On April 27, 1822, military leader and U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio. A quiet, unassuming, and keenly intelligent man, Grant rose to national prominence as the commanding officer of the Union army during the Civil War. Though trained as a soldier at West Point, Grant never aspired to a military career. Of his early cadet years he wrote: “A military life had no charms for me, and I had not the faintest idea of staying in the army even if I should be graduated, which I did not expect.”1
I shall on all subjects have a policy to recommend, but none to enforce against the will of the people. Laws are to govern all alike—those opposed as well as those who favor them. I know no method to secure the repeal of bad or obnoxious laws so effective as their stringent execution.
Ulysses S. Grant, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1869.
Yet, he did indeed graduate from West Point in 1843 and went on to learn the practical lessons of warfare during the Mexican War, a conflict he personally opposed but fought with great bravery. When the two-year crisis concluded in 1848, Grant returned to garrison duty and wed his longtime fiancée Julia Dent, the sister of a West Point classmate. Four years into the marriage, the young couple was separated once again by duty when Grant and his regiment were transferred to the Pacific Northwest. Longing for his family and bored with his routine tasks, Grant began drinking—a habit that would haunt him for years to come. A promotion did not alleviate Grant’s woes, and in 1854 the thirty-two-year-old captain resigned his commission.
In the spring of 1861, after suffering failed farming and business ventures in Missouri and Illinois, Grant returned to the army as a colonel of the Twenty-first Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Within months, he was promoted to brigadier general and placed in charge of 20,000 Union troops. Largely through the successive victories of the troops under his command, Grant rose steadily in rank. After the Union’s November 1863 victory at Chattanooga, President Abraham Lincoln asked Congress to revive the rank of lieutenant general to honor Grant; only George Washington and Winfield Scott had previously held the esteemed rank. Grant received his commission in March 1864, just more than a year before Confederate leader Robert E. Lee surrendered to him at Appomattox, Virginia.
Just as Grant had drifted into the military, he drifted into politics. Riding the success of his Civil War triumphs, the Republican Party drafted him as candidate for president in 1868. He won that year’s election by a large electoral vote and repeated his success four years later. Inexperienced in politics, Grant selected his Cabinet without consultation, choosing several inappropriate members who would involve his administration in a series of scandals. While Grant remained uncorrupted, popular sentiment was that he failed as president.
Grant’s post-White House years were a mixture of glory and disappointment. Upon leaving office, Grant, Julia, and their youngest son departed for a worldwide tour, during which Grant was heralded as the victor of the Civil War. Years later, in 1884, the family was reduced to poverty as the result of another failed business venture. That same year, Grant was diagnosed with terminal throat cancer.
Racing against the clock and enduring severe pain, Grant penned his personal memoirs, which he hoped would provide his family with some financial security. Published by Grant’s friend and admirer Mark Twain, the two-volume work enjoyed immediate success, eventually earning the Grant family over $400,000. Grant completed the text just days before his death on July 23, 1885, at Mount McGregor, New York. Grant’s memoir, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, is widely considered the finest military autobiography ever written.
Like Lincoln before him, Ulysses S. Grant was mourned by the nation. Walt Whitman memorialized him with a poem and the city of New York offered its public parks for the placement of his tomb. At the request of the Grant family, the Civil War hero was laid to rest in Riverside Park overlooking the Hudson River. His massive tomb took six years to build and was funded by over 90,000 donors. It was formally dedicated on April 27, 1897, what would have been Grant’s seventy-fifth birthday.
- Select items from the Library’s collection of Ulysses S. Grant Papers can be viewed online. The Finding Aid for the collection can also be searched online.
- Search Today in History on Ulysses Grant to locate more features related to the 18th president of the United States.
- During the presidential election of 1872, supporters of Grant’s opponent, journalist Horace Greeley, accused Grant of slighting black Americans. Coming to the president’s aid was noted orator Frederick Douglass, who prepared an address detailing Grant’s support for African-American liberation and civil rights. Douglass’s speech is just one of the many fascinating documents found in the collection African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection.
- Search on the term Ulysses S. Grant in the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress to see a number of letters written by, to, and about Grant. See, for example, Grant’s September 21, 1864 telegram to Elihu B. Washburne, granting Lincoln permission to use anything Grant has written to him for political purposes.
- To view photographs of Grant during the Civil War, search on Ulysses Grant in Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. See, for example, Massaponax Church, Va. “Council of War”: Gen. Ulysses S. Grant examining map held by Gen. George G. Meade.
- Today in History includes features about or mentions of more than twenty U.S. presidents, beginning with George Washington. To locate the others, search Today in History on president or a chosen president’s name and scroll through the results. Keep in mind that many organizations besides the United States have presidents.