Magazine article Humanities

The Reluctant Cadet

Magazine article Humanities

The Reluctant Cadet

Article excerpt

Even Ulysses S. Grant believed that he was an unlikely military hero. I won't go," said seventeen-year-old Ulysses when his overbearing father announced his impending appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Jesse Grant had settled an old political quarrel with a local Ohio congressman to secure the place. Yet young Grant feared failure. "I would have been glad to have had a steamboat or railroad collision," he recalled, "by which I might have had a temporary injury sufficient to make me ineligible, for a time, to enter the Academy. Nothing of the sort occurred, and I had to face the music."

"A military life had no charms for me," wrote Grant, who studied halfheartedly, read novels to avoid tedium, and hoped for passage of a bill to abolish the academy. A natural talent for mathematics compensated for a poor record in French and on graduation-ranked twenty-one in a class of thirty-nine-he applied for a place in the dragoons. His standing, however, qualified him only for assignment to the infantry. His ambition was to return to West Point as an assistant professor of mathematics, and then to resign after securing a college teaching position.

He was assigned to Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis, where he fell in love with Julia Dent. Ulysses and Julia were separated when the young lieutenant was swept into deployments preceding the Mexican War, which he believed aggressive and unwarranted. "The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican War," he later concluded. "Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions."

Grant returned years later to marry Julia and settle into army life, now necessary to support a family. Four years of domestic contentment were followed by two years of misery. Assigned to the Pacific Coast, and prudently unwilling to risk his pregnant wife and young son on the deadly journey through the jungles of Panama, Grant had to find the money to reunite the family. Every business he tried collapsed. Finally in 1854, he resigned his commission. He had achieved the rank of captain but had no prospects of further advancement for years. He was in poor health, assigned to an isolated post with a martinet as commanding officer, and desperately lonely. He had numerous reasons to resign, even though army gossip attributed this decision to drinking, a reputation that pursued him for the rest of his life. As he left, he remarked, "Whoever hears of me in ten years will hear of

a well-to-do old Missouri farmer."

Ten years later, however, the nation knew of him as commander of all the armies of the Union and lieutenant general-only George Washington had previously held that rank. At the war's outbreak the former captain had immediately volunteered, "feeling it the duty of every one who has been educated at the Government expense to offer their services for the support of that Government." Nonetheless, army headquarters ignored Grant's offer. He possessed fifteen years of military experience, including four years at West Point, yet he sought employment in four states before the governor of Illinois gave him a command, and then only because the unruly farm boys of the regiment had driven an incompetent colonel into premature retirement.

Now Grant began his meteoric ascent from clerk in a Galena leather goods store to general in chief. Throughout his career he maintained traces of the reluctant cadet and ambivalent junior officer. Regarding war as painful and disgusting, he sought to end it quickly through audacity, a policy that sometimes alarmed his more cautious superiors. …

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