned white from her anxiety about him.
At the close of the war he returned home and was married in 1848 to Miss Julia S. [B.] Dent, to whom, as has already been remarked, he was engaged before he went to Mexico. Her brother, who was his classmate, is now General Dent; and her father, Mr. Frederick Dent, formerly of St. Louis, now eighty-one years of age, resides with General Grant at Washington.
The regiment to which Grant belonged was stationed on the Lake Shore, with headquarters at Detroit. He was Quarter-Master. Subsequently they were removed to Sackett’s Harbor, where they remained for some time; and then to Governor’s Island–for only a few days, however. In 1852 they were ordered nominally to California, but really to Oregon. They made scarcely any stop in California, but proceeded on to Astoria. Grant was obliged to
[pg. 16] leave his family–consisting of his wife and little child–behind. They came to our house, where, soon after, his second child was born.
In 1853 he was promoted to a full captaincy, the rank which he had held by brevet before, and assigned to the command of a company away in the interior of Oregon.5 In 1854, seeing no prospect of having his family with him if he remained in the army, he resigned and came home.
His wish to become a farmer was now realized. Mr. Dent, his father-in-law, gave his wife a farm about nine miles from St. Louis, in Missouri, and I stocked it. Grant farmed it for about four years, at the end of which he was not so well off pecuniarily as when he began. To be sure, he had made some improvements on the place; he, had built a new house–in part with his own hands–of hewn logs, for himself to live in. During all this time he worked like a slave. No man ever worked harder. He used to market wood. He kept men to chop it in the woods, and he hauled it to St. Louis. He had two teams; he drove one himself, and his little son drove the other. Grant was a thorough farmer, and an excellent ploughman–though he never ploughed a great deal.
Although Grant made no money on his farm, yet I think he derived great benefit from his experience in civil life, when he came to re-enter the army; for the practical conduct of complicated military affairs, I consider that he was far better qualified to take the command of our great armies than he would have been If he had remained continuously in the service.
Very respectfully yours, J. R. GRANT.
COVINGTON, KY., Jan. 23, 1868.
ROBERT BONNER, Esq.–Dear Sir: At the end of four years of unremitting labor, finding that farming didn’t pay, Grant concluded to quit it, and moved into St. Louis, and went into the real-estate business with a man named Boggs. After trying this a few months, he saw that the profits were not sufficient to support two families, and he told his partner, “You may take the whole of this, and I’ll look up something else to do.” He next obtained a place in the Custom-house, which he held for about two months, when the Collector who appointed him died, and he left.
I owned a leather store at Galena, Ill., which was conducted by my two other Sons. Grant went to Galena and joined them in that.
He took right hold of the business with his accustomed industry, and was a very good salesman. He had a faculty to entertain people in conversation, although he talked but little himself. But he never would take any pains to extend his acquaintance in Galena; and after he joined the army, and had begun to be distinguished, citizens of the town would stop in front of our store, within six feet of the windows, and look in to see which of the Grants it was that was absent and had suddenly become famous.
After the fall of Fort Sumter, Grant wrote to me at Covington, asking me if I did not think, as he had been educated at the expense of the Government, he had better go into the army? I wrote back that I thought he had better. But before he received my answer, and within six days after the fall of Fort Sumter, he was drilling a company.
This company offered to elect him captain; but a gentleman who desired a higher military position, and thought this would serve as a stepping-stone
[pg. 17] to it, frankly confessed his aspirations to Grant, who told hime that he should not be a candidate himself, and also told the company that he should decline; but he agreed to go with them to Springfield, the capital of the State.
On this mission he was accompanied by the Hon. E. B. Washburne, the Representative in Congress from the Galena district, who introduced him to Gov. Yates, the Governor of the State. Mr. Yates did not appear to take much notice of him at the time; but, a day or two afterwards, sent for him and asked him:
“Do you understand how many men it takes to make a company? And how many to make a regiment? And what officers each must have?”
“Oh, yes,” replied Grant, “I understand all about such matters; I was educated at West Point, and served eleven years in the regular army.”
“Well, then,” said the Governor, “I want you to take a chair, here in my office, as Adjutant-General of the State.”6
Grant remained in this capacity several weeks, when he made a short visit to us at Covington. While he was absent from Springfield, Mr. Burk[e], a young man employed in our house at Galena, called on Gov. Yates, and, in the course of the interview, the Governor said to him:
“What kind of a man is this Grant? He has been educated at West Point and says he wants to go into the army; several regiments have offered to elect him colonel, but he says, ‘No;’ and declines to be a candidate. What does he want?”
“You see, Governor,” says Burk, “Grant has only served in the regular army, where they have no elections, but officers are promoted according to seniority. Whatever place you want him for, just appoint him without consulting him at all beforehand, and you will find he will accept whatever he is appointed to.”
Acting on this suggestion, the Governor telegraphed to me that he had appointed Ulysses Colonel of the 21st Illinois Infantry. But Grant had left for Springfield before the telegram was received, by way of Terre Haute, where Reynolds, a favorite classmate of his, was living. On his arrival at Springfield he was notified of his appointment, and assumed command of his regiment, which entered at once into active service in Missouri, under Brigadier-General Pope.
At the beginning of the war, Grant, or rather Mrs. Grant, owned three very likely slaves in Missouri; but he told them before any Proclamation of Emancipation was issued to go free and look out for themselves.
The history of General Grant’s subsequent military career, of his great Western and Eastern campaigns, and of his respective promotions up to his present rank, is a part of the familiar history of the country; and I do not propose to enter upon that. When the great outcry was made against him after the battle of Pittsburgh Landing, one of his aids wrote several letters in his defence, and sent them to me for publication.7 I published one, which seemed to have a very salutary effect on public sentiment in this part of the country; but as soon as General Grant learned of it, he telegraphed me not to publish any more.
