Ulysses S. Grant: The n’er-do-well, the drunk, the soldier

Published 12:28 am Sunday, November 18, 2012

Grant, the man whose very name is synonymous with Vicksburg, was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, on April 27, 1822.

Although christened Hiram Ulysses Grant, his appointment to the United States Military Academy listed him as Ulysses Simpson Grant — the name by which he would forever after be known. (Due to his new initials, his fellow cadets nicknamed him “Uncle Sam,” but called him Sam for short.)

Going to West Point was his father’s idea. Grant himself later wrote, “A military life had no charms for me, and I had not the faintest idea of staying in the army even if I should be graduated, which I did not expect.”

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Except for his excellent horsemanship, Grant’s career at West Point was undistinguished. When not in class or on the drill field, Grant spent time alone reading in his room.

“Much of the time,” he confessed, “was devoted to novels, but not those of the trashy sort.” In fact, he candidly admitted, “I devoted more time to these, than to books relating to the course of study.”

Yet, he persevered and completed the rigorous curriculum for commissioning. Contrary to popular stories of Grant, he did not graduate at the bottom of his class. Rather, Sam Grant stood 21st out of 39 cadets at time of graduation in 1843 and was assigned to duty with the 4th Infantry.

The newly commissioned lieutenant reported to Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis, in September 1843. The family of his former roommate at the Point, Frederick Dent, lived nearby, and Grant soon found his way to White Haven, the Dent family estate. There he met his future wife, Julia, then only 17. The couple was engaged the following year, but due to the outbreak of war with Mexico, Grant and Julia did not marry until August 1848. Their marriage would produce four children: Fred, Ulysses Jr., called “Buck,” Ellen, whom they called “Nellie,” and Jesse.

The young lieutenant saw action in the Mexican War, where he won two citations for gallantry and one for meritorious conduct, and was promoted to captain. During this period, he served as regimental quartermaster, an experience that served him well during the Civil War, and specifically during the campaign for Vicksburg. Following the war, he was stationed in the Pacific Northwest, where he suffered a long separation from his wife and family. Grant sought solace in the bottle.

Former Vicksburg park historian Edwin C. Bearss explained that for a man of Grant’s constitution, 1,000 drinks were never enough, but one was too many. The man had a low tolerance for alcohol and his drinking caused him to neglect his duties. The situation worsened to the extent that he resigned from the army in 1854 to avoid court-martial.

Disgraced, Grant rejoined his family near St. Louis where he built a log cabin named Hardscrabble. Over the next six years he failed successively as a farmer, real estate salesman and custom house clerk. He also failed as a candidate for county engineer. With each failure he became increasingly destitute and resorted to selling firewood on the streets of St. Louis wrapped in his old army overcoat. He finally took his family to Galena, Ill., where his father established a leather store and worked as a clerk in the business run by his brothers Simpson and Orville. Grant clearly had reached the bottom of the barrel. His salvation came with the outbreak of Civil War in 1861.

Next: Grant and the start of his Vicksburg campaign.

Terrence J. Winschel is a former historian for the Vicksburg National Military Park.