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Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865

Simpson Professor of History, Brooks D.

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9780395659946: Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865

Washington, Lincoln, Grant--these were once the triumvirate of American nationalism. But, like his tomb on the Hudson, Grant's reputation has fallen into disrepair. The image many Americans hold of him is a caricature: someone "uniquely stupid," an insensitive butcher as a general, an incompetent mediocrity as president, and a drunk. Several efforts to counter this stereotype have often gone too far in the other direction, resulting in an equally distorted laudatory portrait of near-perfection. In reading the original sources, Brooks D. Simpson became convinced that Grant was neither a bumbling idiot who was the darling of fortune nor a flawless general who could do no wrong. Rather, he was a tangle of opposing qualities--a relentless warrior but a generous victor, a commander who drew upon uncommon common sense in drafting campaign plans and in winning battles, a soldier so sensitive to suffering that he could not stand to see the bloody hides at his father's tannery, a man who made mistakes and sometimes learned from them. Even as he waged war, he realized the broader political implications of the struggle; he came to believe that the preservation of the Union depended upon the destruction of slavery. Equally compelling is Grant's personal story--one of a man who struggled against great odds, bad luck, and personal humiliation, who sought joy and love in the arms of his wife and his children, and who was determined to overcome adversity and prevail over his detractors. "None of our public men have a story so strange as this," Owen Wister once observed; agreeing, William T. Sherman remarked that Grant remained a mystery even to himself. In the first of two volumes, Brooks Simpson brings Grant's story to life in an account that is readable, balanced, compelling, and definitive.

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About the Author:

Brooks D. Simpson is a professor of History at Arizona State University and the author of Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and The Politics of War and Reconstruction. He resides in Chandler, Arizona.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1 'My Ulysses' Jesse Grant exemplified what America was all about. A man of restless ambition striving to make his own way in the world, he was not shy about sharing his dreams, his hopes, and his accomplishments with anyone who would listen. Behind his drive was an understanding of what it meant to fail. Descended from good colonial stock, Jesse had watched his father, Noah Grant, fall short of the family standard. Noah's claims to military glory as a captain during the American Revolution find no support in existing records; he was overly fond of alcohol and frittered away opportunities and money. He had two sons by a first wife before she died; with his second wife, Rachel, whom he married in 1792, he had seven more children, including Jesse, born in 1794. Ten years later Rachel died in a cabin in Deerfield, Ohio. Noah was unable to hold things together, and before long the family broke up. The two youngest children went with their father to Maysville, Kentucky, where Peter Grant, Noah's son by his first marriage, was operating a tannery. The three middle children were parceled out to other families. Jesse, who was eleven, and his older sister Susan were set loose on their own.

The boy knew it would take a lot of work to make his way up in the world, but he was dead set on doing just that. For three years he scrambled to stay afloat. At fourteen he gained a job working on the farm of Judge George Tod, a member of the Ohio Supreme Court. He learned something about what might lie ahead for a hardworking lad when he saw the china bowls and silver spoons that the Tods used. Mrs. Tod did what she could to build the boy's ambition and talents, lending him books to read and urging him to find a calling at which he could prosper.

1 Jesse took the advice to heart and at sixteen decided to learn the tanner's trade. He apprenticed with his half-brother Peter, then worked at several tanneries in Ohio, including one owned by Owen Brown, whose son, John, openly denounced the "peculiar institution" of slavery. Jesse agreed with John's sentiments, explaining later that he had left Kentucky because "I would not own slaves and I would not live where there were slaves and not own them." In 1820 he moved to Point Pleasant, on the banks of the Ohio River, some twenty miles upriver from Cincinnati, and commenced working at Thomas Page's tannery in order to accumulate enough capital to open his own business. He also wanted a wife. Page pointed him in the direction of Bantam, ten miles to the north, where John Simpson and his family, migrants from Pennsylvania, had settled on land purchased from Page. Jesse was soon courting Hannah Simpson, "a plain unpretending girl, handsome but not vain," as her suitor remembered in later years. Moreover, she was quiet, allowing the voluble Jesse to hold forth uncontested. Although John Simpson was not too sure about Jesse's prospects, his wife, Sarah, loved to discuss books with the young man; having ingratiated himself with his prospective mother-in-law, Jesse found it easier to achieve his objective of matrimony. As Jesse's savings grew, John Simpson's reservations faded, and on June 24, 1821, Jesse Grant wed Hannah Simpson. The newlyweds returned to Point Pleasant, where Jesse had rented a simple white frame house next to the tannery.