General Grant wrote to me once from the West, during the war, that the Government had asked a good deal of him, but they had never asked any
[pg. 18] more than he felt himself equal to. He always wrote in good spirits.
On his way to Washington to take command of the Army of the Potomac, he stopped an hour to see us. His mother asked him if he was not “afraid to attack Lee.” “Not at all,” he replied. “I know Lee as well as he knows himself. I know all his strong points, and all his weak ones. I intend to attack his weak points, and flank his strong ones.”
He wrote to us occasionally throughout the war; but his time was too much occupied for him to write frequently or at much length. His mother suffered much less anxiety about him than she did during the Mexican War. She seemed to feel throughout the Rebellion, that he had been raised up for the particular purpose of that war, and that the same Power that had raised him up, would protect him.
His family were with us for about six months. They came up from Cairo just after the battle of Fort Donelson. There is an incident connected with their arrival at Covington which may be worth mentioning; for in a few years it will probably hardly seem possible that such an event could have occurred in the United States.
They reached Cincinnati, just across the Ohio river, opposite Covington, on Sunday morning. Mrs. Grant hired a hackman to take tier and her family over the river to our house. The hackman happened to be a mulatto–a thrifty fellow, who owned a good pair of horses and a carriage himself. He took his passengers to our house, received their fare, and started back, and had reached the bank of the river–in fact, he was actually on the float leading to the boat, and was driving on to the ferry-boat–to cross over. Just then, our enterprising city Marshal happened to espy him, and under the act prohibiting colored persons from entering the State without a pass, he arrested him. His horses and carriage were left standing in the street to take care of themselves, and the man was hurried off to prison. A stable-keeper, seeing the horses and carriage, kindly took care of them.
The colored man sent for me, and I called on Mr. Nixon, a lawyer; but it was Sunday, and nothing could be done about getting him out until Monday. On Monday we had to give bail in the sum of one hundred dollars for his appearance before the grand jury, to answer any indictment which they might find against him. The grand jury indicted him for coming into the State without a permit. Under the advice of his counsel he forfeited his bail; as that was a much less punishment than he would undoubtedly have had to suffer if he had appeared. Governor Bramlette, on being applied to, released a portion of the penalty, which was in his discretion, and the remainder had to be paid. It seems strange that when a general was absent, fighting for his country, a man should undergo this punishment, simply for taking that general’s family in a carriage to their place of destination.
In the latter part of the Mississippi campaign, the General’s oldest boy, then thirteen, accompanied him, and was with him under fire at Vicksburg. He is now a cadet at West Point.
When Gov. Yates, of Illinois, was a candidate for the United States Senate, some of the friends of Washburne, who was a rival candidate for the same office, made the point in his favor that he was the man who had brought forward General Grant; and they urged that a man who had given such a General to the country deserved to be Senator. Yates, in reply, said, that
[pg. 19] it was not true that Washburne had given Grant to the country. “God,” said he, “gave General Grant to the country, and I signed his first commission.” Then, stretching upward his right hand, he exclaimed, “and it was the most glorious day of my life when these fingers signed that commission.”
This closing letter bears the date of my seventy-fourth birthday; and wishing every reader of the Ledger a seventy-fourth birthday equally happy, I remain
Very respectfully, yours, J. R. GRANT.
[from pg. 11] * This is the conclusion of an article begun in the last issue.
1. Ulysses S. Grant later recalled his first negative reaction to the idea of attending West Point. Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (New York, 1885-6), I, 32.
2. For the connection between George Bartlett Bailey and Grant’s admission to West Point, see The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant (Carbondale and Edwardsville, Ill., 1967- ), I, 3. Bailey served as captain, 1st Ohio, in the Civil War, and lost his life, as Jesse Grant described, around Nov. 10, 1861, at Guyandotte Bridge, Va. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, 1880-1901), I, v, 412.
3. Of the West Point class of 1843, Samuel G. French, Roswell S. Ripley, Edmunds S. Holloway, and Franklin Gardner fought for the Confederacy. The name “Roger” is an error.
4. There were three Dent sisters, all unmarried when Grant first met them.
5. Actually Fort Humboldt, Calif.
6. Grant never served as adjutant general, though he worked in that office. He was paid as “aid to the Governer & Mustering Officer.” The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, II, 17n.
7. See M. J. Cramer, Ulysses S. Grant: Conversations and Unpublished Letters (New York and Cincinnati, 1897), 184-203, for the material prepared by Jesse Grant for publication.
NEWS NOTES *** The second volume of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant has received an award of merit for state history from the Illinois State Historical Society. The award was presented at a meeting at Springfield on October 30. *** General Sir James Marshall-Cornwall, a distinguished British soldier who fought in both world wars, and the author of two books on the Napoleonic wars, has recently published Grant as Military Commander (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1970). This 244 page book,
[pg. 20] crowded with handsome maps and Illustrations, follows quite closely the path taken by Grant himself in discussing the Civil War in his Memoirs. The sources are limited, mostly secondary, and the books of Bruce Catton have apparently not been consulted. The story of Grant’s Civil War campaigns is retold in readable fashion, with a few interesting asides based upon the author’s own military experience. *** Howard S. Okie’s General U. S. Grant: A Defense (New York, Washington, Hollywood: Vantage Press, 1970), is a curious analysis of Grant as a general which ends abruptly on page 72 about ten days short of Lee’s surrender. The charges against Grant are not clearly defined or explicitly refuted by the author, and most of the book consists of an account of the Civil War which closely follows Grant’s Memoirs.