Skip over navigation

Ulysses S. Grant

Plot Overview

Context

Important Terms, Events and People

When Hiram Ulysses Grant was born, his home state of Ohio was the "far West." Soon after Grant's birth, his father, Jesse R. Grant, moved the family to nearby Georgetown, where he opened a tannery. Growing up, Grant found that he hated the tannery business, but also found that he had a unique ability to work with horses. He eventually did all of the family's training of horses.

One episode from Grant's youth, though, demonstrated a lack of business knowledge that would plague his ventures for the rest of his life. Grant wanted to buy a colt from a neighbor. His father allowed Grant to bargain with the neighbor, so Grant approached the colt's owner and said, "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, I am to give you twenty- five." Not surprisingly, Grant paid the full price for the colt. Whatever else Grant may have become in his life, he should never have entered the business world.

Luckily, Grant did find a good outlet for his energy at West Point, which he entered at seventeen. A bureaucratic mistake changed his name to Ulysses S. Grant–something Grant never bothered to correct, as he had had never liked the initials H.U.G. very much. At West Point Grant remained solidly mediocre at every task except for equestrian skills, where he excelled. Soon after he graduated and arrived at his first posting in St. Louis, he began courting Julia Dent–the relatively wealthy daughter of a slave-owning farmer.

The Mexican War intervened, however, and Grant saw his first combat during a deployment under General Zachary Taylor near Matamoros, Mexico. Though only a quartermaster, Grant did see some action under General Winfield Scott during the attack on Mexico City–and even played a small notable role in the attack, helping to capture a church belfry and directing cannon fire from there.

After the war, Grant returned to St. Louis and married Dent in 1848. Knowing his business skills were less than stellar, he decided to stay in the peacetime Army. He and Julia spent several mostly happy years in Sackets Harbor, New York, and Detroit, and Julia bore him his first child. However, a two-year posting to California and the resulting separation from his family caused Grant to reconsider the Army life. When multiple business ventures failed–sinking any hope of bringing his family West to join him–and Grant took stock of the miserable life he led at the isolated Fort Humboldt, he chose to resign the Army and begin a new life.

Returning to St. Louis and after resurrecting his marriage, Grant tried his hand at farming and built his family a massive house called Hardscrabble on his father-in-law's farm. However, even with his in-laws' help and loans of money and slaves, Grant could not make the farm work, and was reduced to selling firewood on the street corner in St. Louis. In 1857 Grant had to pawn his pocket watch to buy Christmas presents for his family. He even briefly became a rent collector. Eventually, in 1859, he admitted failure and headed for home with his family.

Grant's father offered him a place in the family store in Galena, Illinois, where he worked morosely until war clouds again began to gather with the presidential Election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. When Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers, Grant offered his services as an ex-Army officer. He first served as colonel of an Illinois regiment before being appointed Brigadier General Grant.

In the early part of the Civil War, the North had few successes–and several of the major ones belonged to Grant. He successfully attacked two crucial Confederate forts, Fort Donelson and Fort Henry, and his demands at both locations for "unconditional surrender" earned him the nickname "Unconditional Surrender Grant." As Confederate General Robert E. Lee battled an ever-changing succession of Union generals in Virginia, Grant moved his army south towards Mississippi, but was temporarily halted by the disastrous near-rout at Shiloh.

The North wanted to cut the Confederacy in half at the Mississippi River, and only the fortress city of Vicksburg blocked their move. After a bloody battle outside the city, Grant settled in for a siege. On July 3, 1863, the Confederate commander asked for terms of surrender; Grant issued his trademark reply: "unconditional surrender." The surrender of the city, coming at the same time as the decisive battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, helped turn the tide of the war against the Confederacy and made Grant a household name. Although critics questioned Grant's relentless pursuit of the enemy at any cost, Lincoln said, "I cannot spare this man, he fights."

Grant became commander of all the Union armies and soon set about a grueling campaign to wear down the Confederates. After years of skirmishes and minor engagements in Virginia, he began a yearlong battle that would exhaust the Confederacy. Grant sent General William T. Sherman tearing through Georgia, while himself fighting continuously against Lee at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Cold Harbor and finally at the siege of Petersburg. The battles exacted a terrible cost in lives, but clearly succeeded in wearing the Confederate forces down. In the spring of 1865, Lee abandoned Petersburg and then Richmond before finally surrendering near Appomattox.

The next step for Grant was logically the Presidency–the only honor higher than the military honors he had already received. In 1868, the Republican Grant was elected to the White House, thus beginning one of the most scandal-ridden administrations ever in American history. It seemed his administration could do nothing right. Grant unknowingly aided in a scheme to corner the gold market for two financiers, his cabinet members were caught in various graft attempts, his Reconstruction policies failed miserably–all in all, he should never have been elected to a second term. However, the Democratic party miscalculated, nominating Horace Greeley to oppose Grant, thus ensuring that even the Democrats themselves would support Grant over the controversial Greeley.

Grant's second term went almost as poorly as the first. He retired in 1877 and traveled for two years with his wife before settling in New York, where again he tried and failed to be a businessman. As throat cancer ate away at his body, he penned his memoirs, finishing just days before his death. Grant's Personal Memoirs–to this day held up as among the finest of the many Presidential memoirs–accomplished the one thing Grant could not achieve during his lifetime: financial security for his family, which was secured by the royalties from his writing.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us