The Rise and Fall of Ulysses S. Grant

By Lasner, Lynn Fabian | Humanities, January/February 2002 | Go to article overview

The Rise and Fall of Ulysses S. Grant


Lasner, Lynn Fabian, Humanities


IN LESS THAN TWO decades, Ulysses S. Grant made and lost a fortune, was spurned as a drunken fool, and saluted as a national hero. The peaks and valleys in the life of the man who became the winning general of the Civil War and then the eighteenth president of the United States are told in the documentary Grant, which airs on PBS this spring.

"His life is really like a soap opera," says Margaret Drain, executive producer of American Experience, producer of the two-- part series. "He's filled with these great contradictions: He came from an educated family yet he wasn't interested in and didn't do well at school. He's a man who hated the sight of blood, yet he developed a scorched-earth policy during the Civil War and was known as a brutal commander."

His early life was unremarkable. The only distinguishable characteristic about the young boy was his uncanny way with horses. "To be a good person with horses," says Grant biographer William S. McFeely, "one has to be calm and firm and quiet. And he was all three of those things."

Worried that seventeen-year-old Ulysses was a mediocre student who showed little direction, his father, Jesse Grant, secured him an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Ulysses didn't want to go. At five-- foot-one and 117 pounds he didn't think he could bear the rigors of military training. "I had a very exalted idea of the requirements necessary to get through," Grant later wrote. "I did not believe I possessed them, and could not bear the idea of failing." His record was no equal to that of the Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, who had gone through the program four years earlier. Grant was graduated twenty-first in a class of thirty-nine. Years later, a classmate remarked, "No one could possibly be more surprised than myself at Grant's amazing success."

Following West Point, Grant was stationed as a second lieutenant near St. Louis, Missouri, where he met Julia Dent, a plump eighteen-- year-old with a slightly turned eye. Her outgoing and happy demeanor attracted Grant, as well as their shared love of riding horses. Julia had been raised with the pretensions of Southern aristocracy. Her father, who called himself "Colonel" Dent even though he had no military experience, owned twenty slaves-a lifestyle alien to Grant, who was raised under his father's stem abolitionist philosophy.

For his part, Dent was not thrilled about his daughter marrying a soldier with so few prospects. When Grant was sent to fight in the Mexican War in 1846, the courtship continued for the next two years through letters. Seven months after the U.S. victory, Colonel Dent finally agreed to their marriage. They were married at the family's winter home in St. Louis, but without Ulysses' parents in attendance. "Grant's father, the abolitionist, really couldn't forgive his connection to a slave-- holding family. So it was a great source of tension," says Max Byrd, author of Grant: A Novel. Within the year, Ulysses Grant freed the slave he had acquired through his marriage to Julia.

Grant resigned from the Army in 1854-it was rumored that whiskey had cost him his commission. Grant accepted an offer to farm on his father-in-law's sprawling Missouri plantation. He built a home there and named it Hardscrabble. He tried to make a go of it, but the venture failed.

He abandoned Hardscrabble and moved his family to St. Louis. There, Grant worked as a bill collector and customhouse clerk. He was no more successful at business than he had been at farming. One bleak Christmas, Grant pawned his watch in order to buy presents for Julia and the children. Grant reluctantly accepted an offer to work as a clerk in his father's tanning business and the family moved north to Galena, Illinois, where he devoted himself to his wife and children. Byrd tells the story of Grant's arriving home to a pugnacious greeting from his son: "Mister, do you want to fight?" Grant would answer: "I am a man of peace, but I will not be hectored by a person of your size. …

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