2 When he was not scraping or tanning hides, Jesse Grant spent his hours reading and writing. Always willing to share his opinions with others - and never doubting his own wisdom - he liked to set down his thoughts on politics for the local paper. Hannah quietly kept house, attended the local Methodist church (bringing Jesse with her), and before long discovered that she would soon have new responsibilities. In the early hours of April 27, 1822, she gave birth to a boy, weighing ten and three-quarters pounds, with rich red-brown hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. For nearly a month the newborn went nameless: when Hannah was well enough to travel, Jesse drove his family up to Bantam, where several Simpsons had gathered to help select a name. Hannah wanted to name the boy Albert, after Pennsylvania's Albert Gallatin, who had played a prominent role in Jeffersonian politics as a diplomat and secretary of the treasury. One sister seconded the choice; another preferred Theodore. John Simpson spoke up, offering "Hiram, because it is such a handsome name." When Sarah Simpson, fresh from reading Fénelon's Telemachus and thrilled by its dramatic description of Greek heroes, opted for Ulysses, Jesse, seeing yet another opportunity to please his mother-in-law, endorsed the suggestion (perhaps he had a hand in making it, for he had lent the book to Sarah). Aware of the growing political nature of the discussion, however, and determined to offend no one, he decided to leave the choice to chance. Anne Simpson, Hannah's youngest sister, drew a slip from a hat bearing the name Ulysses. Looking to swing one more deal, Jesse then declared that the boy's name would be Hiram Ulysses - a decision designed to delight both in-laws. Fate eventually triumphed over politics: the boy would always be known as Ulysses - or, as his father would put it, "my Ulysses."

3 By the following year Jesse had accumulated enough money to strike out on his own. He moved his family inland to Georgetown, the county seat, set up his own tannery a block east of the town square, and soon settled with Hannah and their son in a new brick two-story home. The structure was an impressive sight among the log cabins and plaster walls of other residences in the small town known for the propensity of its residents to drink - no surprise in light of the two dozen distilleries in Brown County. No matter, thought Jesse - he was now set up to make a living in an area that provided a ready supply of tanning bark. He befriended the justice of the peace, Thomas L. Hamer, who shared his political preferences for Andrew Jackson and a more democratic polity, and commenced working and writing to make a name for himself. But at times his offspring stole center stage from his father. Just as Ulysses neared his second birthday, a small circus came to town. The toddler, adorned in petticoats, was fascinated by a trained pony; when the ringmaster invited members of the audience to ride the animal, Ulysses begged and implored his father until he got his way. Lifted onto the horse's back and held in place by an adult, he circled the ring several times, "manifesting more glee than he had ever shown before." Several months later, a neighbor with an odd sense of curiosity wanted to see how the child would respond to the noise of a pistol shot. As Jesse held Ulysses, the boy tugged at the trigger. Finally the weapon went off: delighted, Ulysses demanded, "Fick it again! Fick it again!" The next year, however, when the toddler heard the local physician prescribe powder to remedy an ailment, he cried out, "No, no, no! I can't take powder; it will blow me up!" Family members retold the story for years to come.

4 By the time he was three, Ulysses was joined by a brother, Samuel; later came several more brothers and sisters, until by 1839 the Grants had three boys and three girls. Jesse added to the house as he added to the family: he bought books, read newspapers, and continued to make money and broadcast his opinions. As the eldest child, Ulysses got his own room on the second floor - but just about all he could see from his bedroom window was the tannery. He did not enjoy the view. The process of tanning hides as well as the stench that resulted turned his stomach. He hated doing chores. Whenever he could, he preferred to be with living animals, especially horses, for whom he soon developed a passion. As a small boy he liked to go out in the stable and sit beside his four-legged friends. Aware of the damage an errant hoof might cause, a neighbor shared her alarm with Hannah Grant. Calmly, Hannah smiled: "Horses seem to understand Ulysses."

5 And Ulysses seemed to understand horses. He was only five years old when he learned how to stand on the back of a trotting horse, using the reins to keep his balance. At six he harnessed horses to haul brush, much to his father's surprise; when Jesse opened a small livery business, it was Ulysses who often drove passengers or carted wood. At nine he had saved up enough money to buy his first horse; local townsfolk brought him horses to break and train, and marveled as he raced through town or hugged the neck of an uncooperative colt as it bucked, kicked, and reared up on its hind hooves. When a horse had distemper, its owner would bring it to Ulysses to ride, for the best way to cure the ailment was by running the horse at a gallop to burn out the disease. Other boys tried to imitate him, sometimes prodded on by Ulysses, who teased them that their horses were too slow: one unfortunate youth was crushed to death when his mount suddenly shied and fell on him. Although Ulysses's reaction to the boy's death went unrecorded, thereafter he drew closer to the boy's mother, Mrs. Bailey, who lived just up the street. In turn she thought he was "exceedingly kind and amiable."

6 Two stories about the boy and horses suggested something deeper about the character of Jesse Grant's eldest son.
Ulysses was eleven when another circus visited Georgetown. Once more the ringmaster brought out a trained pony; once more Ulysses mounted it. This time, however, the ringmaster barked orders for the pony to throw its rider while galloping at full speed around the ring. Ulysses simply dug in his heels. Undeterred, the ringmaster brought out a monkey: it scrambled on board, grabbed Ulysses by the hair, and stared down at the boy's face. People laughed; then they grew astonished when they saw that Ulysses stayed on. There was no quit in this boy. In a similar episode young Grant earned five dollars for hanging on to a particularly slick mount.

