Hiram Ulysses Grant–always Ulysses to his friends and family–left for West Point in the fall of 1839 as a short, blond-haired, freckled boy heading out into the world for the first time. He took a canal boat and then a railroad to Philadelphia, where he spent several days exploring the city before heading to the bigger and more exciting landscape of New York City, where he procrastinated for as long as he could before leaving for West Point. Perhaps most exciting for Grant was the ability to rid himself of the unfortunate initials his parents had bestowed on him as Hiram Ulysses Grant. He registered at the West Point hotel as U.H. Grant, but the congressman who appointed Grant to West Point mistakenly tampered with the name even further, submitting the nomination as Ulysses S. Grant. Thus, when Grant arrived to register, he found that the U.S. Army had forever named given him his now-famous moniker: U.S. Grant.
The Academy was surprisingly egalitarian for the time, so Grant, the son of a tanner from Ohio, did not stand out in the crowd. In fact, he remained nondescript for most of his time at West Point, receiving average grades–excelling at mathematics but struggling at French–and finishing his second year of school ranked tenth in his class of fifty-three. In Grant's words, "I never succeeded in getting squarely at either end of my class, in any one study during the four years." The curriculum at West Point focused mostly on the philosophical dealings of war, teaching students to lead based on the recent developments of Napoleon, who had "perfected" the art of war. Grant himself, however, never developed the detached view of war that his professors urged, and he later disliked being compared to the short, stout French general. During his time as a cadet, Grant also collected his fair share of demerits for slovenly dress, tardiness, and unsoldierly bearing.
Grant developed a strong love of literature in his college days, but for whatever reason would later rarely admit being an avid literary type. He recalls spending more time on his pleasure reading than his school studies, but never elaborated on why he loved to read. Strangely, he also excelled at art and painting–a course West Point taught primarily so that its soldiers would later be able to sketch battle plans–and spent many afternoons in the art studio of Robert Weir, who several years later helped start James Whistler's art career. In fact, Grant became a skilled enough artist that one of his paintings now hangs at West Point–most likely more because of Grant's military legacy than his painting ability, but nonetheless a respectable achievement. Overall, Grant liked many aspects of West Point, though his support for the Academy ultimately wavered during his tenure as President, when he privately supported a congressional move to close the Academy.
The one area where Grant indisputably excelled at West Point was, not surprisingly, equestrian studies. His youth and special talents with horses set him up to be an expert horseman. He set an equestrian high-jump record at West Point that lasted for a quarter of a century.
The Academy promoted Grant to sergeant in his third year, but he later confessed that the rank was too much responsibility for him, so he happily took a demotion to private for his senior year. He graduated twenty-first in a final class of thirty-nine–a low rank that denied him a chance at an appointment to the prestigious cavalry corps. Grant ended up in the infantry instead, but did not intend to remain there long. His plan was to resign as soon as his obligatory commission ended and to pursue a life as a math teacher. However, he ultimately found that the military life suited him nicely.
Grant had spent considerable time with his roommate, Fred Dent, during their final year at West Point. When the two men found themselves posted to Jefferson's barracks in Missouri, Grant met Dent's sister, Julia, an intense romantic who came from the small town of White Haven twenty miles outside St. Louis. Ulysses and Julia fell in love almost without noticing, and it was only the night before Grant was to leave for his home of Ohio that he offered her his West Point ring; she politely declined saying her father would never let her keep such a gift. However, Julia changed her mind later that evening and rode to the camp in the middle of the night, only to find Grant already gone. She happily accepted the ring the next time she saw him.