A Son of the West
For most of his life Ulysses S. Grant thought of himself as a westerner. He was a child of the great Valley of Democracy, born on April 27, 1822, a hundred yards from the north bank of the Ohio. The country thereabouts was less than a generation removed from raw frontier, Ohio having achieved statehood only nineteen years earlier, and the village of Point Pleasant, some twenty-five miles southeast of Cincinnati, was but a tiny huddle of cabins and rude frame houses. Ohio was the easternmost of the states being carved from the old Northwest Territory, but to New England and New York, to the original states of the Atlantic seaboard, it seemed still a remote West: raw and bountiful, unfettered, rich in possibility.
Forty years later, in 1862, it was as a western general that Grant achieved the sudden celebrity that seems peculiarly American, after his victory and successful demand for an unconditional surrender at Fort Donelson--a Union triumph that thrilled the country and resuscitated its hopes and confidence; and, just two years after that, it was as the famous leader of the western armies that he was selected to command all Union forces. He was "brought east." The small vignette of Grant's arrival in the grand lobby of Willard's Hotel in Washington, in March 1864, is an enduring cameo of American popular history: the most famous man in the country, next to Abraham Lincoln himself, signing the register as "U.S. Grantand son, Galena, Ill.," a traveler so small and dusty that the clerk did not recognize him; an unpretentious guest who could not, it appeared, have cared less. No doubt, too, the instinctive rapport between Abraham Lincoln and his new lieutenant general owed much to their common heritage as westerners--as James Russell Lowell said of Lincoln, "out of the very earth, unancestried, unprivileged, unknown"--and was demonstrated most powerfully in their common understanding of the needs of the South in the days just before, and just after, Appomattox.
Grant, it is true, was "ancestried" in a way that Lincoln was not. It was known that Matthew Grant had landed in Massachusetts Bay in 1630. But Grant's paternal forebears had been moving west for two centuries: from Plymouth, Massachusetts, to the Connecticut River valley, across New York State and Pennsylvania. Ulysses Grant's grandfather, Captain Noah Grant, had fought in the Revolution, lost his first wife, remarried, and moved to western Pennsylvania. Here he and Rachel built a cabin on the Monongahela River, not far from modern Pittsburgh. They raised a large family. Noah, by trade a cobbler and by character an idler, would soon move the family again: first to Fawcettstown, Ohio, on the Ohio River, thence to Deerfield in the Western Reserve.
There is a homely story--such tales cannot be authenticated--that Noah's son Jesse, the father of Ulysses Grant, just shy of his sixth birthday, came upon his mother, who was alone and weeping. "George Washington is dead," Rachel told her son. "Is he any relation of yours?" the boy asked. This was in December 1799.
Rachel died only three years later, and, in the unhappy practice of the time, the family was eventually broken up, the younger children distributed among relatives, and the eldest, Jesse included, put out to make their way on their own. Jesse was eleven.
He made his way by mother wit and determination. In adolescence Jesse's was already an avid, ambitious personality, close to the caricature of frontier Americans already familiar to English and European visitors and readers. A modern student of the Ohio of this time notes that Americans were "fidgety and nervous when not doing something that might be called work." Jesse did odd jobs, wasa roustabout for three years until, by serendipity, he was hired by Judge and Mrs. George Tod to work on their farm near Youngstown. It was the making of him. He lived with the Tods for five years, growing into a young man of Gatsbyan ambition. The Tods lived comfortably and well; they read, they had nice things; they challenged, worked, educated, and inspired him. Jesse developed an unassuageable determination to become rich, to be Somebody. He read voraciously; he became a lifelong autodidact, a man of words and opinions of whom it might be said that "he never had an unuttered thought." But the boy of six who wondered whether his mother was related to George Washington would survive to see his own son twice inaugurated as president: and, at one of those inaugurals, compared to Washington himself.
Jesse moved on. He learned and worked at the tanner's trade under his half brother Peter, in Maysville, Kentucky; later with an Ohio tanner, Owen Brown, and his son (Jesse's contemporary), the future abolitionist John Brown; finally as the young partner of another Ohioan, in Ravenna, John Wells. Tanning to contemporary ears connotes little; it is no more helpful to our sense of its contemporary importance and standing as the fact that Saint Paul's father was a tent maker. Tanning was in fact an enormously lucrative trade in the first half of the nineteenth century. The demand for leather and worked leather goods was huge. This was a business in which, by the standards of rural Ohio, an ambitious, smart man could grow rich. The famous Galena address (U.S. Grant, Galena, Ill.) owes entirely to Jesse's success as a tanner whose business eventually expanded from southern Ohio to northwestern Illinois.
Jesse Grant was now twenty-three. Four years later, in June 1821, he married Hannah Simpson, the third of four children of another widower, John Simpson of Pennsylvania, who, like Captain Noah Grant, had remarried, moved west, lighting finally in Bethel, near Point Pleasant. Here he bought and worked a substantial farm, and here Jesse began his brief courtship of Hannah.
She is variously described as calm, imperturbable, taciturn, "cleanly," quietly devout in her Methodism--a natural complement to her garrulous husband. It is fair to say that in temperament andpersonality, in what psychiatrists call affect, Ulysses became far more his mother's than his father's son.