7 And yet the boy's love of horses could also lead to embarrassment. He was only eight years old when he set his heart on buying a colt owned by Robert Ralston, a farmer who lived just west of town. Jesse, needing to expand his stable, entrusted his son to make the purchase, but only after instructing him in the fine art of negotiating, for he did not want to pay Ralston's asking price of twenty-five dollars. Accounts differ in the details of what happened next, but all agree that when Ralston asked the boy what his father would pay, Ulysses blurted out, "Papa says I may offer you twenty dollars for the colt, but if you won't take that, I am to offer twenty-two and a half, and if you won't take that, to give you twenty-five." As he later dryly remarked, "It would not require a Connecticut man to guess the price finally agreed upon."

8 This tale soon made the rounds of Georgetown. Fathers and sons alike guffawed and laughed at the business acumen of "my Ulysses"; for once Jesse was forced to listen. Ulysses Grant later recalled that the story "caused me great heart-burning . . . and it was a long time before I heard the last of it."

Biographers looking to find the man in the boy have read much into the incident. It was an early sign of his naivete in business; it illustrated his determination to gain his objective; it epitomized his guilelessness and gullibility. But Grant put his own stamp on the story. "I certainly showed very plainly that I had come for the colt and meant to have him," he recounted: Jesse's desire to cut a deal would not deter his son from what he wanted. Additional information about the aftermath tended to place the incident in a better light. Nearly four years later, the horse now nearly blind, Ulysses sold him for twenty dollars - not a bad price; two years after that, he spotted the Ralston horse "working on the tread-wheel of the ferry-boat." Nevertheless, he never forgot the teasing: "Boys enjoy the misery of their companions, at least village boys in that day did, and in later life I have found that all adults are not free from the peculiarity."

9 Horses were more honest than people, or so Ulysses seemed to believe, for he gave himself to them as he never did to his friends. He trusted them, and they responded to him. Nor was his compassion limited to horses. He showed little interest in hunting; as for his father's tanning trade, he frankly "detested it," preferring to work his father's fifty-acre farm on the outskirts of town or do anything else involving horses. He hauled and plowed; he transported passengers, sometimes as far as Cincinnati and once to Toledo, some 250 miles away; he often paid other boys to do his work at the tannery, then hired out his services as a horseman to people in the community, pocketing the difference. For fun he fished in the summer and skated in the winter, played ball with the boys, and took the girls on sleigh rides. He enjoyed swimming in White Oak Creek, which ran just west of the town, although once he nearly lost his life when he fell off a log into the creek, then flooded as a result of recent rains, and found himself being dragged away by the current; only the alert actions of his chum, Dan Ammen, rescued him from drowning. At school he was well behaved, usually escaping the schoolmaster's switch; his schoolmates found him quiet, a bit shy, and not particularly studious. "He was a real nice boy," one of the girls later remembered, "who never had anything to say and when he said anything, he always said it short." Another playmate noted that while Ulysses "was up to any lark with us," he "went about everything in such a peculiarly businesslike way. . . . I don't remember that I ever saw him excited." Perhaps he was a quiet boy because as Jesse's son he did not want to call more attention to himself - except when he mounted a horse, when he mixed flair with an occasional willingness to show off. Had it not been for this skill (and the burdens that came with being Jesse Grant's son), Ulysses would have led an unremarkable childhood.

10 By the 1830s Georgetown was well on the way toward shedding its frontier origins. In 1827 a Methodist church opened across the street from the Grant residence; two years later the children started attending school in a newly opened brick building, the successor to the subscription school just a few dozen yards from the Grant house. Other homes appeared, including several that reflected the influences of the Greek Revival movement, complete with columns. What was once little more than a clearing was now beginning to look worthy of the name of county seat.
Jesse gained prominence in Georgetown's political affairs. His early preference for Andrew Jackson eroded in the 1830s, and he became a staunch advocate of the rising Whig party, with its plans for integrated national growth and development. Jesse never espoused an opinion halfheartedly, however, and one casualty of his new political loyalty was Thomas Hamer, who now represented Georgetown in Congress as a Democrat. Jesse's blunt editorials and poetry in the columns of the appropriately named Castigator placed him on the front lines of political controversy. He won his reward in 1837 when, in the aftermath of economic distress for which voters held Democrats accountable, he was elected mayor of Georgetown.

11 Jesse's antislavery proclivities were becoming more pronounced as well, reflecting the rising intensity of the debate over slavery in the United States. However, his commitment paled beside that of the Reverend John Rankin, who lived by the Ohio River in Ripley. More than rumor had it that the reverend's house shel...

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