Hannah and Jesse would have six children, three girls and three boys, but Ulysses--the first--remained the apple of his father's eye for the first thirty years of his life, and, after a gap of several years, thereafter. He served partly as an engine of his father's ambition. Christened Hiram Ulysses (an uneasy burden at best, the "Ulysses" contracted to "Useless" during his boyhood), the son was raised in an atmosphere of easy discipline and devoted attention. Jesse always introduced or spoke of him as "my Ulysses." He doted on him. He communicated both to his son and to the town of Georgetown, the county seat to which the family moved in 1823, that he was, indeed, a child of singular gifts and destiny. The boy would succeed as Jesse was succeeding; he would be, he had to be, noticed and admired. Historians and biographers have imputed a variety of qualities of adult character to the nature of Ulysses Grant's boyhood, but their speculations often seem forced. What is known is that Jesse, a self-important bustler in a small town, bragged about Ulysses at every opportunity and was determined that he have every advantage. For her part, Hannah disbelieved in praise. She was undemonstrative in her affections; she was not a mother to whom the son could repair for understanding and compassionate counsel.
Grant's boyhood was conventional for its time, punctuated by those kinds of events and experiences that childhood friends remember much later on, when their subject has become famous. He was taught at the local subscription school; in adolescence he was sent off for one-year terms at two nearby boarding schools, the latter to prepare him for possible attendance at West Point. He was an unremarkable student: diffident and inward, watchful, reluctant to speak up. The town saw him as bashful, inferring that, because he did not talk much, he wasn't particularly bright.
He was drawn to experiences and work that challenged his practical ingenuity, such as contriving means of moving heavy rocks or logs needed for Jesse's tanning business (which the boy hated and which, no doubt, planted in him a lifetime's revulsion for the sights and smells of slaughter and blood). He evinced an early practicalhandiness--skill for doing, usually alone, practical things that needed to be done, taking particular pleasure in persevering until they were completed. It is not too much to argue that that quality in Grant which Lincoln most admired, and for which he was most constantly appreciative, was already visible in the boy of ten or twelve: that of not asking for help or advice, not freighting problems with imagined difficulties, but just doing them. Forty years on, when General George B. McClellan was demanding and pleading for more soldiers, Grant was asking simply, when do I start? "What I want is to advance."
His own Memoirs provide testimony both ironic and genial.
One of my superstitions has always been when I started to go anywhere, or to do anything, not to have to turn back until the thing intended was accomplished. I have frequently started to go places where I had never been to and to which I did not know the way, depending upon making inquiries on the road. And if I got past the place without knowing it, instead of turning back, I would go on until a road was found turning in the right direction, take that, and come in on the other side.
Grant evinced an early love for horses that was as powerful as his revulsion from the smells and sights of the tannery. There are several recorded memories of prodigies of horsemanship and of a rare and visible ability--what today might be called horse whispering--to communicate with them. By fourteen Ulysses had established a livery service, owned and operated alone, in which the young driver would deliver passengers all over Ohio. Earlier--an incident at the very epicenter of Grant lore, adduced as an example of the boy's dullness and credulity--Ulysses had visited a Mr. Ralston to buy a horse he wanted. Jesse had authorized him to go as high as twenty-five dollars, but to try to get the animal for twenty. "Papa says I can go as high as twenty-five," the boy said to the owner, who promptly sold him the horse for twenty-five dollars. Grant historiography has generally been unkind to the child, locating flaws which will bloomgrossly in later, political, life. But the anecdote may also illustrate other qualities: bottom-line directness and fairness. Grant knew the horse's worth. Nonetheless, the story achieved a wide contemporary currency, generally parsed by resentful neighbors as an example of stupidity. It is one of a small family of such tales; together they limn a portrait of a shy youngster sometimes slow on the uptake, driven in each successive encounter more and more upon his own resources, slowly becoming reluctant to say anything, to disclose to any but his closest companions his feelings and thoughts. Perhaps, as Churchill noted of his own ancestor Marlborough, such slights and twinges of adversity in youth are needed to "evoke that ruthless fixity of purpose and tenacious motherwit without which great purposes are seldom accomplished."
Several Brown County boys had already attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, and one of them, Bartlett Bailey, had attended and failed. A vacancy was thus created. Jesse applied on Ulysses's behalf, seeking the nomination from Congressman Thomas L. Hamer, a former friend whom politics had estranged--Jesse was a Whig, Hamer a Jacksonian Democrat. Hamer now obliged Jesse, in a hurried final act of the spring 1839 congressional session, sending forward the name (so he imagined it to be) "Ulysses Simpson Grant."
The son knew what was coming. Over the previous Christmas holiday Jesse had told him, "Ulysses, I believe you are going to receive your appointment."
"To West Point. I have applied for it."
"But I won't go."
In his Memoirs, Ulysses recalled, "He said he thought I would, and I thought so too, if he did."
Had there been an A. N. Wyeth or a Norman Rockwell in 1839, he would surely have been drawn to the scene: the youth, tiny, barely five feet tall, as apprehensive as eager, standing at the end of the dock on the shore of the gleaming broad river, entering upon an adventure that must have seemed cosmic in its dimension. No ardent patriotism or military vocation had brought Ulysses Grantto this pass. His was an opportunity unsought, an obligation laid upon him by a father with whom it would never have occurred to him to argue. The boy was game; he was curious; he seemed marked already by an easy fatalism that predisposed him to make the best of what he had been given, without complaint or undue worry. These qualities had already placed him at the observant edge of things: he was a watcher, slow in passing judgment, comfortable in going his own way, already full of the quiet self-reliance that made him act rather than explain himself. Neighbors and, much later, historians might smile at his horse whisperings, at the homely anecdotes retrofitted to make him look simple. It was widely expected that he would fail at West Point.
All his life, and in the 120 years since his death, friends, rivals and enemies, biographers, and historians have condescended to Ulysses Grant. At seventeen he already understood that he produced such an effect on smart people. Not for the last time, he struck out on his own.
Copyright © 2004 by Josiah Bunting III All rights reserved.